A Sermon about the Reign of God (and Queen Elizabeth)
St. Philip Lutheran Church
25 September 2022 + Lect. 26c (Pentecost 16)
Rev. Josh Evans
Very few things will get me out of bed at 4:30 in the morning:
A fire alarm.
A sudden crash of thunder as intense as though lightning struck my own roof.
My cats knocking something over in the next room.
This past Monday, however, it was (blessedly) none of those things. What got me up at 4:30 in the morning on a Monday was the funeral service of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Broadcasted around the world, it was easily one of the most-watched television events in history. As the longest reigning British monarch, Elizabeth’s over seventy-year reign is also the only one many of us have ever known.
Elizabeth’s death and the history-steeped tradition and pageantry of the period of public mourning, culminating in her funeral and committal this past week, enraptured not just the attention of citizens of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth but the world.
For others though, feelings have been more…complicated, as Elizabeth’s death gave occasion to renewed critique of the monarchy itself. In many ways, it is an outmoded institution, and it has been at the center of its fair share of controversies. It is also certainly expensive to maintain, with the economic divide between the royal elite and the British “commoners” often front and center, including at such an event as a publicly-funded state funeral.
The history of the Crown and its empire is a complicated one, having once controlled colonies and enslaved peoples and which still today maintains a handful of “territories” (colonies).
Even now, closer to home, the “territory” (colony) of Puerto Rico, under the control of the United States government (empire), again for the second time in five years is suffering the devastating effects of a hurricane … and the lackluster response of its incredibly wealthy sovereign state. Not to mention the fact that any news coverage of the aftermath of the storm was largely eclipsed by royal funeral plans.
All around us is evidence of the great chasm between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots.
“Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.” Abraham’s response to the rich man is not so much an observation of the afterlife destinations of two characters in a parable. It’s a critique of the divides that exist in Jesus’s society – and still in our own – here and now.
Lazarus sat at this rich man’s gate for an unspecified period of time – but long enough, apparently, for the rich man to know his name. And the fact that this man knew Lazarus’s name means he knew he was there … and chose to continue to ignore him. This is a chasm of his own making.
And now, in a dramatic reversal, with echoes of Mary’s song that begins Luke’s gospel, Lazarus has been filled with good things and this rich man sent away empty. This is exactly what Jesus proclaimed, too, at the beginning of his ministry, as he set out “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives [and] to set free those who are oppressed.”
These texts are clear. The gospel is clear. This message is good news for those who are hungry, cast aside, and ignored.
And for those who have always been filled and who have never had to question whether or not there would be enough, this is a demanding wake-up call and a bold invitation to participate in the table-turning, justice-seeking reign of God that ensures there is enough for all.
If we think this is a story all about where we wind up when we die, we miss the point entirely. We are called here and now to follow a God who became one of us and has crossed every chasm there is to proclaim good news and abundant life for all.
One of the things that struck me while watching Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and seeing the many tributes to her remarkable life has been the ability to distinguish Elizabeth the person from Elizabeth the monarch. However problematic the institution which she unexpectedly inherited seventy years ago might be, Elizabeth’s life of service, which she committed to so many years ago, is indeed admirable.
In his funeral sermon on Monday, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects:
“In 1953 the Queen began her Coronation with silent prayer … Her allegiance to God was given before any person gave allegiance to her. Her service to so many people … had its foundation in her following Christ…
“People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.”
Elizabeth wasn’t perfect. None of us is. But there is an example in Elizabeth’s life, however far removed from our own, for us.
Elizabeth was a woman of extraordinary wealth and means who sought, perhaps at times imperfectly, to use her platform of privilege and prestige by devoting her life to the service of her fellow citizens, without regard to race, religion, gender, or sexuality.
Of course, you don’t have to hold the Crown Jewels to follow such an example. You don’t even have to have any wealth at all. As John Wesley may or may not have actually said, but an inspiring quote nevertheless:
“Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as you ever can.”
Following the way of Jesus means certain things. It means toppling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. It means paying attention to the marginalized and cast aside and listening to the voices we too often ignore.
Following this way of Jesus means, as the hymn text we’ll soon sing puts it: The world is about to turn.