Sunday, November 26, 2023

The King of Love My Shepherd Is

Art: Vicki Shuck

This morning I gave the homily at Spirit Catholic Community (formerly Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community) in Minneapolis.

It had been twelve years since I last delivered a homily. And, yes, it felt good to be able to do so again. Following is what I shared.


The King of Love My Shepherd Is

A Homily by Michael J. Bayly
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
King of the Universe

Spirit Catholic Community
November 26, 2023

First Reading: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46

Good morning. . . . My name is Michael Bayly and it is a great honor to be here with you all and share some thoughts and perspectives on our readings for today. I appreciate the invitation to do so, and hope I will do justice to both the readings and the long and storied history of Spirit community members sharing and “breaking open the word.”

The Roman Church’s designated name for today, this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, is quite the mouthful: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

Now, like many within our community I balk at titles such as “Lord” and “King” and their connotations of imperialism, hierarchy and institutionalized oppression – all of which, it seems to many of us, are the antithesis of the egalitarian message and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Our community even goes so far as to substitute the word “kindom” for “kingdom” in an effort to distance ourselves from these connotations and to center ourselves instead in what we recognize and celebrate as the radical hospitality and inclusiveness of Jesus.

I trust that these qualities of Jesus supersede the themes of judgment and condemnation that, for whatever reason, found their way into the writings of the early church.

So where did today’s theme of Jesus as King of the Universe come from? Well, even though various royal titles have been attributed to Jesus since the time of the early church, it was only relatively recently, in 1925, that Pope Pius XI dedicated this Sunday to “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” At first, this might seem like an irrelevant factoid. But this date actually tells us much about the rationale behind this particular action of the Vatican.

Nineteen-twenty-five was just seven years after the end of the First World War, a conflict that saw the overthrow of no less than three royal houses of Europe. In Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia, imperial empires and their autocratic rulers were deposed.

These were all monarchs long held to have been ordained by God to rule. They represented the centuries-old tradition of the divine right of kings, a tradition reflected in the structure of the papacy. The earthly order of sovereignty of these kings, kaisers, emperors and tsars was believed to mirror the heavenly order of God’s sovereignty. Yet in 1918 they were all swept away by a rising tide of what we would now call “people power,” a power that in the aftermath of World War One was in some cases expressed by democracy but in other cases by regimes just as autocratic and despotic as the ones they had deposed.

It’s not surprising then that the Roman Church, itself modeled on the imperial order of the Roman empire, and thus hostile to democracy, would wish to reassert the primacy of kingship both in heaven and on earth by declaring Jesus as King – and “King of the Universe,” no less.

To its credit, the Vatican, in declaring Christ “King of the Universe,” was also attempting to counter the rise of fascism in 1920s Europe – in Italy especially. As Allison Connelly, a self-identifying queer Catholic points out, the feast of Christ the King serves as “a reminder to people of good faith that nationalism and fascism are not our moral authorities,” and that that such ideologies should not control “the world’s narrative.”

Still, the emphasis on kingship remains problematic for many. But here’s the thing I find fascinating – and rather subversive. Although today’s readings lift up the kingly characteristics of judgment and punishment, they also present to us the image of the shepherd, one of the lowliest figures in biblical times and indeed throughout history, and one that is not generally associated with imperial rule. I like to think that whoever selected the readings for today was quietly yet purposely doing their best to make an important point, one that involves the lifting up of the lowly shepherd as an alternative model of leadership to that of an absolute monarch.

It reminds me of Jesus’ own subversive actions on Palm Sunday when, in an effort to turn upside down the residents of Jerusalem’s notion of kingship, chose to enter the city on a donkey. Similarly, the writers of the resurrection narratives subversively have Mary Magdalene mistake the risen Jesus for a gardener; not the owner of the garden but a lowly gardener, a laborer.

The message I get from all of this is that Jesus is our brother, one who calls us to share in his Christic level of awareness and compassion, and thus follow him in the work of shepherding our thoughts and actions into an embodied life that ensures all are taken care of materially, emotionally and spiritually.

It’s a taking care of that in the past an ideal king or queen would have been expected to do for their subjects. Yet now in this vision I’m proposing, we’re all called to be kingly and queenly in this way.

Such an embodied life of care and justice is one that I trust we are called to live both individually and communally.

Author Marianne Williamson has written that we’re living in a “silent emergency of uncaring times” where unnecessary human suffering is being normalized. “No amount of private charity,” Williamson writes, “can compensate for a basic lack of social justice.”

Here at Spirit, we have long understood this, and our history as a community is defined by efforts, programs and endeavors that seek to ignite and embody works of care, justice and peace. And what inspires and sustains such work? It is, quite simply, love.

Which brings me to my concluding thought. When preparing this homily I took a break one afternoon last weekend and perused the bargain CD shelves of Half Priced Books. A title caught my eye: Be Still My Soul. It’s a collection of centuries-old hymns recorded by Erin Bode, including, I discovered, one that puts Psalm 23 to music.

Interestingly – dare I say, subversively – the title and first line of this particular interpretation of Psalm 23 is not “The Lord Is My Shepherd” but rather, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”

Notice that the actual subject of this poetically-written phrase is not the king but the shepherd. It’s saying “My Shepherd is the King of Love.” The shepherd and their work come first, and it’s this work of care and gathering and, by extension, our work of justice-making and peace-building, that makes the shepherd a king (or queen) of love.

The King of Love My Shepherd Is. . . . Friends, let us carry this beautiful expression, thought and image into our day and our week, as we continue to strive to embody lives of care and justice, both individually and communally.

May it be so.

– Michael J. Bayly
Spirit Catholic Community
November 26, 2023

Previous Homilies:
The Soul of a Dancer – Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, May 22, 2011.
Liberated to Be Together – Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, October 4, 2009.
"More Lovely Than the Dawn": God as Divine Lover – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, August 30, 2009.
Dispatches from the Periphery – Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, October 5, 2008.
Somewhere In Between – St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, January 15, 2006.
The Harvest Within the Heart – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, July 17, 2005.
Disarming the Weapons Within – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, November 29, 2004.
Soul Deep – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, June 20, 2004.
Something We Dare Call Hope – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, November 9, 2003.
On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, October 19, 2003.
Praying for George W. Bush – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, January 2003.
What We Learn From the Story of the Magi – St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, January 2, 2000.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Model of Leadership Offered by Jesus: “More Like the Gardener Than the Owner of the Garden”
Jesus Our Guide to Mystical Love – Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Revolution and Mysticism
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
Adam Eriksen on the Subversive Politics of Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday: “A Planned Political Demonstration”
Why Jesus is My Man

For more on Spirit Catholic Community, see the following chronologically-ordered posts:
The Shrinking Catholic Tent (2008)
A Profound and Devastating Loss
All You Holy Men and Women
A Catholic “Crisis and Opportunity” in South Minneapolis (2009)
Alive and Well . . . and Flourishing
The Challenge of Eucharist (2011)
A Big Gay “Yay!” for the Catholics (2012)
Troubling the Waters: Brad R. Braxton on Baptism and Black Lives Matter (2021)

Images 1 and 3: Vicki Shuck.
Image 2: Artist unknown.
Image 4: Spirit Catholic Community.

1 comment:

Carol Masters said...

Thank you, Michael! For centering service to others as our heritage and legacy