Sunday, November 23, 2014

The quest for the kingdom (J. Barry Vaughn, Christ the King Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014)

On Christ the King Sunday, we sing, “Crown him with many crowns…” and “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow…”
I have to confess that the Feast of Christ the King makes me a little uncomfortable. Think about it: If we proclaim that Christ is the king, that everyone in heaven and earth must bow the knee to him, then what does that mean for everyone outside the Christian church? What does it mean for Jews and Muslims? Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs? What does it mean for agnostics and atheists? Well, I don’t think that Christ the King Sunday is about converting everyone else into Christians. And here is why I believe that.
I did a little research. The feast of Christ the King is actually a very recent invention. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925, only three years after Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy. Mussolini invented the political ideology we know as “fascism.” Fascism gave all power to the state. Loyalty to the state was supposed to supersede loyalty to anything else. Mussolini may have invented fascism, but Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party perfected it!
So the feast of Christ the King challenges our loyalty to the state, the nation, the tribe, even the family.
Pius XI said, “If Christ the Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if everyone, purchased by his precious blood, are subjected to his dominion… it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should … love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve … as instruments of justice unto God."
The feast of Christ the King is rich with royal imagery: kings, crowns, bowing the knee, and so on.
I love this stuff! I think I have always loved it. My friend Rabbi Miller likes to tease me about my love of all things English. When we were in India, we traveled across the country by train. I pointed out that although there had been many bad things about British rule of India, at least they gave the Indians a great railway system. Rabbi Miller said, “It would be more accurate to say that the Indians gave the British a great railway system, because the Indians were the ones who laid the tracks!”
Recently, I’ve been watching a movie about Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India. In one scene, Lord Mountbatten is sworn in as viceroy in the great viceregal palace in Delhi. The Lord Chancellor who swears him in wears elaborate robes and a wig; Mountbatten is in his dress naval uniform; he and Lady Mountbatten are seated on elaborate thrones. The British certainly understand how to do pomp and ceremony!
But we live in a world in which kings and queens and the grand ceremonies that accompany them are in short supply (except on the covers of the sensational tabloids in the check out line at Albertsons’s). The United States rejected the idea of having a monarchy, even though many begged George Washington to accept a crown.
So Christ the King Sunday requires us to make an imaginative leap. In our day, kings and crowns and thrones and scepters are mostly found in the literature of fairy tales and fantasies.
We cannot translate the imagery of Christ the King into vocabulary that makes sense to us.
With apologies to Sen. Bryan, when the young girl kisses the magic frog, he turns into a handsome prince, not a handsome senator.
Of course not. We want the frog to become a prince or princess, not a congressman or cabinet member.
We can’t turn King Jesus into President Jesus or Chairman Jesus. It just doesn’t work.
In fairy tales and fantasy, royal imagery is often accompanied by the story of a quest. The princess must embark on a dangerous quest to regain the crown she has lost to an evil usurper. She must climb mountains, slay dragons, and rescue the handsome but dim-witted prince from the clutches of a sorceress.
Similarly, I believe that Christians, too, are on a quest. Our quest is no less adventurous or dangerous than that of Frodo and his companions in the Lord of the Rings. But our quest is not for the “ring of power”; our quest is for the kingdom of God.
Our quest takes us from this world to the next, from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of God.
Before we start, though, we have to know where the kingdom of God is located. Is it “east of the sun and west of the moon”? Do you go to the North Start and turn left and go straight on till morning?
Some would tell you that the Kingdom of God isn’t in this world at all; it is in heaven; it is spiritual; it is incompatible with this physical world in which we dwell.
But I don’t buy that.
After his baptism, Jesus began his public by saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand…” In other words, the kingdom of God is near us.
I propose that the kingdom is present in this world, that it is close to us. The quest for the kingdom of God takes us from the present to the future. The kingdom of God is something that we are called upon to build.
What does the kingdom of God look like? Jesus gives us a vivid picture of the kingdom in today’s gospel reading.
He says that when God’s great day of judgment comes, all nations will be gathered before the place of judgment. On one side are the sheep, those who have built the kingdom of God, and on the other side are the goats, those who have been indifferent to or even hostile to the kingdom of God. And the difference between the two will be that the sheep have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, and cared for the sick. And the goats are those who have neglected the hungry and sick, the prisoners and the naked.
United Methodist minister Wiley Stephens calls this “heaven’s audit of our souls.”
We know that our quest is over; we know that we have arrived at God’s kingdom when the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, when the homeless poor have shelter, when the unjustly imprisoned are released, when the sick are healed and the lonely are comforted.
I know that sounds terribly idealistic and I suppose it is, but so what? I’m tired of hearing the word “idealism” used as a criticism. “Oh, you’re so idealistic!” “Christianity is just too idealistic.”
But what’s wrong with being idealistic? Don’t we want to instill idealism in our children? Don’t we want to live up to the highest ideals? The next time someone accuses me of being too idealistic, I’m going to say, “Oh, thank you so much. What a wonderful thing to say!”
One more thing about the quest for the kingdom of God: It is not a solitary affair. In literature, the hero or heroine gathers companions around her for the dangerous quest. The quest for the kingdom is something that we have to do together as a church.
I’m glad that Christ the King Sunday is this church’s feast day. It reminds us that we are joined together in a great enterprise.
So how do we get there?
First, we have to be equipped for the quest, and we do that by making this church the best church that it possibly can be. We have to have a great Sunday school program for our children. We have to have the best staff members that we possibly can have. We have to have a strong musical program. But keep in mind that these things are only the preparation for the quest; they are not the quest itself.
That is what stewardship is all about. It is about equipping us for the quest for the kingdom.
But the goal of the quest is not to stay huddled together in this building. The goal is to go out into the world, to bring the good news of God to the least, the last, the lonely, the downhearted and despairing.
Just a couple of months before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a powerful sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church in which he had been raised and where he had been ordained. He told them how he would like to be remembered. If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told them, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being. (Quoted by Dr. Greg Garrison in “If Christ is King, What Does that Mean?”)
Christ the King Sunday is about what is really important. It is about our loyalty to Christ above all things. Hear that again: It is about our loyalty to Christ – not to the church. It is about deeds more than it is about creeds.
It is about letting Christ reign in our minds, our wills, our hearts, and about turning our hands into instruments of God’s justice.