Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: I Timothy 2:1-8
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
18 September 2022
The death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8 has produced an extraordinary outpouring of grief all over the world. I've seen large-scale demonstrations of public mourning in the past for famous figures - political leaders, celebrities, and the like. But I don't think I've ever seen anything this big and moving - so many people from all different backgrounds and such heartfelt tributes of love and respect. In London, for the past few days, people have queued up in a long line to pay their respects as Elizabeth lies in state in Westminster Hall. In this final stretch before the funeral tomorrow, some may have to wait 30 hours in a 10-mile-long line. Here at St. Mary's, as soon as we heard the news of Elizabeth's death, we placed her portrait and lit a candle in our columbarium. And, this coming Saturday morning, we will honor Queen Elizabeth with a Solemn Requiem Mass.
In a way, the scale and depth of the mourning for Elizabeth should be no surprise. She reigned for 70 long years, and she lived an exemplary life of selfless service and duty to her country and personal integrity in spite of all the challenges that her family presented her. And, for us Christians, Elizabeth is a model and inspiration for our faith. In her annual Christmas messages, she spoke publicly about the centrality of Jesus Christ in her life.
But, as you have probably heard, not all the responses to her death have been loving and respectful. Within hours of Elizabeth's death, Irish soccer fans in Dublin cheered and chanted: "Lizzy's in a box." And as Elizabeth lay dying, an American scholar of Nigerian heritage tweeted: "I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating." So, what is it that Elizabeth did that has invited such anger and hatred? Well, it's not so much what she did but what she was. Elizabeth was the icon of empire, with its history of conquest, oppression, and exploitation. And the British empire was the biggest of them all. At its peak before World War I, it controlled a quarter of the earth's mass and a quarter of the global population. And there have been many tragic chapters in that history.
So, how do we view Elizabeth and her legacy? On the one had, we have the image of the virtuous, beloved monarch, and, on the other, the despicable head of a tyrannical empire. Well, it is not for me to tell you what to think. But I would like to reflect a bit on what our Christian faith has to say about the issue. More specifically, what do scripture and the experience of the Church have to say about empire?
Since I'm a historian by training, let me begin with the history. The relationship between Christianity and empire is a complicated one. Our origins lie in the Roman empire, which not only executed the founder of our faith, Jesus, on a cross; it carried out bloody persecutions against the Church for centuries. But then that all changed with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity went from being a persecuted minority religion to eventually becoming the religion of the empire. We went from being victims to agents of empire. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, but other Christian empires have followed: the Byzantine empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian empire. And, yes, the British empire was also Christian, and Protestant at that. Following Henry VIII's break with Rome, English monarchs have been held the title: Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Although the role is mostly symbolic today, Elizabeth during her reign did formally appoint archbishops, bishops, and deans of cathedrals.
For all its faults, the British empire was good for Christianity. Its global reach allowed the unprecedented expansion of Anglicanism and other denominations around the world as missionaries fanned out across various parts of the empire. And the missionaries planted not only churches but also built hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Through the schools, they raised literacy rates and introduced ideas about democracy and freedom. The missionaries also carried out wide-ranging social reforms, ranging from abolishing the practice of burning of widows in India to female infanticide in China. Christianity was good for the British empire.
The days of the British empire are long gone. It was dismantled in the decolonization that took place after World War II. But many see the United States as now the heir to the British empire. In its military might and economic power, the U.S. exercises a similar hegemony over world affairs that Britain once did. Likewise, we have had our share of blunders and tragedies in the history of our involvement with the world. And at home today we find ourselves polarized along political and ideological lines.
Whether it is the British empire or the American empire, our role as Christians has been the same: to hold the empires up to the ideals and values of our faith and to reform and to transform according to those ideals and values. As we look back on our own history, many of the great social and political movements, such as abolition, prison reform, women's rights, civil rights, were deeply rooted in our faith and led by devout Christians.
Our charge to reform and transform the empires in which we live comes to us from scripture. In today's Epistle reading from I Timothy, we read: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity" (I Timothy 2:1-2). The Apostle Paul calls on the early Christian communities to pray for their political leaders. Why? So that they might practice their faith in peace and freedom. What is striking about this call to prayer is the fact that these communities were under persecution by the political and religious authorities. They are, in fact, being called to pray for those who wish them harm.
We, too, are called to pray for our leaders, whether we like them or not. It is inseparable from our work of reform and transformation. We are not instructed how to pray for them. That is left to our conscience. A call to prayer is not necessarily a call to blind obedience and submission. After all, we are also called to pray for our enemies. Our prayer for leaders could be a plea for change in policy or even administration. We just began our weekly discussion of the lectionary this morning, and, as we were discusssing the epistle, Nancy Wagner shared with us that she prays that our leaders would live up to the duties and expectations of their office - we see so much incompetence and corruption these days. When we pray for our leaders, we may disagree on the content, but the important thing is the fact that we pray. It is a part of our work in the cause of peace, justice, and freedom.
In a few moments, Adam Powell will receive the Sacrament of Baptism. The rite of baptism is rich in layers of meaning. Through the waters of baptism, we die with Jesus and rise to new life with him. We renounce sin and evil and commit ourselves to a life of holiness. Baptism is also a rite of initiation into the community of faith. And, as the newest member of our community, Adam will join us in affirming the Baptismal Covenant, which concludes with these words: we "will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP, p.305). And prayer lies at the heart of this commitment to make the world a better place, for it is in prayer that we find our vision, our courage, our strength.
In our Episcopal tradition, the call to pray for our leaders is part of our corporate worship. We pray for our leaders each time we gather for Mass. And the Prayers of the People have different forms to do that. Form I, for instance: "For our President, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord" (BCP, p.384). And in Form V, we can even name specific leaders: "For those in positions of public trust, especially Joe, Our President, Michael, Our Governor, and Lucas, Our Mayor, that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person, we pray to you, O Lord" (p.390). And today on the eve of her funeral we add to our prayer list, Queen Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Let light perpetual shine upon her. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!