A King like no other

King Sam (wearing a crown) and JB (wearing a spider), Halloween 2011

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2011. The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Matthew 25:31-46.

A while back there was an article in the Washington Post about Nana Amuah Afenyi VI, king of Otuam, in Ghana. The article describes the king and a relative traveling by taxi in Ghana. The taxi reaches a police checkpoint. The officer stops the car and looks at the driver’s license. “This has expired!” the officer says. But the driver argues, “No, it hasn’t expired.” The policeman gets angry and shouts back, “Don’t contradict me. It has expired.” After seeing that he’s getting nowhere, the driver reluctantly begins to open up his wallet to get money out and pay the “fine.”

At this, the king, sitting in the back seat of the taxi, becomes enraged. The king is a large, dark woman named Peggielene Bartels: she works as a secretary in the Embassy of Ghana here in Washington by day; but by heredity and custom, she has become chief of Otuam. She glares at the officer. “Expiration date 2013. What is this nonsense? His license has not expired. You are trying to extort a bribe from him. I am the lady king of Otuam and I will not put up with this!” [“All the King’s Men,” Washington Post, March 14, 2010]. The officer manages to squeak out an apology in the face of what must have been a combination of shock, of surprise, and of fear. This is a king unlike any he has ever seen before. King Peggy, as she is known to some, may not look like a conventional king. But through relationship, people experience her power. Through conversation with her, people hear her wisdom. In bringing problems to her, people get another point of view, one that lifts their own situation.

Today is called Christ the King Sunday. And while we might have images of what a king looks like, or how a king behaves (images from scriptures, or history books, or our own imagination) we should notice than Christ is not a king who wants to be worshipped. He is not a king who wants to sit back in a grand castle and admire his finery. Instead, he is a king in action. Christ compels us closer into relationship with him. By knowing him, by talking to him, by listening to him, our lives are lifted up. Our lives are expanded and made into more.
In the first scripture reading, Ezekiel points to a God who is unwilling to rule from afar. This is not a God on the sidelines, who might regard creation without passion or without interest. Instead, God gets in the middle of thngs. God likes to get dirty—after all isn’t that the very picture of God creating humankind: God stoops down into the mud and fashions friends. In Ezekiel, God is like a shepherd who searches out the lost sheep and rescues them to “bring them out, and to gather them, to feed them and to nurture them.” These were encouraging words from Ezekiel to the people of Israel who were exiled in Babylon. They were longing for their homeland, longing for the familiar, and longing for a renewed sense of purpose and direction.

The second part of Ezekiel’s words point to an even stronger shepherd who prefigures the coming of a Messiah. Here is a shepherd who judges between what Ezekiel calls the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Those who are puffed up, who are full of themselves, who think they have no need of God, will be left behind. Those who are lean and who lean on God, will be saved.

The Gospel today continues with the idea of King on the move. Salvation comes through this king, judgment is a part of it. It’s no great mystery though– people who have always assumed their safety and salvation may find, in the end, that their names are not on the guest list. While those who have felt themselves unworthy or unfit for the kingdom, who’ve been left out or squeezed out, may just be at the top of the list.

Through it all, Christ calls into relationship. And we will find him when we look and listen more closely to those he loves. Care for those who hunger and thirst, he says, and you will see me. Help those who don’t have enough, and you will see me. Welcome in the one who is left out and you will see me. Visit the one in prison, or engage the one who has just come out of prison, and you will see me. By serving others, one becomes blessed.

And that’s what real royalty looks like, Jesus says. Look for the King of Love in the stranger who is welcomed, in the naked who is clothed, in the hungry who is fed, in the imprisoned who are met, in the lonely who are visited, in the sick who are offered the healing of friendship and prayer.

A few weeks ago, I met a king. It was at the church Halloween party, and the king came in the form of seven-year-old little girl. Samantha refused to be seen as a queen. She was a king, she explained. She was a king complete with crown, cape, and wooden horse to convey her royalty wherever she wanted to go. In some ways, Sam’s idea of a king comes much closer to God’s revelation as king than the most exquisite artistic rendering or the most developed theological concept. King Samantha wanted to play. She brought laughter, and joy, and energy, and spirit. In so doing, she paved the way for this day, when we open ourselves to Christ the King—in his exalted lowliness, in his shabby regality, with his wealth and wisdom poured out freely for all.

St. Paul prays that a spirit of wisdom and revelation might help us to know God, that, “with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we might know what is the hope to which we are called, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for those who believe.” May Christ the King lead us through the messiness of ministry, even the rockiness of relationship, so that in one another (and in ourselves), the risen Christ would be revealed, known, and loved.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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