Sunday, November 23, 2014

Gratitude and Grace and Giving: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday



Scripture can be found here...



I am going to tell you a story some of you will remember, because I’ve shared it with you before. But for some of you it will be brand new.

I am going to tell you a true story. It is about a man named Jim. That’s his real name, and I’m using it because, once upon a time, he gave me permission to tell his story.
 
I met Jim… I’m not exactly sure where. But at a certain time in my life—say, 20 years ago, he was sort of everywhere. When I looked out my window, there would be Jim, rolling his shopping cart down Lathrop Avenue, and coming up on my porch to pick up a bag I had left there for him.
 
Jim was a small guy, perhaps in his sixties when we met, but he looked much, much older. He was wiry, and sort of bent over, and he didn’t have a lot of his original teeth left.  He had a pack a day habit… these really nasty little cigars; I couldn’t stand the smell of them. I’m not sure whether it was the smoking that aged Jim or the drinking. Jim had a long career of hard drinking; but that was behind him now. When I knew him he was in recovery, a stalwart of a downtown Wednesday 6 PM AA meeting. He was so proud of his recovery. First he counted the days, then the months, and then the years. I was invited to go to the meetings in which Jim received his 10, 11, and 12-year medallions.
 
When I first knew Jim, he was walking around the neighborhood, miles and miles of walking each day, to pick up cans and bottles, both those he’d pick out of the garbage or recycling, and those he’d get off the porches of friends who had saved them for him. I was in the latter category. For a long time… I’m not sure how many years… all my returnable bottles and cans went to Jim. It was convenient for me… no hauling them to the grocery store… and it was money Jim lived on. He was on disability because of his health, and he got a Social Security check every month. But the thing that allowed Jim to live in his little apartment on Walnut Street was collecting bottles and cans.
 
Jim kept track of his bottles and cans the way he kept track of his sobriety. Every once in a while, he’d give me a call, and ask me to drive him and a whole car load of returnables to the Can Man, and so I’d go, and we’d load them in the back of my car. Not everyone rinses out cans and bottles, so inevitably my car would end up smelling like a brewery. It struck me as odd, maybe even tempting fate just a tiny bit, that Jim lived off beer bottles and cans. You know, given that beer almost killed him, and that he spent his days working very hard not to touch the stuff. But that smell never seemed to bother him… maybe the cigars had killed his sense of smell, I don’t know. But Jim, when we were driving to the redemption center, would say, “Well, last year I got all the way to $1800. It was a slow summer for some reason, I’m only at $1200 and it’s already Labor Day. But I think I can make it this year, if the kids” (that’s what he called our local college students) “have as many parties as they did last fall.”
 
To tell you the truth, I didn’t always look forward to Jim’s and my jaunts to the redemption center. I would get a message from Jim on my answering machine, and I’d think, Oh great, just what I need this week. I hated that smell in my car. And my kids were young, so I had to make sure someone was available to watch them, because I had a station wagon and we’d have to put the seat down, so I couldn’t bring them with me. It was kind of a pain in the neck sometimes. But then I’d be with Jim, driving to the redemption center, and, you know, inevitably, my mood would change for the better. Jim had this incredible optimism about him. I’d watch him walk, see how hard it was for him… his joints were painful, and he had emphysema… did I mention that? Eventually he was pulling an oxygen tank along with him. He’d get winded just going up a little set of three steps.  Here he was…  this guy… living alone in a tiny apartment, living off social security and his can and bottle money, physically in pain pretty much all the time… and he was simply one of the most grateful people I’d ever known.
 
That was it. Jim was grateful. He was sober. He had that to be grateful about. He was able to not drink, one day at a time, as he often reminded me. And… in recent years he’d become interested in genealogy, so he spent a lot of time calling people, churches, cemeteries, trying to track down his ancestors. I think he had fully fleshed out family trees going back into the 16th century. He was incredibly excited about his family history, and grateful for that. Sure, he was in a lot of pain, but he could still walk. He was grateful for that. And he loved those dreadful smelly little cigars. They just pleased him to no end. Jim was grateful.
 
