By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, September 11, 2022
Reading: Genesis 14:17-19
After Abram’s return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh, that is, the King’s Valley. And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth,
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!
And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything. Genesis 14:17-19
What a gift to be with you, friends. Thank you for your warm welcome of me and of my family to this church. Special thanks to the search committee, Rod Malcolm and his group, and to the staff, Lori Diaz, Elaine Choi, and friends. What a beautiful church you have. And I don’t mean the building. I mean your faces, your story, your life together. The building isn’t too bad either. We together get to take part in the grand adventure of being the church of Jesus Christ. And that’s the greatest good thing there is.
The second longest serving queen in England’s history, Queen Victoria, contemplated her own end in advance, as we should all do. She is reported to have said she hoped for the second coming of Jesus in her lifetime, so that she could personally place her crown at his feet. Perhaps an overly pious story. But it gets at something important about huan and divine power. It’s hard to believe how long Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II reigned—longer than any British monarch in history. Many of us have never sung “God Save the King” before, you have to have memories back to 1952 to have done so.
But there is another monarch whose reign is not just long. It’s eternal.
I had planned a sermon today that introduced me a little and gave you a sense of how I see things. There will be time for that. For now, the head of state in Canada and a figure beloved worldwide has just recently died. At the church we had to scramble a little bit to find a Union Jack for today. The ones we have are in glass on the wall over there—regimental colours from the First World War. We wondered if it was an ‘in emergency break glass’ kind of moment. It’s been striking to me living in Canada for seven years and in England for a sabbatical in the middle how much closer Canada and the UK are than my native USA. Many of you have come to North America in living memory—your parents or grandparents or someone you knew personally was born in Britain. My people came from France to the US south 300 years ago. I didn’t grow up with anybody in North Carolina whose family had come from Europe in the last generation or two. Here in Toronto, we live in the heart of British North America—English Canada. You grew up singing about the sovereign, with walls adorned with her photo, she’s on the money you spend, stamps you paste, Christmas holidays are punctuated by her words. Anyone with a conscience paused on Thursday and took note of the gravity of what had just happened. But more than that, many of us loved her, and mourn her loss personally.
As an outsider to constitutional monarchy, and a newcomer to Canada, I feel this loss too. Queen Elizabeth embodied some things that our culture has come up short on of late. Duty. Integrity. Honour. In my country and elsewhere we have lately been electing people who shout and vilify. She would have nothing of it. She put the institution she served first, and herself and her family second. That’s rare and hard to find. And she’s done it since Churchill’s days, for 15 prime ministers, the last one she met two days before her death. She was one of our last connections to that generation that won the war and delivered Europe and the world from tyranny. It sort of felt like she’d be there forever. And then suddenly, if you can say that about a 96-year-old, she was gone. As we all will be too one day, and that too soon.
The thing I admire most about this queen, is she would have agreed with her great-grandmother’s Victoria’s comment. There’s a scene in the Netflix series The Crown where young Elizabeth is preparing for her coronation and is looking in the mirror with a staff member trying the physical crown on her young head, finding it wobbly and hard to balance. She asks the man if she can borrow the crown for a while to get used to wearing it. “Borrow it?” he said. “Ma’am, if it’s not yours, whose is it?!” It's funny in one way. In another way that hat was certainly borrowed—from the British people, and from God. Every crown is borrowed from Jesus, who is all power and authority. And they’re only borrowed for a moment (even if that “moment” lasts 70 years). And then they are all given back, surprisingly soon. There’s no way around our mortality. From the time when she first borrowed the crown until she gave it back Thursday, Elizabeth II wore it in a way that reflects Jesus, whose crown is of thorns, whose throne is a cross, and whose coming again, will make the world right. You and I have crowns too. Places of authority not usually marked by tiaras, or thorns—something in between maybe. But we have influence over others …. To demean or honour, to belittle or love. Borrowed crowns, due back one day. In our final hymn we’ll sing with Charles Wesley about a time when we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise. Until that day, let us also wear our own crowns, however unsteadily, in a way that reminds of the crown of thorns, and looks forward to casting it at the feet of the crucified One.
