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Article | November 26, 2023

Sermon – Our Life Is a Journey Towards God or The Feast of the Holy Sovereigns

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the Sermon on YouTube.

“I pray that… God… may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation… so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” (Eph. 1).

1. Our life is a journey towards the Holy One. Longing for our true home, we search for God. In his autobiography the twentieth century English monk Bede Griffiths (1906-1993) writes about the 15,000 to 17,000 year old cave paintings discovered in Lescaux France. At the end of long meandering and dangerous underground tunnels through the darkness there are 600 painted and drawn animals in a cavern that is 66 feet wide and 16 feet high.[1]

Scholars believe that these sacred images provided a means for people to enter into communion with the Holy and that the long passageway represented the difficulty of approaching the divine mystery. Through all of human existence people have created calendars and holy places: stone circles, altars, tombs and pyramids.

Human beings have prepared themselves to come into the divine presence by dancing, fasting, praying, and lighting candles. That journey from the mouth of the cave to the dark interior is the passage from the outer world to the inner world. We see it in literature: Aeneas in the underworld, Odysseus coming home, Theseus traveling to the center of the labyrinth.

The Greek philosopher Plato writes that we are like people in a cave looking at shadows on the wall, not knowing the reality they refer to. Our life is like this. We understand God, reality and other people through symbols. When it comes to God we often mistake the symbol for the thing in itself. That is called idolatry. A modern version of this is to think that science can tell us about the meaning of things, that it can answer questions like whether or not we have free will or are in love.

A sense for the mystery transcending the world lies at the heart of all religions. The symbols help us to come into the presence of that holy reality which is our true home. One of the peculiar symbols we have is a feast called The Reign of Christ. We celebrate it today on the last Sunday of the Christian year. People in our church have only had this on the calendar since 1970. I’ve always felt ambivalent about the feast in part because, after the French Revolution, the nineteenth century Roman Catholic church often opposed modernizing trends like the development of democracy in Europe.

Pope Pius XI instituted the feast for Roman Catholics in 1925.[2] In his encyclical written in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution the pope rejected nationalism and secularization.[3] He hoped to remind faithful people that loyalty to Christ the King is more important than national identity. This turns out to be a timely message for us.

Pamela Cooper-White our Forum guest and preacher a few weeks ago has written extensively about the threat of Christian Nationalism to our democracy.[4] She points to the widespread use of Christian symbols during the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Far too many people in America consider themselves Christian Nationalists. They support imposing a government that explicitly favors Christians. They believe that the United States was at one time a Christian nation and should be again.

2. Cooper-White vehemently opposes Christian Nationalism I do too. The values Jesus teaches have nothing to do with White nationalism or Christian Nationalism. This is true of our gospel reading today. In the last days before his arrest Jesus privately sits with a group of friends on the Mount of Olives. They ask about the end of time and he shares three parables that are really about what we do now in the present.

In the Parable of the Bridesmaids Jesus teaches us to live joyfully and wisely, one might say “mindfully.” In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus encourages us to be daring and focused on how our life can bear fruit. Finally, today he tells the story of the sheep and the goats, not to frighten us, but to show what a blessing generosity and compassion are.[5]

In the First Letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). Jesus makes a similar point. Ultimately, your nationality or religion, what you believe, whether or not you are a Christian, is far less important than being a person dedicated to love, especially loving those Jesus calls “the least of these.”

On Tuesday at the Interfaith breakfast Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi used exactly this story to describe genuine faith. And yet the parable of the sheep and goats has a certain subtlety. For me it cannot be simply boiled down to the transactional idea that only good people will enter God’s kingdom. In Jesus’ story, at the end of the age, all nations are gathered together before the throne. Matthew writes, “The Son of Man… will separate them from one another…” (Mt. 25). To me the Greek word “them” seems to refer to the nations so that the Son of Man judges nations or groups of people rather than individuals.

The people being judged did not have an ulterior motive in their earlier actions. They feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger (xenos), give the naked (gumnos) clothing, take care of the sick and visit prisoners. They do this out of compassion not to gain favor from God. They love people for their own sake and then are surprised to learn that what they did to the least they did to the Son of Man.

Another way to put it is that God made them sheep or goats. It’s not like their good deeds somehow changed what kind of beings they were. Every human being we encounter is an unrecognized Jesus. Every person is God’s beloved child. I do not believe that God destines certain people to eternal suffering. I also know that there have been times that all of us have passed by naked, hungry strangers and that other times we have helped. We are sheep and goats. The point is that our compassion and goodness gives pleasure to God. And there is something in every human being that is divine.

