Two TV moments to start this morning. Sixteen years ago at this time, after George W. Bush and Al Gore had fought through a bitter and mean campaign (it seems pretty mild now), the country waited weeks and weeks to sort out what was essentially a dead tie between the candidates. Cynicism about politicians and Washington had been growing for a while, and seemed universal. NBC’s “The West Wing” was just hitting its stride. Against the backdrop of an election scene that looked a little like a circus, and then as the country started to become more and more fractured, “The West Wing” provided us with a sort of alternate political reality, where President Josiah Bartlett and his team united a country with integrity and a commitment to service that seemed both pleasantly old-fashioned and hopefully forward thinking.
Fast forward to today, and in the aftermath of this year’s bitter and mean campaign, I’ve been watching the Netflix original series “The Crown,” which traces the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth II from her ascension as a young woman in the late 1940s. In one of the early episodes, Elizabeth is seeking advice at the bedside of her sick grandmother. The older woman leans in and says forcefully, “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to bring grace and dignity to the earth. It gives ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.” Her point is that the monarchy serves as a grounding point for English identity, an anchor of stability and history in the midst of a rapidly changing world, and a British empire coming apart at the seams.
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, which since the early twentieth century has been celebrated as the feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King to remind a divided Europe in the aftermath of World War I of their common allegiance to Christ rather than to any earthly ruler.
It’s a feast that seems as relevant and important today as it did in the 1920s, and I think the alternate reality of “The West Wing” and the Crown’s ideal to strive towards can help us make sense of what it might mean for us today.
Our gospel lesson today gives us a sense of what the ideal Christ our king sets for us might be. Here is Jesus in the most unlikely position for a monarch: being executed alongside common criminals as an enemy of the state. Three times Jesus is mocked and challenged to save himself, and three times he forgives and embraces his tormentors. While the nations and kingdoms of the world are ruled by force and intimidation, our kingdom is ruled by a king who suffers alongside us, a king who uses his power to dispense boundless mercy, who promises paradise to criminals and outcasts. When Jesus was handed all the power in the universe, he didn’t choose to simply be the biggest king with the biggest empire, he chose to give his power away in love, he chose to use his power to upend all the ways we normally organize kingdoms.
Our king provides an ideal to strive toward, a grounding point for our identity, but it is an ideal of service, and mercy, and love, and peace. It’s an ideal of loving rather than winning. It’s an ideal of being merciful. It’s an ideal of standing with those who are cast out. Our king rescues us from the power of darkness by turning the order of a dark world on its head.
“The West Wing” provided a different way of imagining one season of our nation’s history. But, of course, it was fantasy and escape. The alternative kingdom we belong to—the Kingdom of God—is actually more real and more true than the darkness we currently see. Our job is to make what seems like a different and fantastical reality shine through that darkness, until it turns the whole world to Christ’s light.
In the coming months and years, there will be no easy or cheap healing of the deep and complex divisions among us in this country. I’ve heard from so many people who I love, who I work with, that the immigrants, refugees, gays, lesbian, and transgender persons, and so many others who were targeted by hateful rhetoric in this campaign are scared about what happens next. That the election came out the way it did suggests there’s a whole lot of people in our country who are angry they’ve been overlooked and ignored and dismissed. Others are simply tired of hearing about it, and simply want to move on.
I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but wherever a person falls on that spectrum on this day, the call to us is the same. On the feast of Christ the King, we are invited simply to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, not as a doctrine or a belief or a religion, but as a way of life. We are invited to renew our commitment to living the way Jesus lived and taught, and to renew our allegiance to the kingdom his life announced. We are called to make Jesus’ way of standing with the suffering, solidarity with the marginalized and threatened, offering peace at every turn, the ideal we strive towards, the thing that lifts us out of our ordinary lives.
But then we are challenged to help make this other kingdom a reality here and now. We are challenged to ask ourselves: what is one thing we can do today, or this week, to wave the flag of Christ’s kingdom? How can I stand with the suffering? Where can I offer forgiveness?
The good news today, and every day, is that no matter what happens in our lives, in our nation, or in our world, God has already overcome the powers of darkness and sin and death. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The resurrection assures us that’s a done deal. Our job is to use whatever life we have to offer that promise to those who are still trapped in darkness, until the kingdom of life and light and love appears in its glorious fullness. Amen.