Jim was a churchgoing man. That’s the other place I saw him. I was a director of Youth Ministries and Christian Education for a downtown church, and Jim was a member. So I would see Jim there. I’d hear his shopping cart squeaking down the hallway, and I’d know Jim was in the building. Jim could talk about his faith; he was an unusual person in that respect. He believed that God, working through AA, had saved his life. And he was grateful.
 
One fall the youth group decided to do a fundraiser. They wanted to buy gifts for the women and children who would find themselves at the S. O. S. Shelter—now known as Rise-NY—over Christmas. As you may know, Rise has offered safety and advocacy for victims of domestic violence for at least 35 years. I don’t remember who thought of this as a mission project, but the kids were pretty pumped. This seemed like a worthwhile cause to them. They really wanted to help.
 
One of them got the idea to do a bottle and can drive, and the others all concurred that this would be a great, and relatively easy, fundraising project. All they’d need to do would be to remind the people at church to save bottles and cans for them, and then they’d bring them in, and, voila, easy money.
 
When you’re a youth leader, your best possible scenario is being able to follow where the kids want to lead. I thought this was an excellent idea, so I encouraged them. Sure! Absolutely. We can do this. And so the bulletin announcements were written, the signs were made… the word went out. We were collecting bottles and cans.

And, of course, I felt a little funny about this, as far as Jim was concerned. I was worried. Would we be cutting into Jim’s income? I knew he depended on his bottle and can money. I made a mental note to hold some of our family’s returnables aside for Jim…. maybe we could even try to drink some extra diet soda over the next month. I worried about the next time I would see Jim. Would he be upset? Would he be hurt? I didn’t look forward to our next encounter.
 
I was in my office one grey November day. I hadn’t seen Jim since the bottle and can drive had begun, but it was going well; I had an appointment to meet a youth group member and his mom to take two carloads to be redeemed. I don’t remember what I was working at, but I’m sure I was at my computer. Then, I heard it: the familiar squeak of Jim’s shopping-cart wheels coming down the hallway. I took a deep breath. I dreaded this meeting.
 
I stood up and poked my head out of my office door. “Hi,” he said. He had a raspy voice, a real smoker’s voice. “Can we talk? In private?”
 
“Sure Jim,” I said. “Do you want to come into my office?” Jim nodded, and he wheeled his cart just outside my door. He ambled in sort of slowly, and he let himself carefully down in a chair while I closed the door.
 
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this bottle drive, Jim,” I said. That was narrowly true. I’d had a sense I should talk to him. But, in my anxiety about hurt feelings and so forth, I’d not really made any effort to make it happen.
 
“That’s what I want to talk about,” Jim said. He reached into the pocket of his big parka. He pulled out a wet, wrinkled $20 bill.
 
I looked at him, blankly.
 
“This is for the bottle drive. I want you to put this towards whatever the kids make.” Then he paused. “I don’t want them to know it’s from me.”
 
It took me a moment to re-orient myself from the conversation I’d been anticipating. For some reason, the first words out of my mouth were, “Jim, you don’t need to do this.”
 
He looked at me, hard. “Oh yes I do,” he said. He paused again. “It should be a lot more, but this is all I can manage at the moment.”
 
I did a quick calculation. $20.00. That’s four hundred cans. I had some vivid mental snapshots of Jim walking slowly down a street on the West Side, of Jim climbing three stairs somewhere to retrieve a bag, of Jim excited and adding up the numbers as we drove to the redemption center. I knew exactly what those bottles and cans cost him.
 
“Jim,” I began, but I never finished.
 
“I have not always been the person I should have been, especially when I was drinking, especially where women are concerned. Just know that…” another pause… “I need to do this.”
 
His voice brightened up as he rose to leave my office. “Have a nice day!” he said. When Jim said that, he said it without a hint of sarcasm. He meant it.
 
He took hold of his cart, and I listened as its squeaky wheels rolled down the carpeted hallway.

I stood there holding that wet $20 between my fingers, and for the first time in my life, I believe I got it. I got what grateful giving—grateful living—looked like. Actually, it can look like lots of things… but on that day, it looked like a little hunched man, wheeling his squeaky cart down the street to collect the bottles and cans he needed to live… A man who knew that everything he had was a gift, and that when you’ve been blessed, it feels good to share those blessings.

Blessings be to each of you. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gratitude and Grace and What God Requires: A Sermon on Micah



Scripture can be found here...

