Year A, Pentecost, Proper 29
Reign of Christ Sunday
This Sunday is the “New Year’s Eve” of the church year. This is the day we wrap up the labyrinthine procession of the year from Advent to Lent to Pentecost and through all the long Sundays of Ordinary Time. Each year we walk the labyrinth of this journey learning something new in its twists and turns even as we are reminded of familiar assurances and challenges from God’s word along the way. Next Sunday we begin a new year and dance our way back into a new cycle on the labyrinth as we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, Year B. Whether in the church year or the calendar year the turning from “old” to “new” is always a time of special feast days. So welcome to the feast!
In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted Christ the King to inspire the laity to greater faithfulness in following the ways of Christ. Since then the church universal has been invited to dedicate one Sunday a year to the theme of the Christ’s sovereignty in the cosmos as God’s messiah for all people. Different parts of the great body of Christendom celebrate this theme in different ways and on different Sundays of the year.Those of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary find the day falling on our “ New Year’s Eve” Sunday.As we move with intention from one liturgical year into another what can we learn from celebrating Christ’s sovereignty?
I did not grow up with the celebration of Christ the King Sunday or Advent as a child in the Baptist church tradition. We simply started singing Christmas carols soon after Thanksgiving. Jesus was celebrated year around as Lord and always with much of the emphasis Pope Pius XI sought to instill in the Catholic laity of his time. My new denominational home, the United Church of Christ, designates this day as Reign of Christ Sunday, emphasizing the Kingdom of God that was a focal point of Jesus’ ministry. I find that this emphasis deepens the practice of my Christian faith and integrates it with my reverence for other faith traditions and for the necessity of interfaith dialogue.
In our texts this Sunday we find the sovereign God, whom Jesus always pointed to in his teachings, leading as a shepherd. In Ezekiel the shepherd is gathering in a beloved, though wayward, flock, bringing them out of darkness into light, out of hunger to fulfillment, out of destructive chaos and into safety. The psalms proclaim praise for this God who care for the people, leading them into the beauty and abundance of creation. Ephesians does not speak directly of a shepherd but God is extolled as one who leads with a wisdom and power revealed in fullness through the son, Jesus the Christ. Finally Matthew gives us the third story from the end-times trilogy Jesus is telling during the last days with his disciples before his arrest and betrayal. It is the story of a King sitting on the throne at the end of days separating the sheep, those faithful to the ways of God’s Kingdom, from the goats, those negligent of God’s ways.
There are parts of the world that still resonate with the shepherd imagery. However, I did not understand it first hand until I spent two weeks in an interfaith spiritual and sustainable living community on the Isle of Erraid, part of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. It was mid-October and time for the sheep round up.The sheep needed to be inoculated and the lambs were now big enough to be separated from their mothers to be sold. So everyone, visitors and community members alike, turned out to help John, the local shepherd, round up all the sheep on this small, boggy, craggy, rocky island.
Before we left we gathered in a circle holding hands and said affirmations and prayers for the sheep and for a safe roundup. People voiced their concerns for the lambs in the trauma of being separated from the mothers for the first time. John, our shepherd leader, gave careful instructions for our day’s work. I learned it could be a dangerous day for the sheep as they were herded from the high, rocky crags with their narrow paths and into the lower, broader pastures to the pens. Sheep had even been killed in past roundups.
Part of the day I hiked about the island, helping to find the “lost sheep” and move them toward the sheep-herding border collies who could gather them into a flock. Other times I simply stood on one of the heights and watched the shepherd signal to his dogs that were working small groups of sheep into the larger flock. There was such trust, grace and intense communication between the shepherd and his dogs as he whistled to them and called out brief commands. There was such huge concern in the whole community for the sheep as fellow creatures in God’s creation and not just animals raised for the livelihood of human beings. I understood like never before the biblical imagery of a shepherd gathering in the sheep.The dogs became examples for me of those who lead in the church, lay and clergy, in their attentiveness to and cheerful cooperation with the shepherd in the detailed work of gathering the flock.
Sure enough one sheep was lost that day. It was confused by the noise and the dogs and fell from a cliff to the bog below. A great cry of lament went up from the human community as we watched the accident. Around the dinner table that night we gave thanks for a successful roundup. But we also remembered with sadness that despite the careful work of the shepherd, the dogs, and the community the sheep had lost his footing and fell to his death. The prayers and affirmations we had said in the morning were poignant memories. The shepherd ate with us and he was visibly affected by the loss even though he knew all the other sheep were safe and accounted for in the pens. Our dinner became another image of God’s gathered community in the church.
Reign of Christ Sunday reminds us with its texts that the God we know in Jesus leads with the deep care and wisdom I witnessed in John, the shepherd of Erraid Island. The community of Christ gathers to follow the Shepherd, attentive to instruction and mindful of gathering in all, particularly “the least of these.”
There is a well-known story that would serve us well in speaking of the community built under the Reign of Christ. It is “The Messiah is Among You.” Many of you may know it or have already told it. You can find it in several collections and on the web. I found it in a wonderful website, “Stories for Preaching” written by Scott J. Higgins. The story is at this link.[i] There are a wealth of stories to be found here. And check out Scott’s blog posts as well at his personal website . His writing on ethics and justice, faith, and his journey with Parkinson’s disease is inspiring and insightful.