The passage you heard earlier from Genesis is a strange one. Poor Joshua had to read some of the hardest names in the Bible—pro tip: just read fast, no one else knows how to pronounce the hard words either. Maybe that’s not surprising, that the passage was odd. Find me a passage in Genesis that isn’t strange. The peculiar strangeness here is that Abram has just won a battle. Now Abram is not depicted as a warrior anywhere else in the Bible but here he’s flush with victory, loaded with spoils. He returns triumphant and meets two kings: the King of Sodom and King Melchizedek of Salem. Abram is no king. He is a forerunner of faith. Briefly a warrior. Always attentive and obedient to God. The first human being to know the God of Israel personally. Abram is the beginning of our faith. But he is no king. Israel has no king until Saul, and that doesn’t go very well. In fact, none of Israel’s kings go well. Someone here suggested I pick a passage to preach on about a monarch in Israel and I couldn’t find one that doesn’t criticize royal power. Not the right vibe for this week. So, Abram meets these two kings in the Kings’ Valley. And we don’t know who King Melchizedek is. He only appears here in the story. He comes out of nowhere and drops out again back into nowhere. But look what he does. He brings out bread and wine. He blesses Abram. Abram gives him one-tenth of everything. Whoever this Melchizedek is, he’s a powerful figure indeed. One greater than Abram, the first believer, who pays him homage. Bread and wine and blessing and treasure: a glimpse of the church. Melchizedek means “Righteous King.” Many Christians have seen in this righteous king a glimpse beforehand . . . of the Lord Jesus. Who feeds with bread and wine. Blesses us by God most high. Receives one-tenth of everything from us as a sign that 100 percent belongs to God. And rules over the nations. Our Jewish neighbours would disagree, and that’s fine, and their perfect right. We Christians just look for Jesus everywhere and when we find him, we delight. Maybe even right here.
Human monarchies are sometimes better, sometimes worse approximations of Christ’s rule. I admire the British monarchy for the way it lets people who lose elections show they’re loyal to the crown, just not to the policies of the current party in power. In my country, the US, our political parties accuse each other of treason so often it’s not even news anymore. In a constitutional monarchy, you sing the monarch’s praises together after arguing your heart out and no one questions your loyalty to the country. At best, a head of state who’s a different person from the head of government can make for a more peaceful order. My country seems to know who it is by who it’s shouting at or pointing weapons at. That paranoid style is why 50,000 Americans left for Canada after the revolution. That exodus is part of Canada’s founding story—to reject that paranoid, victimized way of being. I admire Canada’s story so much I moved here too. A few hundred years later.
When my family crossed over into Canada in 2015, I told our youngest son, then eight-years-old, that Elizabeth was also queen of Canada. He said, “Aw, that means we’re not free.” My kid had been well indoctrinated by America. We’ve tried to teach our boys instead that true freedom is serving the true king. It’s an uphill battle for any of us to learn.
A friend of mine from Trinidad wrote me upon hearing of the queen’s death. One of the successes of the late queen was her ability to turn a decaying empire into a more collegial commonwealth of nations, including Canada. My friend said this, “We loved her, throughout the Caribbean, a most gracious Christian person, and the last of her kind, I think. I can remember her visit in my childhood—it was a huge national event with celebrations, truly she was one of a kind.” Isn’t that interesting—it’s like the island of Trinidad was different for her majesty having set foot there. Of course, the queen would have said she was different, better, blessed, for having set foot there. One of the great forebears of our faith, St. Athanasius, says the whole earth is honoured when the Son of God sets foot among us. All of humanity touched with his presence when God becomes flesh.
As much as I admire the British monarchy, it’s only 1000 years old. Only. I mean, to be 1000 years old is great. This magnificent building was built 110 years ago to look like it was built 1000 years ago. We’re aspiring, trying as hard as we can to deepen our tradition. And 1000 years isn’t bad. The British monarchy is a good deal older than the British parliament. That’s impressive. Here in North America, we’re amazed when a building dates to the 1700s. Spend any time at all in the UK and they’ll dazzle you with buildings twice, three times, five times as old as our countries. It’s sort of what they do. And it’s cool.
Here’s the thing. The church in England is half a millennium older than the British crown. Three times as old as the British parliament. When the first Christians came to the British Isles in the fifth century there would not be a king of all England for another 600 years. Sounds old, right? Well, our Jewish neighbours would point out that Abram is much older still. Before Christ, before the prophets, before the Israelite monarchy, before Moses, there was Abram. The first one called by God to go, leave his home and his kindred and go to a new land, for nothing but a promise he couldn’t prove. God would make his descendants like the stars of the sky and the sand on the shore and through him God would bless the whole world. That’s thousands of years before England was a thought in anybody’s mind. Of course, in geological time, Abram was a blink of an eye ago. Time stretches billions of years before.
Feeling humbled yet?
