“In times like these, in times like these, O I need you Lord to help me!” So the song goes, filtered through memories of campfires and blissful nights when the worst problem was getting a cabin of children to go to sleep. We teach these songs – and the stories of our faith – in times of peace so that they will be “in the bag” that we reach into during darker times.
This week seems pretty dark, as we struggle with a correct response to human suffering in the greatest refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II. Likewise, the stories from France and Mali continue to break our hearts. Meanwhile the earth continues to shake in Mexico and Japan. And, regardless of how you voted, we are all unsure of what’s to come from those who were elected as public servants in yesterday’s election.
All of this may have you wondering where God is and what God is going to do about all this mess down here! When terror grips and chaos seems to win the day it may seem like wishful thinking to have a day in the life of the church called “Reign of Christ” Sunday.
It’s also called “Christ the King” Sunday, but I think I like “Reign” better than “King,” because we don’t really know what it’s like to have a King. I think that we think that we know what it’s like to be in charge. At least, it seems that our culture is based around the idea of being in charge of our own destiny – even though my freedom extends about as far as yours does.
Being free does not mean that we can do anything we want anytime we want. It means that we are compelled to honor that which liberates each of us – to the extent that it can – without harming or otherwise limiting someone else. Our freedoms are tempered by our mutual responsibility. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr called this our “social solidarity” that is governed by our faith in Christ.
The idea for a special Sunday acknowledging the reign of Christ is relatively new – less than a century, in fact. Given that it came out of the Roman Catholic Church long after the Reformation, most Protestant congregations may not even celebrate it. We do, as an act of ecumenical faith in the church catholic (meaning all who follow Jesus), and because it seems good and right to celebrate the reign of Christ as we prepare to give thanks for all of God’s blessings at Thanksgiving.
This celebration actually started in 1925, and it was in response to what Pope Pius XI felt was an increase of secularism and the rise of European governments exercising control over the church. Meanwhile, in the US, we were experiencing a time of wealth with industrial leaders that were generously philanthropic while also exploiting the labor force.
So, the “Feast of the Reign of Christ” was created at that time to do three things:
1. That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom, and immunity from the state (Quas Primas, 32).
2. That leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ (Quas Primas, 31).
3. That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies (Quas Primas, 33).
It seems that we are in need of reminding about the reign of God over and over again. Even the last words of David, God’s anointed King, were set as a reminder that it is God who must rule through us, and that we must act with justice and reverence. Justice was not simply retribution. Justice meant fairness, equal treatment, and mutual submission before God. And reverence, or fear as he states it, was rooted in an understanding that God is the one who decides what will prosper and what will fail.
That doesn’t mean that God is waiting around and creating a Vine of your fails. It means that acting independently in a way that takes care of yourself and those you love does not glorify God, and it will not last. Likewise in the introduction to the Revelation given to John at Patmos, we are reminded that the story that we are wrapped up in is not a story about you and me. It is a story about God, in which we have a part to play.
It may be hard for some of us to separate the idea of doom and gloom from the book of Revelation, but it was originally written as a message of hope. It was written in a time of religious persecution, when it seemed audacious to suggest that God – particularly the crucified Christ – had any power at all.
Yet we are told that grace and mercy has been given to us from the God who shall be as God shall be. This is the God who has been with us, is present even in our darkest hour, and will yet provide in our abundance and in our suffering. This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead to let us know what is to come for each of us. This is the God who is praised when we become the kingdom. This is the God who will return with such a spectacle that everyone will see it – whether it makes them cry for fear or out of great joy.
This is the God who stood before Pilate in human form and was questioned about his authority. “Are you a King?” Pilate asked. “Who wants to know?” Jesus replied. “Hey, it doesn’t matter to me, but what did you do to make these people so mad? I mean, if you are a King.” Pilate seems to say. Jesus tells him he has it all wrong. These people are not the source of his authority. His authority is not from this place.
Pilate hears an opening. “So, you’re a King then.” Then it almost seems as though Jesus has compassion, even for Pilate. “Call me a King if it helps you, but I’m here to tell the truth. And if you belong to the truth (wink, wink) then you will listen to me.” In the synoptic gospels, it says that Pilate “wondered about these things”, but in John’s gospel, Pilate simply said, “what is truth?” and walked away.
In the midst of terror attacks and natural disasters, political campaigns and personal tragedies, it is overly tempting to ask those same questions of Jesus. Are you a King? What is truth, anyway? Yet the key to faith is in the belonging and the listening. If we truly believe that we belong to this greater truth – the truth of God’s amazing love that is best stated by putting forgiveness and compassion into action – then we will hear the voice of Jesus clearly.
We will hear the voice of Jesus whispering in between the sensationalism of the news media. We will hear him shouting in the presence of those who suffer. We will hear a call to arms for our King that involves risk and compassion and joy.
Now, as I say these things, I do not mean to be naive. There is great risk just in seeing the suffering that is in the world. And it’s not just in terrorism. Gun violence remains an issue that is wedged between personal freedom, care of the mentally ill, and the need to protect the innocent. Poverty is an issue that impacts all of our lives. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our society is now higher than it has been at any time since 1929.
In times like these, Oh we need the Lord to help us. That is for sure. In times like these, I remember the helpful words of a Presbyterian pastor, and former Navy man, Fred Rogers, who once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Maybe that’s a soldier who has been trained to respond to violence and protect the innocent. Maybe that’s a person providing assistance (or even laughter) to a family that is escaping the madness of war. Maybe that’s making a gift basket with C.U.P.S. or taking home some items to clean. Maybe it will take place in any number of ways in the quality of your relationships, but it has the greatest impact when we, as a congregation, can proclaim with one voice that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Renowned Evangelist, Tony Compolo, has been quoted as saying it this way, “It’s not enough to simply claim that Jesus is your savior, but is Jesus your Lord?” The reign of Christ has come, and his reign extends to our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies. It is simply up to us to realize that we belong to this truth, so that we may more clearly hear God’s calling and may evermore faithfully respond to the grace and mercy that we have received.
I pray that it may be so with you, and that it may be so with me, and to God be the glory. Now and always, Amen!