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"Christ the King" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 26, 2017

posted Dec 12, 2017, 8:04 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I’ve come to realize that my dog Duchess isn’t a Christian.  No, instead, Duchess worships the waffle iron.


Every Sunday morning Jay makes waffles for the boys.  Duchess learned early on that Jay makes too many waffles.  Actually, as a precise engineer, he makes exactly one and a half extra.  When everyone eats their waffles, there’s always a half left on someone’s plate.  She gets that one before church.


But the whole waffle gets left on the waffle iron.  I don’t think she can see the waffle, but she smells it, right there, temptingly close, just out of reach.  And so she sits in the kitchen, a respectful distance from the counter, in the middle of the room, facing the waffle iron.  She waits there while we go to church and stay for education hour.  Patiently waiting.  And then, whoever comes home first, gives her the last waffle.


You’d think Duchess would then relax.  But no, she remains at attention, watching the waffle iron.  Duchess doesn’t leave the kitchen until Jay washes and puts away the waffle iron.


She loves us, but she worships the waffle iron.  To her the waffle iron is a divine, magical even, source of all good things.


This Sunday in worship we celebrate Christ the King, a day to reflect on the place of Jesus in our lives and to wonder about who and what we worship.  In other words, a day to ask if we worship Jesus or the waffle iron.


The idea of Jesus as a king can be traced very far back in our tradition.  Indeed, it began as a tasteless joke.  Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus under the inscription, “King of the Jews.”  He only called Jesus king as a mockery.  But it soon became clear that the earliest Christians did look to Jesus as sovereign, ruler, Lord of their life.


One of my favorite statements of this belief comes from the Heidelberg Catechism, a series of questions and answers, a theological FAQ, developed by our spiritual ancestors.  The first question of the Catechism asks, “What is your only hope in life and in death?”  And then it answers, “My only hope in life and in death is that I belong body and soul to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”


We could spend a month just unpacking that sentence.  But I treasure the totality of that commitment; the placing of all one’s hope in Jesus.  And yet even as I appreciate the faith embodied in the Heidelberg Catechism, I realize I’m not fully there.  Only hope?  Well, I hope some in doctors and nurses, the ability of scientists and scholars.  I hope some in the goodness of other people.  I hope some in my own creativity and resilience.  Really, in a moment of honesty, I hope in many things.


Which, given all the ways my faith differs from our spiritual ancestors, leaves me with theological questions: what does it mean to celebrate Christ as King?  What does it mean for Jesus to be a source of my hope but not my only hope?


To think about these questions, I want to step back into the Bible.  The authors of the Bible chiefly worried about idolatry.  “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”  Throughout the scriptures prophets spoke out against people putting faith and hope and love in something other than God.


And often this concern about idolatry came out in caricatures about the idols of other religions.  The prophet Isaiah lampooned the people around him for believing that their gods could inhabit statues.  At one point he imagined a carpenter making a religious sculpture out of a tree he cut down; “Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it, and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it, and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’” (Isaiah 44:16-17)


We might hear these words of Isaiah and dismiss them as one more example of intolerance: Isaiah intolerant of the faith of another people.  And yes, there is that element to his words. But also, idolatry bothered Isaiah so much because he realized it operated in his heart and that of his dearest neighbors.  As he said earlier in his book, “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips!”


Idolatry bothered Isaiah and other authors in the Bible because it invested inanimate objects with faith, hope, and love they did not deserve.  Idolatry meant seeing as divine something which wasn’t.


This particularly comes out in one of the Psalms, which leveled a harsh critique of idolatry:

“Their idols are silver and gold,

  the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak;

  eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear;

  noses, but do not smell.

They have hands, but do not feel;

  feet, but do not walk;

  they make no sound in their throats.

Those who make them are like them;

  so are all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:4-8)

 

Isaiah and the psalmist knew the danger of misplaced faith, hope, and love.  Idolatry placed ultimate hopes into finite objects; objects that could not speak or see or feel.  And so the love of the idol would ultimately disappoint.

 

Instead of hearing this as a critique of other religions, I think it forces me to ask: what do I put my trust into?  Am I placing my ultimate trust into finite things?

