Reign of Christ, Sermons

Royal Watch

I’ve been a royal watcher for a long time, a family interest handed down over generations long before the TV show “The Crown” came to be. Princess Diana was my age. I was in college when I watched her wedding in a room full of excited friends. The Queen is just about my mother’s age. As a little American girl in the 1930s, she collected books about Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. Mom followed their lives in newsreels at the movie theatre, and worried about their safety during World War II. She admired their parents for staying at Buckingham Palace during the Blitz, when most people with privilege fled to the safety of country houses or other countries.

I don’t have my mother’s copy anymore, sadly.

That’s the idea my mother gave me 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.” 

A King had all the power in the the country where he ruled. A King would tell the soldiers what to do instead of being bullied by them. A King would take control, and have his way. A King would win.

A King could save himself.

When Diana’s older son, William, got married, I had another watch party with friends. We ordered scones from a local bakery and woke up before dawn so we wouldn’t miss a moment of the Today Show’s coverage. We appreciated the fluffy cardigan worn by his bride and hoped her fashion influence would bring back sleeves on wedding dresses. Together we remembered his mother’s wedding, her amazing 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 kind of sport, too, to watch criminals carrying their crosses through the streets of Jerusalem. Dragging the heavy crosspiece, they heard the jeering of the crowds. Crucifixion was intended to be as humiliating as it was painful, emotional torture and physical torture both. The means chosen to punish Jesus was deliberate and particular. He upset the norms of power, and the authorities needed for him to lose more than his life. They needed him to lose his influence. 

So they sent Jesus to the cross to die. 

And on the way the crowd taunted him. 

“If you are the King, save yourself!”

Of course, not everyone jeered. In the crowd, hoping to see but not be seen, 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 there would be a sudden escape and an earthly victory.

We know this story because the Royal Watch went on, even to the last moment of the crucifixion. The faithful women 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 Prince Charles to kiss Princess 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. 

It’s a dare from some, and a demand from others. 

There were people in the crowd who believed their Messiah would be the kind of King they knew of in their world, a ruler who used authority to command the people. They believed he would defeat their enemies and uphold what was good. 

In the 1920s, Pope Pius XI saw dangerous forces arising in the world and saw their power being assembled in part through the churches. He looked at dictators like Hitler, and fallible human leaders with royal titles, and knew the people needed a different lens on leadership. 

The letter to the Colossians reminds us of the qualities that matter when we think of Christ as King:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

Luke 23:40-41

The Pope established Christ the King Sunday as a way of declaring that no human being could be in charge of the church. 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.

No wonder we might wonder about the kind of king Jesus was. 

If you are the King, save yourself.

And save us. 

What else does it mean to us to think of Christ as King? Our reading from Jeremiah points to both a shepherd’s care for the flock, and to justice:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Jeremiah 23:5

Here’s what my royal-watching mother taught me. She would be 94 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 of us would ever bother.

Maybe that’s why I wanted to think, in those more innocent times in my own life, that the royal people we got up early to watch get married on international television were special and good. 

Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Jesus Carrying the Cross, Speaking to a Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  [retrieved November 24, 2019]. Original source: Collection of Anne Richardson Womack.

That didn’t turn out to be true. Just this week, the Today Show and other news outlets covered the scandal about Prince Andrew’s association with the sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. The royals I’ve watched have turned out, again and again, to be just people. They may be people who ride in carriages and set fashion trends, but they also turned out to be people who have emotional issues and make terrible decisions. 

They turned out to be people who don’t get a happy ending. 

Our little snippet of the gospel for today doesn’t end happily, but it does end mercifully. 

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. 

“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Luke 23:40-41

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.” 

And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

That’s the kind of King I want,  the King 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. 

I want a King who forgives us when we do not know what we are doing. 

And that’s the King we have. 

  • He is so much a part of God that he was before all things and is in all things. 
  • He is so much one of us that he died a human death for our sake. 
  • He reigns over us with love and mercy. 

They’re not talking about him on the Today Show, but I’m going to keep watching for him. I hope you will, too. 

In the name of the King who rules over us with love, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

I shared this sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday at Grace United Church of Christ in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, where I will be preaching for the rest of 2019. This is an update of a sermon I published in Lectionary Homiletics in 2013.

Matthew 25:31-46, Reign of Christ, Sermons

What Kind of King?

Walter Pidgeon as the King, 1965.
Walter Pidgeon as the King, 1965.

