A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper 29 in Year C: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46 or Canticle 16 (Luke 1: 68-79); Colossians 1:11-20; and St. Luke 23:33-43 These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
It’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!” (Francis)
My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As we do so, I wish I could think in the terms of Malcolm’s beautiful poem, but I seldom do. This year, for example, we get the story of Jesus’ surprisingly calm conversation with the thief crucified next to him; these three men hanging in agony on crosses carry on a remarkably clear and lucid discussion. It’s probably my own sinful nature or my warped sense of humor or my attention deficit disorder or something, but I cannot read this gospel lesson with flashing to the crucifixion scene at the end of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” in which a chorus of two or three dozen crucified men, led by Eric Idle, address the lead character (who is also crucified) in song:
Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble. Give a whistle.
And this’ll help things turn out for the best.
Always look on the bright side of life.
If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten,
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle. That’s the thing.
Always look on the bright side of life.
A few stanzas later, the chorus sneaks in the line “Always look on the bright side of death.”
That scene, indeed the whole movie, is disrespectful, sacrilegious, and very funny . . . and in that particular scene it is theologically profound. Because that is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ words to the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That is precisely the meaning the Christian faith, that beyond the darkness of death, beyond the darkness of the tomb, there is a brighter side, there is paradise and resurrection. On the other side of human decisions that sometimes produce bad consequences or unacceptable results, whether intended or not, there is the reign of God.
Growing up, as most of us have, in a constitutional democracy without a monarch, our basic idea of kingship today is probably somewhere between Disney and Queen Elizabeth of England, somewhere between fairytale and figurehead. Today, we probably conceive of kingship as a life of luxury were everything goes well and people write books (or tabloid headlines) about you.
Well, Jesus, Christ the King, is not that sort of monarch (or ruler or president or whatever). Instead, he is something utterly different, a king who ushers in an entirely new order – a world characterized by new life, hope, grace, and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies pointing to and inviting beyond the darkness to the brighter side, to paradise and resurrection.
That seems to be a message a lot of people need to hear today; it’s the message that we as the church need to speak to our society loudly and clearly because many people are frightened by the outcome of our presidential election. And many other people are taking its result as permission to do some very unpleasant things.
On the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.
Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”
Disruptive responses are not limited to those on the so-called “alt-right” side of things, however. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.” And there have been reports of violence and destruction of property associated with some of these marches.
We, as the church of Christ the King, need to say to both sides, “Enough!” We need to remind everyone that, regardless of what side they may have been on in the election or what side they believe they are on now, on the other side of every human decision, every human decision, including elections, there is the bright side, the reign of God, paradise and resurrection. In 1930, Archbishop William Temple preached at the opening of the seventh Lambeth Conference, assuring his colleagues:
While we deliberate, God reigns;
When we decide wisely, God reigns;
When we decide foolishly, God reigns;
When we serve God in humble loyalty, God reigns;
When we serve God self-assertively, God reigns;
When we rebel and seek to withhold our service, God reigns –
the Alpha and the Omega, which is, and which was,
and which is to come, the Almighty.
We decide however we decide . . .
but Almighty God will always reign!
That is the meaning of this day and that must always be the message of the church: “Our God, the God who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ reigns!” Amen.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.