The widow's gift

Again and again in Israel’s scriptures, our attention is drawn to three groups of people: orphans, widows, and strangers. Our attention is drawn to them because in their vulnerability they enjoy God’s particular attention and concern. In Deuteronomy 10 we read,

The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.[1]

A stranger, a widow, and an orphan are the characters in the story we heard this morning. During a great drought, Elijah, the man of God, went north to Sidon, a Phoenician city on the coast, and when he came to the gate of Zarephath, he asked a woman — she was gathering firewood — to bring him something to drink. And as she turns to fetch some water for the stranger with the foreign accent, he asks her if she would also bring him a little bread to eat.

Bread? she says. I have no bread. All I have is a handful of meal and a little oil, and I’m out here gathering sticks for a fire, so I can bake something for me and my son, so we can eat and die.

And Elijah says to her, Don’t be afraid. Go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.

He asks her to share their last bite with him, to divide by three what isn’t enough for two, assuring her — the word of the Lord God of Israel — “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” And the miracle unfolds, inviting us to let our trust in God overcome our fear: she went and did as Elijah said, and the stranger, the widow, and the orphan ate for many days.

Side by side with this wondrous story we heard another one from the gospel of Mark. A poor widow put everything she had, all she had to live on, into the collection box at the temple. Nobody was paying attention, except for Jesus. He was sitting across from the treasury and watching, and he called the disciples because he wants us to pay attention to this moment.

“She has put in everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on, her whole life.”

Pretend, if you will, that you’re a director, and you’re working on a movie based on the gospel of Mark. And now the young man who is playing Jesus turns to you — you’re getting ready to shoot this very scene at the Temple treasury — the young man turns to you and asks,

How do you want me to deliver this line? Is Jesus surprised by her action? Does he praise her? Does he want the disciples to admire her, maybe see her as a role model? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Or is Jesus sad, perhaps a little angry because this poor woman just dropped her last two pennies in the offering plate? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Tell me, asks the actor, how do you want me to say this line? With a smile or with a broken heart?

The words alone don’t tell you if Jesus commends the widow, applauds her self-sacrifice, or invites the disciples to follow in her footsteps. You’re the director. What’s his tone of voice? Is he heartbroken? Outraged? Resigned?

While you’re thinking about that, let’s take a look at large-gift donors. In 2015, Joan Weill, the wife of Citigroup billionaire Sandy Weill, announced that they would donate $20 million to Paul Smith’s College, a small, cash-strapped school in the Adirondack Mountains. The big bundle of money came with a string attached: the school would have to be renamed in her honor, to be known forever as Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Weill was a former trustee of the school, and she had made large donations in the past. Both the library and the student center already were and still are named after her. Mrs. Weill argued that with her name given top billing, more donors around the country would open their wallets.

The president and the board of trustees loved the idea. But many alumni didn’t. “It makes me sick, to be honest with you,” one of them said. “I don’t consider it to be much of a gift if you require something. Usually a gift is given out of generosity and not requiring something in return.”

Well, ‘usually’ isn’t what it used to be. According to Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University, asking that entire institutions be rebranded in exchange for a gift reflects a new trend among the megarich. “There are very few anonymous donors anymore, and there are few that are satisfied to give a big donation and not have that object of the donation named after them.” Eisenberg says a lot of institutions now think of naming rights as an asset, something they can offer as an enticement, but he worries that colleges and arts institutions could wind up swapping names the way sports stadiums do. He says, “If somebody gives $20 million and someone else comes up and says, ‘I’m going to give you $50 million,’ does that mean they’re going to change their name again? It’s a crazy system.”

In the case of Paul Smith’s College, a state court judge ruled that the name change would violate terms of the original will and the original gift that established the school. Facing growing pressure from alumni and fearing a long court fight, the college decided not to appeal. And with naming rights no longer on the table, the Weill family withdrew the $20 million gift.[2]

Sitting in the temple, opposite the treasury, Jesus noticed many rich people putting in large sums. Large gifts draw attention, and the givers of large sums enjoy being known for their generosity. They love the attention. Jesus had just been teaching about attention. “Beware of the scribes,” he had told them. Beware of the ones who like to walk around in long robes. They like to be noticed; they like to be seen. They want to be greeted with respect in the markets. They love being offered to sit in the teacher’s chair in the synagogues, and they expect it. They hunger for the seats of honor at banquets. They strut about, peacocks of piety, spreading their fans, men who devour widows’ houses while saying long prayers.

Jesus was teaching in the temple, surrounded by magnificent buildings, at the heart of an institution established to the glory and honor of God, but used and abused for the worst of very human ends: vanity, self-promotion, exploitation. Nobody was paying attention to the poor widow who put in two small copper coins, except Jesus, and he wants us to pay attention to her. He doesn’t praise her, though, nor does he lift her up as an example. He only states what she just did.

