Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and traditionally, today churches celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. While many (especially more progressive) churches now refer to today’s solemnity as “Reign of Christ Sunday,” shifting away from explicitly masculine and hierarchical “Lord” and “king” language, this feast has frequently rubbed me the wrong way. Whether we use language of “reigns” or “kingship,” it feels like today we celebrate a God who has “power over,” rather than “power with.” As someone who’s all about collaborating with God and co-creating heaven on earth, it’s taken me a while to square my theology and political understanding with this celebration of, seemingly, divine power.
Part of today’s challenge for me is the way this solemnity is used by many churches and Christians to pontificate on secularism, patriotism, and political leadership. Often, white Christians have interpreted the concept of “Christ the King” as justification for forcing our literal country to “submit to Christ’s kingship” or, in other words, to impose on our country the narrow and oppressive type of “Christianity” that they practice. In preparing this sermon, I came across TOO many homilies, prayers, and songs giving voice to conservative white Christian fears of “rising secularism” and “hostility against the church.” From personal experience, I know that for many Christians, a key complaint about “secularization” is that their homophobia is less tolerated. These Christians align themselves with homophobic and transphobic religious institutions, longing for a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ people. They claim that “freedom of religion” means they are entitled to the right to discriminate, and that secularized society denies them this right. Other Christians complain that “secularism” has robbed them of the right to force pregnant people to carry pregnancies to term, or that an “anti-Christian nation” is “destroying family values.” Still others complain that immigrants, especially non-Christian immigrants, are a threat to their ability to practice Christianity. How can I find meaning in celebrating a feast day that has been used to justify Christian supremacy and violence?
As I struggle with the idea of the “Reign of Christ,” I’ve found the reflections of public theologian and soon to be Rev. Elle Dowd incredibly helpful. As Elle writes, “the solemnity of Christ the King was fairly recently established by Pope Pius the 11th in 1925 in response to the increasing threat of the rise of fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. At the time, authoritarian leaders of fascist regimes were being lifted up as all powerful demigods, and the Roman Catholic Church created this holy day in an attempt to reclaim power for the church. If this feast tells us anything, it’s this: Fascism is diametrically opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Reign of Jesus Christ stands in strong opposition to the death-dealing policies of tyrants and fascists.” Knowing the history of this feast helps me: the celebration of the Reign of Christ started as a reminder to people of good faith that nationalism and fascism are not our moral authorities and that they cannot control our narrative about the world.
Even though much has changed in the 100-odd years since this solemnity was created, a reminder of the limits of fascism and nationalism feels as necessary as ever. We’re coming out of an intense and, for many of us, heartbreaking election cycle that reaffirmed the power of white supremacy and power hoarding right here in our own community. We remain in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, which continues to be denied or minimized by many who have traded a belief in science and truth for a belief in what is convenient and comfortable. We’re in the midst of the trial of the nationalists and fascists who stormed the Capitol almost a year ago with the goal of preventing the democratic transfer of power. Clearly, the themes this feast was founded on – themes of fascism, patriotism, and political leadership – are both ancient and ever-new.
Part of how I have come to understand “Reign of Christ” Sunday is in relation to where I find and seek moral and spiritual authority. Not as much “what has power over me,” but more “Where do I turn when I’m making decisions? Who do I listen to when I’m seeking advice or guidance? For me, one source of moral and spiritual authority is my grandfather. I felt especially drawn to memories of my Grandpa recently, who passed away in late January, especially around All Saints Day, which we celebrated a few weeks ago. I so love that All Saints Day falls right in the height of Autumn. I’ve thought how my grandpa’s body, now ashes, is so like the leaves, beautiful in their turning, drifting to the earth. The leaves that slowly, under months of snow, become the soil that will nourish next summer’s tomatoes and prairies and butterflies and the new growth on our Japanese Maple out back. My grandpa, even in his passing, has nourished my connection to my ancestors and family, my commitment to justice, and my belief that a new way of being is possible in our lifetime. What abundance he passes on to me, his legacy a Fall forest: the reds of righteous anger and deep love; the golds of afternoon light for long hikes and high pointing; the oranges of the fires that burn draft cards and give light for the journey; the browns of addiction and loss. All around me is the spirit of my grandfather, as I watch in every leaf his transformation and know with every bare branch his return. I place moral and spiritual authority in my Grandfather, and when I wonder how to respond or what to do or where my journey will lead, I turn to him and seek to live into his values and understanding.
I’m feeling, too, especially this year, a sense of moral and spiritual authority in the turning of the seasons and the rhythms of the earth. I felt deeply the significance of how election day falls at this time: this year it fell on All Souls Day, as the leaves were changing, right as we transition from the harvest to the resting. As I heard the results of our local election, and elections across the country, I felt first a death, a hopelessness, an overwhelm that seemed forever. I wonder if the trees feel that, too, abandoned by their leaves — a different sort of death; sudden in a rainstorm, slowly with the breeze. I wonder if the trees know that this loss is temporary, that it brings a re-start, a re-setting, a possibility unimaginable in the midst of the losing process. I give my authority, too, to the turning of the seasons, who hold wisdom and experience that I could never hold alone, who are a guide for me when I feel disconnected from what grounds me or when I find myself clinging to old ways of being with no room for the transformation of the Spirit.
