The Church of the Saviour
The Feast of Christ The King
November 26, 2017
The Reverend George C. Wong
“The King of Hearts”
The soaring cathedral, finely tailored robes and gowns, a full choir accompanied by exquisite brass and stately pipe organ and the crown and scepter. The pomp and circumstance of a royal procession grab my eye and my imagination.
Like me, many on this side of the pond are also drawn to the splendor of official royal proceedings. At the same time, we remain suspicious of royal trappings, so our national ceremonial life reflects a much simpler and less exalted way of installing our leaders. Our presidential inauguration ceremonies are intentionally drab by comparison, presided over by participants dressed in black suits and a justice in black robes. Maybe because we lack public rituals filled with pomp and circumstance or maybe because the royal festivities are almost fairy tale like, most Americans who normally don’t care follow international goings on cannot resist the dignity and majesty of royal pageantry—especially when it comes to a royal wedding or coronation of the British monarch.
Many of you may know that the Church of England is the state church of England and plays an integral role in the coronation ceremony of a British monarch. As Episcopalians, we would find much familiar in the coronation service which is held in Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. The words of the last coronation which was the service for Queen Elizabeth resembled something we would hear during one of our own ordination or installment services.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Commonwealth according to their respective laws and customs?
The Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you to the utmost of your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?
The Queen: "I will."
The Archbishop of Canterbury: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?
The questions posed by the Archbishop ask the monarch to be enthroned to affirm that he or she will govern with mercy and rule with the gospel in mind. The words express the hope that monarch will govern in a wise and benevolent manner-- in a Godly way.
Though the role of the British monarch is largely ceremonial, the coronation ceremony remains important as a way to enthrone Britain’s monarch with great pomp and circumstance, while also asking the monarch to live up to the highest of secular and religious values.
Historically, royals in Great Britain and in many countries have not always acted in ways which reflect the best of religious and secular values. Coronations have more often initiated the reign of one whose power is absolute and unchecked. Subjects have often found their fates hanging on the whim of the King or Queen. Kings and Queens have not always been leaders who care for and protect their subjects.
If royalty has so often fallen short of expectations and hopes, why do we call this day the feast of “Christ the King”? A helpful hint comes from the complete title of the feast day, which is “Christ the King of the Universe.” This suggests that we need to think bigger. This King is the ruler of all space and time, not of one kingdom or even an earthly empire. Even the very best and most caring of human kings do not fully capture the reign of Jesus.
In today’s readings, we are offered a more expansive and dynamic vision of the Christ the King.
First, the reading from Ezekiel presents us with the image of the King as a shepherd. The people of the ancient near east frequently spoke of a type of shepherd King who would not stay safely on the throne in comfort, apart from his flock. Instead, the Shepherd King goes out into the world. When any of the flock is lost, the King is not afraid to search for his them. He brings them home, he feeds them, he binds up the injured and nurtures the weak. Concerned about justice for those who are vulnerable, the king will punish the fat and the strong who have taken advantage of others. The Shepherd King knows, cares for and protects each of his flock even when that puts the King in danger, even to the point of risking his own life for his flock.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 25 is a perfect counterpart to the OT reading extending the beautiful imagery of the Shepherd King in Ezekiel.
First, we read that Jesus will come again in glory. Jesus will sit with all the angels of heaven around him while he sits on his throne. At first glance, the setting described reminds us of the glorious setting of coronation service.
But, then the gospel text shifts away from Jesus’ glorious kingship turning towards the pastoral image of Jesus. As the Shepherd King, Jesus is not focused on the palace or throne, but on the well-being of the members of his flock. Jesus has a particular concern for certain members of the flock. They are: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
Jesus invites us to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, the take care of the sick and to visit the imprisoned.
In the fullness of time, Jesus on will sit on the throne and ask us to examine our hearts for times when we helped the most vulnerable among us, the fellow members of the flock, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The loving Jesus will ask us how we have loved in His name.
Jesus links his reign in heaven to the very least of these. This is a big jump for us to make because the Christ the King of Glory is telling us that his most prized subjects are certainly each of us, but especially, the least of among us. The message is simple, but hard to follow because we resist those Jesus directs us towards. If you are like me, these are the people we scurry past, or, as a society, we put away out of sight. If you are like me, on most days, I am just so focused on getting the next thing on my “to do” list that it is sometimes easy to avoid the faces of those in need around me.
But Jesus knows this and reminds us that we will find his glory in the faces:
Of those in soup kitchens.
Of those pushing shopping carts on the streets
Of those in homeless shelters.
Of those in drug rehab meetings.
Of those in nursing homes and hospice care.
Of those who have lost hope and are suffer from depression
Of those in maximum security prisons.
As the new church year starts, we will begin it by waiting in the season of Advent for the birth of the infant in whom love shines completely. Even if Black Friday alerts and ubiquitous ads tell us this is the time to cast our eyes upon irresistible, bright shiny bargains, the Advent season is an ideal time to look inward at our lives. It is an ideal time to quietly ask ourselves where we have found the face of Christ? And, the good news is that Jesus told us exactly where to look. Christ is all around us, and if we look, we will see in each other the unexcelled Glory of God.
