Christ the King

Jn, 18:33-38
11/22/09

There are times in our personal, social, or national life when the old order gives away to new, when stress is high and old systems crumble. It is at such times that we can fall back solely on our own resources, or we can be open to the presence of an eternal God and acknowledge Christ as king.

Today I am going to give you three stories. The first is a poem. The second is today’s Gospel reading from John, and the third is about “The First Thanksgiving.”

In 1867 there were massive changes going on in society, not only in this country but also in England and Europe. The poet, Matthew Arnold wrote a poem, expressing his pessimism with regard to the future of industrial and scientific civilization. Arnold felt that the old systems of Christian faith had failed before rising scientism and secularism. The eternal truths had eroded. At best, Arnold could validate only man himself, and the love of another person. He wrote:

“The sea is calm tonight, the tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits; - on the French coast the light gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window; sweet is the night air! Only, from the long line of spray where the sea meets the moon-blanched land, listen! You hear the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, at their return, up the high strand, begin, and cease, and then again begin, with tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago heard it on the Aegean, and it brought into his mind the turbid ebb and flow of human misery. We find also in the sound a thought, hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true to one another! For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; and we are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.” (Poem layout put in prose to make easier reading.)

The contemporenaity of this poem is frightening. Some say that the old economic and social systems have failed. It seems as though we are a society caught in the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery.” There is poverty, unemployment, homelessness, swine flu and ignorance and two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) in the near east. Is not the only choice for some just to hold onto the hope of a love for another person? Alone against a sea of change this is at best humanism, overshadowed with the chiaroscuro of melancholy, cynicism and pessimism.

Pilate would have understood the vision of Arnold’s poem. The Roman Empire was cracking up. It would last yet a while, but the rot in the old religious systems and orders was evident. Pilate had manipulated his way to the near top of his bureaucracy. He was Governor General. He wrote the book before Machiavelli; he knew all about Real Politick. He could compromise, wheel and deal, play one side off against another. He was a cross between Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Dick Chaney and Hector Chavez. His job was to keep the peace in Palestine, to play the Samaritan off against the Jew, the Sadducee against the Pharisee, the priest against the rabbi, and the zealot against the Sanhedrin.

He looked at the Jew before him. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (Good rabbinical response!) Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate answered, “What is truth?”

Pilate cannot see beyond the human dimension. His principles, his policies, his vision is in maximizing statecraft and his own resources. He is sarcastic, cynical, frustrated, and pessimistic. He cannot see beyond what is before him. He is not a great leader nor does he have the one ingredient of all great leaders, and which is available to even the lowliest of men: the ability to respond to eternal truth. He has become inured to the image of God in man. He cannot respond to the dimension of eternal truth. Hence in the midst of change and disintegration of old systems he cannot recognize true kingship. He is the quintessential politician. He can anguish, wheel and deal, but he cannot recognize God or truth when it is right before him.

My last story is one, which I’ve told before. It is called “The First Thanksgiving.” Faye and I were married in June of 1961 and in August moved out to Evanston, Illinois. A week before Thanksgiving my parents phone and announced that they were flying out to spend Thanksgiving with us. Now no new bride looks forward to entertaining her mother-in-law, let alone for a major holiday feast. However, Faye did what every good Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude would do. She bought a big pan and grabbed the New York Times. She knew that the Times would tell her how to cook a turkey, and sure enough Craig Claiborne had a special recipe for stuffing.

Thanksgiving day arrived. Faye greased up the bird and put it in the oven. We were to eat at four. My parents arrived and settled in. Being good Methodist tea-totalers they sipped tomato juice and made small talk. There were frequent trips to the kitchen and the clock ticked on, and on, and on. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten. The old bird wouldn’t cook. At ten thirty Faye made the stuffing and put it on the stove. Now it seemed that she had overlooked two basic elements. First of all it had not occurred to either her or me to calibrate the oven to make sure it read correctly. Secondly, she had forgotten to thaw the frozen turkey. By eleven even the pages of the Times looked tasty. We ate soon after and the meal was very good. While cleaning up the dishes, I tried to smooth the feathers of my ruffled bride. “That stuffing was quite unusual,” I commented. “Was it the black walnuts you put in?” “No!” she snapped. “We didn’t have any cooking sherry, so I threw in two cups of bourbon.” My parents snored deeply in their chairs.

It was a time of change. Our old families had divided and a new one formed. The Vietnam War was cooking on the back burner. There was high civil unrest among the blacks and whites. The nation, like Palestine of old, was about to erupt into a tumultuous decade.

Every Thanksgiving I look back fondly on that first Thanksgiving and think about the legacy of my parents. They had their priorities right. They had a firm faith in the sovereignty of God. They committed their resources to the church, in the form of my education as a priest. They weathered the Great Depression, WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They never lost their faith that truth and justice would eventually burst through in history, because in the last analysis God was the ruler of history and of mankind. Love was important in their lives, as in ours, but it was not simply the love of a Matthew Arnold. For them love was the reflection of our creator-redeemer, reflected in our own lives. They utilized all of the resources of their wit and reason and canniness, but they never succumbed to the corrosives of pessimism, despair, and futility. They had that singular dimension which both Pilate and Matthew Arnold lacked. They could see a glimpse of the eternal truth, and they knew that truth is more than a simple moral disposition or a harmonious response to the rhythms of the world. They believed in truth made manifest in Jesus Christ as the Son of a just, loving and redeeming God. In their own way they knew Christ as King.

You and I stand in the midst of a world that is undergoing great economic, political and social change. We are faced with huge challenges individually, socially and as a nation. You and I also stand in the midst of a building that was dedicated over a hundred years ago to Christ the King. When Matthew Arnold wrote his poem, Dover Beach, this parish was at the same time being formed. Our parish and our building are a testimony to the eternal truths of justice, mercy, love and forgiveness. St. Andrew’s is a testimony to God’s incarnate steadfastness. St. Andrews is also a witness to society that throughout whatever periods of war, turmoil, stress or change we can neither live by bread alone nor by our own wiles and resources alone. You and I live by the grace of God. As you approach Thanksgiving, and as you prepare for Advent, look beyond yourselves to the eternal God who sustains us. Turn aside from the Pilates and Matthew Arnolds within you, and each day with awe and joy greet Christ our King! Amen. – Fr. Gage-