Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
A new king arises…a king who wields his power by shrewd dealings and oppressive and murderous laws…? Are we surprised? Probably not…But can we imagine anything different?
It’s hard to imagine anything truly different, isn’t it? Something….even revolutionary isn’t right. Because that suggests a turning around…What was down becomes up, what was left becomes right… the oppressed are set free to…oppress the oppressors? A revolution can simply be: “Meet the new boss…same as the old boss…”
Even our scriptures have a hard time describing anything truly different. The Magnificat—the song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55)—which we all know and love—and which is a riff on other songs in the Torah: Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:10-10), the song’s of Miriam (Exodus 15:19-20), Deborah (Judges 5:1-31), Judith (Judith 16:1-17) all envision a revolution…a world where the mighty are laid low, and the poor are raised up….the hungry are filled but the rich are sent away empty. The good sheep are welcomed in, but the bad goats are toast…and before long we’re right back where we started…turning and turning in the widening gyre…we might pick up our guitars and play…we might get on our knees and pray that we don’t get fooled again…but new king arises…a king worried about hanging onto power and…the cycle starts all over…
Can we imagine something truly different? Can we imagine a king who gives up power…who is a servant…rather than has servants? Can we imagine a king who doesn’t demonstrate who he is by shrewd dealings, but instead asks his followers…Who do you say I am? And I don’t imagine that Jesus is doing a focus group here. He’s not out to re-brand himself…His question invites us to imagine a king…a lord…a ruler…a who is not just the old boss, but something truly different.
But it’s hard to image that, isn’t it? The words themselves trap us. King. Lord. Those are ancient…feudal terms. They conjure up images of…Arthurian legends…Medieval romances…maybe Game of Thrones-like warlords. They conjure up the past…all of the “new bosses” who are really just desperate wannabe Roman emperors…Egyptian Pharaohs.
The English word “lord” is completely medieval. It didn’t exist until the end of the 14th century, where it meant “an owner of land.” Is that how we imagine Jesus? A Landlord? Maybe. If the only time we contact him is when things break…
Before “Lord” took over, people used the Latin Dominus, which is related to “dominate”, and also is all about ownership, and possessing of property (whether land, houses, or people…a “master”)…, and in Greek Kyrios which is also the head of the household…the owner…the one who possesses and disposes.
I know that for many it’s hard to use the term “Lord”… because the weight of the oppressive history, that word can stick in our throat, but here’s a fun fact…the origin of the word “Lord” doesn’t have to do with domination, or possession. The term originated even earlier than Old English and meant literally “the one who guards the loaves”—the guardian of the bread…the source of life. [source]. What if we reclaimed that meaning…not one who owns and possesses, but one who provides and protects?
And I know Peter doesn’t say, Jesus is Lord. At least not here. He says, Jesus is the Messiah. Which is a whole other sermon, but Messiahs are often revolutions rather than truly different…The idea of a Messiah was a relatively new, but pretty popular idea at the time of Jesus. Messianic movements usually center around a charismatic figure who promises to restore the grandeur of a golden age (David’s kingdom), and/or inaugurate a new golden age when the righteous (their followers) are saved and vindicated, and the current rulers are punished and eradicated…and there’s that refrain again…old boss…new boss…those tapes just keep going round and around.
It’s not surprising that Jesus rarely claims these titles for himself…because he’s not just the echo of a distant refrain…he is something truly different. Our language can keep us trapped in this cycle…but it’s really all we have, and we have to be creative with it in order to imagine something different.
Matthew uses “kingdom” language a lot. Which makes sense…Matthew’s audience lived with and under numerous kings. They got it. Kingdom language was as much a part of their world as economic language is part of ours. But Matthew uses it creatively…and never in a strictly secular sense. Matthew really tries to use this language in new, creative ways…tries to show that God’s reign is not shrewd and plotting, and murderously repetitive, but instead is dynamic and compelling, and always moving towards wholeness.
In Matthew, “the king who rises”—or rather the “kingdom that comes near” is never a Pharaoh who deals shrewdly with his numerous subjects…rather it is a farmer sowing seed on good and rocky soil…it is wheat growing up with the weeds…it is a tiny seed growing into a tree…it’s yeast…it’s a hidden treasure…a merchant in search of pearls…it’s a net cast into the sea…it is a landowner, but one who forgives debts…who pays laborers the same no matter when they show up for work…who compels people to come into a banquet. That’s not just revolutionary…that’s a radical remix.
And remember how Jesus wields power…not through control, but through healing, teaching, serving…and ultimately being stripped of everything…Jesus is a king who sacrifices everything for love.
Very often it feels like we are being blown backward into the future.* We have our faces turned resolutely towards where we’ve been…hanging on to what we’ve accomplished…lamenting we’ve lost, and we can’t see where we’re going. As I said last week, we have to continue doing the work of learning and embracing the whole truth of our past. But we also have to be creative, and faithful, and hopeful about the road forward. How can we imagine the world to come, and who might lead us there if we can only see the debris of the past? How can we imagine who Jesus is and the God-promised future he is inviting us into if we insist on only looking backwards?
We have to be both faithful to, and creative with, our past…and we have to courageously face into the future, following Jesus…who is our Lord…the guardian of our lives…our protector, our provider…and who will guide us into, and help us build a world that is truly different. Amen.
*Walter Benjamin, who purchased this Klee print in 1921, in Theses on the Philosophy of History, writes: “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Laurie Anderson has an incredible a song based on this called The Dream Before