On an episode of “Glee” that aired a few years ago, one of the students at McKinley High School discovered an image that looked very much like Jesus Christ on his grilled cheese sandwich. And these kinds of incidents have been in the news, recently… an image of Jesus was seen in a tree in North Providence, RI the week of Halloween; another, in a plume of smoke coming from a house fire in Fresno, CA. On the TV show, at least, this event sparked theological conversations. The students started talking about God. What did they think about God? Did they believe? Some of the students were clear: they had faith, they believed in God, one even spoke up for the power of prayer in the face of life’s difficulties. Others were not so sure. Some said that Christianity seemed to deny women’s equality to men, to claim that God didn’t love gay people, and to force a choice between faith in God and scientific progress and discovery. But are all those things necessary to the Christian faith? Are they essentials?

In response to just those kinds of question, a Methodist minister wrote a book called, “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?”[i] The title seems a little odd, until you understand it is a book about the basics, what you might call the “essential tenets” of the Christian faith. What the author is really getting at is, “What does God want from us?”

If we have any inkling that we are not alone, that there is a power in the universe greater than the human imagination, a power we call “God,” I think we want to know the answer to that question. If there is a God, who created everything that is, including us, and who therefore has loving intentions towards us, what does that God want from us? What is required? This is the same question being asked 2750 years ago by Micah.

When Micah was a prophet, the kingdom of David had split into two kingdoms, one in the north (called Israel) and one in the south (called Judah). Judah contained Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, the place where Solomon had built the Temple, the holiest place on earth, for God’s covenant people. And for a long time it was believed that Jerusalem and the Temple were impermeable, inviolable—that Jerusalem would always successfully repel an invasion, and that the Temple would never be destroyed.

At the end of the eighth century BCE, the prophet Micah had a different understanding of the ways things were unfolding. Micah could see the truth: that the injustice and violence of the people and their kings was leading Judah down a path that could only lead to destruction. Any number of prophets—including Isaiah—were saying the opposite: that nothing would ever destroy Jerusalem or the Temple. And of course, those words were very popular with those in power, because it seemed to promise that they would stay in power. Micah saw things very differently. Micah saw the truth, and he spoke it aloud.

This is what a prophet does, by the way. A prophet looks at things and sees them without a filter, without the interfering blinders of politics or popularity or self-promotion. And then the prophet speaks out about what he or she sees. It’s common to think that prophets are like fortunetellers—the people who can look at your palm, and without knowing anything about you, tell you all about yourself. But prophets are doing just the opposite. They are looking deeply at the situation before them. They know the subject of their prophecy intimately. They speak out of their deep reflection and understanding. God’s anointing of a prophet isn’t so much about revealing secrets to them as it is endowing them with the strength and courage to speak what might be an unpopular word.

So Micah speaks. First, he gives an indication that there needs to be a new ruler. He’s pretty clear that the one who is currently on the throne is not the one who will save the people. In fact, the new ruler won’t even come from Jerusalem. Instead, he points to a little backwater named Bethlehem—Bethlehem, whose only claim to fame at this point is its favorite son David. But Micah stresses that Bethlehem is not so much a city as the boonies, “one of the little clans.” This is the Ancient Near East’s version of “outside the Beltway.” Then and now, it’s a powerful image. Power will arise where the people are generally pretty powerless.

With a new ruler comes a new understanding of the covenant relationship with God. Here is that question: What does God want from us? What does it meant to be in relationship with God? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” [Micah 6:6a] And in proposing various answers to that question, the prophet reveals what is really going on, everything he sees with those clear, anointed eyes, the reasons God will not let this monarchy stand.

It comes as a series of questions.

“Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” [Micah 6:6b]

This would be an appropriate sin offering in the Temple. Micah’s listeners are nodding their heads.

“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” [Micah 6:7a]

It’s funny Micah should ask that, because… didn’t we read just a couple of weeks ago, that Solomon “used to offer a thousand burnt offerings” upon the altar at Gibeon? We did. And it was presented as the kind of magnificent offering that only a king could make—and a fantastically wealthy king, at that. Micah’s listeners are still nodding, but they’ve been put on notice—this is something none of them could every dream of doing.

“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” [Micah 6:7b]

The crowd freezes. What does Micah mean, exactly? Does he mean that he would dedicate his child to God? Like the child-to-be-prophet Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah? No. That’s not what he means. And they all know it.

