Supremely Natural Sovereign

Christ the King Sunday

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I want to begin today, as I sometimes do for Christ the King Sunday, with a children’s story by Minnesota naturalist and author, Douglas Wood.  Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called Old Turtle.

The story begins in a far-away land that “is somehow not so far away,” when, one night, a truth fell from the stars. And as it fell, it broke into two pieces—one piece blazed off through the sky and the other fell straight to the ground.

One day a man stumbled upon the truth that fell to earth and read the words carved on its the surface, “You are loved,” it said. It made him feel good, so he kept it, and shared it with the people of his tribe. The thing sparkles and makes the people who have it feel warm and happy. It became their most prized possession, and they called it “The Truth.”

But soon, those who had “the truth” became afraid of those who didn’t have it, who were different than they were. And those who didn’t have it desired it. Soon people fought wars over the small truth, trying to capture it for themselves.

A little girl, endangered by the growing violence, greed, and destruction in her once peaceful world fled her home and went on a journey—through the Mountains of Imagining, the River of Wondering Why, and the Forest of Finding Out—and there she spoke with Old Turtle, the wise counselor. Old Turtle was truly old. He told her that the Truth was broken and missing a piece—the piece that shot off in the night sky long ago. Together they searched for it, and when they found it, the little girl put the jagged piece in her pocket and returned to her people.

She tried to explain, but no one would listen or understand. Finally, a raven flew the broken truth to the top of a tower where the other piece was locked up for safety. The pieces were rejoined and shone out with their full message: “You are loved / and so are they.” And the people began to comprehend. And the earth began to heal.  (Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, Douglas Wood, illustrations by Jon J. Muth)

 Wood’s beautiful children’s story opens a way to understanding what today’s theme is about. Christ the King Sunday was not a thing anybody knew or celebrated until Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925. He hoped it would help heal the world ravaged by nationalism following World War I. He hoped Jesus’s humble kingship would be powerful gospel medicine to end the fever dream of empire, nationalism, and consumerism. “You are loved / and so are they.” Yet if we neglect that second part, ‘and so are they,’ we fall again into triumphalism, colonialism, and Christian nationalism.

In today’s gospel, Jesus announced, lived, and inaugurated a new social order. He called it the Reign or Kingdom of God. It was the guiding image of his entire ministry. It is the subject of Jesus’ inaugural address in Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17, and Luke 4:14–30. It is the theme of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and most of his parables.  In God’s kingdom “You are loved / and so are they.”

This truth matters. We suffer from knowing only part of the truth. A partial truth can be as misleading as a lie. The truth, the whole truth, will set us free. Jesus offers strong gospel medicine. Yet, as Pope Pius XI observed, somehow, we mostly avoid taking the medicine that could heal us.

In today’s parable, like an old-fashioned vaccine, Jesus uses a bit of the poison that afflicts us for healing. Binary thinking, either-or, this-and-that, is like a narcotic to which we are addicted like the people in the fable of Old Turtle. The antidote is both-and. “We are one, just as the Father and I are one” (John 17:21), Jesus said. “You are loved / and so are they.”

The recipe for Jesus’ remedy includes a bit of the hair of the dog that bites us again and again. Some of you are sheep and others of you are goats, Jesus says. Yes! Yes!  We are quick to take the bait. Some of us are winners and others are losers.

Life’s losers are easy to spot. Jesus wrote out a list.  Losers are the people who are hungry or thirsty now.  Losers are the people among you who are strangers. Losers are the ones without proper clothing. They’re people who are sick or in prison. Goats all. Like a sugary treat, we are quick to take and eat this part of the story.

But Jesus interjects the second part of the gospel of grace into this parable. Take, eat, Jesus says, this is my body. It hits our blood stream like a vaccine. This gospel medicine frees us from binary thinking. You are loved – yes. I am always with you – yes. Look for and find me among life’s losers – wait what? Yes, Jesus says, the good sheep will love and serve life’s goats just as I do. In fact, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). In the penetrating light of the gospel, we discover we are all goats, yet God has loved us into being sheep. Let the people comprehend, and the earth begin to heal.

I want to suggest that the ‘they’ God loves includes the natural world. St. Bonaventure said we are linked together in a great chain of being with all of creation.  Today, we recognize the web of life extends in every direction, joining our health and well-being to the flourishing of every creature from the largest mammals to the merely microscopic. We used to think of God, our sovereign, as a supernatural being, acting outside and apart from nature.  But now, more and more, modern science points back to the wisdom of the ancients resonating throughout scripture: God is not supernatural, but rather a supremely natural sovereign, working in, with, and under all things.

 “Jesus gets awfully specific in telling us where we can find him. Each of the habitations he lists [in today’s gospel] is marked by lack: lack of food, lack of water, lack of hospitality, lack of clothing, lack of health, lack of freedom. Christ chooses these places, inhabits these spaces, [then] waits for us to show up. Waits, too, for us to recognize those places in ourselves. [Jesus] knows that if we haven’t recognized the poverty within our own souls, and how he dwells there, it’s hard to see him and serve him in others without being patronizing. (Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook)

When we feel lost, the gospel of Jesus points like a compass to show us the way. You are loved, and so are they.  Love God. Love your neighbor.  Love your neighbor as a way of loving God. The real winners look like life’s losers, Jesus said, because they’re the ones that refuse to play the game.  It is the spirit of Christ active in love for your neighbor that will carry us out of the fog of world wars, out of the destructive power of nationalism, out of the natural disaster of economic and ecological ruin.  Whether you respond to human and non-human need, or fail to respond, you are in fact responding, or failing to respond to Christ. You are loved, and so are they. Here is gospel medicine for our time.  Let the people comprehend. Let the earth begin to heal.

The counter-kingdom of God sets rules to live by and be judged by.  And what does the Lord require of you, O mortal – but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord your God? (Micah 6:8).