a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]
Luke 23:33-43 and Colossians 1:11-20
“Everytime I look up, I see God’s faithfulness
And it shows just how much he is miraculous
I can’t keep it to myself, I can’t sit here and be still
Everybody, I will tell ‘till the whole world is healed.
King of kings, Lord of Lords, all the things he has in store
From the rich to the poor, all are welcome through the door
You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name
Listen to the words I’m sayin’, Jesus saved me, now I’m sane.”
Those are not words from a church composer you’ve heard before or from a hymn we’ve sung out of our hymnal. Those are words off the new album from rap artist Kanye West, released just a month ago—an album titled, interestingly enough, Jesus is King. I am fairly certain Kanye West did not release it in time for the church’s celebration of Christ the King, which falls on this final Sunday of the liturgical year, but it sure is convenient that he did.
In fact, just two weeks ago when I was driving our confirmation students to Roanoke for the day to see the bishop’s office, talk to the Roanoke College President, and tour several agencies of the Lutheran Church there, Kanye’s album was discussed in our van. Some of the confirmation students had already downloaded it and were wanting to know what I thought of the songs on Jesus is King.
Some of you may know who Kanye West is, either from his previous work or from some of the controversial statements he’s made in public. It’s been hard to miss him over the past two decades. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, and is a 21-time Grammy Award-winner. He’s also married to a Kardashian. And at some point in the past year Kanye West apparently had a religious conversion. As the song says, he claims Jesus has saved him and now he wants to respond to that change in faith. This most recent album doesn’t just have one Christian song. It is made up entirely of gospel hip-hop music he wrote. The album includes references to baptism, keeping the Sabbath day holy, and verses from Scripture.
Now, many popular musicians go through some form of religious awakening at some point in their career, and I’m not going to pass any judgment on the authenticity of West’s faith and commitment to God. This could all be, as some claim, a publicity stunt, just a cunning attempt to cash in on people’s true faith and devotion to Jesus. The album and the way he’s promoted it have certainly been divisive.
It may not be how you or I would choose to profess our faith, but I do know that on Jesus is King, Kanye West is talking about a man who was crucified between two common criminals on a hill outside of Jerusalem around 2000 years ago. What is clear is that on his gospel rap album, West is moved to tell the story of a man who, by many accounts, should have never been known or remembered or retold, so common and ordinary he was. And whether people like it or not, it is clear West articulates a faith that this crucified man has in some way rescued him. An individual’s faith is a very personal and unique relationship, and so none of us can really say exactly what such a statement might mean for anyone else, but it’s evident that this crucified man has power over him, has authority in Kanye’s life.
And that, in fact, is why we gather here today, and every Sunday, for that matter. From the moment the sign was hung in mocking fashion above his thorn-adorned head on the cross—“This is the King of the Jews—Jesus has been named as a sovereign ruler. Jesus has some power over us, some kind of authority, and we seek to understand it, worship it, grow into it.
And so there I was, rolling down I-64 on Election Day, when Virginia was choosing a new state legislature and other leaders, discussing Jesus’ kingship with a group of tenth graders as we made our way to visit several institutions that he, in some way, founded and still nurtures: a college in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a nursing home for elderly adults, and a school for children with special behavioral and developmental needs. Jesus is king, and thousands of other rulers have come and gone, millions of other elections have seated and then deposed women in men in power, but the kingdom of Jesus lives on, welcoming more and more people into God’s embrace.
Jesus is king, and borders of countries have changed and been erased, walls have been built up and then torn down, but the places where Jesus walks and loves and gives second chances seem to still be popping up everywhere.
Jesus is king, and empires have built temples and churches and banks and sports stadiums and concert halls and monuments and marble statues of their finest, but the kingdom that started with a tool of execution, a few planks of wood and a handful of nails stretches across every inch of the earth.
Jesus is King, and armies have fought and soldiers have been trained, presidents have been groomed and princes have been primed, but the kingdom that always starts with the lowly people on the sidelines, the margin-folk—the lepers, the blind, the sinners, the tax collectors, keeps on marching.
It keeps on marching and claims you and me, and Kanye, and Martin Luther, and Harriett Tubman, and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Francis of Assisi, and Dorothy Day and Elizabeth Platz, the first Lutheran woman pastor, ordained 49 years ago this week. It claims Pope Francis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Claire Louise Johnson.
