Scene 1: Christ The King. The very words when put this way have always struck me as odd. Every Sunday I sit in Rock Spring Parish, and looking across the sanctuary is a small window with a crown. And through the middle of the crown on an angle is a wooden cross – reminding one who gazes at this window of the Christ the King paradox: No cross/No crown. The window is hidden from the sight of the congregation as if it is there solely to remind the priest sitting in what looks all-too-much like a wooden throne never to forget the ground of humility that defines our “king” as one who does not demand we “strain our necks looking upward, or strive to climb the narrow ladder to heaven.” Rather, our God and king is bent low in love; to love each person, each creature, every rock, tree, pond, river and ocean. And that it is the preacher’s task to find ways to make such a God known, leading others to find ways to live out of such humble and indiscriminate love. [Ilia Delio, The Humility of God, St Anthony Messenger Press, 2005, p115]
Scene 2: Back in 1989 I used to drive around in the car listening over and over again to a cassette tape (remember those!) of Gordon Cosby talking about Jesus as “the slain lamb.” While a chaplain on the beaches of D-Day Gordon had had a vision of a new way of being “church.” I used to marvel at how Gordon’s Lynchburg, VA drawl could so easily draw out six distinct syllables from the words “slain lamb.” The sermon, from March 5, 1989 at the Church of the Saviour, was about Changing One’s Inner Power Base. I listened over and over and over again as Gordon spoke of a power greater than any political, economic or military power represented in this iconic image of “the slain lamb.” Today, when I finish my treading on the treadmill at Gold’s Gym, I spend the final five minutes walking backwards. It was a practice urged by someone writing in the Thursday Health Section of the Baltimore Sun and it makes sense. This means I stare at the wall immediately behind the treadmill where there are two scuff marks on the wall forming a cross. I repeat the Jesus Prayer as I tread backwards and gaze upon the Gold’s Gym cross, with a slight amendment: Jesus Christ/Lamb of God/Have mercy on me/A sinner. Gordon urges us to pray without ceasing with this image of the slain lamb as the source of real power, God power, true and just and faithful power unlike that anywhere else in this world, but which will be the real power of the world to come. Lamb of God somehow embodies the true nature of Christ better than Son or King. No cross/No crown.
Scene 3: One day, when Harper and Kirk Alan were very young, we visited the Abby Church at Bath, England. As we wandered around the Abby Church I picked up a welcoming brochure. In part, this was what it said: Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home. For the next three years he went about teaching people about God and healing sick people by the shores of Lake Galilee. He called 12 ordinary men, and an untold number of women, to be his helpers. He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33. Jesus taught us to trust in a loving and merciful Father and to pray to him in faith for all our needs. He taught that we are all infinitely precious, children of one heavenly Father, and that we should therefore treat one another with love, respect and forgiveness. He lived out what he taught by caring for those he met; by healing the sick - a sign of God's love at work; and by forgiving those who put him to death. Jesus' actions alone would not have led him to a criminal's death on the cross, but his teaching challenged the religious and moral beliefs of his day. People believed, and do to this day, that he can lead us to a full experience of God’s love and compassion. Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. No Cross/No Crown.
Scene 4: Every year it seems I go back to Wikipedia to remind myself how Christ the King Sunday came about. In 1925 Pope Pius XI felt the secularization of society was leading people away from God, away from Jesus, and designated a Sunday to bring us all back. It was to be the last Sunday in October, but then that became Reformation Sunday among some protestant denominations – as if the dividing up of the people of God into an infinite number of different churches with competing theologies is something to be celebrated! Yet, 1925 was a time not unlike our own in which Pius saw a number of authoritarian dictators asserting power over the churches and democratic institutions. He felt something was needed to bring us all back to Christ. Coming from a Church power base that had itself moved far from any vision of the slain lamb may have contributed to it becoming the failed strategy it seems to be. The Pope’s impulse, however, was good, and we would do well to consider his concerns for the broken and sinful world he tried to lead back to some vision of God’s dream for all people. No cross/No crown.