I was talking to one of you who’s nearing 90 yourself, and your observation was how fast it’s all gone. Yesterday, and you were a kid. That’s true of God’s people too. A blink of an eye ago, and Abram was meeting Melchizedek in the valley of the kings. One reason Elizabeth Windsor was so beloved, is she has been a fixture in people’s lives for so long. And we were happy about it. Here’s this about executive power. As a Methodist in the US when people complain to me that they wish they had a bishop I always say the same thing: No, you wish you had a good bishop. Just one bad bishop is enough to make you get rid of bishops forever. Note, we have no bishops in the United Church of Canada. But one good queen like we just had sort of makes me wish for a monarch forever, know what I mean? I shudder to think we might get the leaders we deserve. Please Lord, give us better leaders than we deserve. What did we do to deserve Elizabeth? She was better than we deserved. And now her borrowed crown, is returned, and rests at Jesus’ feet.
The queen had something of a friendship with a fellow North Carolinian of mine. In my home state we debate sometimes who’s our most famous son. There’s an argument to be made for Michael Jordan, the first sports icon of the cable TV era. There’s another argument to be made for Billy Graham, the evangelist who may have spoken to more people about Jesus than anyone in history. The queen had a personal friendship with Billy. Here’s what interests me about that. The monarch is the supreme governor of the church of England. Every priest in that great church pledges allegiance to her. She could have summoned any bishop in her own church worldwide and they’d have been at her door in a moment. But who did she befriend? An evangelist from the US South. That shows some . . . character. And good taste. Now her son Charles III takes the name of previous monarchs for whom the Carolinas are named—Carolinus is Charles in Latin. Connections everywhere. (I grant that last one is a little more tenuous).
Now, I should note that the churches that made up the United Church of Canada—Methodist and Reformed and Congregationalist—are still called “non-conforming” in the UK. That is, they’re not part of the church of England, not under the monarch’s supreme governorship. People have bled over this question. Graham grew up in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church—a church that broke off from the church that broke off from the church that broke off from the Church of England. And they became fast friends. Strange world we live in. There was a time when the person in her office was responsible for killing people like Graham. Be careful out there. Jesus calls strange and wonderful friends to himself—including former enemies. And if you draw close to him, you’ll draw close to others you would not have chosen on your own. And that’s the only way to life: through Jesus, and all his weird friends.
There’s a story from the campus of the University of British Columbia. I taught at the Vancouver School of Theology on that campus the last seven years. There’s a Japanese garden there, and a friend in Japanese studies told me this story. It was the 1980s, and the emperor of Japan visited. He had asked to meet with a small group of students. They figured it’d be a photo op and he’d continue on his quick tour. They arranged the gazebo in the Japanese garden, had cameras set up. The emperor came, sat down, met the students, and then got busy asking them questions. His minders got nervous. Finally, he told the minders and photographers to leave. He was enjoying the students. Three hours later he emerged. He’d made friends with them, learned their hometowns, asked how their studies will improve the world. Now remember that emperor was considered a sort of unworldly figure with no contact with ordinary people until after World War II. Japan also had to figure out how to modernize its monarchy, balance it with democracy. But I wonder if those few students knew what a treat it was to get hours of personal time with an emperor. Some did, I imagine, some didn’t I bet.
Living briefly in England and even here I hear of folks who had personal encounters with the queen. My dad lived in Scotland one summer and snapped a really good photo of her passing in a car. Others saw her here or there, met her or one of the other royals. But few people get quality time with someone like that, we’re lucky for a handshake, that enchanting smile, a photo. Imagine getting to know someone like that. Having them know you, inquire about you, remember your name and face?
A friend of mine is a pastor in London who got a phone call five minutes before Sunday service. Her majesty the queen is coming to your church today. My friend tried to calm his breathing and his sweating. He put on his chasuble—that green poncho thing the Anglicans wear. And he looked in the mirror and saw a massive black streak down the front of it, like a truck had run over it, backed up, and run over it again. He’s down to three minutes and counting now. What’s he to do? Well, he does what any sensible pastor would do. He took it off, turned it inside out, put it back on backwards, and went out to greet her majesty. Who was a picture of grace as ever. The two of them turned, faced the altar, confessed their sins, and worshiped the only king who can save, the only monarch with the power to forgive sins.
It's exciting to think of the queen being with us in person, isn’t it? But you do know the only true king is with us, here, now, reigning, right?
Here’s the thing. And you knew where this was going. We do get to spend time with our monarch, our emperor. The Lord Jesus gets born not just in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, but in each of our hearts when we invite him in by faith. He gets born in our mouths and stomachs when we feed on him at the Lord’s table. He gets born when anyone on this planet does anything good at all. He knows us by name. Knows our deepest secrets—the ones we won’t even speak out loud to anybody. And you know what? He loves us. He cannot love us more or less than he does right now. And nothing we can do can shock him, disappoint him, disaffect him, or send him away. Queen Elizabeth trusted this king as her saviour. Do you? Do I? Amen.