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Sermon for November 25, 2018: The truth is not out there (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

I am a voracious reader. I will read anything. If I am standing in line and have nothing to read, I will read all of the signs in the room and I am not above peaking over my neighbor’s shoulder to see what they are reading. I prefer to read books though – and I suspect many people are surprised when they hear about the types of books I read. I do read theology, but I also read children’s literature, histories, biographies, and books about crime. It is perhaps this latter category that most surprises people, until I remind them that prior to becoming a priest, I was a forensic neuropsychologist.

It seems like a strange conjunction – criminal behavior and theology. It was certainly not a transition that I understood when I first heard a call to ordained ministry. Although I had always experienced a deep sense of God’s presence in my life and an unflappable belief that God loved and cared for me, I could not comprehend how the knowledge I had and the things I had experienced would translate into gifts that would help me lead others to faith in God.

The fact is that both callings are profoundly rooted in the appreciation of human nature. The through line of my life has always been a powerful desire to understand why people do the things they do – or, as my husband puts it: I started out in journalism, where I influenced people’s opinions. Then I became a Social Worker, and got involved in their lives. Then I became a psychologist, so I could mess with people’s minds, and now I’m a priest – dealing directly with people’s souls. All this is to say that the books I read reflect the primary calling of my life – helping people to make sense of themselves and their relationships with God and one another.

I read a lot about evil partly because I don’t think you can truly grasp what it means to be human without understanding the nature of both good and evil. This belief not only explains my eclectic reading list, but also provides a pretty good explanation of the stories we find in our Holy Scriptures - stories about courage, love, compassion, and obedience, as well as tales of greed, selfishness, violence, and hatred.

The biblical readings we heard today are the ones chosen for the Feast of Christ the King, which was established in the Roman Catholic tradition at the beginning of the 20th century to recognize Jesus as the messianic king who would rule eternally. The feast is unofficially celebrated in some Episcopal parishes, but it is not mentioned in the Episcopal calendar of the church year. That’s because the whole idea of “kings” makes many Episcopalian theologians uncomfortable. Given that our denomination was founded on democratic principles, we naturally balk when the idea of “kingship” is glorified in any way, even when it has to do with Jesus. And yet today’s scripture readings make it clear that Jesus does indeed fit our idea of “kingship,” possessing all power and all authority and ruling equally with God and the Holy Spirit – now and forever.

But not as a human being. As our gospel passage shows us, Jesus never claimed his power in this kingdom, on this earth. And yet, despite this very clear statement, certain religions and political leaders have repeatedly claimed that the seat of God’s power is somewhere on this earth, residing in someone on this earth. Constantine claimed to be God’s earthly representative, establishing Christianity as the formal state religion of his empire in the fourth century and bringing Christians out of persecution and into the power we have enjoyed in many places since that time. He was not the first or the last. Over and over human beings have asserted themselves as arbiters of truth and justice in the world, declaring themselves to be God’s spokesmen on earth and touting wherever they are as God’s chosen nation.

The person who had the most scriptural support for such a claim was King David, favorite of God and ruler of the combined kingdom of Israel. Scripture tells us that, unlike other theocrats, God actually made a covenant with David, promising him an everlasting throne. David’s claim is considered so legitimate that one of our gospel writers went to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus was David’s descendent. Still, we know that David’s kingship was an uneasy compromise between God and his faithless people – a temporary fix until they could find true faith.

David’s reign was also incredibly conflicted. He repeatedly sinned against God and others, almost constantly needing to repent and return to the Lord. The point though is that he did. Rather than digging his heels in and insisting in his own “rightness,” David frequently and humbly acknowledged that any power he had came from God and was dependent on God’s mercy. In today’s Hebrew Scripture, his farewell speech, David demonstrates that “he has come to the end of his rule remembering that when his kingship has been at its best, it has been because he has remembered he is with God…For Christians this vision of a good king is one of the threads that makes its way into Christological understandings of kingship.”[1]

David also recognized that not only did his power come from outside of himself; it came from outside of this world. Psalm 132 reminds us that as Jesus made clear to the disciples in last week’s gospel, the home of God is not in a specific location on earth. “Heaven is no nearer one part of the earth than another. Locality is never an issue for God. The temple (or a church) is a place of access to God, not a limit on God. If God were not actively present everywhere, God could not be present and active anywhere.”[2] God is in God’s people – and always has been - and the true example of kingship is in the person who came to live – and die- as one of those people: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the king of all kings: Jesus the Christ.

To truly accept his rule, we must broaden, not narrow our horizons. We can read only things that seem to confirm what we already believe. We can refuse to listen to anyone that says something we don’t want to hear. We can cherry pick from scripture to find passages that confirm our own biases. It doesn’t matter. The truth is not relative. The truth does not change to suit human beings. The truth is imbedded in the very nature of God and God’s wayward creation. The truth is that human beings are capable of great evil – and even greater good. The truth is that we must choose whom we will follow – and as Christians we purport to follow Jesus the Christ, by whose example all earthly rulers are judged. And this is the example Jesus gave: He lived and loved among the poor. He ate with strangers and sinners. He listened to and respected foreigners, women, people of ill repute, and those haunted by severe mental illness. He judged no one by reputation alone and defended the week and powerless. He encouraged people to question authority for authority’s sake. He did not use his power for his own goals, but to help others. He demanded that his followers seek peace, even when it came at a personal cost. And when asked (for he was asked) what was the most important law of all, Jesus said this: “Love God and love one another.” And Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” – and the truth is Jesus. End of story. AMEN.

[1]Marcia Mount Shoop, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 316.

[2]Thomas D. Parker, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 322.

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