Royal Watch

(A sermon for Reign of Christ C    November 21, 2010    Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43)

There was big news this week, covered wall-to-wall on broadcast and cable news. It wasn’t a cure for cancer, or an invasion by hostile forces or a coup d’etat in Washington.
The news was about a couple’s engagement. They are both 28 years old. Neither has been married before. They’ve known each other for eight years. They were on a special vacation when he proposed, giving her his mother’s ring. It’s a nice story, certainly. But why, oh why, does it rate international coverage?
Just because the young man may someday, depending on the vagaries of his father’s life span and his grandmother’s very long life, be King of England.
I’d like to point out that the networks and news anchors and reporters were not the only people fascinated by the engagement of Prince William of Wales and his longtime girlfriend, off and on, Kate Middleton.
My friends immediately began talking about getting up early to watch the wedding, which will of course be broadcast for all the world to see.
And I must confess that I did not need to fact-check this story, because I come from a long line of Royal Watchers, and I knew Kate’s name, and I have a vivid image of baby William available in my memory, sitting in a little lace collared suit on his parents’ trip to Australia about 27 years ago. I’ve been a watcher myself. His mother was just my age. And his grandmother is just about the age my mom would be, my mom who collected books about Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, who followed their lives in newsreels and worried about their safety during World War II and admired their parents for staying at Buckingham Palace during the Blitz.
That’s the idea I got about what a King or a Queen should be, someone who cared enough about the people to stay with them and accept the risks they faced.
But that is not what the people had in mind when they put a sign up over Jesus on that long ago day, a sign that read “King of the Jews.”
No one standing there understood a king the way my mother taught me. A King had all the power in the world, or at least in the country where he ruled. A King could save himself. A King could tell the soldiers what to do instead of being bullied by them. A King could take control, would have his way and would always win, in the end.
When a future king gets married next summer, we’ll remember his mother’s wedding, the dress and the carriages and the crowds gathered along the route to St. Paul’s Cathedral. People slept outside to save their spots, just as they would for her funeral later. It’s almost a sport to watch a royal family.
It was a pastime, too, to watch criminals carrying their crosses through the streets of Jerusalem. Dragging the heavy crosspiece, they would face the jeering of the crowds. Crucifixion was intended to be as humiliating as it was painful, emotional torture and physical torture both. There are people who don’t like the display of a cross at all, because they say the cross was the electric chair of its time. These are faithful, Christian people, and the sight of the cross gives them pain. It shouldn’t be jewelry or a decoration, they say, because it’s a device of torture. And there might be something to their concern if we only look at it as a familiar shape and forget the meaning of the symbol.
But today, we remember it.
They sent Jesus to the cross to die.
And on the way they taunted him.
If you are the King, save yourself!!!
Of course, not everyone jeered. In the crowd, making themselves as invisible as possible, there were royal watchers of a different kind. They followed Jesus from the place where he ate the Last Supper and on to the Garden of Gethsemane, and after his arrest they moved to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house and to Pontius Pilate and to Herod and then back to Pilate again. They saw him and knew he had been beaten. They saw him and watched as faithful, heartbroken witnesses. By the time they reached the place known as the Skull, they must have stopped wondering if things might turn out better.
We know this story because the Royal Watch went on, even to the last moment of the crucifixion. The faithful women had followed Jesus to the cross. We can only imagine how much it hurt to see and hear it all. They heard the crowd in Jerusalem yell “Crucify him” as gleefully as the crowd at Buckingham Palace urged Charles to kiss Diana.
It was a spectacle.
If you are the King, save yourself!!!
It’s a challenge, a dare. Show us what you can do, man, because they are going to kill you otherwise.
But it’s not just a dare they issued. There were people in the crowd who believed their Messiah would be the kind of King they knew of in their world.
We’re a long way from knowing those kinds of kings, especially here in America, where we once had a Revolution to get away from having kings at all. For our kids, kings are the goofy guys in Disney cartoons, or Fiona’s father who turned out to be a frog, really, in Shrek 2.
You’d have a much better chance of getting kids today to tell you what a princess is than a king.
I say all this to make the point that we may hardly know what we are saying when we refer to Jesus as a king, or sing the hymns I, for one, love, in which we crown him with many crowns. We’ve adjusted the wording, and some newer hymnals have taken out the King word wherever possible, making the argument that it suggests imperialism that reasonable people wouldn’t want to affirm anymore.
This may leave us wondering why we have this funny day in the church calendar, Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s the last Sunday in the church year, before we begin again with Advent, but what does it really mean to us? And how did it become part of the liturgical year in the first place?
I was surprised to learn that the whole idea of Christ the King Sunday is not even 100 years old.
In the 1920s, the Pope could see forces arising in the world that wanted to control countries and peoples, and wanted to do it in part through the churches. He established Christ the King Sunday as a way of declaring that no human being could be in charge of the church, really. Christ is the King, he said. Christ rules over the churches. No human king, no Emperor, and most especially no dictator can take his place.
If you are the King, save yourself.
And save us.
What does it mean to us to think of Christ as King? For me it’s almost not a big enough word. It’s too human. We have a lot of conversations about language for God in our car on the way home from church and at other times, and it wasn’t too long ago that my daughter said it’s not that having God referred to as masculine bothers her, it’s the implication that when we call God “he” we’re making God human.
And only God ought to try that. Making God human, that is.
So the trouble for me with the word King is that we’re not in touch with what the people meant as they called out to him, both for him and against him.
And then I remember what my mother taught me. She would be 85 this year, if she were still living, and she grew up thinking a lot about kings and just as much about Jesus. And somehow she drew the association in the other direction. It wasn’t that she thought of Jesus as a King like the kings in storybooks or the Old Testament or the legends of the Round Table. Instead she thought a really good king ought to be like Jesus. He ought to care about the people, more than most people would ever bother.
And maybe that’s why I like to sing Crown Him with Many Crowns. Maybe that’s why I wanted to think, in those more innocent times in my own life, that the people we got up early to watch get married on international television were special and good.
That didn’t turn out to be true. They turned out to be just people, people with carriages and expensive clothes, certainly, but people who made bad decisions and had emotional issues, people who didn’t get a happy ending.
Our little snippet of the gosp
el for today doesn’t exactly end happily, but it does end kindly.
The two men hanging on the crosses to either side of Jesus are actual criminals. They say so themselves.
One of them speaks roughly to Jesus, and the other tells him to stop. And then he shows us that he knows, somehow, just what kind of king Jesus is. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.”
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That’s the kind of King I want, the one who gathers the least of us into his castle: the ones who have made mistakes, the ones who are suffering, the ones who are afraid to die, the ones who have no more reason to live, the ones who hunger and thirst for more than food and water.
And that’s the King we have, so much a part of God that he was before all things and is in all things, but so much one of us that he actually died.
They’re not talking about him on the Today Show, but I’m going to keep watching him. I hope you will, too. Amen.