They know it because they, like Micah, know all about their king, Manasseh. They know all about his transgressions. In 2 Kings 21, we can read a long list of his crimes.

Manasseh took Temple worship and twisted and perverted it in the worst possible ways. He built “high places,” illegal worship spaces where people worshiped false gods. He even built altars to these same false gods in the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem. He practiced witchcraft. And “he made his son pass through fire.” Manasseh sacrificed his own child.

And so Micah speaks the truth: God will not let this monarchy stand. The Temple will be no more. Jerusalem will be no more. This line of kings will be no more.

Micah is prophesying a dreadful loss to the people—the loss of both king and Temple. But at the same time, he is lifting up something powerfully hopeful: there is life after the Temple. There is relationship with God outside the Temple. And what the Lord requires is something that can be accomplished by all, women and men, royal folk and regular people. Three things are required.

First, do justice.

Justice is a word that has been somewhat hijacked by a contemporary American notion of punishment. We speak of people being brought to justice—by which we mean, arrested, tried, convicted, and punished. And this is a part of biblical justice, but only one part. Biblical justice also means giving people their rights. This is why, according to one writer, when you see the word “justice” in the Hebrew Scriptures, you typically see references to “the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’”[ii] Justice is every bit as interested in the vulnerable as it is in the culpable. This is because justice is a basic attribute of God. When we strive to “do justice” we are also striving to be in right relationship with others, to be generous, in short, to show by our actions that we are truly made in God’s image and likeness.

The second thing that is required: To love kindness. The word used here in the Hebrew is hesed, and it is rich and layered. It means things like: faithfulness, goodness, strength, even salvation. Hesed is never an abstraction—it’s not a feeling. It is always associated with practical action on behalf of another person. And hesed is not transient—which feelings so often are. Hesed is enduring.[iii] In scripture, God is said to be filled with hesed. Of all the people in scripture, the word is most associated with Ruth.

And finally, the third action: walk humbly with God. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that word, “humble,” means. Humility—the English word—has the same root as humus, as in, the soil, the good place where things grow. Humility seems to mean something like “groundedness” or to put it theologically, knowing where we come from. We human beings, according to the bible, are earth creatures—God made us from the earth we live upon. To be humble is to keep that in mind. To humble is also to be teachable, to know that we will not always be right in every moment and situation. To be humble is to be willing to listen perhaps just a little more than we speak.

What does God want from us? It's simple, though, like so many simple things, it’s not necessarily easy. Do justice. Love kindness. Be humble in your walk with God.



At the end of the “Grilled Cheese” episode of “Glee,” some of the Christian students have decided that their love for another student who calls himself an atheist is not dependent on his accepting their faith. And the student who calls himself an atheist is deeply moved by his friends’ prayers for his sick father, even though he doesn’t understand that impulse to pray. And the boy who found the face of Jesus on his sandwich still doesn't understand what it all means (though he does understand that he still really likes grilled cheese). And you know, I was reading reviews of this episode of “Glee,” and lots of those reviews were of the opinion that the boy with the sandwich was disillusioned, and that he lost his tentative, blossoming faith. That is not what I saw as I watched the scene. I saw a boy eating a grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of Jesus—a moment of communion, or recognizing that the sacred is all around us, and within us, even in the most ordinary things. And in their own way, the students all seem to be doing their best. They go to great lengths to be fair to one another—that’s doing justice. They go to great lengths to show their love for one another—that’s loving kindness. And they are all humble enough to know that they are still learning. That, at least, is the beginning of a humble walk with God.

What does the Lord require of us? Just that. Fairness. Kindness. And that we keep walking, learning, opening ourselves to God, to one another, and even to the extraordinary flashes of holiness in the ordinary moments of our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[ii] Tim Keller, “What is Biblical Justice?” in Relevant Magazine, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/what-biblical-justice#QJPrhXISU0tAYywe.99.
[iii] Will Kynes, “God’s Grace in the Old Testament: Considering the Hesed of the Lord,” Knowing & Doing, a Publication of the C. S. Lewis Institute, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/430, p. 2.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gratitude and Grace in Healing: A Meditation for All Saints

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Scripture can be found here...

