This past weekend we celebrated one of the most significant American holidays. Thanksgiving has evolved over time, but generally involves people gathering with family, friends, or neighbors over a meal to give thanks for the blessings of life. The concept sounds rather innocuous, but the meal can be fraught with challenges. A few days before Thanksgiving this year, I caught the results of a poll. The poll said almost 70% of people were hoping to avoid talking about politics with their family this Thanksgiving holiday. According to the survey, the percentage of people wanting to avoid talking about politics is one of the highest in years. Even though the numbers are unprecedented, the results are probably not a surprise to anyone here. Politics is one of those topics polite conversations are supposed to avoid anyway. But given the especially high tensions of our political climate lately, I can totally understand why almost three-fourths of us would want to avoid talking about our country’s deep divisions and political differences. No need to ruin a day of attempted unity with a conversation about the very thing that divides us most deeply.
So, on the Sunday following the day when everyone wants to avoid talking politics, what are we going to do? Talk politics. Now before you get too anxious, do not worry. We are not invited to talk American politics. Today, our readings invite us to talk about biblical politics. Today, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday – the last Sunday in the liturgical year before we start Advent next week. The feast of Christ the King is not actually that old of a feast. Pope Pius XI established the feast day in 1925 in response to growing secularism and a deemphasis on the primacy of Christ. At the time, Europe was seeing a rise in non-Christian dictators, many of whom were seeking to influence authority over the Church. Pope Pius wanted to remind the Church who was the head of the church, and the primacy of Christ for the Church’s identity. Establishing Christ the King Sunday was not only a bold move by Pope Pius, the feast day was also needed if the Church were going to remain loyal to its identity.
The historical setting of the creation of the holiday is not all that unique from the biblical struggle with kingship. If you remember, God is not at all on board when the people ask for a king. You see, the people of God have already been on a long journey. Abraham had settled them in a faraway land, which God had promised would be their land. But famine struck, and the people were forced to flee to Egypt for sustenance, submitting themselves to a pharaoh – a new king of sorts. For a while, that arrangement was not so bad. But a new pharaoh meant a harsh life of enslavement. So, God once again led the people out of the rule of a king, into the wilderness and eventually the promised land. And what do the people ask for upon their arrival? A king! You see, they have been watching the other nations who have kings, and they want their own. God wants them to see how God is their king. But eventually God submits, giving them their hearts’ desire. As predicted, an earthly king does not go well. Sure, there are moments of enjoyment and blessing. There are even some kings who do well – king David and Solomon. But even the good kings come with human flaws. As time goes on, the bad kings outnumber the good ones, and eventually the kingdom of God is ripped apart, and the peoples are scattered.
That is where we pick up things today in Ezekiel. Recognizing the earthly kings have not worked so well, God promises to take the throne back, to become the people’s king once again. God becoming king means the people will be gathered once again in their promised land. They will have their wounds bound, their stomachs filled, and their thirst quenched. They will return to an abundant land, with the rule of a comforting shepherd. The promise to the wearied people of God is assuring and soothing; a balm to a scattered, disheartened people. Their failures are ever before them: their insistence on an earthly king have gotten them where they are today. But admitting failure hardly seems onerous with the promise of redemption by God.
By the time we get to our gospel reading today, the people are yet again under an oppressive rule. Rome has put her heavy hand on the people of God, and their hoped-for Messiah has not arrived. The expectation of the Messiah was for a mighty, God-ordained leader who would vindicate the people, and establish a time of prosperity, power, and peace. There are rumors that Jesus might be that Messiah, but much of what he has to say does not jive with what they are expecting. Take today’s lesson, for example. Jesus tells them the reign of God will entail feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. Those are all certainly good things to do, but they are not exactly what the people are thinking of when they imagine a Messiah. Though those tasks are noble, they do not indicate a people who have triumphed over oppressive rule.
I suspect we know a little about that sense of disappointment and disorientation. Now I know I said I was not going to talk about politics, but stay with me for a bit. You see, no matter who our leader is, we will never be truly happy with an elected, human leader. Human leaders, like those leaders in the times of Ezekiel are flawed. Think of your favorite president in American history – the president that really represented the goodness of American ideals. Think of all the great things he did, the advancements he made, the ways in which he made us a better country. Now, in balance with all that goodness, think of all the flaws he had. Every president had them. For every advancement he made, there was an advancement he neglected. For every inspiring quote he had, there were things he said that would make us shudder. For every injustice he corrected, there were injustices he ignored.
That is the funny thing about being both an American and a Christian. Though we have probably structured the government with the most potential for justice and balanced leadership, we still fall short of the goal – because we are human. And because nothing we make or conceive or structure will be perfect, we lean into our Christian identity for guidance, comfort, and strength. You see, the only king who will ever bring about a perfect kingdom is Christ. And yet, even “perfection” is redefined by Christ. The kingdom of God is not reproduced through democracy, socialism, monarchy, oligarchy, or totalitarianism. The perfect system in Christ involves each us feeding the poor, giving water to those who thirst, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.
I can imagine what you are thinking, because I am thinking the same thing. Those jobs all sound nice, but how do we ensure justice, safety, and structure? How do we govern? The good news is, just as we talked about last week, we all have a vocation. If feeding, sating, welcoming, clothing, tending, and visiting are the parameters of perfection, we are each to use our gifts to achieve that perfection. So maybe your vocation is to physically feed the poor and sate the thirsty. Maybe your vocation is to advocate for those in prison. Maybe your vocation is to govern with the intention of creating laws that will tend the sick and clothe the naked. How we approach perfection will vary widely, but that we strive toward perfection is what Christ asks today. Christ is not actually all that worried about who our king is or what kind of government we choose. Christ is concerned that our lives reflect his true kingship over us. Christ wants us to live lives that, upon observation by others, make obvious who is our king.
Our invitation this week is to take stock of our daily living, making sure we have aligned our lives with the kingdom of God. If you have gotten off track, there is time and support for correcting course.[i] If you have mastered feeding the hungry, but are not so great at welcoming the stranger, this community is here to help you expand your kingdom work. And if you are not sure you can get on board with this kingdom work at all, you may need to do what we all avoided this Thanksgiving – get to a table and start talking politics. Jesus promises to be with us, joining us in the conversation, blessing our ponderings. With Christ the King on our side, the work does not feel like work, the conversation does not feel like a curse, and the results produce much more for which to be thankful. Amen.
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 212.