Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, also known as Christ the King Sunday. It is the final week of the liturgical year, in which we celebrate the coming reign of Christ, and tie His role as our spiritual leader into the season of Advent, which begins next Sunday. Or, at least, that’s what the internet says.
The first I heard of it was when I told Cathy I would preach today as she is out of town, and she said “Great! It’s also Reign of Christ Sunday, but preach on whatever is on your heart.” To be honest, in all my years of attending church, if I have ever been in a service celebrating the Reign of Christ, it didn’t sink in.
And yet, here we are. Talking about the Reign of Christ. Which has already been renamed from Christ is King Sunday, because, frankly, the idea of a king makes us uncomfortable. Even a guy like me, whose main associations with phrases like “Reign” and “King” are either wonderful old hymns or the Fantasy novels I’ve been devouring since I was a kid. I have British friends! But even I have some misgivings about this. I’m an American, darn it! We don’t have kings! Or queens! We fought 2 whole wars so no one would Reign over us anymore. Our leaders have Terms, or Administrations, or even Eras, but not Reigns! Where is the democracy in Christ’s reign?
So yeah, this makes me a bit uncomfortable. If I keep this up, we’ll end up with me just rambling about the dangers of monarchy and the glory of the revolution, largely as distilled in the musicals Hamilton and 1776. And as much as I may love to have that conversation, that’s not why you came. And I haven’t seen Hamilton yet.
But beyond my own ignorance and insecurity, I think the point here is that Jesus chose to reign in a very different way. That’s what he was saying to Pilate in the verse Vic read for us: “My kingdom is not from this world.” He wouldn’t start taking over a government even when people really wanted him to! His reign, it turns out, is not about government, or dominion, but choice. People choosing to follow his example, to listen to his message, to live according to his Way. He tells Pilate “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” As Christians, we choose to trust Him, and to lean into His wisdom even when it counters our own. I think that makes sense. But it’s still scary.
So if today is to remind us that Christ is the one whom we should be following, listening to, then what is it He is telling us to do? What is His command, His instruction? Well, apparently, there were lots of them. Some of them, not so hard.
“Don’t kill people.” Check. No problem.
“Feed the hungry.” We can do that!
“Clothe the naked.” Gladly.
“Care for widows, orphans, refugees, immigrants, the poor.” Harder, but still, we got that. Heck, that’s why lots of us are here at UCUP!
“So Jesus, can you sum it up?”
“Sure,” He says, “Two big things: Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your strength.” The Great Commandment. We’re back to the Reign of Christ, but ok. It takes work, and practice, but we can work toward that. What else?
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Huh. OK. My neighbor, huh? Well, let’s see. Bob next door is a pretty nice guy, no problems. And Linda on the other side is wonderful! And I can love Buddy across the street; he brought me brownies when I moved in. Yeah, he revs his motorcycle every Saturday at 6am, but I can look past that. And that guy down the street, what’s-his-name? A little weird, and not quite like me, but I can try. Say, Jesus, who is my neighbor, anyway?
And there’s the question. Who is my neighbor I’m supposed to love? Jesus spent a lot of time with the neighbors we may not want to have in our neighborhood. We talk about a lot of them here frequently: the poor, the homeless, prostitutes, the disgraced, Samaritans, lepers.
But we also know he spent time with others. Tax collectors. Cathy preached about Zacchaeus a week or 2 ago, and the betraying role that Jews collecting Roman taxes had in a Jewish society occupied by Rome. Heck, Matthew, one of the disciples and author of one of our Gospel readings, may have been a tax collector. And yet Jesus saw these “traitors” as people, and welcomed them. He answered honest questions of the Jewish religious establishment who ended up seeking his execution, and even answered the prayer of a Roman centurion. These were not the downtrodden, those without voice. These were not groups often friendly to Jesus, or people like him. But he clarified that, too. “Love your enemies, and pray for people who persecute you.” That… not so easy. As far as I’m concerned, that may be the hardest thing He calls us to do.
I think much of what Jesus is talking about is Compassion. It’s a good word. Most of us like it, and most of us like to think we feel it. And we do, much of the time. But let’s face it: it’s easier to have compassion for people we like. Or at least people we pity. It’s harder with people we feel distant from, separated from, angry at, insulted by. Who we see as the enemy. And yet, there is Jesus’s admonishment: “Love your enemy.”
Numerous pundits will tell us that we, as a society, a country, are more divided now than any other time in modern history. I have no idea if they’re right. I do know that we are more divided now than any other time since I’ve been old enough to pay attention to politics. Part of that is likely that it can be a useful political tactic, but part is that we have more tools to disconnect ourselves from others. The internet gives us an unprecedented ability to hear from people who agree with us, while blocking and/or ridiculing others. Thanksgiving was last week. In many families, that’s a time to get together with the family members with whom you disagree, and to either argue about or studiously avoid talking about politics, or religion, or other divisive topics. But increasingly, I hear people say they are feeling that they just cannot go home and deal with those who disagree. “I can’t go back to a Red state!” “I can’t deal with people who don’t support our 2nd Amendment rights!” We join our tribes, defined as much by who we are against as what we are for. Republicans vs. Democrats, Progressives vs. Conservatives, Trumpers vs. I’m with Hilary vs. those Feeling the Bern. Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice. Keep Families Together vs. Build the Wall. Lock Her Up vs. Impeach Now! Blue Collar Rednecks vs. Liberal Elites. Until THEY become The Other, stupid, dehumanized, demonized. The enemy. That’s not a new story, but it’s still current events. And, I am increasingly concerned, it’s not just THEM doing it.