The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
November 19, 2017
Accounting in the Kingdom
-Over the years, I have heard many informed people say with certainty that the Parable of the talents is one of the most straightforward parables.
-Over the years, I have also heard many other informed people say with certainty the Parable of the talents is one of the hardest to understand of the parables.
What might explain the difference in the “accounting” of the Parable of the talents? The reason likely stems from the way parables incorporate customs and situations from everyday life in ways that catch the attention of the listener. In the case of the parable of the talents and its cast of characters, people in Jesus time were familiar with stewards who watched over the land and property of rich people. Because parables tell stories using real life situations and people they can appear simple at first glance. But while the familiarity gives us sort of certainty and a feeling that we have got the parable “right”, we need to be alert, because there is almost always something deeper going on beyond the obvious surface. There is usually a surprise lurking when you scratch beneath the exterior of parables. We might seek the comfort and resolution of one interpretation, but there is often much more to be considered.
Parables are like one of those pictures made up of geometric patterns. Viewed one way, we clearly see a recognizable object. But then we view the picture from a different angle, then other images mysteriously pop out of the 3d space. I found out there that people even study how we view these pictures with different optical references, which produce different recognizable forms.
As we revisit the parable, I wonder what might emerge. The first two slaves took the money entrusted to them by the Master and by their trading doubled the money. When they each accounted their investment returns to the Master, they praised by the Master and then put in charge of more things. The two successful slaves were then allowed to enter into the joy of the Master, meaning they moved up higher in the Master’s organization. This is a vision of a three-tiered world: the Master, his domain and the good and bad slaves, and his subjects.
The apparent simplicity of the parable has lent itself to an initial glimpse and resulting interpretation which goes something like this: The talents those ancient units of currency, are interpreted as the gifts that the Master, that is that God gives to all of us. The parable is then held up as an example of an individual who did not make good and faithful use of their gifts. You might have heard that the parable means that “you need to use what God has given you or that you will lose the money and perhaps much more.” In this scheme, all the players are assessed by a strict and unforgiving measurement system. At the heart of the measurement system is fear of one kind or another.
Like the slaves, if we have been an employee or a subordinate, we understand how fear is a part of working in any organization—the fear of demotion, the fear of having the high profile assignment taken away, the fear of being berated by superiors, the fear of a reduced or no bonus, and finally, the fear of being let go. We tend to want to read the parable in a way which makes sense to us, so we might tend to want see this parable through the lens of organizations we have been a part of in our own lives. One of the main problems with that kind of reading of the parable is that it casts God as manager who will abandon us and cast us out onto the street if we fall down. In fact, some would say that is God’s job. I am challenged by this take on the parable because a God who kicks us when we fall down doesn’t sound very much like our God.
Does this reading of the parable and the corresponding image of God as a high-powered manager sound like Jesus as described in the gospels? Think about who Jesus associated with. He had fisherman as his inner circle, his posse. He ate dinner with tax collectors and other outcasts, not the successful and wealthy elite of Jerusalem. We might reflect on how Jesus interacted with those who had money. Remember he told the young rich man that he had to give up all that he had to be one of his followers. What did Jesus way of living say about the important of returns, and the accumulation of things material? Jesus lived hand to mouth as an itinerant preacher in the backwater of Galilee. For these reasons and many others, I find it hard to imagine Jesus thinking about quarterly fund returns versus comparable funds and benchmark indices. Jesus would not have had much interest in tracking “interest,” or the return on investment.
If Jesus is ill suited as the corporate manager type, it turns out this parable might not be so simple. Maybe another view emerges which is less obvious. Could Jesus be making the point that the world operates in a very different way from God’s kingdom? Our worth is almost always judged on the basis of clear metrics, returns, performance, connections, looks, pedigree and power. To those few is given more. By contrast, God’s gifts are given freely to all with no performance clauses and returns minimums attached. Still, there is some hope for those who like a bit of structure and order; fret not because Jesus does have expectations about how we are to use our gifts. Jesus reminds the rich that they must not neglect the poor and the marginalized. He reminds them that they can’t take it with them, so why not share what God has given them in the first place—not in order to earn a reward, not to get more love from God, but out of desire to be more like God, who is abundant in love.
Jesus reminds the poor that God has a big heart for the meek, the humble and the oppressed. He urges them to persevere and to know that they are not alone. He blesses those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Beatitudes suggest that Jesus never linked God’s blessing to possessions, achievements or investment returns. God’s special blessing falls on those, which the world would not expect to be blessed.
This leads me back to the idea of certainty and expectations. In the immediate years following Jesus death, some prominent Christian communities were certain that Jesus was coming back in their own lifetimes. Understandably, they wanted advice about how to be ready. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know with certainty that we cannot be so certain about exactly when Jesus is coming. We just know that he is coming and that we must prepare. The best way to prepare for Jesus coming is to be invested in participating in this world and in always using our “talents” make this world a better place. While we wait for the coming of Jesus, what is certain is that we do not need to operate either out of desire to earn God’s blessing by our worldly success or burying our gifts and treasure out of fear.
Instead, I pray that we let our lives be accounted for in units of love and measured in mutuality.