A Sermon for the Last Sunday After Pentecost: Christ the King

Sunday, November 20, 2022

By: David May, Rector

I ran across a book in my library at home the other day that may have one of my favorite book titles of all time.  The book is called, ‘Where Do You Go To Give Up?’.  It’s author is Baptist preacher and scholar Welton Gaddy, a generous and good soul.  I like the title so much because it makes me laugh at myself for all those times where I feel like I’ve finally just had it with the ‘rat race’ that life too often feels like. So that, you know, frankly, if some other rats really wants to win so badly, well fine, count me out, I give up.   Because as they say, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

But as true as that feeling of just wanting to give up sometimes is, it runs crosswise with something we also know is true:  you can’t just give up.  You can’t.  You have to ‘keeping going’ no matter what; we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going.  You can’t just ‘give up’ when life is hard or heartbreaking or perplexing or exhausting, can you?

Well, no….  But that’s not quite the kind of ‘giving up’ that Gaddy wants us to think about.  Remember, he’s a Baptist preacher and this is a book for church folks.  So Gaddy is talking about giving up in a different way.  Here’s a searing quote from Episcopal priest and New Testament scholar Robert Farrar Capon that gets at the kind of ‘giving up’ that Gaddy wants us to think about.  Capon writes:  “The gospel of grace is the end of religion, the final posting of the CLOSED sign on the sweatshop of the human race’s perpetual struggle to think well of itself.”

In other words, giving up means giving up on the endless effort to get yourself spruced up enough in the eyes of, well whomever, with the hope that that will be enough, some day, to be ok, acceptable, loved for who you are by others and by God.

The Apostle Paul’s great teaching that we are justified by grace through faith shows us that there is no arithmetic involved in tallying our deeds done or left undone that leads to earning God’s favor and blessing.  We know that.  We say that.  Except that, sometimes, I wonder do we really buy it in our heart of hearts where a voice sometimes says, “yes, but if you really knew me….”

So just in case, you find yourself keeping score on yourself, and running a tally of the good and bad of who you, and the virtues and vices, and successes and failures, and kindnesess and cruelties, and winning and losing, and what’s loveable and what’s not, what’s praiseworthy and what’s not.  If you’re anything like me, it can become a pretty long list.  It’s a lot to keep up with: all those different ways that the human race struggles to think well of itself.  All those ways, to use Capon’s words, that the human race tries to save itself, to save ourselves.

Which is a familiar refrain in this gospel reading where the dying King of Heaven speaks his last words to another human being.  And with these words shows us the answer to the question “where do you go to give up?”.

First the religious leaders taunt Jesus to save himself if he is the high and mighty Messiah of God.  Then the soldiers detailed to carry out the day’s execution mock him by saying if you are the King of the Jews, well then save yourself.  That’s the only way they understand the power of a ruler and a leader, a King – someone who saves himself.

That’s what Kings do, they save themselves.  Everybody knows that – the religious leaders know that, the soldiers know that.  Even one of the thieves dying beside Jesus knows that.  He cries out, “Save yourself,” and then adds in desperation:  “and us!”

We come to the conclusion of the Church Year today, the 24th Sunday after the Day of Pentecost and where things end up is important.  For about a hundred year, this Sunday has been known as Christ the King Sunday for many Christians.  And this picture of the King of Kings dying between two criminals is heartbreaking and shocking.  Because what are we to say about a King like this whose life ends like this?  King’s exercise power, command others to fight and die for them.  Kings save themselves, as those taunting Jesus know.  Before anyone else, they think, surely the King’s life will be preserved.  But this is a serious flaw in their understanding of what it means to lead as Jesus leads us.

The Queen Mum (Queen Elizabeth II’s mother) during the Battle of Britain understood it better.  “I’m glad we’ve been bombed”, she said bluntly after Buckingham Palace was hit during the London blitz.  “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”  The East End of London at that time was a misery of poverty and violence and sickness, and the home of desperate people and criminals.  The little lady in the big hats trudged with her royal husband through the rubble of bombed-out apartment buildings, clasping the hands and looking into the eyes of the people who had called them home.

Her own bombed out home earned her the right to look criminals and skinny children in the eye.  She could’ve been spirited away from the horror to the safety of some idyllic palace, far from human suffering.  But she wouldn’t go.  She wouldn’t leave her place beside those in misery and suffering.  And she lived to tell a story that inspires us.  “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face,” she said.

And as moving as that story is, it doesn’t do for us / what the story Jesus couldn’t live to tell for himself / does for us.  The picture of Jesus between two dying criminals, side by side, face to face, dying himself, is the picture of the whole Gospel in miniature.  As he has always done, he will not let us – any of us the loved and the hated, the privileged and the forgotten – be anywhere where he is not also.  No good deed of our own doing can make this possible.  No upright behavior, no inspiring character, no virtue.

Because this is the place beside dying criminals where Jesus goes ‘to give up’, to give up his life for the sake of love for you that overcomes through his forgiveness the sin of the world and saves it.

Where is the place you go to give up?  Well, first, consider for yourself, what do you want to give up?  Whatever it is, the place to go to give up is the Lord’s Table, side by side by one another, by the side of the King of Glory with the words of a dying criminal upon the lips of your heart, saying: ‘Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom?’  And be fed by his words, “Today you will be with me….”  Amen.