In the Presence of the King

By Dorsey McConnell

At the foot of the cross, there is a lot of noise. 

Everyone seems to be shouting. The rulers are scoffing at Jesus. The soldiers are mocking him. One of the criminals hanging next to him rails at him. Even the sign above his head seems to scream at the world, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Pilate had written the message himself, wanting to make a point, that anybody who considers this poor, naked, bleeding and dying man their king must be like him — a pathetic loser. 

And all the screaming and yelling, even the wailing, and the weeping of his friends and family, all underscored that point. Even a lot of the folks who followed him for three years, who were taught by him, healed by him, blessed by him — are suddenly now saying with one voice, we don’t want to have anything to do with him. We don’t want to be part of the losing side. 

Or, as they famously say in John’s gospel, “we have no king but Caesar.” And these things, these insults, they cried out at a huge volume, until the whole air was filled with a cacophonous sound of screeching mockery and laughter tearing at the very air, so you couldn’t take a breath in the middle of that crowd without being filled with its hate. 

And yet, as St. Luke notes, there is another crowd. There are folks who don’t fit these descriptions of rulers or soldiers; they’re not the friends turned enemies, they’re not the corrupt and desperate man hanging next to him demanding that Jesus get him off the hook. They are simply called the people. And Luke says, they didn’t say a thing. They didn’t make a sound. The people stood by, watching. 

Now let’s think about this, friends. They were watching a beaten and innocent man die. They were watching him die slowly. We know it took hours. And the first thing that comes to my mind is this: how could they bear it? Why didn’t someone rush the cross, knock over the guards, grab the pliers, start pulling the nails? 

How many people would that take? How many people would it have taken to save the life of the Son of God? Surely fewer than half the number in this church right now. And yet nobody made a move. Nobody did a thing, no one said a thing. They only stood by, and watched for three hours, while the Son of God gasped out his life. And then, we are told, they went home. How are we to understand this? Where is the good news? 

When I was a little boy, I lived for a time in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the age of 5 or so, I was invited to serve as a page to the king and queen of cotillion, during the April celebrations that are still marketed as a holiday in Dixie. There were banquets, parades, floats, and, at the center of it all, the king and queen and a couple of little boys holding their trains. 

There would be a lot of limelight, which I liked, and a fancy costume, which I also liked, until I got sewed into it. It consisted of a white satin get-up, with a lot of rhinestones and sequins, which ended just below my groin and was finished off with white tights and ballet slippers. There was headgear, too, a white satin beanie, similarly sequined with a single white plume a foot long, sticking straight up from its center. Somewhere in our home, there is a photograph of me in this array, but if I showed it to you, I’d have to kill you. 

The job was worse than the clothes. It involved holding the train of the royalty going in and out of whatever fabulous venue they were visiting, then standing motionless for an hour or more while due homage was made and speeches ensued. 

At one point during the rehearsals, my co-sufferer in this adventure, my best friend whose name was Todd, and I started snickering, fidgeting, and whispering to each other, whereupon our handler, Mrs. Wilson, whom I had always experienced as a kindly soul with a bottomless supply of miniature Tootsie Rolls, came up to us in a fury. She took us by the arms, got her face about three inches away from ours and said, “Boys, you listen to me right now. Never, never speak or move when you are in the presence of the king. Have you got that?” 

And we said, “Yes, ma’am.” I thought that was a little odd, frankly. I mean the king was the president of the local savings and loan, and the queen was his wife — not like we were dealing with Alexander the Great. But we knew what was good for us, so we didn’t speak or move from then on. We made it through our assignment, had our pictures in the paper, and got rid of all evidence of the costumes except for that one darn photograph.

It was only years later, when I was reading this passage late one evening, that Mrs. Wilson’s words came back to me. “The people stood by, watching.” They didn’t speak; they didn’t move. They didn’t fidget or sit down or slink off. They stood by, because they were in the presence of the King, a real king, not some jumped-up imitation in a cheap costume, but a king so devoted to them that he was willing to be stripped, beaten, humiliated, strung up, and tortured to death, for them, and at least some of them knew it. 

At least some of them knew they were in the presence of a King such as no one had ever seen, the King of love, a king who had set aside all the glory of his father, for the privilege of sharing their griefs and bearing their sorrows, a king who had given up the company of the angels because he preferred the companionship of the poor. 

So, when the crowd stood by and watched him, these few saw themselves; they saw their own wounds, in his. And they were struck with awe that someone so holy and so innocent would be willing to bear their suffering so publicly, and not be ashamed. They stood by and watched, and found that, as they did so, the sting of their daily humiliation and sadness began to be taken away, drawn through the cross into the heart of the Father. And after that day, they were no longer silent. They spoke and preached and wrote, and passed down to us the legacy we celebrate today.

That is the King you are pledging to serve. I know that at least some of you are here this morning asking to be received from the Roman Catholic Church. Many of you have been contemplating this for years, but have made the decision now because of the recent revelations of abuse that have horrified us all — the detailed accounts of wounds the Church has inflicted upon the innocent, upon children and their families. 

You have fled here, and you are finding a safe haven in the beloved community of St. Paul’s. Welcome home. Know we grieve with you, your bishop grieves with you, and we pray for your healing. But please also know that this branch of the Church is wounded also. We are far from perfect. Like the crowd at the foot of the cross, we have been silent in many circumstances, when we should have spoken, silent out of fear, not reverence. Such is the weakness of human nature. 

But we know this about ourselves. Every day we lay our own sin, our history of wrong, at the foot of the cross, and ask for God’s forgiveness; then we get up off our knees and move forward in grace, trusting in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, who declares that he has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly, who calls us to follow him, and who will give us the courage and the grace we need, so that next time we may not let him down. If you will have us, we will be honored to take your hands and join you on the road. 

And, finally, for the young who are to be confirmed and received, I have good news: this sermon is nearly over! But before I step down from this pulpit, please bear with me for a final personal word. I have read 14 letters from you. They are magnificent. I have learned about your families, your pets, your sports, your instruments, the things you love, the things you don’t. 

But more important, I have learned something of your trials, your hardships, above all your faith in the face of the losses you have borne, over the first 13 or 14 years of life, which you have described with a frankness and simplicity that caught my breath. 

In turn, in my replies I have tried to share the one thing I have learned about God through my own trials over the first 66 years of my life, which is this: when you are sure you have hit the wall, when you are going through the one thing you are positive will be the end of you, the King shows up, this King of love, this Jesus who bears your griefs and carries your sorrows. He will not only carry you through the darkest valley, but will grant you new life on the other side. 

And when he does, he asks only one thing of you: don’t just stand by and watch. Do not be silent any longer. Move and speak. Shout for joy and sing with praise. Let everyone know you are more alive than you ever thought possible. Move without fear into the wounds of the world and do something about them, because the King delights in you, always has your back, holds you close in his love, and will never let you go.

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell is the retired Bishop of Pittsburgh.


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