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.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Way Out of No Way: Sermon on Joshua 24:1-15


 Scripture can be found here...

“Can’t get there from here.”

Anyone who has ever lived in New England—and most everyone who has traveled there—has heard this. It’s said in a Down East accent, meant to evoke a grizzled, salt-wrinkled guy in waders who’s just stepped off his trawler, and who is trying to “help” hapless travelers who are utterly flummoxed by the Maine coast.

“Can’t get there from here.”

Have you ever said that to yourself?

Maybe you were really on an actual road, with a co-pilot trying diligently to read and interpret an incredibly confusing map, to no avail. Lost. (This may only apply to those of us over a certain age).

Or maybe you had depended on your brand new GPS, one you’d even affectionately given a name (Greta). And instead of leading you to the cool restaurant/ brewery, she’d led you to a dark hill, in the middle of the woods, in the middle of Nowheresville, PA. (This may apply to family members of the person in the pulpit).

Or maybe your GPS was of a different kind—the internal kind, the inner voice, that said, “Sure, you should definitely try out for the team, or try to get into this graduate program, or apply for that job, or ask that girl out.” And it became evident—over time, eventually, or maybe sooner than that—that you had somehow been misdirected. That this plan, this road, this map, was not going to work out. Not at all.

Can’t get there from here.

For some of us, these are distant memories. Even fond ones, memories that we draw upon in conversations over coffee that start, “You wouldn’t believe what I used to…!” Memories shared from the perspective of the good land of plenty in which we are now planted and flourishing.

For some of us, these are not memories at all. They are the present vortex, the crucible in which we live, study, work, and toss and turn all night long, so that the next day of living, studying, and working is made all the more dreary and long. For some of us, we are living “Can’t get there from here,” right now, and it’s awful. Just awful.

Allow me to introduce to you, one Joshua. Joshua, whose name in Hebrew means, “YHWH is salvation.” Joshua, who took over for Moses, once it was clear that Moses, personally, was not destined to cross the toll-bridge that led from the desert wastes to the land of promise.

And before Joshua, there was Moses, who heard the voice of God in the middle of a desert wasteland, speaking to him from a burning bush, and who, as a result, worked alongside God to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, and into freedom—and also forty years of wandering in the desert wasteland.

And before Moses, there was Joseph—the hated second-to-youngest son of Jacob, whose brothers were so jealous of him they turned him into a kind of “Gone Boy,” selling him into slavery and telling their father he was dead. Joseph, who worked alongside God as second-in-command in Egypt, to make a home, to provide food, not only for Egyptians, but for his own remorseful, traveling, long-lost family.

And before Joseph, there were Abraham and Sarah. Called at ages 75 and 65 to uproot themselves, to leave home, family, and gods behind, to follow and enter into covenant with a new God, the God YHWH, who promised them children, and land, and blessing.

And before Abraham and Sarah, there was Noah, called at the age of 600, for God’s sake, to craft an ark to save a faithful remnant from the destruction of the floodwaters, to help that remnant to pass through the waters to a new beginning.

At each stage of this story—this story of God’s people, which also happens to be our story—at each and every stage, any one of these people could have said, must have thought, had to have believed:

Can’t get there from here.

Can’t become a mother at age 65-plus, never mind moving all around to God-only-knows-where.

Can’t go from being a hated boy sold into slavery to being the second-highest ranking official, in a country not even your own.

Can’t singlehandedly walk into Egypt—where, by the way, you’re wanted for murder—and say to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” and expect him to take you seriously.

Can’t get there from here.

There is an African-American folk saying, “Our God can make a way out of no way.” And that means, if you are a slave in Egypt or a slave in Montgomery, and you are longing for freedom, God can make that happen. God can make a way, even if it seems there is no way. That is the gist of the long speech Joshua has just made to the people of Israel. He goes through their salvation history (not backwards, like I did), and he reminds the people. God did this. And this. And this. And all that time, we were thinking it could not be done.

Who could save an entire sampling of God’s creative powers on a single boat? (Noah—with God’s help.)

Who could go from being a small family consisting of one childless, retirement-age couple to being a great nation? (Abraham and Sarah, with God’s help.)

Who could climb out of the hole of hatred and find, not only power, but integrity, faithfulness, and forgiveness? (Joseph, with God’s help.)

Who could speak for a group of slaves and be heard? (Moses, with God’s help.)

In each and every instance, the temptation—the strong temptation—is to say, no way. There is no way. We cannot get to that promised land of safety, of fullness, of reconciliation, of freedom. Can’t get there from here.

And yet. So the story goes.

Joshua recounts all the history of God’s people. And he includes a less savory part, the part often known as the “conquest” of the land. And it amounts to some serious chest-thumping. We beat those guys, and we beat those guys, and we annihilated these other guys, and look. “Weee are the champions, my friends. And weeee’ll keep on fighting, till the end.

Weeee are the champions. Weeee are the champions!

No time for losers! ‘Cause weeee are the champions! Of the world!

And they are!

And yet, in a fashion decidedly atypical for the commander of a conquering army, Joshua takes great care to say, “We didn’t do this. God did it.”

And if we look at our passage, we see all kinds of signs that, while there was violent conflict, there was also some measure of restraint, some effort to frame God’s victories differently.

God, speaking through Joshua, says: “… it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.”

This is tricky terrain. I walk upon it, and invite you to walk with me, with tremendous trepidation. Here we are, with a part of the story that makes us wonder how we are to connect with it, and live into it. And it makes sense, as Joshua asks us to consider in his speech—his last speech, by the way, his deathbed speech: who will we serve?

