A sermon for the ordination of Marisa Egerstrom
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, South End, Boston: Thursday January 19, 2017
I have a certain sympathy for the people who want a king. I have stood before the endless aisles of canned goods overwhelmed by choice, overtired and unable to distinguish one can of tomato soup from another and wished for someone to make decisions for me. I have heard the longing of a beloved family member, who when the tentacles of their depression grip too close around the neck, whispers their secret desire to return to the security of a psych ward where someone else decides when you eat, what you wear, where you sleep, and when you rise. This year, we’ve hear the contorted complaints of a nation, weary of the hard work of self-governing, kvetching “if only we had a decider.”
And here, in the time of the Samuel, the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and pleaded, give us “a king to govern us, like other nations.” I have a certain sympathy for the very human, very weary and broken people looking to have someone else fix their mess for them.
We know this temptation. In the verses that follows, the people refuse to listen to Samuel’s warning and betray their own intentions. They said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” I have sympathy for these broken people. I am one of these broken people. Constant comparison to others eats away at our dignity. And secretly, sometimes, we want someone else to go out before us and fight our battles.
But it’s a dangerous thing to crown a king, or a queen. Samuel warns the people, a vision of getting what you ask for. The prophet lines out what this king will do. This king will make decisions for you, sure, and there will be a cost. As the Hebrew Bible Scholar Eric Baretto writes, “God has Samuel warn the people that kings do exactly one thing well: they take.”
This king will take your sons and send them to war; he will take your daughters and domesticate their power. He will take the best of your fields, take your grain and take your vineyard, take your cattle and take your donkeys, he will take your flocks. He will take and take and take for himself, telling you all the while that this is for your own good or for the good of the nation, until you find your self stripped of your possessions, relationships, and power and by verse 17, “you shall be his slaves.” A nation of makers, ruled by a taker.
By the time we get to verse 18, God sounds cruel: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chose for yourself; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
This is the Lord who self-limits, the parent who lets the children learn from their mistakes. Or what we who have found serenity in twelve-step spirituality would recognize- A Higher Power who grants people the dignity of their own decisions. We get free choice, but we also get the consequences of our choices. You want to smoke that cigarette after I told you not to? Fine, I’ll stand here and you’ll smoke the entire pack. “You want a king?” God says. “Fine, I’ll give you a king.”
The people have forgotten their history: They have forgotten how God freed them from slavery and instead, are choosing to become enslaved again. The people have forgotten that their wealth comes from God, and are instead turning it over to the king. That tithe of one-tenth that would go to God, now goes to the king. Idols make for bad governors. Either a king or God, but you cannot serve both.
You cannot serve both. You cannot serve God and Mammon. Pick your king, and pick wisely.
The tendency to crown is pernicious. We want all sorts of people to fight our battles for us. We rather a strong man than the complex communal life of working together for the elevation of dignity of all, not just the royal treatment of some. Beloved, guard against this tendency in ourselves and in our Christian institutions to put our trust in princes and in mortals “in whom there is no help.” Instead, our help is in the One who, as the Psalmist proclaims “keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.”(Ps 146: 6-7) That is the King who governs us tonight, and tomorrow. This is our consolation that Eric Baretto names: “God’s promises don’t cease when we make bad choices, when we choose blindly to trust frail women and men.”
The tendency to crown is pernicious, especially when that crown is so flattering. Crowns look good! They’re shiny and sparkly and make us seem taller and mower powerful. Marisa, you will be called smart and capable and wise. And you are. You will be dubbed the edgy new priest just ready to turn that parish around! And you may. These things aren’t untrue. You are both called and enormously capable. The danger comes in believing that you do these things of your own power and might. If we wear that flattery like a royal crown, we heap coals upon our head.
And a warning to the about-to-be ordained and all those set apart in service of the Gospel: If you let your ordination become a coronation, if you let the people place a royal crown upon your head, if you tend your flock “under compulsion,” that stolen crown will slip from your head down around your neck and choke you like a $3 petro-chemical plastic collar.
And on that judgment day, we will be called before the throne to answer to the Lord as to why we were usurping God’s crown.
Because it is a fearsome thing to stand before God’s people and proclaim a holy word. It is an awesome responsibility to stand before God’s people, declaring the broken Body restores the fractured to life. It is good and holy work, worth giving your life for. But if there comes a day when you do not stand with fear and trembling to do this holy work, then sit down. Resist and be cautious of those who would crown. To be ordained as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to proclaim we have but one king and one Lord, and we serve that God alone.
Jesus knew our human frailty, our sinful tendency to trade the reign of God for the reign of men. He saw it among the people he served. The people, an oppressed and occupied people, want Jesus to fight for them, to lead them to political victory. But that is not the kind of king Jesus is.
For the One who Simon Peter rightly identifies as “the Messiah” there is no royal crown, no monarchic jewels, not even a Che beret, but a freely chosen crown of thorns. Jesus takes the symbol of power and might, and flips it.
The world in which Jesus lived was full of crowns. These crowns, or corona were bestowed on Romans for acts of power in defense of the Empire. You know about the crown of laurels, given to the winners of Olympic games. The Emperors too wore crowns, Corona Radiata, signs that they were deified heroes. But they gave out other crowns too:
- “Corona Obsidionalis, made of grass from the site of the siege, was conferred to army generals who broke a siege.
- “Corona Civica, made of oak, was presented to a soldier who had saved the life of a Roman soldier.
- “Corona Muralis, made of gold and decorated with the look out towers of the city, was conferred to the first man who scaled the wall of a besieged city
- “Corona Castrensis, made of gold and decorated with city walls, was conferred on the first soldier who forced an entry into the enemy’s camp.
- The crown crept into the religious realm too, the Corona Sacerdotalis, made of olive leaves and sometimes gold, was worn by the priests at sacrifices.
Instead, the King that Christians claim, the one who reigns forever, wears not a military crown, or royal crown, but a crown of thorns. That is our King. One who knows our suffering and longs for our liberation.
There’s a Snapchat filter, a social media app that lets you see yourself and the people around through your phone with such adaptations as puppy dog ears, or a rainbow spewing forth from your mouth. Not through a glass dimly, but through your phone darkly, the Snapchat filter allows you to see a flower crown on top of every head.
Dear sister in Christ, and minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to follow our one true King, you must see every child of God as worthy of a crown, every one as inalienably precious. EVERY child of God. Every one you hate, everyone you love, every stranger and guest, every enemy and foe. See this broken world with the filter of a holy crown. We serve the Good Shepherd, not monarchs but the Messiah. This is who we follow, to whom we bow to, to whom we answer. This is a crown worth serving. “And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.” Amen.