You’re the director of this movie; what do you tell the actor playing Jesus? His tone of voice is critical in this scene. Do you tell him to tap into the joy that floods the heart when you witness this woman’s act of complete devotion to God? Or do you tell him to give voice to the anger that ties your innards into knots when you notice how an institution takes a widow’s last pennies? An institution that claims to glorify God whom the Psalmist calls Father of orphans and protector of widows?[3]

You don’t know what to tell the actor. Does Jesus point to the poor widow as a model for giving? Or does Jesus point to her because she is a tragic example of how religious institutions suck the life out of people?[4]

So you just sit there a little longer with Jesus, opposite the treasury. You remember how he entered the temple the day after they came to Jerusalem. You remember how he threw out those who were selling and buying there. How he overturned the tables of the money changers. How he practically shut down the entire operation, at least for a moment. “Is it not written,” he said, and you won’t have any trouble imagining in what tone of voice he was yelling across the courtyard, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”[5] The whole religious apparatus had become perverted. It no longer protected widows, orphans, the poor, the vulnerable… It lived off them instead.[6] So, what do you say to the actor who’s waiting for you to tell him how to deliver that line?

The poor widow gave everything she had, she gave her whole life, entrusting herself completely in God’s hands, and in Jesus’ eyes her gift became a testimony against the institutional leadership who had turned God’s house into a den of robbers. Do you tell the actor to say the line with joy and with severe judgment? Is that even possible?

This is the final scene in the temple, and the poor widow’s gift foreshadows the gift Jesus is about to complete: his own life, freely given in love, entrusted into God’s hands, but also taken by sin that corrupts our life together. The gift of his life is the judgment of our sin, of all the ways in which we fail one another, fail our God, and ultimately fail ourselves because of lovelessness. But the gift of his life is also a testimony to God’s power to redeem us from sin’s oppressive reign and renew us in love, make us fully human in love. The widow, the orphan, and the stranger invite us to the feast where love is host.

[1] Deuteronomy 10:17-19

[2] http://www.npr.org/2015/11/03/454036482/give-a-donation-ask-for-naming-rights

[3] Ps 68:5

[4] See Peery, Feasting, 285.

[5] Mark 11:15-17

[6] See Peery, Feasting, 287.

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Face to face

Mark Horvath works with a camera. He once heard a story about a homeless man on LA’s Hollywood Blvd who thought he was invisible. A kid handed the man a pamphlet one day, and he was startled and amazed, saying, “You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”

“It isn’t hard to comprehend this man’s slow spiral into invisibility,” writes Horvath.

Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he didn’t exist … much like they do a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.

We don’t literally close our eyes; we just keep our noses down, eyes focussed on the sidewalk, quietly hoping that invisibility works both ways:  The homeless person blends into the background, and we who are passing by blend into the steady stream of faceless pedestrians. Horvath once was a homeless person himself.

I not only feel their pain, I truly know their pain. I lived their pain. … Seventeen years ago, I lived on Hollywood Blvd. But today, I find myself looking away, ignoring the faces, avoiding their eyes — and I’m ashamed when I realize I’m doing it. But I really can feel their pain, and it is almost unbearable, but it’s just under the surface of my professional exterior.

After years of using a video camera to tell the stories of homelessness and the organizations trying to help, Horvath began shooting short, unedited clips of homeless men and women telling their stories, and he posted them on his website. The purpose of the project, he writes, “is to make the invisible visible.”[2]

My friend John also works with a camera. He’s paddled his canoe down the Harpeth and the Cumberland all the way to the Ohio, and then on to the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans, taking great pictures along the way. But one of my favorite stories of his doesn’t come with a picture, which is wonderful, because you get to create your own as you listen.

He was in China, and one day he was visiting a town where he says begging had apparently been elevated to a performance art. He was walking down the main drag when he saw a man at a street corner; he was fascinated by him while at the same time trying to ignore him. The man had no legs and he was sitting in a small wooden cart; one of his arms looked twisted and paralyzed, and he used his other arm to push himself forward.

John tried to look past him, but the man wouldn’t let him. He actually spoke to John as he walked past, but John kept walking, pretending he couldn’t hear him. He thought he had escaped, but the man in the cart followed him, pushing himself forward with astonishing skill.

Now John walked a little faster, his eyes firmly locked on the end of the street, but the man didn’t stop his pursuit. John picked up the pace some more, but the man in the cart was determined and remarkably quick on his wheels.

They came to the end of the block and John crossed the street, certain that the man would give up the chase now, but no, he was relentless. Halfway down the second block, John stopped and turned around.

They looked at each other. Neither said a word. And then they just burst out laughing: deep, full-throated belly laughs that shook their bodies so hard that any awkwardness, guilt and anger simply vanished until nothing but joy remained. Then they went to get a cup of tea.

Photos can be powerful and eye-opening. Videos can be incredibly moving and enlightening. But nothing is more powerful than two human beings looking at each other face to face, seeing one another.

Seeing and not seeing, visibility and invisibility, are key themes of another story, the story of a journey. The journey begins in the towns of Galilee where Jesus proclaims the good news of God: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[3] He calls disciples, he heals, he teaches, and he feeds the people with parables and with bread.

The disciples watch, but they are slow to learn. “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” Jesus says to them, and you can hear the frustration in his voice.[4]

The journey continues; Jesus turns south, following the old road that leads to Jerusalem. In Bethsaida, people bring a blind man to him and beg him to touch him. Mark writes, “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes … and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”[5] The disciples have been watching, but they are slow to understand who Jesus is, and what discipleship is about, and we wonder why Jesus can’t just lay his hands on them until they see “everything clearly.”

