St Francis, Terriers - Christ the King (26.11.2017) Tony Dickinson

My Cambridge-based colleague Malcolm Guite is a college chaplain, a scholar, a folk-singer and a poet. Five years ago he published a set of sonnets, “Sounding the Seasons”, based on the Christian year. Here, on this last Sunday of that year, is the sonnet for “Christ the King”, which rounds off the collection.

“Our King is calling from the hungry furrows

Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,

Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,

Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.

He stands in line to sign in as a stranger

And seek a welcome from the world he made,

We see him only as a threat, a danger,

He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.

And if he should fall sick then we take care

That he does not infect our private health,

We lock him in the prisons of our fear

Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.

But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing

The praises of our hidden Lord and King.”

In his commentary on the poem, Malcolm notes: “We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set [today’s passage from] Matthew in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King, hidden beneath the rags and even in the flesh of his poor here on earth.”

The “kingdom of our God and of his Christ”, to use words made familiar by the Hallelujah Chorus, is very unlike “the kingdoms of this world”. The dreadful news from Egypt, and the continuing agony of Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, reminds us that those who have power, and those who desire power, all too often seek to impose their will by violence and destruction. Those who have the weapons make the rules – and it doesn’t matter whether the weapons are military hardware or economic leverage or technological expertise.

This morning’s gospel and Malcolm Guite’s poem point us in a completely different direction. They point us not to the power and the glory achieved by top-down destruction but to the bottom of the pile and the struggle for life. They point us to the weak, the poor, the despised: refugees, perhaps, homeless people, those who are ill, those who are desperate. As we shall remind ourselves four weeks today, the eternal Christ enters his world in the helplessness of a baby, born to a young woman and her partner displaced by order of the government in a strange town and a place not their own. It’s a situation more like that of a family of Grenfell survivors than a royal baby, but Christians down the centuries have latched on to the “royal baby” (and the visiting wise men) – and we have missed the warning, spelled out as starkly by the prophet in our first reading as it is by Jesus in our gospel. “The fat and the strong”, those who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [their] horns”, are under the judgement of God who comes to “seek the lost... bring back the strayed… bind up the injured and … strengthen the weak.” The prophet highlights God’s promise to do all of that, but also God’s threat to feed “the fat and the strong” with justice, to confront them with what their complacency, their sense of entitlement, has actually meant for others.

On Thursday there was a parents’ evening at Henley College, and I was the duty parent. I arrived a bit early and, instead of going straight to the College, I wandered down Hart Street in search of a cup of tea. Among the rather grand buildings in Hart Street is the headquarters of a “wealth management company”. Now “wealth management companies” have been in the news recently – and not for the best of reasons.

This particular company’s slogan, prominently displayed on the façade of their premises, says “maximising the wealth you created”. That made me feel quite uncomfortable: in the first place, because human beings don’t create wealth; God does; we merely acquire it or manipulate it: but also because I couldn’t help wondering how many millions of pounds which could have been spent on seeking the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured and strengthening the weak were being directed by these “wealth managers” into dodgy-but-legal schemes of the kind that have come to light in the “Paradise Papers”.

A kingdom in which that kind of “wealth management” is accepted – and encouraged – is a very long way from the kingdom described by another poet-priest, the late R.S. Thomas, who wrote:

“It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on:

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured

By life. It’s a long way off, but to get

There takes no time and admission

Is free, if you purge yourself

Of desire, and present yourself with

Your need only and the simple offering

Of your faith, green as a leaf.”

Let us present ourselves and our world, with our need for healing and forgiveness, to God.