When Love Reigns
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
November 20, 2022
Scripture: Psalm 24
Today happens to be set aside for several observances that I feel necessary to recognize. In the Christian liturgical calendar, today is when the Church observes Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Here at Plymouth, we are in the middle of our annual giving campaign, and since we are doing so during this holiday season, we are observing today as Thanksgiving Sunday. And today is also a day of lament and collective mourning in which the family, friends, and allies of trans people observe Transgender Day of Remembrance to remember and call the names of trans people murdered all over the world due to transphobic hate and intolerance. And just as I began to worry that my proclamations would be unable to hold what appears to be disparate themes and frames, leave it to the psalter to focus our attention on the one unifying presence in whom all things hang together.
Upon first reading Psalm 24, my thoughts immediately went back to a couple of months ago when Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom, the Defender of the Faith, and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, passed away. The United Kingdom launched a long-planned funeral that included a period of official mourning and a state funeral. Every news outlet, print, web, and television, covered every moment of the proceedings. Every chance I got, I tuned in to see the proceedings, especially the funeral liturgy at Westminster Abbey and the committal service at St. George’s chapel. I notice two things from that experience that may help bridge the biblical world to our world and offer insight into how to think about sovereignty biblically and theologically. First, nearly all the journalists and commentators remarked that the world was watching, which also meant that an intentional message was being transmitted about who was sovereign and who were the subjects. The news confirmed the presence of a world audience by fanning out to the far corners of the world to capture the reactions of people from different countries, with special reporting from commonwealth countries that counted Queen Elizabeth as their monarch and head of state and those nations who were once colonial outposts of the British Empire.
The second thing I noticed was the royal theology that permeated all of the descriptions of the Queen’s reign and sovereignty, God’s special ordaining of earthly monarchs, the values and character that shaped Queen Elizabeth’s tenure, the people’s understanding of their relationship to the Queen, and their expectations about their relationship with the incoming King. However, this theological language was not discussing God or God’s presence. Instead, this conversation essentially examined the monarchy’s stability, continuity, and longevity as if that was God’s will and purpose for humanity.
And as I contemplated the captive audience that watched it all, it dawned on me that the Church could learn a lot from that display of royal liturgical practice. The Church has spent too little time reflecting on what the world sees when it looks upon those of us who come in the name of God. I had difficulty with all the talk of reigning and sovereignty not being used within a biblical and theological context. And I confess I was uncomfortable with all the talk of God in the same sentence with the stability, continuity, and longevity of an imperial monarchy. For in that God talk we were hearing, the radicality of God’s grace was being extinguished by the normalcy of our civilization. Hierarchy, inequality, and empire were presented as normal and universal with no room to consider what the reign of God may look like.
Not so with Israel. The Psalmist sings, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants” because God created it. In this affirmation in song, the people of Israel ground everything they have, everything that happens, and everything they are in the sovereign creator God, and the world that prevails when God reigns. And lest anyone assumes too much distance between God and God’s creation, that somehow humanity is outside of God’s care, concern, and attention, the Psalmist sings about Israel’s ability to be near the presence of God on the Lord’s mountain and in God’s holy sanctuary. They are not mere subjects who cannot access God’s glory but because love reigns, they know blessing and righteousness. The theologian Walter Brueggemann classifies Psalm 24 as one of the Songs of Torah, in which the people of Israel celebrate a well-ordered creation, honor God’s will and purpose for the creation, and affirm “God’s power, faithfulness, and graciousness” in the presence of God in the sanctuary (The Message of the Psalms, Loc 431).
That this psalm is believed to be an entrance ceremony into the sanctuary, Israel knows that the world is watching. They know who God is and what it means to stand in God’s presence in the sanctuary. They know who and whose they are and that their identity in God and their relationship with God must be reflected in their worship, their treatment of their neighbors, and their witness in the world. So there is an ethical dimension to this procession of God’s people into the sanctuary. In the presence of God, they do not justify themselves, nor do they shirk responsibility for how they show up as witnesses of the faith. They are shaped through and through by the presence of One whose love is so expansive and generative that all things come into being. So they come to the sanctuary with clean hands, pure hearts, and faithfulness, praising God for being creator and glorious sovereign. In singing about God’s reign and presence, Israel testifies to love, grace, and abundance that creates, builds, and transforms.
But I am sad that this is not how the world experiences the church today. The world doesn’t see the church inviting the nations to celebrate God’s well-ordered creation. No, exploitation of the earth’s resources continues apace with devastating effects. The world does not see the church honoring God’s will and purpose for creation. No, they see poverty, violence, and oppression, often sanctioned or tolerated by the faithful in collaboration with the empire. The world does not see the church as affirming God’s power, faithfulness, and graciousness. No, they see too many people of faith acting to support and reinforce the status quo of tribalism, nationalism, and religious hegemony.
And we are discovering every day how the church misses the mark in reflecting the kind of faith and service we should embody in the presence of God. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be a respondent to a presentation of new research by sociologist Dr. Michael O. Emerson for his new book. And his findings are heartbreaking, for it highlights a church that does not reflect the love of God. He finds that most white practicing Christians reject reading and interpreting the Bible in ways that do not preserve white superiority or affirm Black inferiority, Black criminality, or Black pathology. Most white practicing Christians deny that the United States has been oppressive to minorities in the past. And a majority of white practicing Christians disagree that Asians, African Americans, and Hispanic are treated less fairly in hiring, pay, housing and mortgages, and in the criminal justice system. He found that most white Christians become angry at the mention of social justice or racial justice. The world is watching us, and the church is not trusted as a reflection of God’s love and presence.
The world is watching. I don’t think we need any more defenders of the faith or governors of the church for God’s presence is enough. Perhaps the world needs to see more role models of the faith and faithful saints of the church who will lift up the gates and throw open the doors to welcome the presence of God and let love reign. When love reigns, there will be no need for a king of the world or the king of the earth. When love reigns, there will be no white-practicing Christians or black-practicing Christians or any other type of Christian but those who receive blessings and righteousness from a God who loves, embraces, and liberates us all. When love reigns, our transgender siblings will find safe haven within every home, church, and nation, and our observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance will be transformed into a celebration of the faith and witness of transgender saints. When love reigns, the radicality of God’s grace will never be subsumed under the normalcy of civilization, and we will have no need for a royal theology that seeks stability, continuity, or longevity. Let God have God’s way! When love reigns, all God’s children will know that God is our source of hospitality and provision, offering us life and sanctuary in God’s presence.
So, we embrace a theology of radical grace. We are ready to testify to the world that in the presence of God, creation can undergo transformation, liberation, and resurrection. When we sing with the psalmist about God reigning, we proclaim that it is love reigning. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday, and Transgender Day of Remembrance, we come into the presence of God, offering our gifts, abundance, and service as a reflection of God’s love reigning in this sanctuary and in our lives.