(Sermon begins 1:57:46)
In the Liturgy of the Palms we read:
Matthew 21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
‘Look, your sovereign is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey…’”
In Isaiah 45, an optional reading for the day, we hear:
7 Thus says the Faithful One,
the Redeemer of Israel, God’s holy one,
to one despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Queens and kings shall see and arise,
princes and princesses, and they too shall prostrate themselves,
on account of the Fire of Sinai, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Let us pray in words Moses may have once prayed:
May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew… Amen (Deuteronomy 32:2)
In spite of having fought and won a vicious and bloody war against the tyranny of monarchy, Americans have always been captivated by its glittering splendor. Stories of ordinary young women romancing the throne have filled our heads and for some, their hearts and hopes. We have been taught to admire these young women who “made it.” The transformations of the actress Grace Kelly to Princess of Monaco and of Lisa Halaby to Queen Noor of Jordan delighted and inspired many. But then there were the stories of Diana Spencer, Sarah Ferguson, and Meghan Markle and in the eyes of more than a few, those royal jewels lost some of their stolen luster. Yet there are all those Disney princesses, all of those white Disney princesses and suspect attempts at browning up the roster, including polishing up a settler-colonial tale of what was likely survival sex between a young indigenous woman, more likely girl, Matoaka called Pocahontas and John Smith. And then, finally granting us a black princess after years of protest and petition only to turn her into a frog for the majority of her movie.
We as Americans are infatuated with monarchy. Look at all of those historical and not-so-historical novels and movies and binge worthy and cringe worthy series. Game of Thrones had a cult like following and I was among its converts. Monarchy is seductive and not just for the Bridgertons. For me it’s all about the jewelry but even then, I can’t forget how many of those jewels are the fruit of conquest, pillage and slaughter. And at the same time, I am also fascinated by stories of these figures from history who at the tender age of 13, 14 and 15 took on the world and conquered a country or continent like Cleopatra, Alexander and my personal favorite, Temujen Genghis Khan. I also have no small amount of appreciation for those girls who were told all their lives that they could not lead a nation because of their gender but did it anyway like Elizabeth I. What has really been cultivated and conditioned in us is not just appreciation for overcoming the odds in whatever culture and context you found yourself in rather, we have been taught to covet that crown.
So many of us have found reasons to crown ourselves and our children. There are beauty pageants and prom courts and quinceañeras, birthday crowns and New Year’s Eve and wedding tiaras. Biggie had a crown. I have a crown. I crowned myself for my most recent birthday. There’s nothing wrong with our crowns and tiaras. In fact, we are telling monarchy that you are not the only one entitled to wear a crown. We are every bit as much worthy to wear our own crowns in this life and the next. We do not require your approval or permission; we will crown ourselves and our loved ones whenever the fancy strikes us. The crown itself is not the problem, but what it represents to those who see it as more than an ornament and party favor.
You see, it’s good to be king, in and out of the scriptures. Power, wealth, control, fear, obedience, wine, women and song in the old formulation. No limits. An ethical pass from the moral and legal codes of your people. At least in theory. In reality, monarchy is steeped in treachery and treason, murder and mayhem, rebellion and revolution. All too often, monarchy comes to a sudden gory end, at sword point, knifepoint or, the cutting edge of a guillotine. Yet people still sign up for the job because, it’s good to be king. I’m intentionally using masculine language because in the world of the Scriptures it didn’t matter how much power and authority a woman had as pharaoh, queen, majesty or monarch, there was always some man somewhere plotting to take her throne just because she was a woman. Even when she could and would be a better choice than whatever sorry man who was plotting against her.
It’s good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. He said, “You can keep that crown.” He rode into town on a working-class beast of burden. He came not to conquer a throne but to surrender to a cross. The gospel reading from the liturgy of the palms says that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. On a donkey, not on a royal steed like Richard the Lion Heart; on a donkey, not in a war chariot like Pharaoh and Caesar; on a donkey, not on an elephant like Hannibal, but on a donkey, on one of the least valued pack animals and beasts of burden. A donkey. I am sure there were folks who made fun of Jesus and his borrowed donkey. I imagine some of his disciples were embarrassed by the one they called Rabbi and teacher and lord and master on such an undignified animal. But Jesus paid them no mind.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem in a majesty for which we have no words. A majesty the people recognized when they cut down the branches along the way to prepare for him a royal pathway. They recognized what Isaiah’s successor writing in his name described. That there is a majesty that would make the monarchs of this world get up off their thrones and bow down, a majesty that only God could grant. In that lesson it is the majesty of the power of God to restore even the broken and dispersed nation of Israel to glory.
