A homily for the service of Evensong at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio
King Kamehameha IV was no saint, by some accounts. Or at least, if he was a saint, he was still not the kind of “good guy” into whose hands you would want to put a gun. His close friend and personal secretary would have attested to that, since the king shot him not once, but twice: the first time only slightly, and by accident; the second in a drunken, jealous rage, inflicting a wound that would eventually prove fatal.
After the shooting that would lead to the death of his friend, Kamehameha was overcome with grief and remorse, and was persuaded only with difficulty not to renounce his throne, and stand trial as a civilian for his crime. He lavished loving care upon his friend and victim, but the patient died a couple of years later. Soon, that grief and guilt was compounded by the death of the king and queen’s young son, Albert, and it is commonly believed that it was a broken heart that exacerbated the king’s asthma and led to his own early death at the age of only twenty-nine.
They say that only the good die young; but the short life of Alexander Liholiho, otherwise known as King Kamehameha IV, tells another truth: that the line between saint and sinner does not divide one man from another, but runs, perhaps a little off-centre, through them all. As Jesus once told a person on his knees before him, “No one is good but God alone.”
We celebrate Kamehameha and his Queen, Emma, for good reason, and they are commemorated with the same gospel as we just heard on Sunday for good reason.
In a literal and concrete response to the gospel, they built a hospital. They knew the gospel imperative to take care of the sick, and the poor, and the needy, and they responded with practical and substantial assistance, raising money and using their influence to provide healthcare in the wake of a devastating epidemic of illness among the islands. It is said that after the death of the king, Emma devoted her life to continuing such good works, and promoting schools, churches, and programmes to care for the poor and the sick.
These two monarchs are commemorated with the same gospel as we read on Christ the King Sunday, because they modelled their reign on public service, serving as shepherds of their people, and feeding the flocks entrusted to them with justice and mercy, except, it seems, for the occasional accident.
They also called on missionaries from the Church of England to help them spread the common prayer of Christianity across their people and their islands. In his last years, the king spent much of his time translating the Book of Common Prayer into the Hawai’ian language, and making plans to build a cathedral, which was finished finally after many efforts by Emma after the queen’s death. It was dedicated to St Andrew, on whose feast day the king had died.
In his preface to his translation of the Book of Common Prayer, Kamehameha explained the urgency of his project. He saw it as a holy calling for people to be joined together in a common prayer, a united voice of praise, thanksgiving, and petition, undistracted by the need for novelty or invention. He wrote,
The prayers having been prepared of old, the Psalms ordered, the hymns sanctioned, the rites and offices authoritatively established, then, indeed, we can worship with all our mind, and all our heart, and all our strength …
But he also alluded to his own, more personal need for prayer, for the community of prayer to lift his own heart:
This is a book for every day and every hour of the day. It is for the solitary one and for the family group; it asks for blessings in this this world as well as in the world to come; that we may be guarded from all manner of harm, from all kinds of temptations, from the power of lust, from bodily suffering, and also that we may find forgiveness of our sins.
That we may find forgiveness of our sins. Kamehameha knew that too often we, even good Christians we, are the cause of injury and affliction to one another; we are the ones who provoke the need for the hospitals and care of the poor that we are called to provide. Too often we are the very ones who cause others to cry out to God in prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” The line between saint and sinner, good and evil runs a little off-centre through each of us.
The call of the gospel, even the gospel we read today, is not only to service, but also to repentance, to the recognition of real and actual injury committed in the pursuit of our own life and happiness, and to the commitment to make amends in the sight of the one who sits upon the throne of judgement. It is in the pursuit of that reconciliation that we are invited to seek and serve Christ in all others, loving our neighbours as ourselves.
The Church has not left us to go by one step from darkness into the awful presence and brightness of God, but it has prepared for our use prayers to meet the necessities of every soul, whether they be used in public or in private.
In the gathering shadows of the evening of the year, as we yearn as if by force to turn the earth back towards the brightness of the lengthening days which are yet to come, whatever the necessity of our own soul for healing, for repentance, for renewal, we gather as recommended by a king, a sinner, and a saint, to find a staircase wrought by rituals and mysteries practiced through the ages by the church, a ladder of lightening shadows fleeing before the awful presence and brightness of our God.