Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sermon: B Last Pentecost Proper 29 King of kings 25 November 2012

2 Sam 23: 1-7; Ps 132: 1-13; Rev 1: 4b-8; JOHN 18: 33-37

Grant, O God, that all may be brought under the most gracious rule of your Belov’d Son, King of Kings AMEN

Chip our seminarian, who defines a providential gift as a Field Ed person, is graciously being our parish musician this morning. He was a good sport about giving me apt travel music, from Messiah, “King of kings and Lord of lords, and he shall reign forever.” Some of the music for Jesus as King and Lord, is some of our most familiar and favorite, even if on careful word-checking, we’re less enthusiastic about some of the ideas that go with such august positions as King of kings. The kingly images in music are ones that have leapt out at me this week, rather than visual ones.

Today’s King of kings collect says: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” This celebration of Christ, as King of kings, dates only back to 1925 after the War to End all Wars. There was a feeling that God seemed to be losing ground to the work of tyrants and the powers of nationalism and secularism. The Vatican instituted this observance of Christ the King in an effort to reclaim the absolute authority of Jesus Christ. At first it was observed near All Saints to show Jesus as the ultimate saint, and then was moved in 1969 to Last Pentecost. The thought was to make this the pinnacle or ultimate understanding of Jesus’s work. It was hoped that this celebratory triumphant end of the church year would roll right into the beginning of Advent’s new year with hope and power, and push the wheel of time forward.

Our complexity in our time with this idea of King of kings is Lord Acton’s 1887 famous remark, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." As people of a democracy we take that as near holy writ, if not actually good news, and it adds to our innate confusion about the special value of kings or people symbolized as kings. Think of George III or Pres. Mugabe. We might think of the new President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. In less than a year he has gradually eliminated the Parliament, Constitution, and judiciary, and wants to retry the previous President, and in the name of democracy has been taking away the people’s rights and safeguards, making himself increasingly the sole ruler. We’ve watched a people’s revolution convey the authority to rule on an individual, and watched his accretion of all power to himself. His election rival said Morsi has made himself into a new Pharaoh. This week we are reminded of that corrupting power of absolute power in reading about him, and we are once again wary of any King.

2 Sam. quotes David’s last words, “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land…For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” (Do you know Randall Thompson’s setting of these “Last Words”? The bursting out of sound as the sun rises on a cloudless morning is exhilarating and promises an open and optimistic idea of a just ruler.) David’s description of one who rules over people justly is his understanding of the way God does and will always rule over people, and that the human who’ll do that will be from David’s own lineage.

On this Last Pentecost, the Sunday before Advent, the family tree link from David to Jesus is named as a reminder of that continuity. The psalm says the same, “A son, the fruit of your body will I set upon your throne…For the Lord has chosen Zion: he has desired her for his habitation…This shall be my resting place for ever; here will I dwell, for I delight in her.” We are freshly prepared for Jesus to be identified with David’s line as Advent begins. However even David used his royal authority to dispose of a rival, take his wife, father her child, leave his wife, and after the baby died, father another child, and go on. For all that David did that was noble and eloquent, he was not immune from power’s corruption.

How about another response to Jesus as King of kings? “Ride on King Jesus, no man can hinder me. Ride on King Jesus.” Chip will remind us of that hymn too. “Ride on King Jesus, no man can hinder me. King Jesus rides a milk-white horse; No man works like Him. I know that my redeemer lives. No man works like Him and of His blessing freely gives, no man works like Him.” We may not love that milk-white horse, but a King who works harder than anyone and gives His blessing freely—that’s an understanding of kingship we can understand, accept, and welcome.

Revelation asserts that Jesus is “firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom: priests serving his God and Father…” Here are two additional characteristics of Jesus’s kingship: that he freed us from sins by his blood” (an image of that hard work heard in “Ride on...”) and his work made us to be a kingdom—priests serving God. That reciprocity from us in return for being freed from sins is for us to be acknowledged as priests serving God. We are not to be surfs, slaves, or sinners again, but loyal priests, people in a steady and communicating relationship with God. That’s a concept included in Kingship that we can and do accept.

Pilates’ examination of Jesus is more remarkable for his honesty and courage. We hear this more poignantly and dramatically in Holy Week, knowing that the crucifixion will follow this dialogue. Here, though we hear Pilates’ questioning. “Are you the King of the Jews? So you are a king?” Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from here. You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate does listen to Jesus’s voice and has the sign over his crucified head read “Jesus King of the Jews” and when urged to change it to “He says: Jesus, King of the Jews,” Pilate responds, “What I have written I have written.” In some way then Pilate belongs to the truth, but not enough to withstand peer, mob, and powerful Roman pressures on him to arrange Jesus’s death. Handel’s “King of kings” is, in part, a response to the inevitability and seeming finality of that death, and heads into the Hallelujahs and the triumph of the Resurrection.

Still though, whether kingship leads to absolute power and so to absolute corruption, or horrific death because of the powers that gather to oppose such a king, it lacks appeal. We want and claim our Savior to be a King of kings, but are uneasy with that model of salvation or leadership. There exist however, other models of kingship. Again, it was a tune, before words, that reminded me of another sort of ruler. Chip? Indeed, the “King of Love, my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never: I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.” Remembering that the “Lord is my shepherd,” and all that Psalm 23 teaches, ending with perfect confidence, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life:  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That model of Kingship offers protection and future, tranquility and hope, as well as human life and life everlasting. Think of the lyrical version of this Psalm from the “Vicar of Dibley.” It’s simple and confident, walking along at a real human pace—neither crushed nor crushing, but with direction.

Since intellectually and experientially, kingship doesn’t appeal to us comfortably, maybe great musical settings put stories of kingship into our consciousness directly and safely.

For Jesus to be our King of kings and Lord of lords takes us blocking out the male imagery, as well as the domineering threat. Yet, it takes some confidence to trust a Savior to protect us in the here and now, and guide us safely to Paradise with him. True, we need some of the march rhythm to press through life, and some of the waltz rhythm to move through it amiably. Our New Zealand colleagues have edited this morning’s collect to reflect that present understanding of an appealing ruler: Almighty and eternal God, you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
will that they live together

in peace and harmony; so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ’s most gentle rule; through Jesus Christ our Lord
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.” “To be brought together under Christ’s most gentle rule,” still affirms Christ’s leadership, but assures us such gentle authority that absolute corruption—which we know cannot be part of Christ’s eternal promises to us—is superseded by gentle strength, guaranteeing life with him in Paradise: Good News.

© Katharine C. Black, B Last Pentecost 25 November 2012