A Sermon for November 25, 2018, Christ The King Sunday
As the editor and writer of Marvel Comics from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Stan Lee published a monthly column entitled “Stan’s Soapbox” which appeared on the last page of the company’s various superhero titles.
Upon his death at the age of 95 on November 12, one of the columns that the legendary creator wrote 50 years ago immediately resurfaced on social media. Published in December 1968, the essay addressed racism in America in the wake of the horrific assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy that occurred earlier that year. The co-creator of iconic characters such as Spider-man, The Black Panther and The Avengers, wrote the following:
Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun.
The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. …He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another.
But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.
Peace and Justice,
Stan Lee’s words remain relevant today and are reflected in the moral and spiritual messages he weaved into the realistic fantasy superhero universe he helped create at Marvel Comics. Lee also adhered to the principals of love and tolerance in his own life, which is partly what made him such a beloved pop icon.
Despite being agnostic and non-religious, Lee had a great appreciation for the Golden Rule and the power of sacrificial love. As such, he imbued his super heroes with a sense of humility and compassion, and he exposed them to real life issues that would challenge their humanity. The previously mentioned characters and many more, like Iron Man and the Hulk, are flawed super heroes. For decades they’ve struggled with the challenges of everyday life just like the average person: job stress, addiction, depression, fear, prejudice, poverty, war, religious discrimination, illness and death, disabilities, and family relationships. And their powers don’t always save them from their troubles.
But Lee also believed that regardless of one’s flaws, human beings could do extraordinary things to help fashion a better world, which was evident in his super hero stories but also explicitly stated in another Soapbox column from 1968:
“We (at Marvel) believe that (humans) have a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility—the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect…We’ll never rest until it becomes a fact rather than just a cherished dream.”
Considering all of this, the case could be made that Stan Lee likely comprehended (more than many Christians) the theological concept that Christ or God’s kingdom is not from this world, and humanity is called to be a part of this alternative reality.
A certain amount of imagination and faith is needed to conceive a world that is unlike the one we inhabit. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor of Judea, doesn’t have that imagination and faith, which is why he remains stuck in a rudimentary understanding of kings and kingships. Pilate is unable to grasp the idea of a kingdom and world apart from the one he knows. And he is incapable of seeing Jesus as one who belongs to an entity more sovereign than Rome.
Pilate suspects, as does King Herod and the religious authorities, that Jesus is a threat to the power and prestige each of them hold. Pilate is trying to determine if Jesus is claiming to be the king of Israel, the Jewish nation and therefore challenging the authority of Roman Emperor. Pilate views Jesus’ action as a potential global security threat to the Empire.
Jesus’ kingdom, though, is not defined in earthly terms nor is it some heavenly, abstract concept. According to the scriptures and the culture of the time, the kingdom of God is considered an authentic world that is within and beyond our own: a kingdom that has already arrived; a kingdom that is fully in the present, and a kingdom that will one day bring forth a new heaven and earth. And it is a kingdom where all belong and are invited to be part of the community of an unconditionally loving God, whose reign transcends any one person or group of people.
I realize this may sound like a Utopian fantasy—a fanciful, pie-in-the sky dreaming that is more suitable for kids who read comic books or watch movies about wizards. Yet it is the foundation of our faith and why we as Presbyterians join Christians around the globe in recognizing today as Christ the King Sunday. As it is stated on the website of the Presbyterian Church (USA):
“The festival of Christ the King…moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming into our lives. … In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. … As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives.”
Jesus never has and never will fit into humanity’s centuries old traditions, experiences, ideas and images of royalty, leadership, power and prestige. Jesus wasn’t a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time, and Jesus is not like any crowned figurehead, dictator or elected leader that has existed in the modern era.
Pilate mistakenly identifies him as a meddlesome king, even going so far as to asking Jesus, “What is truth?” when the truth of who Jesus is stands plainly before him. Pilate simply can’t comprehend much less handle the truth, which is that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our lives now and forever.
Jesus is the ruler of a kingdom where God’s love, peace, justice, healing and restoration are experienced. Jesus—this God-in-the-flesh who faces interrogation by a representative of a dominating system of violence and power—is the ruler who enters our world as a small, defenseless child instead of a power-hungry deity seeking to wipe out sinners and rule with an iron fist.
