A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 20, 2022 (Proper 29, Year C)
Well, the phantom rector has finally arrived for his first Sunday morning at Bethesda. The one who’s been lurking in the rectory the past few weeks; the one who’s been opening countless boxes and hanging pictures and engaging in high level negotiations with the Department of Motor Vehicles; the one who’s been sneaking out to other churches on Sunday mornings; the one who survived what I’ve been referring to as our “starter hurricane;” the one who’s met a few of you along the way – at Publix or the Church Mouse or walking the dogs along Barton Avenue. Actually, I met a lot of you at last Sunday evening’s beautiful Celebration of New Ministry — but, to be fair, that was all a bit of a blur (please do keep telling me and Bryna your names — over and over again). We’ll get there.
So, I have to say it feels great to have finally and officially begun my ministry among you. To finally begin this new relationship after so much anticipation. To finally embark upon the mission to which we together have been called: seeking and serving Christ in one another and in the world. So I’ll announce right here, right now that I am officially done lurking.
Which means we can all get on with the task at hand, of getting to know one another and living into the bold, beautiful vision God has in store for us. And thanks be to God for that!
Now, I’ll be honest. The last thing a new rector wants to hear on his very first Sunday at a new church is the story of the crucifixion. We don’t want to delve into any possible foreshadowing of how things might go. But at another level it’s the perfect gospel passage upon which to begin a new relationship, because the cross is so central to our faith. It’s what binds us to Jesus and one another. It stands at the very heart of all that we do as Christians. Without the crucifixion, we live without the hope and joy of the resurrection. And, boy, do we need the hope and joy of the resurrection in our lives. It’s what sustains us and gives life meaning. It’s what allows us to get up and keep going when life knocks us down. It’s what assures us that we are beloved children of God.
Which brings us to Christ the King Sunday, the day we mark the reign of Jesus, as we celebrate him as the King of kings and Lord of lords. You might think we’d get a reading that highlights Jesus in all his triumphant resurrected glory, rather than the story of the crucifixion. From the outside looking in, Jesus being strung up on a cross to die is hardly a victory. An ignominious death at the hands of the Roman authorities is hardly an ending fit for a king. But here’s the thing: Jesus’ reign isn’t like worldly examples of kingship. Many of the great and powerful kings we read about in history ruled by fear and isolation. They enforced their will with armies and kept the populace at arm’s length by living in moat-ringed castles. Kings like Nero or Ivan the Terrible or Henry VIII. And, yes, I know we Anglicans have a complicated relationship with Henry VIII, but of course none of us had to be one of his wives.
That’s not the kind of king we’re dealing with in Jesus. His is a different sort of realm. And so, in thinking about Christ the King, we need to undo our notions of earthly kingship. Jesus’ kingship is not about the iron grip of absolute power. It is a kingship of invitation rather than coercion; a kingship of inclusion rather than isolation; a kingship built upon peace rather than fear. In other words it is a kingship that looks nothing like what we’ve learned about in history books or seen in movies. It certainly stands in direct contrast to King Herod and the other kings of Jesus’ own day.
And so, as Christians, we end up with what I like to call the “upside down kingdom.” A place where a king is born in a lowly stable, not a royal bedchamber. A place where a king is not King Midas-wealthy, set up in a fortified castle but a man without a spot to lay his head. A place where a king has not 12 armor-wearing knights, but 12 unarmed apostles. Everything has been flipped in this kingdom, where the last will be first and the first will be last; where the king came not to be served, but to serve. The reign of Christ is built on love, not fear.
And the crucifixion itself teaches us much about the reign of Jesus. It is selfless — Jesus doesn’t use his power to save himself, despite the mocking call of “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” It is built on forgiveness — Jesus forgives even those who crucify him — “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” It is rooted in salvation — he says to the repentant thief, “Truly this day, you will be with me in paradise.”
This is the kingdom into which we are invited to live and move and have our being. This kingdom that is selfless and forgiving and salvific. This is the kingdom we are called to create here on earth, to work together as partners with Jesus to make space for the least, the lost, and the lonely. To open our hands in love to those crying out for justice. To give a voice to the voiceless. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” this is what we are seeking to usher in. Not to build up thick walls between and among us, but to tear them down. This is the work to which we have been called, to bring about the very kingdom of God here on earth, and specifically here at Bethesda.
In the coming years, I look forward to worshiping with you, to serving Jesus with you, to laughing with you, to weeping with you, to drinking coffee with you, to building the kingdom of God in this place. Relationships take time, but they also take investment, whether that’s relationship with Jesus or relationship with a new rector. Let’s invest in this relationship. We won’t always agree on everything — it wouldn’t be church if we did. But God doesn’t call us to always agree with one another, God calls us to change the world. And together, we can do just that.
Please know just how excited I am to walk with you along the pilgrim’s path as a fellow disciple of our risen Lord. By being here this morning we have all made a commitment to enter into ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and to follow him. Sometimes we do that tentatively; sometimes we do that boldly. But the good news is that we’re not asked to follow Jesus in isolation. We do so with the help and encouragement of a community of faith, with the help and encouragement of this community of faith. My friends in Christ, it will be a privilege to walk this journey with you. And to do our part to usher in the kingdom of God in this place.