Sermon: Christ The King Sunday
Nov 24, 2019
There is a legend, that is told in slightly different ways, depending on the faith tradition. This legend tells of a group of aging monks living in a monastery that has fallen on hard times. Mostly elderly monks, a dying order, not much aliveness, a very discouraging place, caught in their habits, rituals, routines.
The head monk heard of a wise woman who lived as a hermit, a sage, so he went looking for her.
After telling the wise sage what was going on at the monastery, and spending some time, meditating together, praying, listening, she finally spoke: I really don’t know what to tell you. All I can say is that the Divine one is living amongst you, The embodied presence of Christ is actually present in one, or many of your monks.
So he returns, and tells them what the wise woman said. What happens in the weeks and months that follow this encounter, is this idea of the Divine one being present among them actually sparked their interest.
They began to look at each other thinking, “maybe it’s you, maybe you are the embodied Divine one, or maybe it’s him”, And they began to pay more attention to one another. And started noticing the light that came through each other, or started noticing the way another monk was patient, or generous or kind.
And then, at the chance that they themselves might be the embodiment of the Divine one, they started treating themselves with more respect and kindness.
Then, a very strange thing happened. People that came by started noticing the change in atmosphere, and they began to be drawn to the radiance that came from the monastery. And in time, more and more asked to join, and in some years this monastery became a place that radiated the love of Christ, filled with service and celebration.
So what happened – the old wise woman told them the embodied presence of Christ the King is living amongst them….and yet, this was not news, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are all embodied with the presence of the holy one, yet….sometimes, we need to be reminded that we are actually the embodied presence of Christ – indeed we are Christ with skin on to a lot of people.
With this being Christ the King Sunday on the liturgical calendar – what does all of that mean?
Just to give you a little history, this is a relatively recent addition to the liturgical calendar, comparatively speaking. It was added in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. When this feast day was added, the Pope was responding to a turbulent time – a time that saw the rise of Musolini and Hitler, a time where he witnessed “good Christians” supporting the influence of various dictators and disturbing forms of nationalism, supporting to the point where they were convinced they were following God’s chosen man, and were doing the will of God.
Yet, this was not the first time that ‘good Christians” made decisions that were questionable, and, as we look back at history and even in some of today’s events, it certainly was not the last.
TWO months ago, Jessye Norman passed away. She was an African American classical soprano with an amazing talent. But, as I sat in my car on that day, listening to the NPR story about her death – I had what they call a driveway moment. I had to pull over to the nearest parking lot, to listen in awe, as NPR played a recording of Jessye Norman singing “Ride On King Jesus”. The sound of her voice, the power of the words, the emotion in her presentation was enough to stop you in your tracks. And on that day, stop me, it did. You see, I had heard this recording many times before, I have heard various artists sing it, but on the day of Jessye Norman’s death, for whatever reason, the experience penetrated me to the core.
You see, Ride on King Jesus, is an African American Spiritual.
The lyrics of "Ride On, King Jesus" were an answer to the mistreatments by slave masters, who were no match for the God who was on the slaves' side.
Ride on, King Jesus, No man can a-hinder me...
King Jesus on a milk-white horse, No man can a-hinder me.
Many of the black spirituals contained hidden messages about freedom and veiled references of escape. For example, while working in the fields, if another slave would start to sing the spiritual “Deep River, I’m crossing over Jordan” – that would mean there was an escape happening that night, and they planned to cross the river into safe territory. Or if someone started to sing “Steal Away to Jesus, Steal Away Home, I Ain’t Got long to stay here”…This also meant an escape was on the horizon.
This spiritual, however, "Ride On, King Jesus," contains a text whose purpose appears to be a strictly spiritual one, one however, that raises the slaves' ultimate worth to that of their owners with the words that Jesus "died for the rich and He died for the poor." Now there are various versions of this spiritual. It is believed to have been written during the pre-Civil War era. This was a time when descendants of Africans in this country were not even allowed to learn to read or write. Yet as the slave heard about a king who was Lord in a different way than they experienced with the slave owners, their response to this King Jesus stemmed from one of identification to the suffering of this King Jesus, and with a level of dedication to the Lordship which was rooted in this king’s servanthood instead of a Kingship of power. The slave who wrote this spiritual could trust that this King Jesus had walked in their shoes. They saw Jesus as a king who was not stuck on a throne, but they saw this Jesus as one of their own.
And they understood Mary’s grief at losing her son, because they saw their own children sold away from them.
The following slave narrative archived by Fisk University offers a witness to the singing of this spiritual by the slaves in the presence of white slave owners:
“When I was a little boy they would kill us if they caught us in a Sunday School . . . . When they did let us go to church sometimes, they would give you a seat way back here, with the white folks in front. Then sometimes they would let you come in the evenings to church and then you would take the front seats, with the slave patrollers behind, so that if the preacher said something he shouldn’t say, they would stop him. One time when they were singing, ‘Ride on King Jesus, No man can hinder me,’ the slave patrollers told them to stop or they would show him whether they could be hindered or not.”
So when the great opera singer, Jessye Norman sang out with emotional acuity – Ride on King Jesus – she was echoing what generations of suffering people were believing down to the root of their souls - That Jesus Christ, the servant King was not so far removed that he did not feel and relate.
And the same Christ the King, who we are remembering today, still Rises up, reminding us that the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the rejected immigrant at our very borders – this Christ the King is saying “You are not forgotten, but Jesus Christ our servant King is real, is here among us and is for us.
In our earlier legend about the monks – they learned that the risen King walked among them and within them daily. How does that realization make a difference to you?
And in today’s Gospel reading you have the very throne room of Jesus – we end on a cross, and this shows us who he really is. The sign over him on the cross says “King of the Jews”, yet from the viewpoint of this slave, the writer of our Spiritual, Jesus is essentially hanging from a noose.
And it’s because of this that the slave, the monks, and those of us right here, are able and invited to put our trust in the King who has walked in our shoes.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!