You’ve heard it said… you’ve said it: “She’s a saint.” Or, “He was a saint.” Or, “Anyone would have to be a saint to take that job/ raise that kid/ be married to that one.” We tend to think saints are really special people, exceptionally good people, people who are better than you and me. We get that from our Catholic cousins, and I see their logic. Lift up exceptional people, and people like you and me realize… well, it’s possible. It’s possible to be a follower of Jesus, a lover of God, saturated with the Spirit. It’s possible, for real human beings, to do and be all those things. I get that.

Turns out, scripture has another, pretty different idea of saints. If you are a saint, all it means is, you are one of us. You are one of ours. You are a member of the household of God. And, lots of times we think (and scripture seems to think) that means that we are of one mind, spiritually, and religiously, that we believe the same things. But I would say a stronger element of what it is to be a saint is connection. We saints are connected to one another. We are links in a chain.

Here are the links today’s story from 2 Kings: First, there’s Naaman the warrior… he’s a powerful guy. He’s also a successful guy, the Aramean general who defeated Israel. But Naaman is a man with a big bproblem. The text calls it “leprosy,” but there were lots of skin conditions that went by this name in the bible. What we need to know is that scripture describes this kind of condition as making someone ritually impure. People with leprosy are forced to live apart from the rest of society, and it doesn’t end at 21 days. It is a sentence for tremendous, lifelong isolation.

So Naaman, this powerful warrior, is also a man with a seriously debilitating condition—at the very least, socially debilitating. He is the man at the center of our story, the first link in our chain.

Naturally, since he has been so successful in his work, Naaman is a favorite of the king of Aram, another link in our chain. Naaman is also linked to his wife, about whom we know nothing, and through his wife, to her servant, an unnamed girl. This servant girl was taken from Israel as plunder by the Aramean army. Aram won, and they took what they wanted. It’s this girl who proposes a connection to the prophet, Elisha.

Naaman hears her suggestion and follows it. Being a man of power, he goes through power channels. He goes to the king who provides a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. The King of Israel is a link in the chain, too, though he seems, largely, to be about comic relief. He responds to the request with complete confidence that it’s a set-up. He’s terrified. He becomes hysterical. That’s the thing about links in chains, though. As long as they keep us connected... they’re still links.

And Naaman, being a man of power, also knows that money speaks. He brings gold that would go for about $2.8 million at today’s prices, as well as lots of luxurious gifts. He arrives with the equivalent of Armani suits and Rolex watches. His desire for healing is urgent. It reveals itself in how much he is willing to give to get it.

When he arrives at the prophet’s house, we find another link: a messenger from the prophet, who tells him: Go take a bath. Seven baths. In the river Jordan. Naaman is outraged—by the fact that the prophet didn’t bother to come out to meet him personally, and the fact that the prophet didn’t perform like a magician in a Vegas show, and also the suggestion that the Jordan River might somehow be superior to the rivers of Aram. But the final link in the chain arrives in the guise of some more unnamed servants, who, very gently, and very carefully, say to Naaman, “Just… give it a try.”

We all know how the story ends. Healing. But after healing… a few verses after our passage ends, Naaman is still trying to press all his riches upon Elisha, who is just not interested. But Naaman’s gratitude needs somewhere to go. It goes, as it turns out, to God. Appropriately. He asks for a curious thing: two cartloads of earth from Israel, so that, wherever he goes, he can worship the God of Israel on God’s own, chosen soil.

Naaman has been a beneficiary of grace, such unlikely grace, given all the links in the chain that were needed to convey it to him. Prophet to servant girl to wife to general; general to king to king to messenger to servants to prophet. But that is grace: the unwarranted, the unexpected, even the undeserved bounty of God, whether it takes the form of healing or of blessing or of faith. And those links in that chain, every one, the rich ones and the poor ones, the named ones and the nameless ones, the ones who remained calm and the ones who got hysterical… every one is a member of the household of God. Some were born there. Some were invited in. Some wandered in accidentally. But all were drawn in by acts of love. All are saints of God.

