- Parish House
Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King – John 18:33-37
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. And I really hope everyone caught the replay of one of the funniest moments in sitcom history: WKRP In Cincinnati’s iconic “Turkeys Away” episode. It’s now a Thanksgiving classic. Not everyone here is old enough to remember the show, or sitcoms in general, so trust me, it’s worth looking this up. What started out as a clever radio station promotion of giving away turkeys goes terribly wrong. The TV audience never sees any actual turkeys. We have to rely on reporter Les Nessman for the live coverage. As the people at Pinedale shopping mall take cover, Nessman reports that the shopping center is being bombed by live turkeys being dropped from a helicopter 2,000 feet in the air. Chaos ensues. At one point the helicopter lands so that the remaining turkeys can be given away from the ground, but the turkeys organize in the mall’s parking lot and revolt. Later, back at the station, we see a shell-shocked Nessman and station manager Arthur Carlson, wearing a shredded suit jacket and a dazed look on his face. He delivers the famous last line to explain how the turkey give-away went so wrong. “As God is my witness,” he says, “I thought turkeys could fly.”
I would certainly put the WKRP episode in the category of holiday classics, which are always about mistakes and overcoming them. A miscalculation about turkeys makes for a funny plot. But usually the classics are about the more profound mistakes we fall into and how to heal from them. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserliness and greed. Or Buddy the Elf’s real dad, a workaholic who neglected his family. Or the ways that Rudolf, the aspiring dentist elf, and the misfit toys were shut out from the North Pole for being different. The plot of these classics is usually the same – something happens so that characters realize what’s most important and amend their mistaken ways. My favorite example is the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which is really an indictment of consumerism and the over-commercialization of Christmas. When Charlie Brown passes up the aluminum trees for the little real tree that just needs a little love to be wonderful, the other children realize that Christmas is about much more than getting stuff. Christmas, they learn, is about friends and family, and even more, it’s about the birth of Jesus. At the end, even competitive, holiday-display-obsessed Snoopy joins the children in singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
Into this mix of holiday classics about the healing of mistaken ways, today we add our prayers and readings about Christ the King. Christ the King Sunday is fitting this time of year, in the midst of recalling what matters the most in our lives. The Gospel reading we just heard is the one we also hear on Good Friday, which at first seems like a strange mashup of Holy Week and the holidays. The passage about Jesus’ trial feels dark and ominous, but stay with me, because it’s actually a profound addition to this time of year. The message of Christ the King is not very far from the other holiday classics.
To set the scene, Jesus comes before Pilate. Pilate asks him if he is the king of the Jews, which would constitute a charge of blasphemy in the Roman Empire. Jesus doesn’t answer directly. When pressed, Jesus says, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” A few verses later Pilate gets frustrated with Jesus for not answering directly. Famously, Pilate asks, “what is truth?” Truth comes out in his question as something elusive, even relative. But the gospel insists that this is not the case, that there is a Truth (with a capital T) that we can find. Jesus connects following him with belonging to that Truth. The key here is in the following. Truth is to be found beyond ourselves, in a divine kingdom beyond this earthly one. Because, as all the holiday classics have established, we make mistakes when left to our own devices. We love the wrong things, we miscalculate what really matters, and we come up with our own truths that are incomplete and sometimes misguided. We must look beyond our imperfect selves for a larger truth.
When we neglect this search, we can run into an age old problem with an unappealing name. Left to our own devices, we can fall into idolatry, the worship of something or someone other than God as if it were God. It’s not a subject we spend very much time on. I suspect that we view idolatry as something pretty straightforward. We don’t think of ourselves as being in present danger of, say, dancing around a golden calf or creating altars to unknown gods. But the problem with idolatry, like any temptation in the spiritual life, is that it’s usually far more subtle than obvious. And, much more difficult to see in real time.
In pre-war Germany, there was a man attended a Nazi military parade. He was amazed by its precision and vast display of loyalty and patriotism. When interviewed about the experience after the parade, he exclaimed that it was beautiful to watch. Harvard professor Elaine Scarry has called this an aesthetic error. We see something that looks or seems beautiful or good and we can be blinded by it, and caught up in it. This is what makes idolatry so easy to fall into. We can love the wrong things, or love things disproportionately, placing the objects of our love higher than we should while compromising other good things or values. We all fall into excesses – working too much or buying too much or… fill in the blank. These are the kinds of idolatrous mistakes we can all make. But it’s important to know that idolatrous mistakes can always be healed, corrected, and transcended.
We see this throughout holiday fiction. Take Scrooge, who thought holding tightly onto his money was the highest ideal, only to find out that he was wrong. Or, those claymation reindeer who idolized their fear of difference, but who eventually realized that Rudolf in his strangeness was vital to the team. Holiday classics are really stories about the grace-filled healing of idolatry, the ordinary kinds that can happen to all of us.
Christ the King Sunday is also about the healing of idolatry. Our heavenly king stands over and above our misdirected desires and loves, calling us back into the love and grace of the gospel. Our divine king is one without limit or bias or error. Our gospel preaches grace that is always larger than sin, always more perfect than our imperfection. Our true king always calls us to return when we go astray. If holiday classics are stories about wandering in the wrong direction and coming back home, Christ the Kind Sunday is a perfect addition to the genre.
On this last Sunday of the liturgical year before Advent, we pray for freedom from the idolatries of our lives, so that we will be brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule. The timing of that message could not be more perfect. This is the time of year when we can be led astray by things like stress and commercialism and all the excesses of the season. And we can certainly lose sight of the things that matter most. We will likely make mistakes. From time to time, we might even assume that turkeys can fly. But whenever we fall into error, there is good news. We are always called out of our missteps and back to the larger Truth by the King of kings and Lord of lords.