SERMON “Love is the Boss of Us”
My favorite meme from this week’s Romaine lettuce recall seemed appropriate for Christ the King Sunday. It said:
The Romaine empire is fallen. Caesar is dead. Lettuce pray.
This year at Thanksgiving, pie was better for us than salad. Don’t tell me that’s not evidence that God loves us and wants to be happy.
Please pray with me:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together find their way into the heart of God this morning. Amen.
Today on this last day before the church year ends and begins again with Advent, we celebrate the reign of Christ. Hallelujah, Christ is King! Though some of us might have spent Thanksgiving gritting our teeth and smiling, your mother-in-law is not king, and neither is your sullen teenager….Christ is King! Though we spent all of Friday starting at 1 am trying to find black Friday deals, the marketplace is not King. Christ is King! Though some of us have an internal self critic that we cannot turn off, beating ourselves up from the inside, that voice is not King…Christ is King! Though we live in a country that is increasingly more divided and cruel, the president is not King; Wall Street is not King; the 24 hour news cycle is not King…Christ is King!
Here’s what we celebrate on Christ the King Sunday:
Love is, was, and ever shall be the boss of us.
When Christ is the one in charge, when his Kingdom of Equals is established, when Love is the boss, the world looks completely upside down.
Witness it with me:
Before the sun comes up, the can collector gets to his work. His toe pokes through the hole at the top of his worn left shoe. He pulls on a moth eaten wool sweater and sighs, tired from his fitful sleep interrupted by the noise of the street. He grabs his shopping cart with a bum wheel, and slowly ambles down my block. He is the hardest working person in my Boston neighborhood.
I don’t want him to see me looking at him through the window of my warm apartment. I don’t know if I’m ashamed for him, or for me. The can collector carefully picks through the cardboard and paper digging for gold: the silver gleam of a soda or beer can in my recycling bins and my trash cans. When he finds some, he piles them high into his mounded shopping cart, black garbage bags over-flowing with cans and hung on either side of the hulking metal contraption. On the streets of Boston one can find hundreds and thousands of cans and bottles that can be turned into recycling centers for 5-10 cents a piece if you can brave the weather: digging through snow, withstanding high humidity, waterlogged in the pouring rain.
I lived in several neighborhoods in my seventeen years in Boston, and in each one there was an early morning collector of cans. The can collector was always small, old, weathered, and slow moving; invariably an immigrant of Asian descent.
Perhaps the can collector brings his earnings back to his apartment in Chinatown, that he shares with multiple generations of his family, crammed into small beds and tight corners like the family that lived upstairs from me in my early years in Jamaica Plain. Or perhaps he uses the money he earns to bring cigarettes and food back to the shelter under the bridge where he lays his head. I never knew because I never asked. I never even said “hello.” All I know is that this quiet and industrious scavenger was often refused by drivers on the city buses because he took up too much room or his cans were too smelly; week-old beer is hard on the noses of the morning commuters bound for the Longwood Medical area.
Mostly he went unnoticed. Alone. Abandoned. Rejected. Unseen, even when people passed him by. He is one of the world’s great losers. But in God’s eyes, he wears a crown.
When I worked in downtown Boston, I got off at the Park Street station every day, and passed Michael on my way to my office building at the Unitarian Universalist Association on Beacon Street. Michael was a mainstay of the Boston Common, sitting on the bench or on the stairs that leads up to the statehouse. He was tiny with bird-like bones, his black skin made blacker by the grime of the streets he lived on. He had a leprechaun-like black beard sprinkled with wiry gray. His clothes hung off of him, his pants too big, and his belt wrapped tightly around his hips to hold them up. He was elfin, ageless, and he had a gigantic, white smile.
I have rarely met anyone with more charisma than Michael. He called everyone “uncle” and “auntie.” He was rumored to have a million dollars stored away from panhandling, which I never believed, though I do know he was more successful than some of his less hilarious and cute homeless friends.
Michael told everyone that it was his birthday every day, which was a brilliant marketing ploy. He also knew his perch would fill up with bleeding heart state house employees and liberal religious professionals headed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s office building every morning at a little bit before 9 am from the T. I was one of them.
“Hey auntie!” He’d call out, “it’s my birthday!”
“Here’s five dollars,” one of his hurried customers would say as they dropped it into his wool winter hat on the ground. “Don’t spend it all in one place, Michael.”
One day I asked him when his birthday really was, and he said, “Today! Give me a hug, auntie.”