In a few minutes we will be sharing in our annual remembrance on the occasion of All Saints Day. Of the names you see in your bulletin, only three were members of Union Presbyterian Church. The others are all members of the household of God for one reason and one reason only: love. The love of God and the love of God’s people. Someone here loves them, or someone here loves someone who loves them, or loves someone who loves someone who you get the picture. And they transcend things like church membership and geography and even religious belief. But that’s so typical of love, refusing to stay in its little proscribed box, spilling out to enemy generals and unnamed servant girls and people most of us have never met. But that’s love. And that’s what it is to be a saint, to be one of ours, to be one of us. It’s to be a link in a chain, a powerful chain, forged by love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Wisdom and Compassion: Sermon on 1 Kings 3:4-28



 
"Solomon the Wise" by Gustave Doré

Scripture can be found here...

They say “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Well, actually, Solomon says it, in the book of Proverbs, which is traditionally attributed to him. Solomon talks a lot about wisdom. But it is very hard to know how to talk about Solomon.

If I were to ask you to come up with one adjective to describe this well-known King of Israel, I am willing to bet money that you would reply: “Wise.”

And the stories we have today—both parts of this chapter in 1 Kings—are designed to show just that: Solomon asked God for wisdom, and God thought that was a splendid idea, so God gave Solomon wisdom, and then some. This is one very popular, very common reading of these passages.

There are other readings, though.

We come this week to the kingship of this son of David. And while we know David was God’s dearly beloved, though flawed, child, and to this day the Hebrew Bible’s most famous and beloved king, Solomon holds a different place.

Let’s remember how Solomon got here. Solomon’s mother is Bathsheba. She is the woman at the center of last week’s passage, in which David’s flawed character so spectacularly revealed itself—side by side with his confidence in the love and forgiveness of God.  But the prophet shared a word of warning for David. “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house.” You will reap what you have sown. [2 Samuel 12:10].

That prophecy comes true in chilling ways. David’s son Amnon rapes his own half-sister, David’s daughter Tamar. David’s son Absalom, furious with his father for not punishing Amnon, takes revenge by killing his half-brother. Absalom then rebels against his father, and moves to claim the throne for himself. Absalom is killed in the resulting battle and David loses a second son.

As David lies dying, his son Adonijah is the heir-presumptive to the throne. However, Bathsheba and the prophet, Nathan, go to David on his deathbed and persuade him to name Solomon to be the next king. Adonijah does not go quietly. He devises a scheme to give himself greater legitimacy as David’s heir by claiming for himself a young woman who has been David’s companion in the time of his final illness. When Solomon hears this, he has Adonijah killed. The throne is his.

This is the background for this morning’s passage. A bloody path leads from David to Solomon. We use the word “wisdom” to describe the character of King Solomon. In Hebrew the word is “hokmah.” And hokmah has another sense, a slightly different meaning. It can mean wise. It can also mean: cunning. Wily.  Crafty. Shrewd. Even, deceitful.

So, what version of hokmah is in play when the Lord visits Solomon his dream? “Ask what I should give you,” God demands. Dream-Solomon certainly has a way with words. He replies with all the flowery speech of a wide-awake politician, describing his father David, as one who “walked before [God] in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart…” Solomon praises God for giving David “a son to sit on his throne today” [1 Kings 3:6]. A fair bit of forgetfulness, if not outright whitewashing, informs that version of history.

Solomon continues:  “And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. … Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” [1 Kings 3:7, 9]. I am only a little child, Solomon protests. I don’t know my right hand from my left.

OK. It is possible that, in the face of this tremendous elevation in his status—won at a significant cost of blood—Solomon may well have felt out of his element, incapable of the task. Fair enough. He wouldn’t be the first public servant or the last to feel that way. It’s normal—even healthy—to feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of leadership. And if Solomon’s dream-self is having this kind of conversation—you can be sure it was on his mind.

Whatever the truth of Solomon’s motivations, conscious or subconscious, God is most pleased. Because Solomon has asked for wisdom, and not riches or honor, God’s plan is to give him the whole package—wisdom, riches, honor, and even—if he plays his cards right—a long life.

Solomon has it all. He is king. He possesses a wise and discerning mind. He will become so fabulously rich that his wealth will be proverbial, something we still refer to, to indicate unimaginable riches, three thousand years later. And in an era where the number of wives a man had was directly proportional to his wealth, Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines. Solomon has it all.