Instead, he continues on the way to Jerusalem and they follow. And he continues to teach them about the power of faith and the demands of discipleship; he talks to them about serving one another and being attentive to little ones – but they consistently fail to see who he is and, consequently, what it means to follow him. They are blind, and for much of the journey they have been slipping and stumbling — and we can’t say we have done much better.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked James and John, and they responded, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”[6] Jesus speaks of servanthood and loving self-denial, but we dream of greatness, power and privilege.

Now the journey takes us to Jericho, down in the Jordan valley, last stop for travelers and pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. From here on, it’s uphill all the way. And there, sitting by the roadside, is Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, calling out to people passing by to have mercy and toss him a coin or two. It’s a great spot, especially before Passover when so many pilgrims come to Jerusalem for the holidays. This is really the best season of the year and one day can make up for weeks when most people simply ignore him. Most days, people come and go, too busy to pay attention to a disabled beggar; he sits there, and the world around him passes by. He is blind, but his ears are sharp; he can tell from thirty paces away if those are three or five coins jingling in a pilgrim’s purse.

Every day, he sits by the roadside just outside the city gate, clutching his cloak. By day, he spreads it out in his lap to catch the coins that people toss his way and by night that same cloak is his bed and blanket. The fisherman has a boat and nets, the farmer a plow, and the carpenter an ax – the beggar has his cloak. The rich man has a big house, closets full of clothes for all seasons, and a bed with a soft pillowtop mattress – the beggar has his cloak. The cloak is all he has – his coat, his livelihood, his house, his bed.

When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is in the crowd coming up the road, he starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd, including disciples who should know better, tell him to hush and be quiet: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he’s an important man on an important mission, and he mustn’t be distracted. Children and beggars need to remain quiet and invisible.

But Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Nobody has called him that, Son of David; it’s a royal title fraught with messianic expectations: clearly the blind man can see and name what no one else could, except for Peter who called Jesus Messiah, and he didn’t grasp what he was saying.

Jesus stops and says, “Call him here.” And this is the moment we must watch very closely: This blind man who has already shown that he sees more clearly than many of us who have eyes yet fail to see, this blind man, throwing off his cloak, jumps up and comes to Jesus. He throws off what little comfort and security he has, what little he owns — he leaves everything and comes to Jesus. And Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” — the same question he asked James and John.

“My teacher, let me see again.”

Bartimaeus doesn’t ask for a little house by the side of the road, or a new cloak with fewer holes – he doesn’t ask for the things that would make his old life a little more comfortable. He asks for a new life, and with his vision healed, he follows Jesus on the way.

We are disciples on a journey. We don’t hear well and our vision is blurry at best. Jesus asks, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”[7]

I find it hard to say anything at all anymore. No, I do not understand. I do not understand how a man walks into a Kroger and starts shooting people. I do not understand how a man puts bombs into envelopes and mails them to men and women he considers enemies. I do not understand how a man walks into a synagogue on shabbat and starts shooting people.

Very few things are making sense to me anymore. I try to take it all in and process it somehow, find some kind of frame of reference where the pieces fit together. But processing takes time: time to listen, to think, to walk, to pray, to talk, time to see patterns and ask questions. Yet the world keeps flooding in on me, washing over me, swamping my little boat – it’s just too much to take in, let alone process. It’s like every cell in my body just wants to scream, “Stop it!” Stop the shooting, stop the bombing, stop the silencing of the other, the ridiculing, the belittling, stop the twitter storms and the angry memes, stop the spinning, stop the lies and the carefully choreographed outrage, stop running in circles in echo chambers pretending they are the world. Stop it.

I’m a blind beggar, sitting by the side of the road, clutching my cloak, whispering, “Lord have mercy.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asks.

 

 

I want to see … you. I want to be with you on the way. Let me see the faces of the invisible ones. Let me see this broken world through your eyes. And let me be part of healing it.

[2] http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/about/

[3] Mk 1:14f

[4] Mk 8:18

[5] Mk 8:25

[6] Mk 10:36

[7] Mk 8:17f.

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Serving side by side

They were going up to Jerusalem. Jesus was walking ahead of them, resolutely, with urgency in his stride, often a solitary figure against the horizon. All the disciples could do was try and keep up with him. They didn’t fully grasp yet who it was they were following and where he was going.

On the way, Jesus had begun to teach them that he must undergo great suffering and be killed and after three days rise again, and they couldn’t bear to hear it. The first time it was Peter who rebuked him for saying such things.[1] The second time, Jesus told them again how the Son of Man would be betrayed into human hands and be killed, and after three days rise again. They didn’t understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask. Instead, they argued with each other about who was the greatest.[2]

Jesus was way ahead of them, and all they could do was try and keep up with him. A third time he stopped to tell the twelve what was going to happen to him. He would be handed over. He would be rejected and condemned by the temple authorities. He would be mocked, abused, tortured, and killed. And after three days he would rise again.

That’s when James and John came forward, the sons of Zebedee. They had been with him since the early days of his mission in Galilee.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Who did they think he was – a genie? Had they heard at all what he had just said? But perhaps they weren’t as obtuse and insensitive as we might suppose. Perhaps they had actually listened to every word. Perhaps they had heard every detail about how he would run into the walls of rejection and political convenience and how these walls would become his grave. And perhaps their confidence in Jesus’ final triumph was so complete that they cast their vision past the deep darkness that lay ahead, into the glory beyond. In their minds, perhaps they were already standing in the royal palace, their toes touching the threshold to the banquet hall, and they saw the Risen One seated on the throne of glory.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked them.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they replied.