The pure grace of being called a family member by someone I would likely ignore if he wasn’t so charming woke me up to my own complacency every morning. It also assuaged my guilt for all of the other nameless, faceless people I passed lying on cardboard on the streets of my city. I was grateful Michael didn’t let me look away. So while I didn’t relish the idea of hugging someone so smelly, I’d hold my breath and hug Michael anyway. The stench of urine, body odor and something vaguely medical would creep into my nose and stay on my clothes for the rest of the day.
I was a 24 year old secretary in an office filled with ministers then. One of the stern male minister bosses in my office saw me hug Michael one day. He took me aside to angrily and paternalistically inform me that this practice was dangerous. “Don’t do that again. You could contract diseases, or he could pick pocket you, Robin. You need to be more careful.”
I sensed that I needed to be more careful around people like him, though, not around people like Michael. People like this minister were crowned with many worldly crowns…given secretaries to manage, his own office to make decisions from, high pulpits to preach from, and a hardened heart.
Though Michael greeted everyone like family, rarely was he greeted like family by the lawyers, corporate executives and Beacon Hill residents who passed him on his path. He was alone; abandoned, really. Unseen, even by people who passed him by. He was one of the world’s great losers, ignored on a daily basis by the world’s great winners.
But in God’s eyes, it is Michael who wears a crown.
They took Jesus early in the morning to Pilate’s headquarters. He didn’t wear a robe and a crown, he wore a mantle: a large shawl which had tassels called tallith, and some dusty sandals. He was exhausted from a sleepless night of feeding his friends and washing feet, filled with dread of the fate that awaited him.
He was heralded as a king earlier in the week as he rode into town on a lowly donkey, with coats to ease his seat and palms thrown down on the ground to soften the path. He knew at the time that he would be denied, betrayed and abandoned by the few friends he had left, so even that celebration was mawkish.
Before Jesus is sentenced to death, Pilate asks him if he is a king. Jesus answers “You say that I’m a king, but I came to testify to the truth,” and “my kingdom is not of this world."
“Crucify him!” the crowd shouts.
The soldiers dress him up like royalty with a purple robe and a crown of thorns digging into his forehead, causing blood to pour down from his sweaty brow. And they mock him. He is whipped, beaten. They say “Hail! King of the Jews!” as they strike him in the face. He is hung on a cross with criminals flanking him on either side. “King of the Jews,” the sign above his head reads, menacingly.
Calling Christ “King” is making a sneering mockery of the man who put the least of all first; who proclaimed his kingdom not of this world where royalty and presidents and politicians and billionaires rule from atop high towers.
People who pass avert their eyes. His friends leave. He is the world’s great loser, crucified by the Roman Empire, sentenced to die by the King. He is unseen, abandoned, left to die alone. But in God’s eyes, it is he who wears the crown.
This is our God, the Loser King, who rose again to remind us all that Love is, was and ever shall be the boss of us.
So instead of celebrating Christ the King Sunday, why don’t we celebrate Christ the Can Collector Sunday? Why don’t we celebrate the birthday of Michael the panhandler, born to save us all? Because the Jesus I know would be much more comfortable collecting cans from the trash with his Chinese immigrant friend, or panhandling on the street with Michael proclaiming his birthday a holy day than he would be on some cosmic royal throne.
This is what the Apostle Paul says, writing to his new churches, in the words of Elizabeth Meyer Bolton:
”I never cease to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.
I pray that you will continue to grow in wisdom and in faith.
I pray that you will know that you are called to hope.
I know you look around the world, and you get discouraged.
I know you look around and see war, and hear rumors of war.
I know you see the violence, and all the loss.
The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.
I know you look around and see all kinds of people getting left behind,
All kinds of people being abandoned...
But have faith!
For the one who was abandoned,
The one who was rejected,
The one who was left alone to die,
That one God raised from the dead,
That one God seated at her right hand side.
That’s the one who had rule and authority and power
and dominion over everything in this world and in the next!”
We declare Christ King because we testify to this truth:
In the end, the losers will win. The last will go first. The least of these inherit the kingdom. Love has dominion over everything in this world and in the next. So happy reign of the can collector Sunday. Happy birthday to Michael, the panhandler King. Hail to all who are forgotten, rejected, ignored, abandoned and left for dead, for Love will rise onto the heavenly throne. Love is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Love is, was, and ever shall be the boss of us! And He shall reign forever and ever.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.