Who’s Behind the Title?

Westley Conn

Sermon by The Rev. Westley P. Conn, Ministry Fellow, The Memorial Church of Harvard University (Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Will you be with me in a spirit of prayer? O God, open my lips and make right my heart, that my mouth would proclaim your praise and that the thoughts and meditations of all of our minds would be pleasing to you, Lord, our creator, our Christ, and our sustainer. Amen

One of my earliest encounters with a Monarch, with a King, was Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania with fields, forests, and Amish as neighbors, meant that our selection of TV channels was limited; limited to about five, one of which happened to be PBS.

I vividly remember the colorful sweaters and the ease with which Mr. Rogers tied his shoes. This was an amazing feat to my six-year-old self. Most exciting though were the trolley led visits to the neighborhood of make-believe, where a host of curious characters waited, including King Friday the 13th.

King Friday often appeared perching from his blue castle walls, his gray hair peeking from beneath his shiny gold crown and a purple cape draping his slender shoulders. There was always great fanfare at his arrival, complete with trumpeters signaling his significance. From what I can remember though, his presence in the neighborhood made me uneasy. King Friday was a man of rules. Everyone bowed or curtsied to him and he used words too big for me to understand. Most notably, he enjoyed being right and when he was right, his guests always responded enthusiastically. "Correct, as usual, King Friday."

King Friday made me feel out of place. To confirm my memory is of a pompous King Friday, I came across a dialogue between he and Mayor Maggie. It goes like this.

King Friday declares, "I am about to make an announcement." Mayor Maggie responds, "Can we help you, King Friday?" King Friday says, "Of course." So Mayor Maggie asks, "What can we do?" King Friday answers, "You can listen."

Like King Friday, the terminology of Christ the King, seems a bit arrogant and for some unwelcoming. In the seasons of the church, today is remembered as Christ the King Sunday. It's even printed on the front of your bulletins.

Sometimes churches instead call today the Reign of Christ Sunday. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers refer to today as The Solemnity Of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. We seem to be a bit unsure of kingly language and its place. Maybe this is why we can't seem to agree on a title.

The origins of the Feast Day of Christ the King, our recent, having been initiated by Pope Pius the 11th in 1925. Comparatively, other church seasons like Advent, have been around for hundreds of years.

In the aftermath of World War I, Pope Pius was acutely aware of the widespread grief and power vacuum left by devastated governments and institutions. Despite an armistice, peace was yet to be achieved. Class divisions and nationalism were on the rise and war ravaged nations. Pope Pius hoped to remind the church of God's supremacy and that peace was only to be found under the kingship of Christ as Prince of Peace.

Mindful of the ways, human kings left a harmful mark on the world. Christ the King Sunday is about something different. It's about God's love for the world.

Today is also the final Sunday in the liturgical year before we begin a new liturgical season, Advent. In a way, this is the churches New Year's Eve, as we await the arrival of a new liturgical year next Sunday. The lectionary readings for today, they are a bit jarring, but they fittingly bring us to the crucifixion, a place in the Christian Canon where we can see just really who this Christ the King is, and he is nothing like King Friday.

Calling Christ King, yes, it can sound archaic. It might conjure images of a white, blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus whose picture often communicates exclusion rather than inclusion. King language to many of our ears might create timbres of patriarchal oppression.

Christians, when speaking of king and kingdom, we have a history of violence and forced conversion. Addressing Christ using the title King, tends to have resonances of Christian triumphalism all at the expense of others. We at Harvard, we tend to be quite fond of titles. Not only am I Reverend, I am also the Reverend Wesley Conn, Ministry Fellow in the Memorial Church. Professor Paulsell, her title is the Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies in the Harvard Divinity School.

Sometimes the person behind the title gets lost. The focus becomes the title, not the person. A few weeks ago I had a humbling and deeply moving experience as I helped to compile the list of this congregation's beloved dead to be remembered for All Saints Day. It is practice in the Memorial Church to not include the titles of persons on this list, only their names. As these titles disappeared, I got a sense of the beauty of those whom we were remembering and people are so much more than their titles.

If we are more than our titles, more than Reverend or Professor or Reverend Professor, then the incarnation, God's coming to dwell among us here on earth, tells us that Christ too, is more than his title. There is a person behind Christ, the King. The scriptures, they tell us that when he was born, his mom and dad, they laid him in a cradle and they named him Jesus. The name Jesus, meaning the Lord saves.

When we look behind the title, if we take King and set it aside just for a minute, we see a person who forgives in only a way that God can forgive. The person behind the title, they notice the marginalized, whether they are gathering water at the well alone in the heat of the day, or if they're climbing high and a Sycamore tree just to catch a glimpse.

Jesus, the person behind the title, invites us to a place where love is freely given even to a foolish son who asks for his inheritance, only to spoil it on vanity and vice.

There are other stories about Jesus. Stories is that say he is like a shepherd, a shepherd who has a lot of sheep and he cares deeply about each and every one of them and if even one goes missing, he goes to look for it. Jesus the King, and the Christ, is the kind of man who is like a woman, a woman who has a collection of 10 coins and when one goes missing, she tears her house apart just to find it.

Friends, Christ the King is not good news unless we know something about the quality of the person behind the title. We are accustomed here to a system of titles that confer power and take it away. Perhaps today we would do well to remember the person behind the title.

I don't know who Mr. Rogers had in mind when he created King Friday the 13th to rule over the neighborhood of make-believe. I do know that Mr. Rogers, himself a Christian, was able to give hope and love to a world in desperate need of peace.

As Christians, as followers of Jesus, what might we, what might you, be able to proclaim to a world still in need of peace?