They were dreaming about cabinet seats. Certainly the Messiah would need a Chief of Staff or a Chief Justice – and why not them, trusted friends who had been with him almost from day one? They knew how power works: the pyramid with its wide base among those in the dust, rising all the way up to those whose feet never touch the ground because they rest on soft couches and ride in limousines or fly in personal jets. It’s a tall structure, with multiple layers, and the higher you climb, the greater the power and the more exclusive the company. They envisioned greatness as hierarchical, with the greatest at the pinnacle of the pyramid and God hovering over the top. The closer you get to the peak, the closer you are to greatness, and climbing up is an act of faithfulness to the god at the top.

James and John knew how power works, we all do. If you’re the Crown Prince, you get away with murder. You tell the world it was the fault of some underlings, and you don’t even need to mention how many tanks and jets and bombs you’ve been buying.

The sons of Zebedee wanted to sit at the right hand and the left of the one in charge, imagining God’s reign like any kind of earthly rule, only shinier and purer, without corruption and cover-ups.

Social Psychologists tell us that what accounts for much of what we do on a daily basis is status anxiety – we want to know where we are on the pyramid and where the people around us fit in – above? Below? Somewhere on the same level? And when we’re not busy climbing, we’re busy keeping ourselves from slipping and falling. It’s hard work.

I keep a copy of a long list of titles in the Federal Government, just for the joy of reading them out loud. Here’s a sample:

·      Principal Assistant Deputy Under Secretary

·      Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary

·      Chief of Staff to the Associate Assistant Secretary

·      Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary

·      Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary[3]

I try to imagine myself at a cocktail party in D.C. with a few dozen of my closest co-workers, each representing one of countless, meticulously graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances only the truly initiated are capable of grasping. Somebody introduces me to the Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary and after a couple of minutes the Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary joins us — and I know immediately which of the two is more important. To you it may all be a blur, but the chart is etched into my memory and I always know which way is up.

James and John were disarmingly honest about wanting to be near the top of the pyramid. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they said. And Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”

They may have been imagining something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration, but Mark is very careful to remind us that the only ones at Jesus’ left and right when he was hailed “King of the Jews” were the two bandits crucified with him.[4] The way of Christ is the way of the cross, not a new and improved way to lord it over others, to secure power within hierarchies of dominant and subordinate.

“Not so among you,” Jesus says to us who try to follow and keep up with him. His way requires of us the surrender of deep-rooted ideas about control, achievement and status, and a humble willingness to follow him.

“Not what I want, but what you want,” was the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane as he prepared to drink the cup of suffering, and those who follow him learn to pray like him. Not what I want – not my aspirations, my ambitions, my pursuits, but what you want – your will, your purpose, your kingdom.

The reign of God comes into the world not by overpowering it, but by subverting our notions of greatness and power. The reign of God undermines our desire for control.  The reign of God entered the world in Jesus who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to redeem us from all that separates us from the life God wants for us. Jesus didn’t manipulate people to get what he wanted. He didn’t use others in the pursuit of his own personal ambitions. He was in the world as one who served God and every human being he encountered.

And he calls us, again and again, no matter how many times we get it wrong, he calls us to join him in his mission of service to all people. Following him on the way, we learn to look at others not as means to boost our own status or as threats to our status, but as beloved of God, and we serve them. Jesus invites us to pray with him, “Not what I want, but what you want.” He invites us to quiet our anxious and ambitious selves, and to be open to the coming reign of God where love alone is sovereign.

Martin Copenhaver tells a story about a New England church where he had been the pastor. Some of the older members could remember a time when the wealthy families would send their servants to help cook church suppers alongside those who did not have servants to send. The world changed, and by the time Pastor Martin came to the church these stories were repeated with some amusement, but similar confusions continued.

According to the bylaws of the church the deacons were charged with the spiritual leadership of the congregation, and at a deacons meeting, someone complained that instead of being true to this high and momentous charge, deacons spent too much of their time delivering food to the homeless shelter and washing dishes after communion. How could they tend to important spiritual matters when they were occupied with such mundane tasks? “I schlepp bread and wine from the kitchen to the table, and when all have eaten I take the dishes back to the kitchen and wash them,” one of the deacons complained. “I feel like a glorified butler.”

They did a little Bible study and discovered that the first deacons had been commissioned by the apostles in the Jerusalem church to take food to the widows. They discovered that the word deacon was the anglicized version of the Greek diakonos, and that a diakonos was a servant or a waiter. They were indeed butlers, charged with the mundane task of delivering food, and they were indeed glorified because that simple act of service was an expression of the love of Christ the servant.[5]

It’s gotten colder outside, and we’re only days away from hosting Room in the Inn guests for a week. In this ministry we come together to prepare and serve meals, to make beds and do the laundry, to open doors and welcome strangers so they might experience the hospitality of God’s house, and in our welcome the welcome of God.

Call us glorified butlers, waiters and servants, if you want. But we’re serving in the company of Jesus, we’re learning from the master. We’re participating in the revolution that undermines the love of power with the power of love.