And it does all of this—this reign has its entry everywhere, even the darkest places—because this kingdom begins on a cross. This rule begins with a man who looks to those who are nailing him there, who want him dead and forgotten, and instead of slinging insults or anger, he says, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” This rule begins with a man who looks to his right and left and instead of seeing two criminals, sees two fellow humans with him, who never condescends, who never judges, but up until the very end finds way to speak offer pardon and peace: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” This kingdom begins with a man who has umpteen opportunities to save his own skin, to stop it all, to slink away in anonymity, but instead through dying grants us the dignity to let us see what things really look like when our sin runs free.
Right now our country is in the middle of an impeachment inquiry. And as everyone wonders what really will happen next, or what it means for the next presidential election cycle, and no matter where each of us may stand on it, the reality is this is a defining moment—maybe the defining moment—of our current president’s tenure. History tends to judge leaders by their defining moments. In years to come, no matter what happens in these four or eight years, people will mention the impeachment proceedings near the top. We can’t talk about President Abraham Lincoln, for example without mentioning the Gettysburg Address. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister for 9 years but he is known for his resolve in World War II. Napoleon conquered over half of Europe, but we always talk about his Waterloo.
Leaders are known by their defining moments, and this is Jesus’. He did and still does so many wondrous things, but his moment on the cross is where it all comes into focus. We can’t talk about him and God doesn’t want us to talk about him without talking about how people mocked him with sour wine, or how people talked about dividing his clothes before he was dead. This is Jesus at his finest, you might say, and look at him! He stands for mercy, for solidarity with the downtrodden, for looking into anyone’s eyes with hope and love.
And so when the writer of the letter to the Colossians, for example, tells us to be strong with the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power, he is talking about the strength to be found in being compassionate with people and the glorious power that lies in humility. When the writer of Colossians goes on to say that in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, we know that the fullness of God can now dwell in any human being anywhere, especially when they are most overlooked and most outcast.
Yale theologian David Bentley Hart describes this concept as a revolution, that the cross of Jesus ignited a revolutionary movement the likes of which the world had never before seen. A revolution is an idea or cause that overturns things so that they can never go back to the way they were before. He says that the cross of Christ is a moment where, for the first time in history, “the human person as such…was invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value.” We take that for granted now, so far we are removed in so many ways from the era that crucified Jesus, but the idea that God could enter the world from the ground up, rather than the top down, that value could be found in any person, no matter who they were or what they were like, was begun by Jesus’ defining moment.
And so for now that is where we seek him and those are the ways we carry on this revolution. We sit down at the table with people who have hurt us, like I witnessed a family here do this week, and we do the hard work of forgiving one another because we’ve come to understand that forgiveness is the only true lasting power we know. It is, as the Psalm this morning declares, the only force that truly “breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire” (Psalm 46). We devote ourselves to welcoming and serving every person we come into contact with because we know that God is present in them, and we do this even if it means coming to terms with our inner prejudices about people. It means we work to create churches and homes where sinners of all stripes can hear the promise of Paradise. It means we lean in on one another and never close the door on God working to bring life to any situation, no matter how dark it may seem.
There is a small, relatively plain and nondescript house on Skipwith Road that I pass by about four times a day. It is a nice house, and for all I can see taken care of, but it might even be empty. For most of the year it is easy to pass by because it is so ordinary. In its front yard is a tree—one enormous, beautiful, and perfectly shaped tree which turns the most brilliant shade of orange right at this time of year. It is impossible to drive by and not see it here at the end of the year. It is impossible to drive by it and not just marvel at this little plain house with the gigantic colorful tree.
For now, Jesus’ defining moment is that cross on a hill called the Skull, easy to miss, easy to despise, easy to write off as empty. It takes a bit of faith to realize its worth. But one day at the end of all things his glory will be fully revealed for all to see and it will be unmistakable—a perfect tree! His immense and overwhelming love at that point will be unmistakable, his revolution of mercy complete, embracing all, and all we will really be able to do is stand in wonder.
Or, as Kanye says, “Every time we look up, we see God’s faithfulness, and it shows just how much he is miraculous.” For Jesus, the crucified, is King.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, Yale University Press, 2009, page 167