Proper 29, Year A, RCL (Christ the King)
26 November 2017
Every so often, when I feel like I need a shot of energy for my day, I look up a good action movie scene on Youtube — like the parkour scene from Casino Royale, for example. Daniel Craig as James Bond is chasing this bomber guy through a construction site, jumping off cranes, plowing through drywall, swinging down scaffolding, spreading havoc in their wake. Can you imagine trying to work with James Bond in the vicinity? But explosions and chaos and flying bullets is James Bond’s job. My job, fortunately, does not involve any parkour or car chases or hails of bullets; but it is nice to live vicariously for about seven minutes while I’m answering emails.
It’s nice because, despite being so perilous and chaotic, an action chase scene seems simple, almost lighthearted. There’s a massive disruption of business as usual, but that disruption is for the greater good, and it doesn’t upset the ultimate balance of the world around. Indeed, disruptions like this are often meant to restore that balance in some way. Somebody is going to save the day.
If I wanted to save the day in my world, I hardly know where I would start. I make my bed. I call Congress. I smile at the cashier who is scanning my groceries. And I pray. They’re just little things; but after all, even a car chase and a couple of grand explosions isn’t going to be enough to save the world as it is.
In a time like this, it’s really easy to think of coming to church, of life in Christ, of the kingdom of God, as small, ineffectual, boring, irrelevant. But I think that’s a mistake.
We treat our church services — our prayer lives — our efforts at evangelism — as if the kingdom of God is an infomercial. Like a car in a showroom, its gleaming paint polished, its tires spotless, its odometer a row of zeros. Cocktail waitresses with trays of champagne gliding among the murmurs of the well-dressed and well-heeled. This is the Christian life at its most admirable: secure, self-possessed…static.
Needle scratch. No — imagine instead a sudden disturbance. Running footsteps, gasps and cries, the tinkle of champagne flutes hitting the floor. Then a figure vaults into the showroom car — the engine turns over and revs, tires screech and swerve on marble floors — and then the car is gone in a storm of plate glass shattering.
If this seems fanciful to you, think about the ministry of Jesus. It’s the height of the Pax Romana. The Empire of Rome, headed by Caesar, has the world in its sway, in every direction you look. People rebel sometimes, of course, but it never comes to anything. This is just how things are. It’s so easy to be cynical; so easy to look the other way when someone is beaten in the street; what can anyone do?
Soldiers, horses, weapons. Efficiency in all things. Straight roads, aqueducts, communications. Taxes to pay for them. It’s a well-ordered society. Predictable. Protective. All you have to do is look the other way. All you have to do is say, “Hail, Caesar, the King, the Son of God.”
But Jesus said, the Kingdom of God isn’t like that. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world” — it doesn’t belong to this closed system of domination. That sounds like it ought to be reassuring, but the world knew very well that it wasn’t. And the Church, the body of Christ, began to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is Lord: and Caesar is not. And they kept saying it. And all of Rome’s soldiers and horses and arenas and machinery couldn’t stop them.
In fact, we can see from all our scriptures today that God has always had an idea of kingdom that is different from what we’re used to. When Israel first started asking God to give them a king, God was reluctant. In the book of Samuel we read that Samuel the prophet told Israel that they weren’t actually supposed to be like all the other nations — that not having a king was an asset, not a deficiency. But the people insisted. After Saul, the first king, failed to respect the limits of his authority, God directed Samuel to choose for the next king a shepherd boy, the youngest son of his family: a young man named David who became the king that all future generations would look back upon with honor and longing.
When we talk about Jesus being “born of the house of God’s servant David,” this image of the shepherd is at the front of it. The shepherd is there to lead the sheep, yes; the shepherd is there to protect the sheep from outside harm: but the shepherd is also there to make sure that the sheep don’t hurt one another. When one sheep grows fat by pushing weaker sheep away from the food, the shepherd doesn’t look away. The shepherd notices and puts a stop to it.
