In the world but not of the world

Homily for Christ the King, Year B
November 21, 2021
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Some of you know that I’ve been away most of this past week, helping my Mom move from her house and into a retirement community. I grew up in the house where she has still been living, in a tiny town in Western New York by the name of Holland. By all accounts of history, the town was founded in the early 1800’s and was named for the Holland Land Company, a syndicate of Dutch investors who purchased the land from wealthy financier Robert Moses who had negotiated the cessation of tribal rights to that land from the Seneca nation of what we now call the Iroquois confederacy in the Treaty of Big Tree. I learned these facts growing up, but as an adult these acknowledgements of land and local history also take on a poignancy of what that experience might have been like, depending on whose perspective is considered. It’s like the importance of acknowledging that not only are we sitting here in Richmond, in the Commonwealth of Virginia but we also live, work and worship on unceded ancestral lands of the Powhatan, Chickahominy, Pamunkey, and Arrohatec people. Acknowledging the history of the places where we live, work and worship makes us aware of the ways in which money, power, and authority of rule have shaped so much of human history.

My Mom’s relocation has shifted her address northwest, into a bit more suburban area than the rural town where I was raised. The roads have route numbers, but also retain local names. So, during the past week, we’ve navigated several trips with boxes filled with clothes, pictures, and all the mementos of a life beautifully lived via route 20A, also known as Big Tree Road. You can make the historical connection there. The more we acknowledge history, the more we see it everywhere. We know that from living in Richmond. So on this trip, I began to pay close attention to the history not only of where I had lived, but where my Mom was moving.

My Mom’s new home town of Orchard Park is notable for two things. There are a few of you who know one of them: that’s right…it’s the home of the stadium where the Buffalo Bills play…and that stadium is right down the road from her new retirement community. But, on a more historic note, Orchard Park was founded as one of the early Quaker settlements in the United States. When Quaker pioneers from Vermont visited the area in the early 1800’s, they noted it was an “uncultivated part of nature’s garden.” The Holland Land Company sold it to them at a discount. The area soon became a destination for a tide of migrating Quaker families, who preferred life in quiet communities which were detached from the “corrupting influences” of the larger world. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends as they are formally known, were and are a community that emphasizes egalitarian living, and the discovery of God in everyday life and in each and every person. Driving through this area, I have taken note of the original Quaker Meeting House where members shared responsibilities for Sunday Meetings, and the original schoolhouse founded to help those who could not afford private education, the only form of education available at that time. The Quakers of Orchard Park founded the first public lending library in the area, and dedicated their mission to serving women friends whose access to books was otherwise scarce. Historic markers and signs all tell a story of how this group of people engaged their beliefs and religious practices together: communally, with deep respect, and in a manner in which all were welcomed without hierarchy or unnecessary ritual. This little patch of wilderness, within a bigger struggle for earthly power, became their community, and they lived into their own understanding of God’s Reign on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

This experience of re-engaging history and especially the Quaker roots of this region where I was raised seems particularly apropos this week, as I was thinking about the two intersecting themes of our Sunday worship together: the liturgical calendar’s recognition of Christ the King Sunday, and our gathered community’s remembrance of one of our beloved friends, Don Kutteroff, whose own faith made its home in the Quaker tradition.

This week, I’ve come to appreciate the ways in which religious traditions can serve in counter-oppressive ways, if we choose to do so. Thinking about the land grabs of the 18th and 19th centuries is a sharp contrast to the ways in which the Religious Society of Friends maintained worship and governance in a way that reflected egalitarianism over hierarchy. At a parallel time in history when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were living into their Presidency early in the history of the United States, King George III was still the ruling monarch in England and Napoleon Bonaparte had assumed power as the Emperor of France, the Religious Society of Friends had a very different view of the Realm of God in contrast to the Kingdoms of this world. It’s one of the reasons that Quakers practice pacifism and welcome the simplicity of sharing among friends rather than religious rituals or sacramental worship. God is in the everyday, and the common experiences of our lives. We all have a role to play in the community of life that we share, and in seeking and serving the light of God in each other. I know that those of you who knew Don can see this foundation of faith speaking through all the ways in which he moved through the world and chose to be gathered in common worship with this community, not for the power of sacrament nor for the presence of clergy but because of his deep…and divine…love for community which reflects the Love of God.

Liturgically speaking, this particular Sunday…Christ the King…is also a counter-oppressive statement. This isn’t a feast of the early church; Christ the King emerged in Roman Catholic tradition in 1925, via Papal Encyclical Quas Primus, issued by Pope Pius XI. This proclamation asserting the Kingship of Christ was written as a stand against rising nationalism and secularism, particularly evident in the Facist leaders rising up in Europe. That is also important history to acknowledge and remember; significant enough that we choose to honor this designation on our Episcopal Church calendars at the culmination of the liturgical year, on this final Sunday before we begin to make our way into the new liturgical year beginning in Advent.

The readings today remind us that the realm of Christ in which we, the People of Christ reside isn’t about the kingdoms of this world at all. Our appointed Gospel lesson invites us to step away from our worldly obsession with rulers and monarchs as self-protected and entitled entities of power and prestige. Instead, our Gospel lesson draws our attention to an arrested, beaten, mocked Jesus on trial who when asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” There is such truth in that statement, truth that is vital to helping us move back full circle to receive the Holy who comes to join us in this uncultivated world as a tiny, vulnerable infant. Jesus, Christ the King, does not have a kingdom of this world that builds up temporal power and might. Jesus, Christ the King, sees the humble, the egalitarian, the need to raise up the lowly and send the rich away empty in a way which doesn’t demean or diminish but helps us to see that all of us: yes, each and every one of us are loved, valued, and respected in the Realm of Christ who comes to make all things new.

It is a divine serendipity today that our liturgical and our community remembrances come together in our readings, in our remembering of our friend Don, in our own choice to be together and remain together as this parish moves through this time of transition. We have much to consider and to think about in terms of history, and meaning, and place and intention in this community of St. Mark’s that is part of the Diocese of Virginia, that is part of The Episcopal Church, and above all else part of the Body of Christ that we become, together. Our communities of being together are in this world, but do not need to be of this world. We can choose to model ways of being that embrace the egalitarian, that see the belovedness of Christ in all people, that welcome each and every one of us into roles of caring for and about each and every one of us and tending to the community beyond our doors, too. The way of being that we are taught in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a reign of love, peace, beloved community. If we can live into that here, in this place, we can live into that beyond these doors, in the larger world in which we live, too.

How can we act as counter-oppressive agents in the world in which we live? We can welcome those who are marginalized and made vulnerable by the abuses of power in this world in the midst of our beloved community. We can recognize fuller views of history, and hear hard truths when we need to so that history doesn’t repeat harmful actions but embraces a more egalitarian way of being and moving through the world. We can take a stand against oppression, pride, and the self-serving policies and practices of those whose authority in this world undermines others, rather than lifting them up. We can choose to learn from the gifts of those in our midst, like the lessons of humility and community that we learned from the way Don lived and served among us, and the continual joy that Ethel brings us with her presence and her smile that shows love to one and all. We can be the people of the realm of Christ’s love in this place and in this community so that we live into the Love that is our tradition at St. Mark’s, because we source that love in Jesus Christ, who reigns in our hearts and in our lives.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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