The King’s Speech
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, November 22nd, 2020
On December 29, 1799, a memorial service for George Washington was held at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia. Two centuries later, I had the privilege of serving that congregation from 1993 to 2004. During that period, I learned a great deal about our first President. When Washington finished his second term, he did not insist on staying in office, even though a significant portion of the population would have not only elected him for a third term, they would have coronated him as king.
Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated with royalty. Currently, Jennell and I are enjoying the new season of the British series, The Crown. And, it should come as no surprise that I have watched the Academy award winning movie, The King's Speech more times than I will say in public. This marvelous movie tells of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V of England. According to rules of succession, Albert was inevitably the unfortunate son, the son destined never to be King lest something untoward happen to his older brother. In some ways, it was just as well because Albert suffered from a major speech impediment causing him great angst as he would stammer through private and public speech.
Well, royal history often unfolds in unlikely ways and it did so again within this royal family. Prince Albert’s older brother abdicated the throne suddenly and unexpectedly, and Albert found himself serving the nation as King George VI. He took the throne just in time to declare war on Germany. An anxious nation sat by their radios awaiting a momentous speech from someone who was even more anxious about delivering it. What the new King soon learned was that no matter the quality of his delivery, his words carried ultimate authority in matters of the state.
Today is the end of the church year, a day traditionally known as Christ the King Sunday. And yet, oddly enough, on this special feast day, the church pays little to no attention to kings. We pay no attention to the tragic rise and fall of Israel’s first king, Saul. We do not turn to the coronation of David as King or remember any of the numerous kings named in the two biblical books of the kings of Israel. Not only does the church fail to focus on kings on this Christ the King Sunday, it also fails to focus on the two church seasons almost upon us – Advent and Christmas.
Instead, Christ the King Sunday fast forwards us to the last week of the life of Jesus, a week that the church calls Holy. The Scripture for today leads us not to a makeshift cradle in the little town of Bethlehem, but to the prestigious halls of provisional Roman power in Jerusalem. Our story today features not a battle of the wits between Herod and the magi, but instead, an uneven battle of wits between Jesus and Pilate.
Pilate is a featured character in the Holy Week story, but he is no king, no emperor. He is no more than a regional political appointee, stuck in a lousy assignment a far cry from imperial Rome. You can almost see Pilate’s tongue in his cheek when he asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” Who knows if Pilate ever realized that the joke was on him, because according to John’s Gospel the joke is always on those who believe that the Pilates of the world are the ones who wield ultimate power.
The truth revealed in this memorable encounter between Pilate and Jesus is that there is a king present in Pilate’s Palace and it is not Pilate. The coronation of the true king takes place outside the town center of Jerusalem, not in a royal palace but on a solitary cross. At Golgotha, the definition of king is forever transformed from a male in ultimate political authority, holding a scepter to keep his followers in line, to a humble servant of God, who, regardless of gender, resists the use of violence to reveal the power of nonviolence.
Before Pilate sends the King to the cross, Jesus tells him, “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.” Pilate is so moved by this “king’s” speech that he yawns and asks the question asked by any dismissive philosopher and every lazy politician throughout the ages, “What is truth?”
The truth sits in his palace staring him in the face and all Pilate can see is one more Jew who is disturbing the peace. Pilate died centuries ago, but his followers are alive and well today; they are those who substitute a rigorous pursuit of the truth with sloppy thought that mistakes truth for whatever we want to be true. We add to Pilate’s crowd when we listen only to the news that confirms what we want to believe and read only the papers that reinforce what we think should be true. We live in Pilate’s Palace whenever we convince ourselves that “truth” is in the eye of the beholder. Whenever you and I settle for that thin and flimsy definition of “truth,” Pilate’s fan club grows.
Long before Pilate asks his pathetic question, “What is truth?”, Jesus tells all who would follow him, “I am the truth.” Truth is found chiefly by listening to and following in the way of the seeming loser being questioned by Pilate in his palace. John asks everyone to listen to that truth teller, listen to that itinerant Palestinian preacher, in every moment of life, moments when truth is as clear as the morning sky on a cloudless day and moments when truth is hard to see, complex and the user’s guide is in another language.
The “truth” of Jesus is marked by humility and compassion, the humility to accept that we know far less than we think we do and the compassion to care for everyone – the noisy ones, the misguided ones, the gay ones, the multi-colored ones, the confused ones, the ones just out of prison, the ones who can barely walk down the hill and the ones who sprint to the top of the hill, the ones sick in body and the ones sick with worry for how they will feed their family or pay the stacking pile of bills.
And how does Pilate respond to the truth staring him in the face? How does he respond to the “King’s Speech”? He is so deeply moved by Jesus’ speech that he sends Jesus out to be tortured and then executed. Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells of being at a retreat where the leader asked everyone to think about someone who represents Jesus in their lives, one who embodies truth and speaks truth. When it came time to share their answers one woman stood up and said, ‘I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking. Who is it who told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?’” (“The Perfect Mirror,” The Christian Century, March 18, 1998).
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” That was the last speech of the One we call King, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Savior of our Souls. On this “Christ the King Sunday,” savor that speech, remember that speech, memorize that speech, think of that speech when you rise in the morning and when you go to sleep at night. Think of that speech especially when you are tempted to settle for something far less than the truth or for no truth at all. It is a “King’s” speech that will guide our feet, our minds, our hearts, our lives.
When you get your news chiefly from Jesus, when you refuse to settle for less than the Truth that he is and the truth that he lived and the truth that he tells, you might well lose your life, but as our crucified and resurrected King says on the road to Jerusalem, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Sitting in a Nazi prison, the German preacher and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had ample time to search for the truth about God, about Jesus, about himself. He ends one of his reflections with words worthy of a king or a queen, or, more importantly, words worthy of anyone who wants to follow the Truth. He writes:
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once?
Whoever I am, You know, O God, I am Yours!
And that’s what makes all the difference.
On this Christ the King Sunday, that is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!