(A sermon for Reign of Christ A – Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46)

I have a particular fondness for the hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” When I sang it as a little girl, probably the first king who came to mind was not God, but the father of Prince Charming in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” He was played by Walter Pidgeon, and his character was serious but kindly, concerned for all around him, and mostly just wanting his son to be happy.

The King I knew best from the Bible, on the other hand, was King Herod, clearly the bad guy in the Christmas story. In the Christmas Pageant at my childhood church, he was played by one of the biggest boys, enthroned in the choir loft, the mighty organ pipes his throne. In Matthew’s gospel, Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under 2 because the Wise Men told him about a baby born to be King of the Jews.

What’s your first thought when you hear the word king? In our time, kings are characters in Disney movies and fairy tales, or worse, foolish people whose social lives and missteps play out in the pages of glossy magazines. Jesus used kings as illustrations in his stories because just like vineyard workers, or mustard seeds, or the lilies of the field, kings meant something to his listeners.

The kings who reigned over Israel in Jesus’ lifetime were not part of some historic dynasty, nor did they have the typical power of kings. They had been imported by the occupying Romans, their loyalty purchased with the understanding they would live in relative luxury and not cause trouble.

Historical kings of Israel, as described in the Old Testament, weren’t much better. Some were successful in battle, like Saul and David, or famous at but failures in their personal lives. Others were terrible leaders, and on the whole they did a poor job of maintaining their small nation, often at risk of being overrun.

Still, a king mattered, and good or bad in real life, a king was an image everyone understood: a person who sat high above all the rest, with supporters at his disposal; a person with the authority and power to decide who was in and who was out.

In some ways, then, it seems appropriate to think of Jesus as the king in the story we just heard, but in other ways it really doesn’t. The last Sunday of the church year lifts up that tension. We call it Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday. King is an odd image to apply to Jesus. He had no earthly kingdom glory. Instead, he turned the expectations of the world upside down, winning not a throne but a victory over death.

What kind of king was Jesus?

Newer hymnals in your more progressive denominations, ours included, have taken a lot of the King language out of our hymns, but I’ll be honest with you: I like it. I like the king language because it reminds me not only that I worship Jesus Christ, but also that he got so little of that kind of attention in his time on Earth. He walked everywhere except for that entry into Jerusalem, which means he wasn’t on horseback, or carried in a litter, or driving a chariot, none of the things a regal person would have done. He didn’t live in a castle or a palace.

What kind of weird king was he, the carpenter from Nazareth who stirred up all the trouble?

  • He was the kind of king who noticed the people around him and listened to their stories.
  • He was the kind of king who experienced human suffering instead of being shielded from it.
  • He was the kind of king who wore a crown made not of gold, but of thorns.

Jesus spent those last days in Jerusalem with his closest followers, which would have included the 12 disciples, and other hangers-on, and a group of women who provided the funds to feed and house the whole crowd. These were the days leading up to the Passover celebration. The city would have been crowded with faithful Jews from all over the known world, coming to observe one of the most important holidays of the year, and given the foreign military occupation and the influx of believers in the Jewish God, the situation was tense.

From what we know now about that era, Jerusalem would have been crawling with revolutionaries, some with more inclination to fight than the rabbi from Galilee. There were palace coups and Temple intrigues. Everyone who mattered played some kind of game of getting along with the occupying Romans, and most everyone else just tried to stay out of the way, but a few people stirred up trouble, hoping, wildly, that they could change the apparent course of history by killing someone in power.

Naturally, those who were in power, those who had found a way to collaborate, however uneasily, with the Romans, did not want the status quo upset.

Here came Jesus, who did not fight with weapons, who was not stealthy, who came into the middle of the Temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers. He told the people in power – and the people who worked for them – that they had it all wrong, that God would not approve of the way they managed things. ­­

The stories he told in what we now call Holy Week are hard to read. All the passages in Matthew at the end of Year A ask the same sorts of ultimate questions. What are the essentials of our faith? What does it mean to be the church? Who does Jesus expect his disciples to be?

We turn our heads sideways trying to puzzle out his meaning. But maybe it’s quite simple.

"The Good Shepherd," Julien Dupre (1851-1910)
“The Good Shepherd,” Julien Dupre (1851-1910)
Ezekiel portrayed God as a shepherd, committed to gathering the lost and the lonely, the weak and the injured. That great shepherd is kind and tender, but also means business, calling us out for not taking care of one another.