 

Isaiah and the psalmist worried about statues and religious objects.  But their underlying concern was the way people placed their ultimate faith, hope, and love into finite things.  Today I’m not worried about statues; instead, I see the power of ideas to become idolatrous, the potential of our finite ideas to be taken as ultimate truths, the ability of ideas to distract us from God and reality.

 

The words idol and ideal only differ by a few letters; I think they come from the same roots, at least philosophically.  An idol represented the divine.  Plato spoke of a realm of ideas, where the perfect representation of everything existed.  Both an idol and an ideal represent the divine, the eternal, the ultimate.

 

And yet, just as the psalmist said an idol can be blind and deaf and mute, ideals can make it harder for us to see, hear, and feel.  Vaclav Havel, who long lead the resistance to communism in the Czech Republic and served as its first democratic president, spoke of the power of ideals to distract us from reality.  I remember one memorable line, in which he pointed to the distracting ideals of the French Revolution: Fraternity, Equality, Liberty.  Havel said these ideals obscured reality: the fraternity of the unbuttoned shirt, the equality of the speed of the guillotine, the liberty that resulted.  The ideals raise our eyes to the heavens, but Havel saw all the pain and suffering, the thousands killed in a Reign of Terror under the banner of grand ideas.

 

Idols do not see, hear, or feel.  Do our ideals blind us, make us deaf, close our hearts?  I wonder about our American ideals.  We talk of our country’s American Dream.  This ideal gets worshipped in countless ways.  And yet, does all our talk of the American Dream make it harder for us to see and hear and feel how economically rigid our society has become, how hard it is for someone born in poverty to rise to the top?  Or take our invocation of the ideal of colorblindness?  Hasn’t that ideal blinded us to the reality of color in our society, the segregation in our neighborhoods?  But nationalism may be the greatest of idolatrous ideas; for nationalism swells our pride but closes our hearts, makes us feel supreme but turns out to be a hollow truth, and gives credence to our basest fears of “the other.”  Ideals can be idolatrous distractions.

 

I find that Christ as my King pushes the reset button.  I look to Jesus as my King.  But I find him pointing the way back to the vulnerable.  Where idolatrous ideals make it harder to see, hear, and know suffering; Jesus as King makes sure I look there.  “When did I see you hungry and feed you?” Or, “When did I not see you thirsty and give you something to drink?”  And to both Jesus said, “What you did to the least of them, you did to me.”

 

In the parable Jesus told about the last judgment, he called attention to six kinds of vulnerabilities: hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick, and imprisoned.  We often take this as a call to service to people who are vulnerable.  And personally, I often take this story at this level.  But today I want to press this parable a bit further; to ask, why were those people hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick, and imprisoned?

 

Jesus lived during the Roman occupation of Israel; a time when the full weight of the Roman empire bore down on Israel.  That occupation made some people very rich but left countless others impoverished: hungry, thirsty, naked, sick.  Some people responded to the inequality by moving: becoming strangers.  And others sought to rebel; and they became prisoners, like Barabbas, the man Pilate released instead of Jesus, a man imprisoned for insurrection.  The Roman Empire spoke of grand values - Pax Romana.  But Jesus saw and heard and felt all the damage done in the name of Roman Peace.

 

Jesus saw the effects of the idolatrous ideology of Rome.  Do we see the effects of our own idolatrous ideologies?  Do we see civilians killed in drone strikes in Iraq?  Do we hear the cries of Syrian refugees?  Do we know the hungry in the world’s richest country?  Or the highest rates of incarceration in the world by a country devoted to liberty?

 

Jesus, who saw the destructive power of Rome’s imperial ideals, didn’t offer a new utopian vision.  No doctrine or dogma becomes the new divining rod of the last judgement in Jesus’ parable.  Instead, Jesus answered ideology with relationship, relationship with those hungry, poor, and imprisoned.

 

I’ve never written a catechism, but if I did I might paraphrase the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.  What is your only hope in life and in death?  My only hope comes from relationships: relationships with Jesus, with the vulnerable, with neighbors near and far.

 

Christ my King invites me into a kingdom of relationship.  Relationships that open my eyes, open my ears, open my heart.

 

Alleluia and Amen.

 

 



Sources:

  • Brueggemann, Walter, “Idolatry and Agency,” Journal of the NABPR.

  • Kraybill, J. Nelson, “Idolatry and Empire,” Vision, Spring 2011.


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