3. What we are talking about is a kingdom not of domination but of servanthood. This is the kind of king we celebrate in Jesus today. Protestant reformers like John Calvin (1509-1564) described Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King.[6] Jesus is a new Moses and stands in the tradition of prophets who remind us to care for the most vulnerable people in our society. Jesus is a priest. A priest is someone like our old friend Ellen Clark-King, who in her words and life shows us how God is present.[7] Finally, Jesus is king – we owe our primary allegiance to God. God is powerful but stoops down to help us.

I want to talk about one example from history. This Tuesday the Episcopal Church will celebrate the Feast of Kamehameha IV (1834-1863) and Emma (1836-1855), the sovereigns of the Kingdom of Hawaii. With fourteen other students they attended the Royal School together as children. As the Crown Prince of Hawaii Kamehameha IV (Alexander Liholiho) traveled through America. People refused to serve him and used racial slurs. He experienced racism here that he had never encountered in England and France. It made him even more wary of growing American influence in the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Emma’s great uncle was King Kamehameha I, the king who united the Hawaiian Islands and her grandfather was his English advisor. Her hanai’d father was an English doctor. After Kamehameha IV became King and married Queen Emma, the royal couple cultivated their connections to Great Britain and invited the Anglican church to come to the Hawaii. This was in part to counter the influence of Congregational missionaries America. The king translated the Book of Common prayer into Hawaiian. They gave the property that became St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

In less than a lifetime foreign diseases had killed off four fifths of the Hawaiian population. The royal couple profoundly cared about the people they served and wanted them to have access to European medicine. One day the queen announced that she would go out with a notebook and solicit funds for a new hospital. The king asked, “What will people think if their Queen goes out begging?” Emma replied, “They will think this is important enough that we will not rest on false pride.” The king replied, “My dear if you are that determined, I will go as your representative.”[8] The two helped create Queen’s the main hospital on Oahu.[9] They also founded ‘Iolani, a school for boys and St. Andrew’s Priory as a school for girls.

The two cared about the ancient Hawaiian ways but they also recognized that the world was changing and that Hawaiians would need to be educated in order to participate in it. Their greatest strength may be the way they humbled themselves for the sake of their people. Perhaps that is what makes a sovereign most like Christ the king.

Late in life the poet Denise Levertov became a Christian. All along she sensed something calling her. This is the poem she wrote when she was younger called “The Secret.”

“Two girls discover / the secret of life/ in a sudden line of /poetry.// I who don’t know the / secret wrote / the line. They /told me// (through a third person) / they had found it / but not what it was / not even // what line it was. No doubt / by now, more than a week / later, they have forgotten / the secret, // the line, the name of / the poem. I love them   

for finding what / I can’t find, // and for loving me / for the line I wrote, / and for forgetting it / so that // a thousand times, till death / finds them, they may / discover it again, in other / lines // in other / happenings. And for / wanting to know it, /for // assuming there is   

such a secret, yes, / for that / most of all.”[10]

Sometimes it feels like we are in a long meandering tunnel through the darkness. This poem is about those moments when the meaning of our life seems clear, and the knowledge that while this experience will not last, it will be replaced by another. Thank you for listening to this exploration of the Reign of Christ, for remembering the life of Kamehameha and Emma. May our dream be realized of a kingdom not of domination but of servanthood.

Our life is a journey towards the Holy One. Longing for our true home, we search for God. Let us live joyfully, wisely, mindfully, with daring, bearing the fruit of generosity and kindness. Let every person we encounter be for us Christ the king who draws us more deeply into truth.

[1] Bede Griffiths, The Golden String: An Autobiography (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1954 and 1980) 181ff.

[2] The world almost had to stop having kings before the church would institute this feast.

[3] “Feast of Christ the King,” Wikipedia, November 2023.

[4] Pamela Cooper-White, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2023).

[5] Matthew Boulton, “The Least of These: SALT’s Commentary for the Reign of Christ the King Sunday,” SALT, 20 November 2023.

[6] John Calvin, “To Know the Purpose for Which Christ Was Sent by the Father, and What He Conferred Upon Us, We Must Look Above All at Three Things in Him: The Prophetic Office, Kingship, and Priesthood,” Institutes of the Christian Religion tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 494ff.

[7] In seminary we learned the ABC’s, a mnemonic aid to remember what priests do. Priests are empowered to pronounce absolution on those who have sinned, bless people and objects and consecrate bread and wine in communion.

[8] Miriam Rappolt, Queen Emma: A Woman of Vision (Kailua, HI: Press Pacifica, 1991) 71-2.

[9] “Hale Mai O Ke Wahine Alii.” Miriam Rappolt, Queen Emma: A Woman of Vision (Kailua, HI: Press Pacifica, 1991) 74.

[10] Denise Levertov, “The Secret,” O Taste and See: New Poems (New York: New Directions, 1964). 

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