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Ezekiel 24:15-16, 20-22, NRSV)

Jesus makes the same point in the lesson of the sheep and the goats, which is not a parable but rather an eschatological vision, a story of the end of the world as we know it. His listeners would have recognized the idea of a mixed flock, one with sheep and goats, and the separating of the two animals would have been a familiar idea. Here the cosmic shepherd, in all his glory and attended by his angels, will come to divide the herd, to separate us like sheep – the more valuable animal – from goats.

The standard for that separation will not be what we acquired in life, or how pretty we are, or how many verses of scripture we have memorized, or even how regularly we have attended Sunday School.

The standard has two parts. First the king says, you will come into my Father’s kingdom because you took care of me when I needed help, when I was hungry or thirsty. You welcomed me when I was a stranger. You visited me when I was sick or in prison. This seems straightforward, if limited. All those who took some kind of care of Jesus are in good shape.

But even in his story, the people he offers the reward are honest; they don’t take credit for doing something they don’t remember. “When did we do it, Lord?”

Now the standard becomes more subtle: we will be judged on our treatment of “the least of these members of my family,” the people who needed our help.

Does this mean we are being rated based on our treatment of the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and those in prison? The second part of the story certainly suggests that. The people not in favor are just as clueless as the ones who will enter the kingdom; “When did we see you and not give you water or food?”

What kind of king is this?

"Jesus Reconsiders Goats" by the great David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor
“Jesus and Goats” by the great David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor

The nations are gathered before him, and it is not wealth or political policies or doctrinal positions being assessed. “How did you care for the least of these,” he asks, “the little ones, the members of my family?” This king is the one who healed lepers and protected prostitutes and visited the homes of tax collectors and Pharisees and other assorted sinners. This king is the one who would sit down to dinner with his friends knowing one of them would betray him. This king is the one who would carry his own cross to the hill where they would execute him alongside common criminals – the very least of these, for certain.

  • He was the kind of king who noticed the people around him and listened to their stories.
  • He was the kind of king who experienced human suffering instead of being shielded from it.
  • He was the kind of king who wore a crown made not of gold, but of thorns.

With his very life, and in the manner of his death, our king says, “The way you treat the least of these is the way you have treated me.”

He is still turning over the tables. Will we?


I preached this a week early as we will be off the lectionary this coming Sunday at Faith United Church of Christ, celebrating the church’s 60th anniversary by following the order of service from that day in 1954.

Matthew 25:31-46, Psalm 95, Reign of Christ, Sermons

All the other gods

(A sermon for Reign of Christ A — November 13, 2011 — Psalm 95:1-7a; Matthew 25:31-46)

I was driving my little Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel with a little fellow in the back seat. We stopped at a red light, at the intersection of Preble Street and Marginal Way in Portland, where I looked up the hill and then heard 2-year-old Edward asking, “Did God make everything?”

“Yes, Honey.”

“Did she make all the buildings?” (Pronounced “beeldings,” to make it even cuter.)

They start early in my family, trying to work out just who God is. Human beings have been doing it ever since there have been human beings. For the Psalmist whose words were paraphrased in our Call to Worship, God is the “rock of our salvation,” “a great King above all Gods,” our Maker and our Shepherd.  That’s just in Psalm 95. And I can find more than one reference to God as Divine Architect, so maybe I didn’t give Edward the right answer, theologically speaking, but they always tell you to answer children at the level they can understand.

So, on that long ago day at Toddler University, I said to Edward, “No, God made people, and people figured out how to make the buildings.”

God gives us what we need, as a collective human community, to do the things that will benefit all of us. We have minds and bodies and the power to coordinate our efforts and an inherent appreciation for the new that leads us to try and succeed at things our great-grandparents never contemplated. We have the power to provide food and shelter and care for those who need help the most.

God also gives us the free choice to do those things, or not. And while other people may not see it in our lifetimes, that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for our choices and our actions. In this last of the challenging parables Jesus shares with his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, we are shown a sharp contrast between those who respond to God’s desire and those who do not. If we don’t listen to anything else Jesus has to say in Matthew’s gospel—although I hope we have listened—if we don’t hear anything else Jesus says, we need to hear this.