[1] Mark 8:31-33

[2] Mark 9:30-37

[3] Paul C. Light, The True Size of Government (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999), 74.

[4] Mk 9:2-8; 15:27

[5] Martin Copenhaver, Christian Century, October 5, 1994, 893.

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Squeeze?

He is a good man. He is perhaps a very good man. He comes to Jesus – he ran up to him, we’re told – and he kneels before him with a question for which he doesn’t have an answer. His approach and his posture tell us he’s not asking merely out of curiosity, he’s not asking to test Jesus or to make him say something that would get him in trouble with the authorities; he’s asking with urgency, and he is sincere.  He’s a good man, and he want’s to do everything well.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We have heard the story before, many times. With him kneeling there, we can already hear the echo of those dreaded words from Jesus’ lips, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” We know the man will go away grieving, his many possessions holding him back. Our hearts grieve with him as we watch him go away. In the entire Gospel of Mark he’s the only person singled out as being loved by Jesus. He’s also the only one whom Jesus called who didn’t follow. Turned around and walked away.

We put ourselves in his shoes and we wonder, what would we do in response to Jesus’ unsettling words, “Go and give your earthly treasure to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We have heard the words from the letter to the Hebrews, but this is when we know their meaning in our bones, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, … it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare.” The word of God is living and active, not safely contained between the covers of an old book. We cannot tame it, though not for lack of trying. It gets to us, it leaves us unsettled, it disrupts our slumber, it convicts, makes demands. It is living and active and sharp, rendering us naked and bare before God. We wrap ourselves in all kinds of protective layers, but the word of God cuts through them like butter; it is aimed at the heart and it never misses.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Am I too rich to enter? Do I want what Jesus offers or do I let my stuff get between me and the life God wants for me and us and the whole creation? Is my stuff getting between me and the life I really want? Do I have to sell what I own and give it to the poor? All of it? Maybe that was only meant for that particular man, and not for me? I’m not rich anyway, not really, am I? Lydia says, rich is relative, and I think she has a point. I’m not Jeff Bezos; I’m comfortable, but I’m not rich. Dear Jesus, are you aware of our mortgage, my car payments, my student loans? Do you understand that one of our pay checks is basically just enough to cover our child care? You’re not talking to me, are you? Oprah is rich; Bill and Malinda Gates are rich, and the Koch brothers.

Our minds are quick to add protective layers so we don’t stand quite so naked and bare before God. Surely this episode isn’t to be taken literally. Surely its true depth lies in its symbolism — so why don’t you unfold the metaphor for us, preacher? Give us something spiritually uplifting to cover our nakedness.

It’s been done, quite creatively. In one medieval commentary, a scholar surmised that “the eye of the needle” was the name of one of the city gates of Jerusalem. In order for a camel to get through, the burden had to be taken off its back, and the beast had to get on its knees. This was obviously an excellent interpretation for a time when every bishop dreamed of building a cathedral: tell folks who wish to enter eternal life to get on their knees and write checks to the church until the burden on their back is small enough to let them slip through the gate. Never mind that Jesus told the man to give the money to the poor, not the church. Never mind that there never was such a gate.

I didn’t check the cathedral ledgers, but I’m certain it was a lucrative interpretation. It also completely missed the point. The word of God is living and active and sharp, and no effort of ours can render it convenient and dull or dead. There’s no easy button.

Just before this scene with the rich man, Mark tells us about the people who were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. And Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[1] A little child is the personification of need and trusting dependence. The rich man in today’s lesson is everything a little child is not; he is the personification of achievement and confident independence. He knows how to get things done. When presented with a challenge, he has various options at his disposal, and a solution is never more than a phone call away. But he ran, Mark tells us, to get to Jesus, and now he’s kneeling in the dust. This man isn’t playing games. Something is missing in his life.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus names the commandments dealing with social responsibilities, and the man replies, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Nothing in the story suggests that he is lying or bragging. He is a good man who has done everything right, yet his achievements are not enough. His virtues are not sufficient. His goodness cannot still the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus loves this man, we’re told. Does he love him for his integrity, for his sincerity, his commitment to living a God-pleasing life? Does he love him for asking big questions, questions that matter? Jesus tells the man what to do.

“You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”

The two back-to-back scenes in Mark’s telling of the gospel highlight a great irony: the little children who possess nothing, don’t lack anything – the kingdom of God is theirs. Yet this man who has achieved so much and knows so much, and possesses so much, lacks the one thing that would open to him the door to eternal life. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” He can’t do it.

“Children,” Jesus says to the disciples, “how hard it s to enter God’s kingdom!” Children he calls them, all of the grown-ups who are trying to keep up with him on the way — his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the kingdom. And like us, they are perplexed and stunned. The eye of a needle is small, too small to squeeze through – then who can enter?

The kingdom of God is not a squeezing matter. No amount of knowledge, goodness, or wealth will open the door to life’s wholeness. The big question is not, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” but rather, “What is God doing to make life whole and how am I part of it?” And the answer is the life and the way of Jesus — his life lived for us, his way opened for us. We want to believe that with enough control or enough goodness we will be able to secure our own future. And Jesus looks at us and says, “No. Come with me.”

