November 22, 2020
Reign of Christ, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
Early in the 1920s, times were tough in Western Europe. For one thing, the world had just endured a global pandemic that had killed over 50 million people, and close to 700,000 here in the United States alone. Those are numbers we all understand a little better today living as we do in the midst of our own pandemic.
On top of that, the Great War had just come to an end and people were struggling to pick up the pieces. The War had decimated their cities and their spirits. If many people in Europe had once taken great pride living in an enlightened civilization, the War shattered any illusion that they had achieved some sort of unprecedented greatness, as though they had cast off the barbaric inclinations of previous generations once and for all. People realized that progress wasn’t always inevitable, that in fact, it was possible for society to take huge steps backward.
And on top of all that, intellectual developments in the years leading up to the war stirred pessimism and fear. Karl Marx’s work had foretold the demise of their economic system. Charles Darwin’s theories on genetics had given rise to the eugenics movement and attempts to eradicate from humankind those deemed undesirable. Sigmund Freud’s research had exposed ugly, primitive impulses lurking deep within each one of us. Despite what many of us have read about the “Roaring Twenties,” one historian has described the 1920s as a “uniquely gloomy and fearful era, a morbid age that saw the future of civilization in terms of disease, decay, and death.” The people were filled with a sense of doom and impending disaster.
Pope Pius XI sensed that too. He lamented that Christians were treating each other not as siblings in Christ, but as strangers and even enemies; that political life was dominated by hatred and grievances; that extreme nationalism had caused them to forget that all people are members of one human family. Above all, he lamented that so many people had thrust Jesus Christ out of their lives and that Christian values no longer seemed to have a place in their public or private lives at all. In his view, there would be no lasting peace in their personal lives or in their collective life until they put Christ back at the center. The pope admonished that Christ should reign in their minds, in their wills, and in their hearts. And so, in 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the festival of Christ the King, which in our tradition has come to be called the Reign of Christ—the festival we celebrate today, on this last Sunday of the church year.
It’s a hundred years later but we’re not so far from the 1920s. Seeing one another as strangers and enemies? Politics dominated by hatred and grievances? Nationalism that causes us to lose sight of our shared humanity? Reign of Christ is a festival for our own time.
The Gospel lesson the lectionary chooses for this Reign of Christ Sunday sums up pretty neatly what it means to be a follower of Jesus. “As you did to the least of these who are members of my family,” Jesus says, “so you have done unto me.” After this passage, as we turn the page to chapter 26, the chief priests and the elders set in motion their plan to have Jesus killed, and the final few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel tell of Jesus’ betrayal and his arrest, his crucifixion and resurrection. So here, at the end of chapter 25, what we are reading is essentially Jesus’ final sermon. Everything Jesus has been trying to teach his disciples in the first 25 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is summed up in this last lecture. The kingdom of God that Jesus has inaugurated here on earth, and which he has been preaching about since the very beginning, looks like the hungry being fed, the thirsty given something to drink, strangers welcomed in, the naked clothed, those who are sick taken care of, and prisoners visited with compassion.
Jesus will say later, when he is on trial, that his kingdom is “not of this world,” and he couldn’t be more right. Feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty a drink, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, treating prisoners with compassion—these are not the ways of our world. It has been said that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets; our systems and institutions have been perfectly designed to do just the opposite of what Jesus envisions. When Christ reigns, the ways of this world are turned upside down.
Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary described this week how a member of her church sent her an email saying, “So, what’s the deal with Reign of Christ Sunday?” This person wanted to know, what is this day in the church calendar all about, anyway? Karoline responded, “Reign of Christ is a day to affirm God’s reign over empires that do not hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Truly, Reign of Christ is a festival for our time.
Jesus says, as you have done to the least of these, so you have done unto me.
Well, as this pandemic has taken its toll on our health and our economy, today, 50 million people—that’s one in six Americans!—are experiencing food insecurity. Meanwhile, the stock market has roared to record highs. Billionaires have become multi-billionaires, and the wealth gap is as wide as ever. Yet Congress saw fit to allow special pandemic unemployment insurance to expire at the end of September. And so, in this wealthiest country on the planet, millions of people still don’t know where their next meal will come from. So much for feeding the hungry.
Many of us have been horrified to know that we live in a country that has not only not welcomed the stranger but has separated kids from their families on the border. Government officials are on the recordsaying they implemented this policy to deter others from making the journey. It was intentionally cruel; the cruelty was the point. So much for welcoming the stranger.
As for those in prison, I read a report this week that the Department of Justice is trying to rush through as many executions as possible during the “lame-duck” period between now and January 20, after already carrying out more executions in the last three months than took place over the past six decades.
Meanwhile, front-line healthcare workers, including some of you, have been trying to care for the sick. God bless you and protect you as you work so hard to save people’s lives. You know better than anyone how much harder your job has become because of our leaders who have determined that reports of so many sick people are a political inconvenience, that it’s more politically expedient to persuade people that this pandemic is all a big hoax. It’s frankly insulting to the grieving families of the more than 250,000 who have died, and to those gravely ill who are overflowing our hospitals this morning. So much for caring for the sick.
We are living in a world where the message we hear on repeat from the most powerful leader on the planet is that down is up, one plus one is three, and the sky is not blue, and anyone who disagrees will be crushed. Most of us would laugh it off as sheer lunacy if it weren’t for the fact that so many Americans have been conned into believing it all. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says that you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Truth prevails when Christ reigns.
Two theologians named Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote a book together called Resident Aliens. They argue that Christians are called not to transform the world but simply to be the church—a community of people who are radically faithful to Jesus Christ. Not to champion particular political candidates as though they could save the world; not even to advocate for legislation or policies that reflect the kingdom of God. They believe that the most effective thing the church can do for the world is to be a living, breathing, visible community of faith rooted in the gospel; that the church should influence the world by modeling a radically different way of living together. The church serves the world “by showing it something it is not… a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.” They want to see a church “that again asserts that God… rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of [any government], and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”
I believe we are being called more boldly than ever to be a church that is radically faithful to Jesus Christ; that proclaims the Reign of Christ and patterns our lives on Jesus; called to be a beacon of hope in a world that some days feels utterly lost. We will serve the world by being a living, breathing, visible community of faith rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ; by being the kind of people who read today’s gospel lesson and say with absolute clarity, “This is our king. This is who we follow. This is who we will be.” Amen.
Camila Domonoske and Richard Gonzalez, “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border,” on NPR, published June 19, 2018, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/19/621065383/what-we-know-family-separation-and-zero-tolerance-at-the-border.
Dick Durbin et al., “Durbin, Pressley, Leahy, Booker To Trump Administration: Suspend All Federal Executions During Transition Period,” published November 13, 2020, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.durbin.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/durbin-pressley-leahy-booker-to-trump-administration-suspend-all-federal-executions-during-transition-period-.
The Economist, “Britain between the Wars: A Sense of Dread,” published April 23, 2009, https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2009/04/23/a-sense-of-dread.
Feeding America, “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020,” published October 2020, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/Brief_Local%20Impact_10.2020_0.pdf.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989).
Pius XI, Quas Primas [Encyclical Letter on the Feast of Christ the King], accessed November 18, 2020, https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_11121925_quas-primas.html.
Pius XI, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio [Encyclical Letter on the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ], accessed November 18, 2020, http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_23121922_ubi-arcano-dei-consilio.html.
Sermon Brainwave Podcast, “#755: Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday (Year A) – Nov. 22, 2020,” on WorkingPreacher.org, November 16, 2020, https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/755-christ-the-king-a-nov-22-2020.