We’ve moved on beyond hearing “The Kingdom of Heaven is like,” followed by a story that might have been clear to 1st Century listeners, but which is opaque in the extreme to most of us. There’s an argument to be made that parables about the Kingdom of Heaven are instructions for how to live now, as
opposed to a picture of what heaven will be like. But here Jesus is speaking of ultimate matters:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. (Matthew 25:31-3, NRSV)

It had to sound pretty funny to his disciples, this talk of glory; they had seen the company he kept. Jesus did not have afternoon tea with King Herod or the Roman Governor. He did not curry the favor of the authorities. He did not associate himself with people who had earthly glory and power. Truly, he associated with the low and the unacceptable. He touched the untouchable. He pointed the finger at the ones doing injustice and was preparing himself to face the consequences of those actions in the arrest that was coming, in the death he would suffer at the hands of the earthly powers.

Here at what felt like the end of all things, the last chance to teach them anything, Jesus told it straight. When the Son of Man comes in his power, he is going to sit on a throne of glory, accompanied by angels, and he is going to tell us the truth about our lives. And Jesus wants us to know what matters.
He wants us to know what is going to matter and how we are going to be assessed. And he goes on to make it plain that we are not going to be judged on our acquisitions or our accomplishments or our wealth or our beauty or (sadly for some of us) our way with words.

But that’s not how it feels when we live in this world, is it? It’s pretty certain that in this earthly kingdom, we worship other gods. Just go to the mall, or watch the advertisements during a football game, and you’ll know what I mean. We worship money and getting ahead and beauty and romance and sex appeal and celebrity and shiny new technology … and sports.

I didn’t go to a football school. The College of William and Mary was known more for academics and access to really good shopping for visiting mothers. The first and last campus demonstration I attended was a protest organize by student leaders who did NOT want money to be spent on a more fabulous football stadium. I’ve never worshiped football.  So it’s hard for me to understand the response of many Penn State students and alumni this past week.

We give power as a culture to anything that makes a lot of money, and football is one of those things, even college football. We use many earthly metaphors to describe God: King, Father, Shepherd, Architect, Captain, maybe even Coach. But we should never give a coach the power of a god. We should never give that power to a person, not a coach or a teacher or a politician or a star athlete or even a pastor. And maybe if we talk about how earthly power has been used to harm innocent people, we can learn something from each other.

On Friday, President Obama said,
 “…I think it’s a good time for the entire country to do some soul-searching — not just Penn State. People care about sports, it’s important to us, but our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids. And every institution has to examine how they operate, and every individual has to take responsibility for making sure that our kids are protected.” 

Former Washington Redskin linebacker and Penn State alum LaVar Arrington spoke at a prayer vigil at Penn State on Friday night:
“The worst crime that we can commit right here is to leave here and forget what happened…Tonight, let this be the start of the greatest story ever told. The challenge, due to the evil acts of an evil person and evil people, the challenge has been issued,” he said. “Now, let it be known that we wage war as Penn State to make a difference. Do not walk away from here tonight and say, ‘I had an opportunity to hold a candle and look at somebody and listen to people talk.’ Leave here tonight with a resolve and understanding that you possess the power to change things.”

Those are good words, for Penn State, and I especially appreciate the way he actively calls on those present to act, to be empowered to set things right instead of saying, “I am only one person,” or “Someone else has the real power.” No, he exhorts his beloved community to act together to change the world.

They are very good words.

But I would argue about what should be the greatest story ever told. The greatest story ever told is this one: the great King over all the other gods does not care about our earthly power. The great King over all the other gods values hearts that care for those in need, the poor and the hungry and the naked and the ill and the imprisoned. The greatest King over all the other gods experiences our love and our worship in our acts of love toward other people. And our hero, our Savior, exhorts us to be *his* beloved community, the sheep of his pasture, the ones who act together to change the world.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40, NRSV)

When we search our souls, we have a clear choice.

We can be like the goats. We can turn our attention to the values of this earthly kingdom and its twisted sense of power without service, of power that takes advantage, of power that serves selfish needs simply because the same power means there is no fear of accountability. We can worship all the other gods.

Or we can be like the sheep. We can look at one another and see the face of Christ. We can look especially at those who are suffering and in need and offer the love and care Jesus offered, once and for all—for all of us.

May we follow the God who made us, the Shepherd who guides us, a great King above all the other gods. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(And yes, I know I’m a week ahead in the lectionary. We’re using the Thanksgiving texts next Sunday, and I didn’t want to miss this one.)