The good news sounds like bad news at first: we cannot save ourselves. But it is good news: we cannot save ourselves. And so we can stop trying and we can begin to follow Jesus on the way to the kingdom. He invites us to trust God with the work of saving us; to trust God with our lives and our future, and to begin living for God and for each other in the company of Jesus. He redirects our attention away from ourselves and our anxious worry about our salvation to the needs of those around us, to the poor, to the little ones.

Our salvation is not a private matter; it is deeply connected with God’s salvation of the world. Ken Carder wrote in the Christian Century,

If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.[2]

For life to be truly fulfilling and fulfilled for all, the perils of wealth must be addressed as well as the perils of poverty, and Jesus gets us to think deeply about both in this story that resists all our efforts to tame it. It may well be that Jesus’ call to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” is not a one-size-fits-all command for everyone — if it were, he would have taught it more broadly, starting with his disciples. But if the call to “sell and give” isn’t for everyone, it could still be for me or for you.

The word of God is living and active, at work within us and among us, convicting and comforting, unsettling and reorienting. Jesus clearly wants us to think deeply about the things that keep us from following him. But he also wants us to trust that no obstacle will be able to keep God from making life whole and creation complete in the reign of love.

[1] Mk 10:15

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches (Mk. 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997, p. 831

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A children's world

People were bringing little children to Jesus that he might touch them. Whenever the word “touch” is used in Mark it has to do with healing.[1] So perhaps those children were sick. Or perhaps the ones who brought them were parents who simply wanted divine protection for their little ones. Child mortality was high in those days. Scholars estimate that 60% of children born in that part of the Roman empire in the first-century died before they turned 16.

Mark has already told us earlier in his Gospel about Jairus who fell at Jesus’ feet, begging him, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”[2]

And Mark has told us about the anonymous Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon, and an unnamed man in the crowd who brought his son who suffered greatly from seizures.[3]

People were bringing little children to Jesus that he might touch them. Whenever the word “touch” is used in Mark it has to do with healing, and perhaps that simple fact deserves our full attention in this moment. Perhaps we just need to sit with that for a little while. We have heard so much about touching that violates, touching that hurts and leaves wounds in body and soul, and scars. And for too many of us the stories resonate powerfully with memories of pain and shame and fury. It’s hard to say this without screaming — and to imagine how many of us have lived, survived with that scream held back in their throats for years, for decades.

People were bringing little children to Jesus that he might touch them because he embodied a wholeness they were longing for — for their little ones, for themselves, for their families, for life itself. They wanted him to touch them. His hands did not pass on the human brokenness of generations we all carry. His hands broke the chain of hurt. He brought healing, peace and wholeness.

Every story is an invitation to identify ourselves with its characters. I don’t know about you, but I find profound meaning in seeing myself among those who bring little children to Jesus — I think about my own kids, my hopes for them and their generation; I think about the world they grew up in and the world they will inhabit after I’m gone. And I think about all the babies I’ve had the privilege to hold over the years — how little they were, how vulnerable, how magnificent, how full of possibility and hope. And I think about the little ones who live in cars, because their families no longer have a place to call home; the kids in refugee camps and in processing centers for asylum seekers and in tent cities in the desert, and I bring them to Jesus that he may touch them, that he may touch us, that we may all draw closer to the life he gives.

I also love seeing myself in one of the little ones whom others bring to Jesus — the thought of others taking me by the hand or carrying me, if need be, is as humbling as it is beautiful.

The third option for choosing a character in the story is much less exciting. The disciples. And of course they are the ones, I suspect, that Mark is holding up first and foremost as a mirror for ourselves. It’s not a flattering image we behold. We like to think of ourselves as followers of Jesus, but in this little scene we’re just in the way, and worse, we’re scolding those who are bringing the little ones. It’s only been 24 verses, two Sundays ago, since Jesus took a little child and, holding it in his arms, told us, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

He has no trouble identifying with the little ones, the vulnerable ones, the ones that get lost in the immigration shuffle, the ones at the bottom of the ladder where greatness is measured — but when the first opportunity comes around for us to practice the kind of welcome he teaches, we fail.

Only twice in the entire Gospel of Mark does Jesus get angry. Not when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple.[4] He got angry when he cured a man on the sabbath in the synagogue and his opponents said it wasn’t right, and the second time here, when his own disciples take the part of the opponents.[5] He was indignant; other translations say, he grew angry. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

What does he mean by “such as these”? “His teaching on the reign of God elsewhere suggests an answer,” writes Judith Gundry-Volf.

According to the Beatitudes, the lowly and powerless are the primary beneficiaries of that reign: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh....” (Luke 6:20-23; see Matt 5:3-12). Children shared the social status of the poor, hungry, and suffering, whom Jesus calls “blessed.”[6]

They were powerless. They were vulnerable and dependent. They weren’t great by any measure. And it is precisely to “such as these” that the kingdom of God belongs. The last we would consider, by our own standards, as rightful recipients of God’s reign, are indeed the first.

And these little ones are not only recipients; they are also models of entering the reign of God. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does this mean?

It is far from self-evident what qualities of a little child it is necessary to emulate — so do we just fill the term childlikeness with whatever characteristics we find most desirable or convincing? One commentator focuses on the receptivity of children, stating that to receive the kingdom as a child means receiving it simply and naturally, without making any claim. Another emphasizes the need for childlike faith, which is possible for children because they have no achievements and no preconceived ideas about God which would serve as barriers to accepting God as God is. For yet another, it is the quality of utter dependence that must be learned. Children cannot support themselves but rely upon their parents or the kindness of strangers for everything.[7] It would be wonderful to continue to spin that yarn together; to talk about what it is we see in children that might make them models of entering the kingdom, and to know that our intuitions are just as likely to be on or off target as the great scholars’!