Now meet someone who does not have it all. Who, in fact, has nearly nothing. Immediately after the description of the dream and God’s promise to Solomon, we meet two nameless prostitutes. To be a prostitute in the biblical era is to be a woman utterly alone. In the ancient Middle East, well-being and security are possible almost exclusively through a woman’s connection to a man, ideally her husband, but perhaps another male relative—father, brother, son. Women are not able to own land. They are not able to own or run businesses. Women without a male relative are, as Blanche DuBois would say, dependent on the kindness of strangers.

The laws of Leviticus and elsewhere make it clear that such women are to be cared for and protected by the community—they are to be given opportunities to glean. They are to be given food and shelter. The presence of prostitutes in this story tells us something important: it tells us that these laws are not being widely obeyed. The “haves” are not sharing their abundance with the “have-nots.” Prostitution is a last ditch attempt to survive.

These women, who live together in one house, have given birth, and each of them has borne a son. Which means, that, at last, they each have something of value. Of course, true help is years and years away—the sons have to grow up, and make their own way in the world before they can actually care for their mothers. Still. Each woman has a male child, in a world in which maleness is the ticket to survival. The birth of these children must have been experienced as an incredible blessing, a sign that perhaps, God is looking out for the women after all.

And here this reading becomes painful, for so many women, and so many men, who know this kind of searing loss.

One of the babies dies. And then, the mother of that child switches the babies, a tiny cold body exchanged for a tiny warm one.

And now they are before the king. Wise Solomon. Cunning Solomon. Solomon, whose way to the throne was paved by the use of the sword.

Should it surprise and shock us that Solomon’s impulse is to bring a sword to this case? And are we to believe that, if one of the women had not cried out, had not taken on the part of an angel to stay Solomon’s hand, that he would not have, in fact, done exactly what he proposed to do? Treat a living child as an inert piece of property, as if this were a dispute over the last piece of pie?

But a woman does cry out. A woman with nothing, who has had a few hours of joy as a mother, cries out to say, No. Let the child live. Let her have it. I will leave here with nothing, except the knowledge that I gave life to this baby and didn’t let it be taken away.

She did this because, the text tells us, “Her compassion burned within her.” We’ve talked about this before, but you know me. I never get tired of bringing up Hebrew when it makes a difference to our understanding of a story. The Hebrew word translated “compassion” here is “rachamim.” The word is a plural for  “womb,” so the sense is something like, “because womb-love for her son burned within her.” The implication—the strong implication—is that the real mother, the true mother, is the mother whose womb burned with love for her child.

That word, compassion, is most often used of God in scripture. Generally speaking, as far as the bible is concerned, it’s God whose womb burns with love for us.

But I’d like, at this point, to put in a word on behalf of those whose wombs were not involved in the process of becoming parents. Like, for instance, fathers. And adoptive parents, people like my mom and dad. God, fathers, teachers, foster parents, scout leaders, coaches, people who adopt—all these, I truly believe, can have that deep compassion and love for children, regardless of whether they share DNA or have the same nose. Which leads me to believe, something else is going on here.

It’s happened again. Scripture has, once more, given us a glimpse of the love of God shining through just about the least likely person in the story. And it’s not Solomon. Solomon may be wise, or cunning, or just plain impatient with these bickering women who are taking up his time. He is not the one who shows us what the love of God looks like. That would be the mother who is ready to give up her child rather than see him harmed. She is the one who shows us the kind of love that relinquishes its own claims—to ownership, or to being the one in the right. Hers is the kind of love that gives up her hopes of gain, so that the one she loves might have life, even if it is life without her. This nameless prostitute might well be the patron saint of birth mothers.

Solomon is wise. Solomon is cunning. And he will continue to wow and impress people with his wisdom, in all kinds of situations. All the people will stand in awe of him.

No one will stand in awe of the prostitute as she gathers her baby up in her arms and takes him home. People will stand aside as she walks by, so as to not be associated with her. But within her, this woman who isn’t even on the fringes of polite society, burns with the love of God.

Maybe the wisdom of God burns within her too. Proverbs tells us,

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks… [Proverbs 1:20-21]

In the presence of wise King Solomon, this woman spoke. And the words she spoke clued us in, not only to the nature of love of God, but the nature of God’s wisdom, revealed time and again where we least expect to see it. Thanks be to God. Amen.