I spent the last few days at the Gathering of Interim Bodies in Baltimore, MD, and came back Saturday night. Contrary to the way it sounds (like a symposium of plague contagion), it was a lot of fun for those of us who enjoy thinking about church canons and governance (all 3 of us). And we got a lot done. For example, I succeeded in getting my commission to rename itself ‘Commission for Law and Order’, and to employ the regular use of sound effects borrowed from the show.
But, the aftereffect of these several days of continuous meetings was that I had the fixed idea that I was supposed to preach on Sunday. So I wrote a whole entire sermon on the plane ride home, only to land at KCI and realize that no, my rector was supposed to preach. I had a #bonus sermon on my hands. Sort of the reverse of that clergy anxiety dream–instead of showing up with no sermon, I showed up and had an extra one.
But I’m rather fond of what I wrote, so I told Twitter I would post it here.
Happy early Thanksgiving, blogworld! I am very grateful for you.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
November 22, 2015
Ordinary Time, Proper 29
(If my kingdom WAS from this world, my followers would fight. But as it is, my kingdom is not of this world.)
While I was in Baltimore, this past week, I had dinner with my (very Catholic) grandmother and aunt. Whenever we get together, it’s basically a running ecumenical dialogue, and this time was no different. They were telling me of this trip they had taken over the summer to York cathedral in England, with my teenaged cousin. While on the tour, guided by an apparently-quite young English docent, they saw a tapestry of St. Peter, being handed two keys, one silver, one gold, by Jesus.
The docent remarked that she’d been asking everyone, all the clergy she knew, what on earth the keys were about, and no one could tell her. My grandmother fixed me with the same glare she gives her parish priest when she is displeased with the sermon, “Do YOU know why Peter would have keys?”
I was pretty sure this was a test. “Yeah—they’re the keys of the kingdoms—signifying whatever he looses on earth will stay loosed in heaven, and whatever he binds on earth, etc.”
Grandma nodded emphatically. “Yes! Exactly! And Clare knew too. BUT THIS PIPSQUEAK OF A DOCENT HAD NO IDEA.”
I consoled her by pointing out that I could make no excuses for the English educational system for clergy, but clearly it was an abject failure. But, I don’t think they’re going back to York any time soon.
In thinking about it since, I’ve been wondering if in fact the docent’s ignorance of the symbology of Peter’s keys is more attributable to Englishness than an educational gap. England, after all, is a place where there is only one operational “key”—there’s one law governing both church and state, the church is established, and no separation seen between them. So perhaps it’s not so natural to think that Christ would pass off to Peter two keys: one for heaven, another for earth. Perhaps it’s not so natural to think that these would be separate—another Protestant innovation to the faith once handed down.
The danger seeing only the one key, however, is that it lulls you into complacency. Since the time of Constantine, Christendom has wanted to claim that it’s kingdom is THE ONLY kingdom, that it’s realm can be the only realm exists on earth. Any other realms, any other kingdoms must either convert, or be subsumed in our wake. And thus, in our history, we’ve been susceptible to thinking that the way of these earthly kingdoms must be the way of the heavenly.
I mean, there are kingdoms which claim the name of Jesus. There are kings all over the place speaking of their prayer life. There are kings duking it out on the news about how all good citizens were Christians….so, it can be tempting to believe that Christ’s kingdom and our earthly kingdoms are the same. Or at least close enough for jazz, becoming a mortifying thought, as we watch the kingdoms furiously rage together as well.
And we should be aware that there are people who have staked their entire careers on continuing that line of thought.
But we should also be aware of this conversation between Jesus and Pilate.
Pilate, who decides to have an existential debate with Jesus at his trial, asks Jesus who he is, where he has come from, and how is it that people call him a King?
Jesus replies, in typical Johannine fashion, that he is a King, but a SPECIFIC KIND OF KING.
There’s a political context here which is important—Pilate is the governor of a rebellious province sent to quell dissent. (Think Hunger Games.) For Jesus to stand before him and claim to be a king is as rebellious as you could possibly get. It is Katniss giving that salute in the arena. (Just watch the movies. I think the only people following this sermon right now are tweens.)
Sure! I’m a king, Jesus says (Which means that Caesar, Pilate’s boss, is in trouble. So that’s treason, number 1.) But I’m a different sort of king. A different sort of Caesar.
Because if I were a king from this world? My followers would be fighting right now. But they aren’t. Because I’m different. Because they’re different.
And therein lies the difference. Caesar fights. Caesar kills. Caesar destroys, and wastes human lives on his own behalf.
Jesus doesn’t. Jesus is different. Jesus is a different sort of king.
Which means that when we claim Jesus as our king, we cannot live by the rules that make sense in other kingdoms. The standard in this kingdom is different, because it’s measured by Jesus’ self-giving love. Not fear, not political calculation, not what will keep everyone safe.
This is not a very attractive way to run an earthly kingdom, at least for long periods of time. Not if you want to be wealthy or powerful. Not if you want to do well, or get rich.
This Sunday is called in many places Christ the King Sunday, and that’s actually because in the mid 1800s, the pope felt his earthly power slipping away, worried he was losing his grip on his empire, and created a holiday to remind Christendom who was really in charge. (Spoiler: The Pope.)
But he wasn’t fantastic at holding an earthly kingdom either.
But my sisters and brothers, we aren’t called to run an earthly kingdom. When we are disciples of Christ, we aren’t called to figure out the least dangerous path to take, the way to live free of fear, or how to stay safe forever.
Safety, for the disciples of Jesus, is not our king, and it cannot be our goal. Love. Love for every human under heaven. Near and far, citizen and refugee, documented and undocumented, that is our goal.
And Jesus is our only king.