More recently, some scholars have recommended that we don’t just let our imagination go wild, but that we always let children’s low social status in the first-century world anchor our explorations. They belonged to the least, together with other marginalized and dominated groups whose dependence on others made them vulnerable.

The scene in Mark ends with actions that let us see what it means to receive the kingdom as a little child: Jesus takes them into his arms and blesses them. They enter the kingdom because Jesus picks them up and draws them in. All they do is let themselves be held and blessed. They belong because they are beloved.

One set of characteristic of children rarely gets mentioned in conversations about what it might mean to receive the kingdom like a little child: children’s eagerness to learn and grow, their open curiosity, their readiness to respond with trust to the dependability of those who welcome them, their capacity to become what they are given. To me these suggest that when we know ourselves as vulnerable and needy, yet held and blessed in Christ’s embrace, we will grow into welcoming each other and touching each other in ways that bless and heal. Judith Gundry-Volf said it beautifully,

The Gospels teach the reign of God as a children’s world, where children are the measure, rather than don’t measure up to adults, where the small are great and the great must become small. That is, the Gospel teaching calls the adult world radically into question. Jesus urges, “Let the little children come to me, do not [stop] them,” not in order to initiate children into a realm that belongs properly to adults, but because the reign of God belongs to children: it is shaped for them and after them, and inaugurated by the One who became like a little child. It is rather adults who need to be initiated into the reign of God as a children’s world. [8]

World Communion Sunday is a wonderful opportunity to remember and celebrate our unity in Christ. It’s very simple with the table at the center, the bread of life broken and the cup of salvation offered to all, and the children of God, hungry and thirsty, longing for life in fullness, coming together at the kingdom banquet, singing their songs of the One who became small like them and who took them up in his arms and blessed them. As we prepare to gather at the table of Christ, I invite you to pray for the world and all who live in it. We'll pray with the words and melody of the hymn we’re about to sing. We’ll also pray with our hands and feet.

[instructions for Prayers of the People children’s world project]


[1] Mk 1:41; 3:10; 5:27ff; 6:56; 7:33; 8:22

[2] Mk 5:22-23

[3] Mk 7:24-30; 9:17-27

[4] Mk 11:15-17

[5] Mk 3:5; 10:14; according to some manuscripts Jesus is also angry in 1:41

[6] Judith M. Gundry-Volf, “‘To Such as These Belongs the Reign of God’: Jesus and the Children,” Theology Today 56, no. 4, 472.

[7] See Larry L. Eubanks, “Mark 10:13-16,” Review & Expositor 91, no. 3, 401.

[8] Gundry-Volf, op. cit., 480.

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Little neighbors

It was a hot summer day in the neighborhood, but not quite hot enough for Mr. Rogers not to wear his iconic cardigan. He had taken off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and now we see him sitting outside, cooling his feet in a plastic kiddie pool. Officer Clemmons, the local police officer, comes by, and Mr. Rogers invites him to join him. The two enjoy the water together for a while, then they dry each other’s feet off with a towel.

“It was such an easy thing to do, profoundly simple and easy for two friends to sit down and put their feet in the water to relax on a hot summer evening,” says François Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons. This scene aired in 1969, during the end of the Civil Rights Movement and about a year after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“White people did not want black people to swim in [public] swimming pools and were putting acid and other kinds of poisons in [them],” Clemmons says. “So it was dealing with something that was very serious in this country. But here we were, showing an alternative, a different way, an option, saying to people, ‘You know you don’t have to do that.’”[1]

It was the most gentle of radical statements one can imagine. I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers, but he comes to mind when I listen to Jesus talk about welcoming children. Do you remember how big everything was when you were little? What a magnificent thing a chair was, and what an adventure to climb on it? And when you finally sat on it, how you felt like you were on top of the world? I remember rooms full of adults, on various occasions, they were tall as trees, chatting away way up there, oblivious to my presence and my brave effort to find a way across, through a forest of legs, to the other side. I remember sitting at the children’s table at every family gathering. It was great fun, usually, I don’t think any of us ever felt excluded. But I also remember how proud I was when I got to sit at the grown-up table for the first time. They had to put one of the firm pillows from my grandma’s couch on my chair to bring me up a few inches, but I had arrived, I had made it, I was sitting at the big table. I was still short, but I was no longer one of the little ones.

We all have memories like that, memories of a world just beyond our reach, a world we can’t wait to belong to. Getting to sit at the grown-up table is easy, it’s just a matter of time, all you have to do is eat your veggies and keep growing. Getting to hang out with the people you really want to hang out with at school is a lot tougher. It’s like you have to fit in and stand out at the same time. And getting a seat at the tables where decisions are made about our life together – whether that’s the neighborhood, the city, or the country – can be a formidable challenge for those outside the circles of belonging. From a very young age, people around us encourage us to be ambitious and competitive, to set goals for ourselves that seem just a little beyond our reach, to work hard, to get up and try again, to meet the right people, and to make something of ourselves.