It is good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. Jesus even ran away once so he wouldn’t be made king against his will. He said, “You can keep that crown.” He knew that there was nothing romantic about being king; the monarchy in the ancient Afro-Asiatic world was no Disney fairy tale. Many monarchs, kings, some queens and pharaohs – male and female – were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, egomaniacal and rapacious. Monarchy was a violent bloody business and if you wanted to keep your throne you had to get your hands dirty and bloody. When the disciples asked Jesus, “When are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel,” they were asking, “When are we going to get bloody, when are we going to fight back.”
There was no concept of a commander-in-chief directing war from a situation room or “undisclosed location” in the ancient world. Monarchs went to war on the front lines, including Israelite and Judean queens like Athaliah and Shelomith, the Peace of Zion and, the genderfluid Pharoah Hatshepsut. They sliced and diced, battered and broke, crushed and stomped their enemies to death. Every song and psalm about victory in battle means somebody’s son, somebody’s child, was coming home broken and in pieces or covered with the blood, bone, and brains of someone else’s child. Monarchy was inextricable from warfare in the ancient world. To be a king was to be at war or intermittently at peace secured by the ravages of a past war and the promises of the next one. And as their reward for securing and maintaining a bloody peace, monarchs took from the people what they felt they were entitled to and whatever they wanted. When the people asked God for a king to Samuel’s consternation, he gave them a warning about what they were really asking for.
1 Samuel 8:11 Samuel said, “This will be the judgment of the human-sovereign who will reign over you: your sons he will take and set them aside for himself in his chariots and in his cavalry, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will set aside for himself… some to plow his plowing and to reap his reaping, and to make his furnishings of war and the furnishings of his chariots. 13 Your daughters he will take to be apothecaries and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take and give to his servants. 15 One-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards he will take and give to his eunuchs and his slaves. 16 Your male slaves and your female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, he will take and put them to his work. 17 Your flocks he will tithe…and you, you shall be his slaves. 18 And you all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.”
It’s good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life. You can keep that crown.
It’s good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. To be a king in the world in which Jesus lived was to be a warlord while the way in which Jesus lived was the way of love. Kings are autocrats, the very embodiment of empire. Their life’s work, however brief, is gaining and maintaining power at any cost. We have seen how ruthless wannabe and self-proclaimed kings can be when it comes to doing anything and everything to hang on to that throne. We may have presidents and not kings, but we are not immune to the power grabs and throne games. I would go so far as to say the violence we have seen is nothing more than the empire striking back and its cabal of would-be kings fighting to maintain their power base, white supremacy, at any cost. At the cost of voting rights, at the cost of free speech and the right to protest. At the cost of black lives. At the cost of indigenous lives. At the cost of Asian lives. At the cost of women’s right to be present, to be in public, to be in power, to make their own decisions about their own bodies without being objectified or fetishized.
Heir to a majesty the word “kingdom” does not fully contain, Jesus came to love us into life, a life that transcends death. Jesus came knowing that love with no limitations or pre-conditions is terrifying to those whose only currency is fear and death. And he came anyway. Jesus came to be with us, as us, God with us. He came knowing the cost of his radical life and love was police brutality, conviction in a crooked court by an unjust judge and a shameful, painful, humiliating death.
The poet-prophet writing in the voice of Isaiah spoke of Israel in her restoration. We can also hear it as the followers of Jesus would have read it, holding those two readings together. There is a majesty beyond majesty, a majesty that only God can grant, before which every human crown must be set aside and, every earthly throne abandoned.
We see that majesty in Christ is. A majesty not found in treasures of temple or palace, burgled and broken apart, but in a crown of thorns beaten in by bullies and in his battered and denuded body. This human, mortal, woman-born Jesus is the glory and majesty of God; in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is the brilliance of God’s glory and reproduction of God’s very being. That is true majesty. That humanness, shared with every girl and woman, boy and man, nonbinary child and adult, is the majesty of Christ and our own.
People still crown Jesus. My ancestors sang, “Ride on King Jesus, ride on.” The church has an entire Sunday devoted to the majesty of Christ. The truth is we have so few words and, they are so inadequate to describe the glory and love and majesty that are God’s. Jesus promised us a crown. But it won’t be like this, gaudy glass bauble. It will be a crown that never fades. Amen.