And here, I want to acknowledge I’m walking a fine line. I am an upper-middle-class, Cisgender, Heterosexual White Male. Privilege looks a lot like me. And part of privilege, even in the well intentioned, if often reflexive pushback when we are challenged. So let me state clearly, I don’t think we should start being easier on those who are supporting systems that violate our Christian values. I am not saying we should not be angry, or hurt, or that we just have to be patient. Jesus does not set an example of just accepting bad behavior, or of accepting the status quo. He spoke up, pushed back, challenged privilege and broken systems and corrupt power dynamics over and over and over. He did not avoid politics. He held others accountable. Heck, that’s often how he MADE enemies.
But he called us to Love our Enemies, even while working for change. He called us to that great challenge, of compassionate dissent. Of remembering that we can Turn the other Cheek, while still calling out injustice, or even overturning tables in the marketplace. We can remember that, even at the worst of our disagreements, with the most egregious, hateful proponents of that which we find anathema, we can remember that they are human, and probably hurting or afraid. In fact, we are called to do just that.
And, as is so often the case, the how is the most difficult part. But there are some strategies that work. Jesus gives us one. Remember, right after “Love your enemies,” Jesus asked us to “Pray for those who persecute you.” That, I believe, was not rhetorical.
There is a psychotherapeutic intervention called The Loving Kindness Meditation that has been shown in initial studies to help improve compassion, social connection, empathy, and to reduce stress. It is adapted from a Buddhist practice called the Metta Bhavana, and can be effective to some extent even with one attempt, but is more powerful as a practice. We will use it in our Prayers for the People later today, but the idea behind it is to simply extend a feeling of love and kindness to ourselves, our loved ones, and to others in increasingly expanding circles. Just wishing them well, or praying for them to be well.
A slightly more challenging strategy is to remember that when it comes to people, AND is more accurate than OR. “Or” is the language of division, of dehumanization: “You’re with me or you’re against me.” But humans are more complicated than “or.” We are an “And” people. Your enemy likely dislikes you AND loves their kids, or fears for their homes, or likes tennis, or all three! Just like you. This one thing does not define them, any more than it defines you. It is not the only place you can connect. Love, at its best, acknowledges the “and.” It does not mean that we cannot, or should not, confront the injustice people support or perpetrate. It just means that we are called to do so without forgetting that they have reasons for the beliefs and stances they take, and that those reasons are as valuable to them as ours are to us.
I talked with the kids about Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker’s ability to see more in him than the monster. To see past the fear and anger to the yearning for connection. Even when everyone told him that the good man that Vader had started out as is dead, he believed. He found Compassion.
And this is true not just in fiction. Christian Picciolini joined the white nationalist movement at 14, and eventually went on to front one of the first White Nationalist punk bands in America. He had some success, and even opened one of the only music stores in the country to carry white nationalist music, though it carried other music, too. But, in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, he discussed 2 influences that led him to leave the movement. One was that, when he opened his store, people who he hated kept coming in. People who were black, Jewish, or gay would come in, and come back, and eventually he began to get to know them, to get to know his enemies, and they him. And the hate could not survive, because these everyday people would interact with him. The second event he describes, which he marks as the turning point and the beginning of his leaving, was darker. It occurred when he was beating a black man. During the assault, he locked eyes with the man, and was surprised to feel empathy for him. To see him as something other than the enemy, as human. Picciolini left the movement 8 years after joining, and in 2011 established Life After Hate, a not-for-profit that works to help members of hate groups disengage. Loving one’s enemies can change them, and us.
None of that, I should say, makes this easy. I don’t think it is supposed to be. Heck, I very often don’t want to do it! I counsel people for a living, and will tell you that my life would be so much easier if doing therapy did not force me to see the more full picture of my fellow human. The pain in the woman who is annoyingly manipulative, the insecurity in the man who is a narcissistic addict, the fear in the partner who is angry and abusive, the hurt in the man who is a self-described racist. The fact that all of these people, who I don’t want to spend my time with, are also people who are cared about, who love, and who are trying their best with bad information or warped perceptions. Who have likeable qualities, despite their terrible ones. This is hard work, holding that complexity. It is not an easy command.
We are called to walk this balance. To work for justice, to hold people accountable for oppression, but also to remember that ALL involved are our neighbors, and that we are called to love them all.
After today, we move into Advent: we begin to decorate the church for Christmas after this service, we move from Thanksgiving this past week into the Miracle of God with Us next month, and we move from the recent midterm elections into the Presidential election that begins, apparently, in early January. As we make that move, as we begin to focus on the Christ Child coming, we must remember that He was sent to ALL of us. That he called his early followers to love not just their tribe, but the outcasts, the criminals, the Gentiles, the powerful, and the rich. All those who they felt different from. All their enemies. For, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love is the only thing that can turn an enemy into a friend.” And that, I hope, will be the mark of Jesus’ Reign.