Barbara Lundblad, a Lutheran pastor, preacher and teacher of preachers, tells the story of a black church in which, Sunday after Sunday, the minister would shout out, “Who is Jesus?” From the choir a loud response, “King of Kings and Lord Almighty.” But the choir didn’t have the last word on Jesus. That belonged to a little old lady who, every Sunday, would whisper as loud as she could in response to the choir, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” 1 Today, the church sings with that choir, “King of Kings and Lord Almighty.” Today, the church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King, and so do we. Yet there’s a part of me that chafes at this Feast of Christ the King.
I worry that this Feast of Christ the King plays into old (and not so old) versions of the Church triumphant, the imperial Church, the church not of Christ but of the Emperor Constantine—an insider’s Church. So often over the years, the Church has fallen into the arms of the Constantines of this world. So often over the centuries, the Church has adopted the trappings of power and privilege that poor little Mary’s boy inveighed against when he chastised the scribes and the Pharisees for burdening the poor and for focusing on the externals of power while ignoring the core of their faith—justice and mercy and walking humbly with God.
There’s a part of me that worries that if we focus too much on Christ the King—the King of Kings and Lord Almighty– we might just miss “Poor little Mary’s boy” and in the process overlook Jesus of Nazareth standing bound before Pilate. For there he is—Jesus of Nazareth, “Poor little Mary’s boy”, an outsider, challenging one of the most powerful people of his day and place. There he is—“Poor little Mary’s boy”—calling into question all sorts of notions of what it means to be a king
There’s a part of me that worries that if we turn our gaze to Christ the King we’ll look past the questions Pilate poses—to Jesus and to you and me as well. To Jesus Pilate says, “Are you the King of the Jews?” When he doesn’t get a straight answer, he asks again. “So you are a king?” I hear Pilate asking Jesus, “Who are you?” and “What am I to do with you?”
Those are important questions. Questions we need to be asking too. Questions this Feast of Christ the King asks the Church.
“Who are you?” Pilate asks Jesus.
No wonder Jesus sidesteps his question. The answer to Pilate’s question comes not in words spoken under pressure but in a life lived—a life of loving God in things little and big—tenderly lifting a young girl from her death bed with the words, “Talitha cum”, healing a frail man pushed aside from the healing waters of the pool of Siloam, giving sight to a man blind from birth, challenging the religious leaders of his day to live up to their faith.
Today, the Feast of Christ the King asks us “Who do you say Jesus is?” and “How do you say it?” Sometimes the Church answers in a loud voice, “King and Kings and Lord Almighty” and then acts as if it is the King of Kings. Sometimes the Church falls in line with voices of privilege and power. Sometimes the Church brushes past the widows, the children, the outsiders, and the poor in its path. Sometimes the Church gets it wrong.
Then there are the times the Church, in a quiet but determined voice, answers, “We say you are ‘Poor little Mary’s boy’” and goes about the work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, and bringing good news to the poor. “Poor little Mary’s boy”—that’s the answer we at St. Michael’s give through Casa San Miguel, our food pantry. “Poor little Mary’s boy”—that’s the answer we give when we feed the homeless at St. Martin’s and serve ex-con’s at Dismas House. “Poor little Mary’s boy”—it’s the refrain we sing when we work with the people of Navajo Land.
This Feast of Christ the King poses the question—“Who do you say that I am”—not only to the church but to you and me as well. That’s the kind of question folks answer at the kitchen table, in line, at work, on the road in the hustle and bustle of their days. That’s the kind of question you and I answer time and again throughout the day. That’s the kind of question we answer in the living of our lives.
It’s not an either-or kind of answer. It’s a both-and kind of thing. “Who do you say that I am?” When we answer “The one we follow—the one around whom we order our lives,” we answer “King of Kings and Lord Almighty.” When we reach out to those others overlook, when we struggle to forgive, when we stand up to the bullies of this world, when we resist the relentless pressure to consume, we answer “Poor little Mary’s boy.”
Jesus of Nazareth—Christ the King. One we follow. The other commands our loyalty.
In the name of Jesus of Nazareth. In the name of Christ the King. Amen.
1Barbara Lundblad, A Different Kind of King: John 18: 33-37, http://odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-john-18-33-37.