A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany: Christ the King Sunday, November 23, 2014. The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46.
Not too long ago I found myself in a conversation about royalty. People were naming their favorite monarch and as I listened, it seemed like the conversation had to do mostly with the English. One person, who has very Catholic leanings, voted for Charles I. Several agreed on Victoria and a few on Elizabeth I. But as I grew increasingly distracted from the conversation, I smiled to myself as I thought of MY favorite monarch. Though I couldn’t then remember the full name, I thought of a king– a king who is still living. I looked up the name a little later and found that the official name is Nana Amuah Afenyi VI. But most fans and subjects of the king simply say, “King Peggy.”
Peggielene Bartels is the Ghanaian King of Otuam. When she can, she visits Ghana and oversees activities of the village, but until her retirement, she continues her work as a secretary at the Ghanaian Embassy, just off Van Ness Street. In 2008, when her uncle the king died, Peggy was busy. She was struggling to pay the mortgage on her Silver Spring condominium and still send money home to Ghana. She supplemented her embassy income by working as a receptionist at a nursing home. And she also took Ghanaian art and crafts to church bazaars and markets, selling what she could for extra money.
Even though she’s a king now, she’s never forgotten what it means to serve. In her memoir, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, Peggy remembers walking into the embassy one day before helping with a reception for the ambassador and noticing an adinkra, a symbol that represents an aphorism. The one that stood out said, “Nea Ope Se Obedi Hene.” “He who wants to be king in the future must first learn to serve.” Peggy though to herself, “This king served indeed. I served coffee, I served tea.”
Service and kingship are not only connected in the life of King Peggy. They are also the key to our understanding the biblical understanding of kingship and our thinking about this day we celebrate Christ the King.
Images around “kingship” run throughout today’s scriptures. Mindful of Father Worthley’s Adult Forum class on tools for understand the scriptures, I think it’s helpful for us to know some of the richness behind the word used for “king.” As some of you know, in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, there are no vowels as such, and so words are constructed by combinations of root consonants. The context then reveals the meaning of the word and in that way one knows which vowels might be put in for pronunciation. The consonants M, L, K form the root for “king,” in Hebrew. But not just for king. They also form the root for “messenger,” and “servant.” The idea is unmistakable—to be a proper king, a real king, one will also have the heart of a servant. That’s exactly what is described in today’s first reading.
Ezekiel gives us the image of a shepherd king—which is not a really mighty image if you think about a king over sheep. But that’s part of the image, that this is an unusual king who seeks out and saves, who shelters, nurtures, and protects. The bully sheep will be dealt with—whether they are simply ignored, cast out, or sent to the butcher—the shepherd king is not sentimental—but strong and true.
A similar idea appears in our Gospel. While we might get all caught up on the judgment between the sheep and the goats, let’s just notice that judgment is none of our business. It belongs to God. It’s for us to be like our shepherd-king and look out for one another, especially the least well-off and the neediest.
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Christ the King Sunday can be a problem if we allow ourselves to get swept up in the imagery and music of the day and imagine Jesus in any way like a worldly king—just more so. On the contrary, every chance he gets, Jesus refuses a royal entourage (and so he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a donkey, if anything, a symbol of rebellion). He rejects a crown, and so his persecutors have to make him one of briars and thorns. He rejects power, prestige, popularity—he even rejects success, at least in the eyes of the world. He serves alongside us, in front of us, in back of us. Jesus is the king who is mopping the floor even when we have finished the party.
In King Peggy’s book, she talks about the question Ghana had when it gained its independence from the British in 1957, people wondered if they even needed kings anymore. Weren’t they just a colorful relic from the past? But Ghana kept kings, understanding the power of local king, especially when it comes to matters of local justice and fairness. Rather than hire lawyers, rather than go through an impersonal court system, one simply goes to see the king and the king decides the matter. The king is trusted because the king not only knows and loves the village, but the king also remembers what it is to serve and to be “one among.”
That’s a helpful piece to our understanding the image of Christ the King. Christ knows us and loves us. He understands our situation and can speak for justice on our behalf, because he is right here alongside us.
But Christ the King also has power. And it is the power of God. God will get the cheats and liars and bullies. Justice will be done. Fairness will prevail and the righteous will know eternal life.
Christ our King Sunday reminds us of at least two things. The first is that God is our king—in that way of interceding and sticking up for us.
But the day also reminds us that of our share in the kingship, the leader who can speak with authority and justice because we’ve put in our time as a servant. We may not be called to be King of our community, but there will be those times when because of our experience, our friendships, or positions, we are called upon to say and do what a leader should. In the office when someone makes a sexist or homophobic comment. In the neighborhood, when someone is targeted as being “different,” “not from around here,” or “foreign.” At the school, when those with special needs might be bypassed in favor of those gunning to get ahead. In a conversation, at the family dinner table, in a bar, on the playing field or court—- Christ the servant-king wants to be known and heard—through us– standing up, speaking out, feeding, clothing, and befriending.
May those beautiful and powerful words in the Letter to the Ephesians come true for us, that we may be given that “spirit of wisdom and revelation [that] … with the eyes of [our] heart enlightened, [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.