I gave this sermon at St. James Episcopal Church in Independence, Iowa. I feel very blessed that Rev. Sue Ann Raymond and Fr. Sean Burke are willing to let me preach there so that I can practice and gain experience.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, and in the four years that I’ve been attending Trinity in Waterloo, this is the first time I’d thought to ask why. Prior to writing this sermon, I just accepted that this was an important feast day in the Church and I knew that Christ IS King, according to scripture, so what else did I need to know? However, as I pondered the meaning of today’s readings, I knew I needed to be a good scholar, a good (hopefully) preacher, a good girl, and find out what lies behind this tradition.
And so I went online and looked at the Wikipedia articles (feeling a little bad that I was doing so—as an English Comp. teacher, I’m always saying that good students don’t rely on that website too much), where I learned—and perhaps you all know this already—that Pope Pius XI added the feast to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1925 as a reaction not only to Mussolini’s co-opting of secular authority in Italy, but also what he saw as the entire Western world’s rejection of Christ’s teachings.
Now, I could stop the theological history lesson right here because that information alone provides a wealth of links to today’s readings, as well as links to Matthew 22:15-22 that we read last month, in which Jesus gives answer to the Pharisees when they try to entrap him with the question about paying taxes to the emperor. I could easily make the comparison between Caesar Augustus and Mussolini, who did desire to be a dictator in the manner of Augustus’ father, Julius.
However, I hope to take us further in our thoughts for today. Pius originally set this day on the last Sunday in October, right before All Saints’ Day, and it wasn’t until the calendar reforms of 1969 that the last Sunday before Advent became Christ the King Sunday. The major Protestant denominations, and more importantly for us, the Anglican Communion, all added this feast to their own calendars since we all share in the Revised Common Lectionary.
So why this shift, and what meaning does it have for us? Well, take a moment to think about what today IS: the end of the liturgical year. The pope wanted to emphasize the eschatological significance of this moment. When we consider the coming Advent season, we think in terms of waiting; waiting for our Savior and KING, Jesus Christ, who will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end, to remind of the words we say in one form or another as part of our liturgy. We wait for the end times. It’s interesting to note that in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden that this occasion used to be called “the Sunday of Doom” and talk centered around the final judgment.
Judgment—that is one of the themes apparent in the readings today. The lesson from Ezekiel deals with the Lord’s judgment of those—namely the kings and leaders of Israel—who have not cared for those of their own people who are weak and lost. The selection from Matthew is really a continuation of the parable of the master who gives his servants the talents to invest, which itself is a continuation of the long answer Jesus gives his disciples in reply to their question about the signs of the “end of the age” and what his second coming will look like. After giving many examples of what the Kingdom of God will look like, Jesus ends by telling his disciples of the judgment that will occur when “the Son of Man comes in all his glory.” He will bless those who have fed the hungry, given the thirsty a drink, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger, since by doing so, they did the same to Jesus. However, those who did not do those things will face eternal punishment. We should also remember that in the next lines of Matthew, Jesus reminds the disciples that in two days time, he will be handed over for crucifixion. End time, indeed.
I want to digress a moment—I hope you’ll bear with me. I am in Year One of EfM, Education for Ministry, and the lessons from the last two, really, three weeks, have given me much to think about. Lesson Ten, from this past week, is about Jacob’s story, and one of the preparatory questions is this: Would you rather be good/right or would you rather be faithful? I’m not sure I like that this was posed as an either/or choice, but I am giving much thought to this. I had to admit that prior to this, I’ve been largely concerned with being good—I’m a good girl. I always try to do what’s right, what’s expected of me, obey the laws, and listen to authority. I think that’s not always the same as being faithful. In my life, I know that once, at least, I’ve missed an opportunity to follow God’s call to me by being focused on being good and doing what I was told to do, or rather not doing what I was told not to do.
And so, let’s consider today’s Gospel in terms of that question. When we think of those who asked Jesus about the rightness of paying taxes to Caesar or the rightness of working on the Sabbath, we can see that maybe they were only focusing on being “good” or “right.” Maybe they were giving power to the wrong authority. They were looking for control and for neatness in their good works. Helping someone on the Sabbath is work, and that’s against the Law, so we can’t help you. A missed opportunity to follow God’s call through Christ to care for those who are weak and lost.
When we consider the missions and ministries we do as a Church, I wonder—and I know I can’t speak for St. James because I haven’t known you all very long—if we worry too much about being good and neat. Sometimes I think that churches compartmentalize their missions, individuals, too. We want that neatness—writing a check rather than going out to work in a soup kitchen. We want that feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the welcoming of the stranger to be on our terms; if not, we might not do it at all. I think of missed opportunities in welcoming; such as a church who offers a free clothing closet and locks the doors to all the other rooms in the building and hides food normally stored out in the open. If you think about today’s readings in terms of hospitality—something else that I learned in the EfM lessons mentioned above—it was vitally important in nomadic and Jewish culture—what do those actions say? Are you truly clothing the naked? Maybe we need to think of today’s readings not only in terms of physical needs, but also think about being hungry, naked, and thirsty spiritually. What are our responsibilities then? I would argue that Christ came to us as a king in humility and love, wanting us all to take part in the responsibilities of his kingdom. I think he was saying that the Law is nothing without love. We need to be faithful to that call, and we may have to redefine for ourselves, and the Church, what it means to be good or right and faithful.
I’d like to leave you with one last thought about Christ the King Sunday. In England, in the Anglican churches, today is traditionally known as “Stir-Up” Sunday, because it was, pre-20th century, the day to “stir-up” your Christmas pudding, as the mixture needed to sit for several weeks. Churchgoers were reminded of this from the collect said that day: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” I know that we traditionally think of Advent as a time of stillness and waiting. Maybe it’s time for us to redefine that as well in preparation for the return of Christ. After all, love is messy, life is messy, as my spiritual director so often reminds me. Let’s stir it up and see what happens.