Joshua: his name in Hebrew means, “YHWH is salvation.” Do you know how to say Joshua in Greek? Jesus. Jesus and Joshua: “God is salvation.” God saves. God makes a way where there is no way. God even makes a way through a sticky, prickly, thorny passage like this, which simultaneously asks us to accept a story in which God’s people claim their right to a land with no concern for its native inhabitants, and also to serve a God whom we claim to see reflected in Jesus of Nazareth.

Can we get there from here?

Can God make a way from stories of conquest to the stories of the table we find in the accounts of our New Testament Joshua, Son of Joseph?

Can God make a way for us to find, in this little snippet of God’s story, some continuity with the God who is pleased, as Paul tells us in our first reading, when we persevere in suffering, and open our doors to strangers?

Can God make a way for those of us who feel we can’t get there from here? Whatever we might mean by that?

God not only can; God does. As for me and my household, ours is not to ignore these passages, or try to wish them away, or pray them away, or pretend them away. Ours is to read them with empathy. Empathy for the fervent hopes of a people who had traveled those desert wastes for many, many years. Empathy for their fear that God’s promises might all come to nothing. Empathy, even, for the dying warrior Joshua, a human man who has spent his whole life way out on a limb. A man whose bones probably need to be in the ground before a new day can dawn in which a new set of ears can listen for the words of YHWH. A man who is but one in a great cloud of witnesses who listen and discern what are God’s desires and dreams for God’s people in a new day, today. 

And even some empathy for ourselves, as we claim these stories as our own, even as we struggle to recognize ourselves in them.

These are our stories. We are in there. We are the tired ones. We are the frightened ones. We are the ones who wander through stages, and years, and false starts, and the wrong job and the wrong major until—zing!- we figure out where we are meant to be. We are the ones who wonder, can we get there—wherever our personal “land of promise” might be—from here?

We are the ones to whom God makes the promise: I will make a way for you. I will make a way with you. We are the ones who call Jesus “the Way.” We are the ones who are asked, even today: who will you serve? And we are the ones who are privileged to have a moment, an opportunity, to take a deep breath, and give our answer.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

But- And- A World Communion Sunday Meditation

Scripture can be found here and here....

Have I mentioned how very much I loved studying Hebrew in seminary? There was something about it that I never expected: the pure astonishment when I realized I was reading stories in the language spoken and understood by God’s people thousands of years ago. It gave me the shivers. I frightened me and enthralled me all at once.

I will never forget the thrill of translating, for the very first time, a fragment from the book of Genesis. I was working late in my little dorm room at Union Theological Seminary. It was almost 2:00 in the morning, and I was laboring away, letter by letter. It took a long, long time. I was close to giving up. And then, like those scenes in movies when the camera shifts focus, and something goes from being completely blurry to being crystal clear, the meaning revealed itself to me. I could read it. The sentence was, “Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Gen. 42:8).

One of the most valuable things I learned in Hebrew concerned a certain word—a certain letter, actually. The letter “vav.” The letter vav, all by itself, is an amazing word in that it can mean two things that are distinctly, startlingly, different. It can mean “and.” Or it can mean “but.” And the way the word is translated normally comes down to context.

Think about that for a second. Think about a normal sentence with the word “and” in it. I’ll give you one. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man…” (Gen. 39:2a). Now, imagine translating that, instead, “The Lord was with Joseph, but he became a successful man…” That is a very different sentence. Both are viable translations, but in the context of the faith described in the Hebrew Scriptures, only one makes sense to us. of course, the first translation is correct. The connection between God’s presence with Joseph and his success seems obvious. God’s presence enabled Joseph to prosper in all he does. That is a very classic Hebrew Scriptures theme. And—but—it is an idea that is exploded just as often as it’s held up.

Now, how about this sentence: “Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). The use of the word “but” in that sentence implies something. God is in the midst of telling the people of the Exodus how precious and beloved they are, how special and chosen. And, that is surely the witness of scripture. And—but—imagine now an “and” instead of a “but” in that sentence. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, and you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” How does that change the sentence, ever so slightly? Instead of God’s people being plucked out of the mass that is humanity, removed and set apart, does this tiny little change in translation instead locate them firmly in the human family? Does it somehow say, as God says to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”?

“Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.”

Isn’t that the story of the struggle of the human race? In our readings this morning, we move from a story of a creator God giving a rainbow promise never to destroy the earth by flood; to the story of God calling together a covenant community by beginning with one little family; to the story of a faithful servant of God’s languishing (though, somehow, thriving) in jail. We have the stories bookended by the Ten Commandments, the Ten Words spoken through Moses—the law to be obeyed by God’s people. And the whole second table of the commandments—all the ones that have to do with humans interacting with one another—can be boiled down to: when you see your brother, recognize him.

All around the world today Christians are remembering: we are all brothers and sisters. And that is so easy to say. And that is so excruciatingly hard, sometimes, to live out. 2014 so far is an object lesson in folks not remembering that we are connected to one another as God’s children—“The whole earth is mine,” says the Lord, and everyone and everything that is in it. The making of peace is more than our pondering this for a few moments in our Sanctuary on an October Sunday morning. When we see our brother, we are called upon to recognize him. See him in the rich and the poor, the schooled and the illiterate. When we see our sister, we are called upon to recognize her. See her in the frail elder and in the fragile newborn, in the woman showing her faith in a hijab and the woman showing her strength and athleticism in a bathing suit. My brother, though he speaks with an accent, though he was born in another land. My sister, though her heritage, or coloring, or size, or idea, is different from mine. My sister and my brother. Different from me, but- and- my sister and brother, nevertheless.

Peacemaking requires laboring away, in our hearts and in our homes and on the streets and in the world. It can—it will—take a long, long time. At times we will feel close to giving up. But—and—it is the call of our gracious God. It is the yearning of a hurting world. It is the rainbow promise, and the call to the table. In us, by us, through us, O God, I pray: let all the world be blessed. Thanks be to God. Amen.