Scene 5: On Tuesday morning I picked up a book in my office – Oscar Romero: The Violence of Love. Romero, of course, was the San Salvador Archbishop who on March 24, 1980 was silenced by an assassin’s bullet while celebrating Holy Communion with the poor people of that country in a small hospital chapel. The day before Romero delivered a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. He was silenced, like Jesus was on the cross, for calling people to a new vision of the power of God’s Love, Compassion and Justice. Like Jesus, his voice has not been silenced. The book is a collection of quotations from his homilies the last four years of his life. His final words, spoken just minutes before a single bullet pierced his heart: “God’s reign is already present on earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection. This is the hope that inspires Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.” Romero embodied the very essence of the slain lamb. Romero knew well the words of John the Revelator who in the opening verses of his vision of the king of kings wrote, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” [Revelation 1:4-8] No cross/No crown.
Scene 6: Ellen Davis, Old Testament Scholar, professor, preacher and friend, recalls the scene in John’s Revelation depicted in chapter 5:11-12: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” John writes to a community and a world in crisis. The book is not about predicting the end of the world; it is about what is happening here and now and what we are to do. It is a book about worship. Who will we worship? John repeatedly offers two choices: We can worship God in Christ, represented as the God of humility, the God who stoops down in love, the God who comes to us as one of us as the slain lamb. Or, we can choose the conventional route and worship the culture and the empire, represented by John as “the Beast.” It is a God, writes Davis, who calls us to “utter self-forgetfulness.” She gives us the example of Desmond Tutu “extending his arms to the white government officials and police [of South Africa] to ‘Come over to the winning side!’ as itself a vision of heaven, of utter self-forgetfulness, as one of the major ingredients of heaven’s joy.
She continues, “The saints in heaven are not thinking about themselves; they can’t think of anything but God. Heaven is the place where everyone is completely freed from fear and self-concern. John shows kings taking off their crowns and throwing them down at God’s feet, myriads of myriads falling down on their faces, laughing and singing and praising God…We might say the saints in heaven can afford to forget themselves and we cannot, living as we do in this world of competition, strife and terror. But those who have the most to teach us about what the Christian life must look like in a dangerous world – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Gordon Cosby – those teachers tell us the that exact opposite is true. Not only can we afford some measure of saintly self-forgetfulness; we cannot afford anything else. We cannot afford our personal and national habits of keeping ourselves front and center, and excluding so many from our circle of love and concern; the poor in our own country and around the world, those who differ from us in color and language and the name they use for God. Most of all, we cannot afford to think about ourselves, our own generation, to the exclusion of our grandchildren and their children. We cannot afford to insist on winning our own temporary ‘victories,’ securing present comfort on terms that guarantee incalculable suffering and loss for others [as well as for the Earth itself].On this the judgment of the gospel is clear: if we are ‘winning now’ on terms that keep others from experiencing the blessing of God, then we will not in the end find ourselves on the winning side.” [Ellen F Davis, Preaching The Luminous Word, Eerdmans, 2016, pp 315-316] No Cross/No Crown.
Scene 7: After doing a deep-dive on Christ the King, and immediately after reading Ellen’s sermon, I was propelled down into the basement to find a cross. In 1983 it was given to me by the Reverend David Ward, the priest who sponsored me and sent me to seminary, at my ordination to the Diaconate. David had had to retire due to cancer. In between chemotherapy sessions he would walk the beaches and collect driftwood. He had made this cross himself of the driftwood he had collected and brought it to me at my ordination despite the great difficulty it was to be there at all. After the tragedy at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, I had wrapped it in bubble-wrap and stored it until such time I might have a place to display it. Now, after reflecting on Christ the King I needed to see it again. I unwrapped it to find it had completely fallen apart, held together as it was by silicone caulking adhesive. Never you mind. I spent a day trying to figure out the puzzle of the cross before me. Eventually I realized I needed to take apart the few pieces still held together and start all over. David, who is now among the utterly self-forgetting saints in heaven, was there to guide me. I finally found a place for each piece of driftwood in a new incarnation of David’s final gift to me, he who had made it possible for me to do what I have been doing these past 35 years. It’s not the same. But that’s just it. Nothing ever is. Except for God’s vision, what Verna Dozier calls God’s Dream - God’s humility, love and compassion for a repaired and healed world. It was hard work re-creating and resurrecting David’s cross. That seems to be the core of Christ the King – there is still hard work to do.
But, No cross/No crown.