Another story for this week comes once again from William White’s book, Stories for the Journey; A Sourcebook for Christian Storytellers (You can find White’s book used on Amazon. It is a wonderful treasure trove of stories.) The story is titled, “The Tinker King” (page 119) and White adapted it from a story by James Carroll. It would serve well as the centerpiece of a sermon or in an education setting. I share its unique picture of the creation under the Reign of Christ here in my own words.
“Once there was a king who loved his people but did not want to be king. On the day of his coronation they brought him an ermine robe. “Where did this come from?” he said. “From a royal merchant.”
“Where did this come from?” “From Persia.”
“Where did this come from?” “From the skins of small creatures,” came the exasperated reply at last.
“I cannot wear something made from cruelty to other creatures,” said the king.
The same questioning happened when the king was given a huge and perfect pearl. The king asked why the pearl was so valuable. “Because of its moonlike shape and luminescent color.” “Why?” the king continued to ask. “Because the sixteen male divers died retrieving it from the ocean floor.” “How can I accept such cruelty as a gift?”
And so it went for the king. He could see the injustice behind so many things but he did not know what to offer in its place. People said he was too kind and gentle to be king. He agreed and one day he just walked away. Disappeared.
A group of cruel and greedy knights took over the government. The people’s lives became very hard with high taxes and unjust laws.
The king became a tinker. He went from town to town helping people keep their knives sharp and selling them pots and pans. He sat in their kitchens and learned from them. He heard all about their joys and sorrows. He was moved by how hard their lives had become because of the cruel knights who ruled the kingdom. And they learned from his intuitive wisdom and his insightful questions about caring for one another with compassion.
So it went. The former king was very happy serving the people as a tinker. They often thought he looked familiar, like their rightful king. When they asked if he were a king he would answer with a question, “Do I look like a king?” And he would smile. Years went by.
One day the tinker learned that a man’s son had died working too long in the heat in the fields of the cruel knights. When he asked how the boy had died at first he was simply told “the heat.” He persisted until the boy’s father finally cried out, “It was the cruelty of the knights that killed my son! When will we be rid of them?”
“You will,” said the tinker. “But how?” the people wanted to know.“You help us see that their ways are unjust. But what can we do about it? You look like our king but you will not tell us if you are. Who will lead us against the knights? How can we fight without swords? We have only farm tools.”
Then the tinker stood and with a loud, clear voice cried out, “Prepare your selves! You will not need swords. The day is coming soon when you will overthrow the knights. What you will need is long, stout poles of strong wood. Collect as many as possible.” And with that he picked up his tinker’s tools and went on to the next town.
As he traveled he was accosted by one of the cruelest of the knights. When it was discovered that he was a tinker the knight had his soldiers take him by force to the castle where all the ruling knights lived. There he was treated miserably and forced to sharpen all the knights’ swords for no pay. The tinker worked hard for three days and with no complaint. He honed the edge of each sward until each weapon until it glistened. All the swords were the sharpest they had ever been. When he was finished he was thrown out of the castle with no thanks. And he was told not to go far upon pain of punishment because the knights would require his services often.
When the people saw that the tinker had been thrown violently out of the castle they gathered around to help him. They were very angry at the way he had been treated. But the tinker surprised them. He stood strong before them and with a loud voice commanded them to gather all the people of the kingdom. They were to bring all their long, stout poles. It was time to challenge the cruel rulers.
The people were gathered by the next morning with their poles. The tinker stood before them as their leader. “Do not be afraid!” he said. “No matter how large and frightening the knights might seem when they come riding out of the castle, stand firm! Hold your poles with two hands in a strong line above your heads. All will be well!” Then the tinker gave a loud shout of challenge to the watchmen on the towers of the knights’ castle. He challenged the knights to come forth and face the people.
The gates of the castle opened and the knights came riding forth on their huge warhorses brandishing their sharpened sword. The sunlight glinted off the polished metal. They rode straight for the people and one by one brought their swords down on the poles held over the peoples’ heads. Their swords sliced right through the poles. But as soon as they did the swords shriveled, withered and fell to pieces. You see, the tinker had sharpened them so finely that there was no substance left to hold them together after their final cut through the wooden poles. One by one the knights were disarmed. The people surrounded them, bound them and put them in prison to await trial.
Then they turned to the tinker and begged him to be their king. They were sure now that he was the former king, the kind and gentle king they had missed for so many years. The tinker said, “Yes I am that former king. But I will not take back my throne. We have lived and learned together for so many years that I believe you are wise enough to govern yourselves. Remember justice. Remember compassion. Remember to take care of each person, each creature and the land. Remember forgiveness as you settle your differences. Live in peace.” And he turned and walked down a path and into the forest. They never saw him again.
The people rebuilt their kingdom and learned to govern themselves with the wisdom of their experiences and the wisdom of the tinker. They dealt justly with the cruel knights putting them to work in helping the poorest of the kingdom. In all the stories the people told their children in the years to come they spoke of their wise and gentle leader of their revolution as was the one who had shaped the life of their kingdom. And they always called him “The Tinker King.”
Blessings on your story journey as we head into a New Year,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!