The actor and comedian Robin Williams was funny, frenetic, quirky, and sometimes brilliant. His death earlier this year led to an outpouring of love and admiration. Televised tributes aired. NPR reported that on Halloween there was a run on dusty, old Mork & Mindy costumes. Among Episcopalians, we reminded ourselves that Robin Williams was one of us, and on Facebook we began circulating Williams’ list of the top ten reasons to be Episcopalian. Here they are, for those who’ve not previously seen or heard them:
- No snake handling.
- You can believe in dinosaurs.
- Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.
- You don’t have to check your brains at the door.
- Pew aerobics.
- The church year is color-coded.
- Free wine on Sunday.
- All of the pageantry; none of the guilt.
- You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.
And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:
- No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. After Christmas, after Epiphany, after the penitence of Lent and the joy of Easter, after the topsy-turvy arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and at the end of the long season we call ordinary time, we pause on this day to declare that Jesus Christ is sovereign, that he rules the heavens and the earth, and that Jesus the Son of God is the lord of us, his people.
We Episcopalians are a people of good humor, and in a world often devoid of humor, that’s an important thing. But on Christ the King Sunday, before we enter Advent and begin the whole church cycle all over again, we are compelled to dive deeper than lighthearted jokes about free wine on Sunday. We are compelled to ask ourselves on this day about the claims Holy Scripture makes regarding Jesus, about the content of our prayers and our liturgy. We’re compelled to ask: Do we believe all this stuff? Is Christ the king?
These are difficult questions for us, because to us the very concept of kingship is distant and strange. For us, at best, monarchs are like Prince William and Princess Kate in England. They are fodder for People Magazine. They are about glitz, glamour, and high society, not sovereignty over peoples and nations.
Our embraced understanding of governance is, in fact, diametrically opposed to the notion of kingship. Kings, classically understood, inherit their power by right of birth. They receive their authority from on high. Their decisions are unassailable and unquestionable. And all of this makes us laugh. Those who govern, we claim, only do so by the consent of the governed. No one, least of all our national leaders, is beyond question. And if we disagree with those who rule, we remove them. It isn’t really that we’ve given up the notion of kingship. Rather, it’s that each man and woman is his own king. We are, each of us, autonomous beings. I rule myself. Don’t tread on me.
What, then, do we mean when we say Christ is king? Is it a vacuous claim, the backdrop for eloquent prayers and soaring anthems but little else? Again I ask, do we believe it?
Robin Williams’ death hit me harder than I’d have expected. Reflecting upon it, I recalled that Williams made a series of exceptional movies in the late 1980s and 1990s that influenced my outlook on the world. The first and most prominent in my own formation was Good Morning Vietnam, which tempered my youthful exuberance for war. There were also Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. And in 1991, Robin Williams made a movie called The Fisher King.
It is the story of a radio shock jock named Jack (played by Jeff Bridges), a king unto himself who lives for glitz and glamour and who, through his careless use of frenzy-whipping, on-air rhetoric, causes the death of several people. Years later a down-and-out Jack befriends Robin Williams’ character, Parry, someone in the throes of mental illness who believes himself to be on the quest for the Holy Grail. One night, lying on the grass in a park and looking up at the stars, Parry asks Jack, “Have you ever heard the story of the Fisher King?” And then Parry tells this story:
“It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night lone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, ‘You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.’
But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.
Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.
One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded; he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, ‘What ails you, friend?’ The king replied, ‘I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat.’
So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the Holy Grail, that which he’d sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, ‘How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?’
And the fool replied, ‘I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.’”
The wounds of this world run deep. You and I know it. We experience it. We strive and strive in this life, blindly seeking those things of power, and glory, and beauty. We want to feel invincible. But the more we strive, the more commonly there are days when we have no faith in anyone, not even ourselves; days in which we don’t love or feel loved; when we become sick with experience; when we feel our souls begin to die.
And never, ever forget that there are others who share all our deepest wounds and who also lack shelter, and medical care, and legal assistance, and food. They exist—literally—right outside these walls. We walk by them, and sometimes step over them, every day.
It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s unbearable, and it can easily lead to despair. Hearkening back to some ancient need, we find ourselves saying, “If only there were one who could change things, who could save us and this world. If only there were, well, a king.”
Do we believe what we claim to be true? We either believe it, or we are play-acting, and play-acting doesn’t seem to me a very good use of a Sunday morning. Jesus the Christ is either king, or he isn’t. And Jesus wants to upend our notions of kingship, both the ancient notion where the king rules us with power and our modern notion in which we rule ourselves.
“I will tell you the secret of this king: The cup—any cup—becomes the Holy Grail whenever it is used to give drink to the thirsty.”
Jesus reigns, but not with worldly power. He is not the potentate, or the politician, or the mogul. Instead of wielding power, Jesus seeks to serve. Instead of sitting atop a throne, he comes down into the depths of our lives. He is the king who will go to any length to save us, to assuage the pain of the world, including playing the fool.
Like the fool in the story of the Fisher King, Jesus is the one who enters his domain bearing the cup of God’s divine grace. Jesus comes and asks of us, “What ails you, friend?” and slakes the thirst of those who are physically and spiritually thirsty. He comes to heal the hearts of men.
And as his subjects, we are called to do the same. If we are Christian people, if we actually believe what we say about Jesus, then Jesus has sovereignty over us. And difficult as it is for us as Americans to accept and embrace, his claim on our fealty is absolute. We are his subjects, called to humble ourselves before him and set our life’s path on the march with the king. We, too, are told to give up our worldly striving for power and glory and beauty–to pull our hands from that fire–in favor of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, embracing those who have not known love, and pursuing God’s justice in the world.
I will tell you the secret of this king, the truth revealed in today’s Gospel: The cup—any cup—becomes the Holy Grail whenever it is used to give drink to the thirsty. Christ becomes the king in our lives when we say, finally and for all, that we believe him to be so. And we become his subjects when we stake this claim, when we kneel before the king and lord, when we lay our hearts before him and discover that our deepest wounds are healed.