“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,” Jesus says to an ignorant Pilate.
The truth—that is God’s kingdom of love and grace—is not always easy or comforting to hear. It can be difficult because it means we’re acknowledging that we haven’t quite lived into the reality of God’s kingdom and have remained tethered to an earthly realm (a broken society and culture) that fosters greed, resentment, prejudice and hate. It means that sometimes we’ve become stuck in our own self-serving agendas and rejected Christ’s verbal invitation to be a part of God’s beloved community.
One of my all-time favorite television shows, M*A*S*H, about the 4077th mobile surgical hospital unit stationed near the frontlines of the Korean War, helped me better appreciate the truth of Jesus’ kingship in an episode entitled, Quo Vadis, (Where Are You Going), Captain Chandler?
The episode begins with batch of soldiers being brought into the camp to be treated for the injuries they sustained in battle. Among them is Captain Arnold Chandler, a sheep rancher from Idaho, who believes he is Jesus Christ.
Some at the 4077th think Captain Chandler’s claim is blasphemous and that he is faking battle fatigue to earn a medical discharge. Others are concerned about the man’s mental well-being, and contact the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, for a consultation.
It turns out that Chandler, a decorated pilot who had flown 57 missions before being shot down, has lost his memories even though his head wound is superficial. Despite best efforts to help him remember, Chandler insists he is Christ. After a long visit with his patient, Sidney shares a diagnosis with camp personnel. He tells them:
“He’s not Christ. But he’s not Chandler either. The man is a victim. Chandler lost himself. He’s not playing a game. He spent two years dropping bombs on people who never did anything to him until finally something inside this kid from Idaho said, ‘Enough! You’re Christ, you’re not a killer. The next bomb you drop, you drop on yourself.’”
Sidney then recommends that the pilot be admitted to a hospital in Tokyo where he can receive treatment that will turn him back to his former self but “never into a fighting machine.” A few moments later, in the episode’s final scene, Captain Arnold Chandler is walking out of the medical tent to board a bus to the airport when Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reiley, the young, naïve company clerk approaches him. Radar timidly says to Captain Chandler:
“Sir, my name is Radar O’Reiley. … Um, sir are you really who they say, I mean are you really Him?”
Chandler replies: “Yes, I am.”
Radar breathes a sigh of relief and then asks: “I know you’re busy and all but could you bless this?”
Radar then reaches into a satchel and draws out a ragged old teddy bear that he’s loved since childhood. “I know he’s not real, but we’re very close.”
Chandler places his hands on the stuffed animal, his right hand covering the teddy’s bear’s missing eye, and says: “Bless you.”
Then he looks up at Radar and says, “Bless you, Radar.”
Moved and humbled by the gesture, Radar says proudly, “I’m Walter.”
Chandler replies: “Bless you, Walter.” And then as he boards the bus, he looks at everyone in the camp and says, “Bless all of you.”
I first shared this illustration in a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Church in Maryland on Christ the King Sunday, 2006. While preparing that sermon, I tracked down the episode’s writer, Bert Prelutsky, and sent him an email asking for more insight on the story of Captain Arnold Chandler. Bert emailed me back the next day, saying:
“I think the message was fairly simple and straightforward. We all share a common humanity, whatever our religion is… Chandler, of course, represented the Christ, the spark of the divine, that resides in most of us.”
There is, of course, a lot about God and God’s kingdom that is mysterious and astonishing. But maybe it’s not so strange to consider that we’ve each been blessed with a spark of the Divine, the captivating love of God
Maybe it’s not too far fetched to concede that when we are tuned into Christ’s voice enough so that we might follow and embrace God’s vision, which is both within and beyond our reach, we encounter a glimpse of the holy…
Mission trips to Honduras and Blue Ridge, Georgia; Bible Study and fellowship at the Duluth Co-Op; Laundry Love; Operation Turkey Sandwich, Clifton Men’s Shelter; Rainbow Village, Blood Drives; Mental Health Awareness Workshops for Parents and High School Youth, Free Clinical Exams for Uninsured Mammogram Patients. Vacation Bible School. Montreat, etc., etc.,
When we come together to love others as Christ loves, we participate in a kingdom that is not from this world.
That is and will always be the truth.