What Kind of leader? What kind of King? Who will we follow?

The Rev. Suzanne Wille preaches on Christ the King Sunday.

Proper 29: Christ the King 2022
Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne.

Hold me down, Lord, that I may uplift you. Amen.

We’ve been in a time 
of choosing leaders, 
making decisions in the midterm election,
recently consecrating our new bishop,
even, here at All Saints, 
of calling a new rector, 
then an associate rector!

Before the midterms
President Biden addressed the nation, 
not to stump for particular policies
but to make a plea for democracy, 
for choosing leaders who ensure
a country where elections are free and fair, 
where right, not might, is the order of the day.

And, so, we must always be asking:
What kind of leader do we want? 

What kind of priest do you want to lead your church?

What kind of bishop do you want to lead your diocese?

What kind of leader do you want . . . 
as your mayor, your governor, your president?

This question of leadership is perennial, 
but seems particularly important 
in a time when the world 
is again watching a war in Europe,
which threatens to embroil other nations,
as Russia uses brutal tactics 
against Ukrainian civilians.

What kind of leader we want
seems particularly important
when the economy is struggling, 
civil rights hang in the balance,
a billionaire can buy 
a company and drive it
into the ground mere weeks later,
when the presidential race 
is already heating up
less than two weeks after the midterms,
and no matter what side you’re on,
politics has become
a life and death struggle.

What kind of leader we want
seems an essential question
as “strong men” and nationalist movements
rise across the globe
even as benevolent institutions 
like the church 
recede in influence and power. 

So, what kind of leader 
do we want?

In 1925 Pope Pius answered that question
with a new feast, 
the Feast of Christ the King, 
which we celebrate today.

At that time, 
The world was still recovering
From the horrors of World War I,
Which had promised to be
The “war to end all wars”;
The war that tore through Europe, 
as nations employed
new technology, like mustard gas, 
And embraced futile technology, 
like trench warfare, 
causing untold terror, suffering, and death
for the soldiers on all side;
The war that ended
Only after over 16 million
had been killed.

And, after that war, 
nations didn’t recover with 
Compassion and peace;
many countries struggled economically
and some of those struggling 
began to scapegoat others—
immigrants, Jews—
for their problems.
Here in the US
We launched into the roaring 20s,
a decade-long party, 
but we also engaged in 
a backlash against immigrants, 
curtailed civil liberties, 
and targeted African Americans
for increased violence,
lynching on the rise,
the destruction of entire black communities.

And in the mid-twenties,
After that terrible world war,
We should have been suspicious
Of powerful leaders
and the promise of government;
Instead, nationalism was on the rise
In Europe and Russia,
As were the secular ideologies 
Of Marxism and socialism.

People placed their trust
more and more
in government and the economy,
and less and less in God and church.

And it was at that very moment
that Pope Pius decided 
the church needed a new holy day,
a day dedicated to celebrating that
Jesus is the Lord,
Christ is our King.

Though this feast is less
than a hundred years old, 
it seems to me 
that we are ever
in need of it, 
whatever is happening in the world.
For when are we humans
NOT seeking to rely 
on our own powers?
When are we NOT 
seeking to justify 
our mistreatment of one another
by pointing to historical necessity
rather than living the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

We need this feast
because we always need to remember
that CHRIST is our king, our leader,
and no other before him.

We need that reminder now.

And on this feast
that provides the hinge
between “ordinary time” that is ending
as one church year ends
and Advent, the time of preparing
for the coming of Christ as a child, 
the start of the new church year, 
on this feast, 
we get ONE day to consider
Christ not as infant,
or miracle worker 
or teacher 
or even son of God,
but Christ as KING. 

But on this day, 
we don’t get triumph. 
We could have had a reading
from the Revelation to John 
with Christ reigning in glory in heaven,
or we could have had 
a miracle story—
Jesus healing the sick
or raising Lazarus from the dead;
or we could have had
a story that definitively
shows Jesus as Messiah—
his baptism or the Transfiguration 
when God’s voice booms out: 
“This is my son; listen to him!”

Instead, we get the crucifixion. 

What kind of leader do we want? 

Do we want this leader,
this Christ on the cross,
who is taunted over and over again,
first by Satan in the desert 
and now on the cross
to prove himself
As a king, as a Messiah:
The leaders scoff, saying,
“He saved others;
Let him save himself
If he is the Messiah!”

The soldiers mock:
“if you are the King of the Jews,
Save yourself!”

One of the criminals derides him:
“Are you not the Messiah?
Save yourself and us!”

Save yourself! 
Save us by doing what we want!

But he doesn’t;
Rather, Jesus is crucified in shame,
His only throne a cross,
The only court attending him 
filled with enemies and criminals. 

What kind of king, what kind of leader, is this? 

What a sorry, sorrowful image
On this last, triumphant day of the year. 

Following this King, this Messiah,
Is not automatic,
Not obvious. 

On the cross, 
He does not look powerful.
Beaten, he is not handsome.
A crown of thorns,
He is not rich. 

It is from THAT throne, though, 
That we see what kind of King Jesus is, 
The one who, as Paul tells us,
Is the “image of the invisible God,”
The one who shows us
What God’s judgment,
God’s kingdom is like.

And what do we see?

A prayer.
A promise. 
Forgiveness and mercy.
Solidarity with the suffering,
not the powerful.

From the cross,
“Father, forgive them 
for they do not know 
what they are doing.” 

Our King, in the midst of pain,
Prays for his enemies,
the very ones who harm him.

“Truly, I tell you, 
today you will be with me in paradise.”

When the criminal hanging next to him
asks merely to be remembered,
Our Messiah promises
That he will not only be remembered
But will be WITH Him. 

What kind of leader, 
what kind of king, 
do we want?

In a tumultuous, uncertain world, 
in a country divided, 
at a time when people
around the world 
are tempted by 
nationalism and strong men for answers,
will we follow the one
who bids us to love sacrificially, 
the one who asks us 
to feed the hungry,
clothe the naked, 
visit the sick and the imprisoned,
to care for the widow and the orphan,
to shelter the stranger in our midst, 
to love God above all else
and to love our neighbors as our very selves?

For in the Gospel for Christ the King
we learn, as one scholar says, that there is 
“no path to glory
that sidesteps humility, 
surrender, and sacrificial love.”

In His kingdom, 
there is no contempt for the suffering,
only love and solidarity;
in his kingdom, 
there is lavish mercy and forgiveness.
In His kingdom there is true love, 
though a costly one.

What kind of leader, 
What kind of king do we want?
And whom will we follow?

We know what happens 
to those who put all their faith
in ideology, humanity, and government.

What happens when we follow the One
whose throne is a cross,
the One who reigns not in might but in vulnerability,
the One who uses his power,
not to condemn and judge and punish,
but to pray and comfort and show mercy?

What happens when we follow
The Prince of Peace,
Light of the world,
Christ, the King?

1 Thanks to The Rev. Tom Ferguson for a brief, clear reminder of this time in our history. “Crusty on Trump: The Cost of Discipleship?” http://crustyoldean.blogspot.com. Blogpost from November 19, 2016.

 2 Thomas, Debi. “A King for this Hour.” JourneywithJesus.net. November 13, 2016.