Notice, in the Ezekiel reading, that all the sheep of the world are God’s sheep. God promises to bring Israel out from scattered exile and make sure that they are justly treated; but the image of David as king, as shepherd, is an image of God’s desire for the world. One king; one shepherd, judging between sheep and sheep.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus develops this theme even further. Jesus says that at the end of all things, the king will sit down on the throne and judge between sheep and sheep. But now the question is not whether you have refrained from shoving the weak away from the food. The question is: have you gone out of your way to notice the weak and look after them? Have you accepted the responsibility of caring for those who are sick, or hungry, or immigrants, or imprisoned? Or have you looked the other way and let fate have its way with them?
Next week, we officially begin the season of Advent, the season of preparation for the Lord’s coming at Christmas. And as you know, Advent is a two-sided ribbon of themes. There’s the one obvious theme of Jesus’s first coming, born as a helpless baby to obscure peasants in a corner of the Empire, the King in disguise. Then there’s the other theme, the theme of Jesus’s second coming at the end of the world, the king coming no longer in disguise but in splendor and terrifying, uncompromising insight. Jesus the king will see us, and we will see ourselves as the king sees us. The scriptures we’ve been reading about the kingship of Christ have been preparing us, reminding us that God’s idea of kingdom is not what we’re used to. Reminding us that there are no excuses.
In this time and place we really need to pay attention to the difference. There has always been a Caesar. But Caesar is not Lord. Business as usual seems to go on. But business as usual is not the kingdom of God.
In Caesar’s world, the weak and the disadvantaged deserve humiliation.
In the kingdom of God, the weak and the disadvantaged are at the pinnacle of importance.
In Caesar’s world, if you can seize it, you should get away with it.
In the kingdom of God, nothing less than giving it away is acceptable.
In Caesar’s world, you have the right to polish your reputation.
In the kingdom of God, strutting around is useless at best.
In Caesar’s world, surviving at other people’s expense is a no-brainer.
In the kingdom of God, vulnerability is infinite wisdom.
Caesar’s world knows when it’s threatened. When the kingdom of God raises up the weak — the chronically poor, the immigrant, the person of a different color, the woman — Caesar’s world pushes back. But Caesar is not Lord.
Jesus is Lord.
Notice in today’s parable that even though we, the people of the world, are the livestock being gathered in for judgment, we are not expected to be sheep only. We are expected to be little shepherds. We are meant to be little Christs. We are meant — all of us — to do what shepherds do, taking care of the weak, seeing that the strong don’t trample them, seeking out the lost and rejected, coming alongside the sick and the imprisoned. This is not what we do to feel good about ourselves in our spare time. This is our job. Like James Bond’s job is to chase bad guys through construction sites, our job is to treat the disadvantaged among us with more honor than Caesar himself. And if we are disadvantaged ourselves, to lift up our heads and to do whatever we can.
Hear again what the letter to the Ephesians tells us.
I pray that your inward eyes may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope to which he calls you, how rich and glorious is the share he offers you among his people in their inheritance, and how vast are the resources of his power open to us who have faith.
That power raised Jesus Christ from the dead and placed him
at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all government and authority, all power and dominion, and any title of sovereignty that commands allegiance, not only in this age but in the age to come….He gave him as head over all things to the church which is his body, the fullness of him who is filling the universe in all its parts.
Do you see that? We, the church, are the fullness of Christ who is filling the universe. We are an intimate part of Christ’s kingship, intimate as breath itself. We who have the responsibility also have the power to carry it out. We shouldn’t be afraid of Caesar’s world; we should be aware that Caesar’s world is afraid of us.
We’re not less than James Bond. We’re more.
We need the reminder, because business as usual is exhausting and heartbreaking and boring. We need the reminder, because otherwise we come to church prepared to watch an infomercial for some weird gadget we don’t need. We need the reminder, because there’s so much trouble to look at that we want to look away.
Look at Jesus, our King, crowned upon the cross, the victor over sin and death, the victor over the banality of evil and domination. Look at him looking back at you with unflinching love, and take heart.