In 1859, America got its first Emperor.
He wasn’t a traditional emperor, because America officially doesn’t do that sort of thing. Nevertheless, emerging from a self-imposed exile following his bankruptcy the previous year, Joshua Norton proclaimed him the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
Now, it’s clear that Norton wasn’t a real emperor, but he did become a much loved part of San Franciscan life as people played along. He wore an ornate uniform and wrote dramatic proclamations in the local press, and if he liked a local restaurant he’d award it royal patronage. At one point he walked into the middle of a riot targeting Chinese workers and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters dispersed. And when he died in 1880, tens of thousands lined the streets to say their final farewells to their beloved emperor. Reading the tributes is a moving experience: “Emperor Norton has killed nobody. robbed nobody and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said for some fellows of his line.”
Norton died alone in a rain-soaked street, but his funeral cortage was two miles long.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, and Christians around the world will be celebrating how Jesus is king over God’s Kingdom. But in doing that, we need to recognise how that Kingdom looks very different to the empires of this world. We sometimes forget that, when we look around our great cathedrals and revel in having the ear of kings and Queens and presidents. In his last week on earth, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of an infant donkey, he caused chaos in the middle of the Temple, and he got nailed to a cross like a common revolutionary. Without the benefit of hindsight, without the light of the Resurrection, Jesus’s Kingdom probably looked more like Emperor Norton than the Caesars or the Herods.
I think that’s something we need to rediscover. We sometimes get too comfortable, too institutionalised, too powerful. We become too used to being part of the elite, the in-crowd. And yet, way back in the day, St. Paul wrote that “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Today we honour Christ as King. But his Kingdom is a different world founded on different principles. The last are first, the foolish are wise, the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s an upside down Kingdom that doesn’t ride into town on a mighty war horse; it appears, often quietly, in the margins, in the brokenness, in forgotten spaces and ignored places. And so that means getting our hands dirty, it means being radical, sometimes it means becoming unpopular, sometimes it means speaking truth to power.
The embassies of this Kingdom should be our churches, and often they are. But sometimes the embassies of the Kingdom are soup kitchens and food banks, sometimes they’re vandalised because the love and grace of God burn so brightly that people race to put out the fire. And then some churches are beautifully constructed and the worship sounds great, but something inside them has turned toxic and the glory of God has left the building. And that statement sounds crazy because their congregations may still number in the thousands, but the Kingdom of God isn’t measured by our metrics; the palace may be there but Christ won’t sit on their thrones.
And this reminds me of another American eccentric. James Hampton was a war veteran and a janitor, a quiet man who kept himself to himself. He lived in Washington DC until his death in 1964, and upon his passing his family and neighbours learned of a project Hampton had been working on for fourteen years. Inside a rented garage, they discoverer a throne Hampton had made for Jesus to sit on in the event of the Second Coming. This wasn’t a professional job; it was made from old furniture, tin foil, coffee cans, vases and light bulbs. This wasn’t a traditional throne, not a million pound, gold plated project, but a piece of outsider art. And yet somehow that represents the upside-down Kingdom of God better than many things that have the ‘correct’ branding and marketing.
Today we celebrate Christ our King, and rightly so. But we need to remember that he’s King of a Kingdom that looks morelike him than the empires of earth, and that this needs to be reflected in the inhabitants of that Kingdom. And if that happens, the world may think we’re crazy.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.