10 thoughts on “Royal Watch”

  1. Could I please come and join your church?
    I LOVE Christ the King Sunday, for personal reasons that are quite well covered here. Last year I eagerly awaited the sermon, but it turned out that in that particular church, the liturgical day was being ignored. Yesterday afternoon I decided to go to a Catholic mass, thinking that for sure it would include a great Christ the King homily. Especially because the church is in a Jesuit parish and the Call of the King is a famous Ignatian meditation, so there is a lot to work with from both scripture and tradition. It turned out to be stewardship Sunday (or Saturday, as the case actually was). The music and prayers were relevant, but the sermon was very much about other things.
    So, thank you Martha for a WONDERFUL sermon! I did not need to go here and yon to Presby or Catholic churches. It seems that I need to go to Maine.


  2. Martha, this is so, so, so wonderful. Makes me wish I weren’t ignoring the day for the first time ever. What a fantastic reader of the gospel you are– with the newspaper in one hand, just like (niebuhr?) said we should read it.
    And you tell my story here too, very powerfully.
    Love to you. Thinking about you all the time.


  3. I suppose it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say “D—, that’s a good sermon!” — but that’s what I’m thinking. I don’t write sermons, but whenever I write anything, I’m aiming to unite older subjects with the things that are of the current moment. I would be really proud of myself if I’d done so as well as you have here — and I’m equally proud of you. Thanks for sharing it.


  4. Robin, come to Maine anytime!
    Paige, I take that as the highest of compliments.
    It was a good morning; thanks to all of you for checking in today.


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