Another source of spiritual and moral authority for me is our spiritual ancestors, the prophets and the saints, the stories and characters in our sacred texts, and the life and legacy of our sibling Jesus. The other day, in a conversation about our local elections, I mentioned to a friend that even as I grieve and rage against our losses, there is something amazing about what we accomplished together, and I believe that something better is coming. That belief, not always conscious or easy to access, comes from my spirituality, from my Christian-ness, from my understanding that this struggle and this loss is situated in the context of thousands of years of struggles and losses. It comes from my relationships with the Esthers and the Moses-es and the Ruth and Naomis and the John the Baptists and the Joan of Arcs and the Dorothy Days who were met with defeat over and over again, sometimes fatally, but whose commitments and legacies inspired victories of justice and liberation and light. It comes from my complicated relationship with Jesus, whose inclusive peacemaking and right-sizing and community organizing, formed by his own spirituality, effectively resisted violence and destruction and proved that the forces of oppression will never have the last word. My spirituality reminds me that nothing we are doing is new, not our wins and not our losses and not our something-in-betweens. I’m rooted in a God who is with us, shepherding us into the sacred community that is “already and not yet:” a world of re-starting, re-setting, and possibility unimaginable on our own. I place my authority in these ancestors, too, in our spiritual ancestors, in this Christian tradition, too, in these sacred texts and these characters and these stories. I give authority to the God who journeys with us in Jesus, who came to show us the way of peacemaking and relationship-building and mutual solidarity and liberation.
As I think about my sources of authority and wisdom, I feel grounded by the words of our reading today. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that God’s ways are not our ways, and that God’s wisdom comes to nourish us, and will not return to God without producing fruits of abundance and goodness. In another context, these words, too, would rub me the wrong way: for one thing, I don’t think heaven is “above” the earth in any geographically significant way, and for another thing I don’t think God’s ways are inaccessible or unknowable by us as very human beings. But in this context, when I think of where I give authority in my own life, these words are deeply reassuring. Do I give authority to the ways of the world, as evangelicals would say; the ways that our very human minds and spirits get called away from what is right and just when tempted by power and comfort? Or, do I give authority to God’s dream of love and liberation for all people? If I give authority to God’s ways, I learn that God’s ways are not the ways of white supremacy, or capitalism, or resource hoarding; God’s ways are not the ways of ableism, or homophobia, or transphobia; God’s ways are not the ways of borders, or abortion bans, or police brutality. My ways, when I fall in to habits of meanness or jadedness or perpetuating oppression, can be transformed by God’s ways – if I turn to God, along with my grandfather, and the rhythms of the earth, and our spiritual ancestors and traditions, and the life of Jesus – if I place my authority in something greater than myself. To me, this isn’t saying that God is in control of every aspect of our earthly lives, responsible for everything that does or does not happen; instead, in my understanding, the Reign of Christ is a covenant that I make with God, in my own heart and mind and being, to give authority to what is ultimately and divinely good and right, and to seek out the way of liberation and justice that can seem so impossible when I give authority to myself or our human institutions alone.
When I think about the Reign of Christ in relation to my own sources of authority and wisdom, this feast feels meaningful, affirming, and even freeing. I do not rely on myself alone to find my ethical and moral grounding; I can turn to my community, and to the Divine, to guide me and shepherd me on my journey. I, and all of us, will be known by our sources of moral and spiritual authority, and I hope to be known as one who gives authority to the ways of liberation and goodness. As I reflect on the ways that God-With-Us, in Jesus, is one of those sources of authority for me, I close this sermon returning to the brilliance and prophecy of Elle Dowd, who offers this interpretation of the image of Christ as King:
While Fascism wins over the mob with propaganda, attacks on the press, and suppression of free speech, Christ the King’s power is rooted not in lies, but in the revealing of everlasting Truth.
While Fascism wields violence and calls it “keeping the peace”, Christ the King, the Prince of Peace, stares down an Empire, resisting it through militant, unrelenting nonviolence.
While Fascism operates through a toxic form of masculinity and the motto of Might Makes Right, Christ the King maintains compassion and a kind of gentle, creative, steadfast strength we see often reflected in women and femmes, a strength that no doubt, Jesus learned sitting on his Mother Mary’s lap, as she sang him lullabies like the Magnificat with lyrics like “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
While Fascism casts minority groups as enemies of the state to be hunted down and eliminated, Christ the King takes on the flesh of a marginalized person in an occupied land in solidarity with the oppressed.
And while Fascism values quiet compliance, obedience, homogeny, Christ the King elevates subversive liberation for all people.
Christ’s reign is a parody of oppressive kingship, shedding light on the limitations of rulers from any political party, and reminding us that we can work diligently as co-creators with God on building Heaven on Earth, because our authority resides not in earthly leaders but in the God of Love and Liberation and in their eternal community.