Pomp and Some Circumstance

Passage: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:1-15
Date: August 26, 2018
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey

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Sermon

My problem with some of these monarchy or kingship stories is that my first response is often cynical. In my defense, I need to point out that even the narrator of the story is cynical today. Or at least snarky. Solomon asks for the gift of wisdom in such a pious way that it sounds like he’s brown-nosing God. How dumb does he think God is? Like God can’t help but give the new king what he wants since he asked so nicely. Maybe that’s why so many of us wheedle in our prayers—we’re just following the example in the Bible. What Solomon asks for concerns his heart, the heart being (in Hebrew physiology) the seat of will and intellect. He wants to think with his heart, to discern right from wrong. God grants Solomon a wise and shrewd heart, then also gives the consolation prize of wealth and long life, along with the acclaim of being the wisest man to ever live, as long as he continues to follow God’s laws.

So this is where my cynicism kicks in, wondering if Solomon’s PR machine sent this out. The very next story must have come out of their office. It’s the one where Solomon is asked by two mothers to judge which one’s baby died in the night and which one is still living.Solomon grabs a sword and offers to divvy up the baby so they can each have a share. Of course, the mother of the living baby quickly says “Let her have the child!” while the mother of the dead baby doesn’t care one way or the other. I can see Solomon’s Sarah Huckabee using this for spin, since the beginning of the chapter raises all those red flags. Solomon marries an Egyptian princess which, being interpreted, means he has invited the Empire into his bed. Then Solomon has his dream at Gibeon, after sacrificing a thousand animals. There are a couple of problems with that. What the first readers of this story knew is that Gibeon was not on the short list of approved places for worship of the Lord. The 1,000 animals are not sacrificed before the Ark of the Lord, so it’s not exactly clear to whom they were intended. Plus, they’re holocaust offerings—all burned up—which means no one gets to share in the meat offered, the purpose of a communion sacrifice. It’s all for show, to exhibit the abundant wealth of the new king, who portrays himself to God as so humble and unworthy. It’s an extravaganza.

We’re dealing in this story with the ethics of power and leadership. Power can be used over, against, and toward people—destructive uses of power. Power can also be used with and for others—as empowerment. When Solomon asks to be able to think with his heart, the narrator signals that, at least at the beginning of his reign, Solomon’s spirituality was appropriate for a king. He wanted to use his power for and with his people. The Biblical understanding is that power is no substitute for empowerment. God is always vitally concerned with proper and wise government. Kingly glory—a thousand burned animals in the name of piety—that glory is in contrast to the need for the king to be God’s faithful servant. What the Deuteronomist (who edited the version of Hebrew scripture we’re familiar with) seems to have in mind for this king-servant is one who uses his power to free, to care for, and to nurture the people of God. Solomon at least starts out intending to do that, but the narrator already knows that Solomon went off the rails somewhere because right from the start he says (the other red flag) that this king is one who followed his father David’s laws rather than God’s. At some point, apparently, Solomon began to believe he could pardon himself.

I have struggled for years with the role the Deuteronomist ascribes to the people being governed. I checked it out this week with three other Biblical scholars, and they all agree scripture says when the people tolerate a bad leader, they are as culpable as the bad leader. In other words, those being governed have a responsibility to hold those governing them accountable for being servants of God and not engaging in royal avarice, greed, and self-indulgence. For not becoming Empire. When Israel went into exile, it wasn’t just because their kings were bad. They were terrible, and only got worse, which made God plenty upset, but what offended God the most is that the people tolerated it.

Speaking of servant kings. Did any of you see the article in the Washington Post this week about Jimmy Carter entitled “The Un-Celebrity President”? The reporter was in Plains, Georgia, to observe the 800th Sunday School class taught by Jimmy Carter in his hometown Baptist church. After shadowing Jimmy and Rosalyn that weekend, the author portrays him as a man of simple integrity. The Carters live in the house they’ve lived in all their married life, which has a tax assessment value of $179,000. The government-owned fence around their yard is probably worth more. When Jimmy and Rosalyn did some remodeling work recently on their two-bedroom rambler, the two of them did their own demo work, because that’s what they do with Habitat for Humanity. Their lifestyle was contrasted with that of every president and ex-president subsequent to Carter. The Carters are the last presidential couple to return to the home they lived in before the White House. They slept on a pull-out couch until recently, when they replaced it with a Murphy bed. When they fly, they fly commercial airline, coach class. The current president’s private jet has gold-plated faucets in the bathroom. All the other living ex-presidents live in million-dollar homes, and the current president has two multimillion dollar homes in addition to the White House.

The Biblical understanding of power is that it is given in the first place to be given away (see Moses). The people of God are meant to be a sign of hope and a contradiction to Empire, whatever form that takes. What Jimmy Carter said in that un-celebrity president article is that there is more to being a superpower than military might. He mentions such anti-Empire ways as being champions of peace, human rights, and equality, and of generosity toward those in need. And this is where it impinges on us. His favorite book is War and Peace because, he says, human events are changed not by powerful people but by the common and ordinary ones. People, apparently, like an un-celebrity president. People like you and me.

This week, two of the folks who come to see me for spiritual direction talked about letters they’d written. One of them, a Roman Catholic, wrote the bishop, taking him to task for the sexual misconduct scandal and cover up in Philadelphia. She outlined concrete steps he could take to both prevent further crimes here and ways the Church should prioritize living the gospel. The other directee wrote to his national and regional judicatories, demanding that they take a stand on immigrant justice. Both are nearly 80 years old, and neither are boat-rockers or political activists, although both take seriously Jesus’ commandments to love God and love others. They are both realistic and know the persons to whom they wrote their letters won’t be the ones who read them, that nothing may come of their efforts, but at least they had made incarnate their values, at least they held responsible those who are governing them. They enacted their faith.

It’s time, friends. Time to be people of faith. Time to, like Solomon, discern between good and evil, to think with our hearts. In the end, after resisting my cynical take on things, I come face to face with this: God has only one thing on the Divine mind. That thing is love, love, love, love. And how to help us live it. Like my directees this week, incarnating their values by writing letters, we incarnate that love on God’s mind every time we are kind to each other. Every time we say no to injustice and stand up to bullies. Every time we make beauty in places where it wasn’t before. Every time we are generous instead of frugal. Every time we take the time to just be present to that moment. Every time we resist the temptation to be discouraged. We know what to do. May we have the wisdom to think with our hearts and thus incarnate God’s love.