Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Today in the calendar of the church we celebrate the solemn feast known as Christ the King. Normally positioned on the last Sunday after Pentecost before the start of the season of Advent, we pray these words: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. This prayer seems appropriate seeing that our popular culture reflects a renewed interest in all things ‘royal.’ Not only have we watched with fascination two royal weddings in recent years (the most recent of which our own presiding bishop Michael Curry gained notoriety as a preacher on the world stage), but shows like ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘The Crown,’ and the newly released Netflix production ‘The King,’ based loosely on William Shakespeare’s Henriad, have captured our imaginations as to what aristocracy and royalty look like. If you have not seen “The King,” I will not spoil it for you, but I dare say it will not disappoint, containing drama, adventure, action (including a portrayal of the famous Battle of Agincourt), as well as an eyebrow-raising twist at the very end that will leave you wondering what might happen next in the life of this young king who endeavors to save the realm from the chaos he inherited from his recently deceased, war-hungry father Henry the Fourth.
Images of royalty reflect, I think, the high ideal of order, unity, and goodness that we all desire and hope for in our lives, especially amidst so much that is chaotic, scattered, and untrue in our world. This monastery church certainly draws on the human imagination of what the heavenly realm might look like. The Revelation to John from the canon of scripture contains probably the most vivid descriptions of heaven and where we connect to what is referenced in our Collect: They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’ [i] The Rose Window at the back of the church, what stained glass artisan Dr. Charles Connick called “a playground for the afternoon sun,” represents a vision of God’s heavenly realm. The central medallion shows the Blessed Virgin Mary being crowned as the Queen of Heaven by her son, Christ the King;[ii] and I will come back to that.
How curious then that both the Old Testament lesson today from Jeremiah and our Gospel lesson from Luke paint a different picture of this divine royalty. In Jeremiah’s prophecy we hear at first a warning: Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. It might sound a little peculiar to our ear that God, the epitome of divine kingship, would be so directly involved with the husbandry of his flocks of sheep. Certainly, kings have those who are well-versed in such matters, who can tend to the oversight of their flocks and all who care for them. Kings have much bigger things to deal with than the micromanagement of those whose very business it is to tend to the flocks of their pasture which ideally will be food on their table.
It is important to note though that in the ancient Near East, the term ‘shepherd’ was interchangeable for the word king and ‘sheep’ for the kings’ subjects.[iii] God is saying through Jeremiah, “Woe to the leaders who have not done their jobs and abdicated their responsibilities, taking advantage of their positions to serve their own interests, rather than the ones for whom they are in the position to protect.” Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. How many of us have had the experience at work, perhaps, of having fallen short in a task and a supervisor or employer has had to pause their own oversight of many things in order to reign things in? Certainly I, and depending on the situation and the one who is supervising you, it has the potential to be an experience that will helpful, promoting growth and competency, or it can be diminishing and infantilizing. Now, imagine a situation where the person who is overseeing an area intentionally abuses their power for their own personal gain, bolstering their own reputation and well-being at the expense of others. Considering the headlines from day to day in our newspapers, both nationally and internationally, this may hit close to the bone these days. Through Jeremiah we hear God saying, “I will come in and do the job myself.”[iv] The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Returning to visions of divine kingship in this chapel, we see another example of what this looks like. Except this time, instead of a heavenly vision, we see one rooted incarnationally in our own flesh and blood. Between the ante-chapel and monastic quire of this church, we see a gate. Fixed on the top of this gate, in the line of sight of the heavenly Rose Window we see a Rood, that is a Crucifix resembling the lesson from our gospel. For those who might not have a clear view, we see it also on all three altars of this church as well as picture in your bulletins. In our gospel lesson, we see Jesus reigning not from a throne in glory with majesty, but rather from a tree that has been cut and hewn into a device of torture meant for criminals. This is the good shepherd sent by God, the righteous Branch executing justice and righteousness in the land. This is Jesus, who Paul claims is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. In the third chapter of the gospel of John we hear a beloved verse which many of us probably learned as children: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[v]
The operative word from our Collect that describes the action of the King of kings and Lord of lords is ‘restore.’ Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords. And how does God propose to do this restoration? By granting mercy through a reign of grace. All of us here cannot truly comprehend what real restoration looks like because the only vision we have besides the glorious vision of heaven in the Rose Window and the King of kings reigning from a Roman Rood, is the vision of a garden, ripe with fruit and filled with all manner of living things, God’s original pasture where human beings were stewards of creation and companions to the God, members of the royal court. When we took manners into our own hands and rebelled against God, forsaking our divine calling, we created a wound that separated us from God; a wound that God continuously tried to heal. This good shepherd and great king that God sent to restore in us the divine image was crucified and in that moment on the cross showed us how a true king serves his people. In the middle of two other criminals Jesus cried out to his Father a pronouncement of mercy: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. And when one of the criminals recognized the divine image of God hanging beside him he humbly asked: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Paul continues: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And it is in this way that we can see what true restoration looks like. It is in mirroring the acts of Jesus, that we can begin to see the divine image in ourselves and begin to realize our true vocation that was bestowed upon us all those years ago in a beautiful garden: Divine stewards, a royal priesthood, bearing the image of God, granting mercy and reigning in grace.
If you have come here today and are lost in the chaos created by shepherds of self-seeking or are yourself trying to enact your own salvation to no end, or perhaps have trouble seeing the divine image in yourself, seek no further. In a moment, you will be invited to come forward and give it over to God, lifting your burdens to Jesus and in exchange receiving the gift of his body and blood, the food and drink of unending life in him. Take this bread and wine, sustenance for the next part of your journey and know that in this act of mercy through grace you will not only begin to see true restoration, but to taste its sweetness and savor its fruit in you. Then go home, look in the mirror and observe how in you the divine image begins to be restored, one sacred meal at a time. The founder of our Society once said: “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”[vi]
Returning to the medallion in the center of the Rose Window. There have been many who have had great reservations about seeing Mary receiving the crown and being named Queen of Heaven because it does not seem to be recorded in the Gospel narrative. If this is true for you, you may want to pray with a passage from the epistle of James: Chapter 1, verse 12: reflecting on those you know who, having completed their earthly pilgrimage, receive at last the Crown of Life which the Lord has promised to those who love him.[vii] Then you may begin to realize that you, like all God’s saints including the mother of Jesus, are a part of the royal priesthood, kings and queens of the of the King of kings and Lord of lords made present here on earth. Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
[i] Revelation 17:14
[iii] Lundbom, Jack R. “Exegetical Perspective on Jeremiah (Proper 29).” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, by David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 315–319.
[iv] Rivera, Nelson. “Exegetical Perspective on Jeremiah (Proper 29).” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, by David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 314.
[v] John 3:16-17
[vi] Benson, Richard Meux. The Final Passover, Vol. 2, p. 402
[vii] Those who ascribe to a more Protestant view of Christianity often voice reservations about aspects of Marian theology. In a tract published by SSJE in the 1930’s there was a side note that stated fully: Some people find it difficult using the Fourth and Fifth Glorious Mysteries because these do not seem to be recorded in the Gospel narrative. If this is true for you, perhaps for a time, substitute for the Fourth Glorious Mystery a brief consideration of the death in Christ of those who have fought a good fight, who have finished their course, who have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7); and , for the Fifth Glorious Mystery, reflect on those you know who, having completed their earthly pilgrimage, receive at last the Crown of Life which the Lord has promised to those who love him (James 1:12). After doing this for a time, it may be easier to think of the Blessed Virgin Mary in connection with these two Mysteries quite naturally and sincerely.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.