The disciples hadn’t been looking for Jesus when they met him, but somehow it felt like they had found the one who would set all things right, and so they followed him. They heard him teach, they watched him heal, they were amazed at his power and his grace, and now, after all the time they had spent together in Galilee, he was talking about going to Jerusalem. They were staying in Capernaum, and all he did was teach them. No more wandering from town to town, no more disruptions by desperate parents, no more wilderness picnics with hundreds and thousands of guests — just the disciples and Jesus and his teachings. And he talked again about the Son of Man and how he would be betrayed into human hands and killed, and after three days rise again. They had heard the words before, but they did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask? Perhaps for the same reasons you and I might be afraid to speak up. We don’t want to show our confusion or our doubt, we don’t want to appear slow or clueless or spiritually immature. We’ve been around long enough to believe that it’s best to project confidence and make everybody else believe that we have it all together. Fake it till you make it. It’s all about appearance and perception. Don’t let Jesus or your fellow followers think you’re not a top-notch disciple.

The disciples in Mark’s story — instead of asking questions, instead of digging deeper into the mystery of the suffering and death of the Son of Man — the disciples were jockeying for positions in Jesus’ kingdom administration. Two of them had been talking about sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory. One of them probably never missed an opportunity to mention that he had been with Jesus the longest, and another that Jesus had already entrusted him with the office of treasurer.  They were afraid to ask what Jesus meant when he talked about his death and resurrection, but they had no trouble imagining their seats at the big table and their names and titles on the letterhead.

Jesus, we know, is never afraid to ask. “What were you arguing about on the way?” And suddenly they were silent, the whole chatty, ambitious bunch; no one said a word. Why the sudden silence? Had he asked them in private, individually, they probably would have mentioned Theophilus who “thinks he’s the greatest” or Bartholomew who “is dreaming about a seat on the supreme court.”

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about his being rejected and betrayed, being handed over and condemned to death and killed, and rising again after three days. Three times, not just because this is disturbing news that doesn’t sink in easily, but because being a disciple of Jesus is so tied up with that particular path that leads the Son of God to the cross. We don’t understand and we’re afraid to ask not just because we want to keep up the appearance of our intellectual brilliance and our deep spiritual insight. We don’t ask because we’re afraid he’ll turn our world upside down. Because we want Jesus very much to be part of our world, but we hesitate to let ourselves be part of his.

He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, those at the top of the ladder often lord it over those at the bottom. But in the world of God’s reign, earth and heaven do not touch at the top, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all who come to the table. On the way of Christ, greatness is defined in terms of welcome and service, and the path doesn’t lead up and up and up — it remains at ground level, at kiddy pool level, and it leads to us, always to us, whoever we are, wherever we are.

We all start out little. We all start out completely dependent on being welcomed. We all start out little, needy and helpless, and we all need somebody to see us and hold us and care for us. How much of our drive for greatness, do you think, has to do with that deep need to be seen and welcomed?

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Who knew there was a child? Who noticed? We were engaged in important matters. We were making sure our voice would be heard, our contribution recognized in its significance, and our claim to greatness respected, and Jesus puts a little child among us.

What do you see? A precious, cuddly little sunshine or one of the rascals from Capernaum Elementary who is sent to the principal’s office at least twice a week and whose parents dread opening the home folder, afraid there might be another note from a teacher who is at her wits’ end? Mark doesn’t tell us, because it doesn’t matter. This is no photo op. Politicians pick up little children all the time; it looks good on the news and in campaign ads, it makes them more likeable. But Jesus doesn’t pick up a child to draw attention to himself. He does it to draw our attention to the child. He does all his work at ground level to draw our attention away from our high-altitude ego trips and power pursuits.

If you want to be great, notice the little ones outside the circle and bring them in. You don’t have to be great just to escape invisibility. You don’t have to be great to be seen and welcomed. You don’t have to be great, or appear to be great, to belong. You belong because you are loved; you belong because you are forgiven; you belong because you are made in the image of God. You are loved for who you are, just the way you are. Rest in the light of God’s loving gaze, and don’t be afraid to shift your attention to the ones who are not great by any common measure, and welcome them.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcoming those who are so easily overlooked at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God. Much of our religious tradition has taught us to wonder and often worry, “What must I do to be worthy to be welcomed by God? Who do I have to be? What kind of person do I have to become? How can I work my way up?”

But Jesus looks us in the eye and says, “I see you. I know you. I love you.” He invites us to live in the world of God’s reign, where even our religious tradition is turned on its head. He turns our attention away from ourselves and our anxious obsession with our status, and toward each other. He stops our lonely ascent to the top and guides our feet into the path of grace where we learn to see and embrace the little neighbor inside and in the other.

[1] See https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/how-fred-rogers-used-his-neighborhood-to-teach-important-often-radical-lessons/Content?oid=8718656. In Nashville, as in most southern cities, public pools were closed rather than integrated; see http://bittersoutherner.com/nashville-pools-jim-crow/#.W6d7HH4nb_Q

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Every neighbor

A woman dressed in thigh-high patent leather boots, little shorts, and a top the size of a postage stamp, walks into a ritzy boutique on Rodeo Drive. Her name is Vivian, she is a prostitute, and she’s shopping for a nice evening dress.

Two women, sales associates presumably, stare at her with surprise and disdain, and they make no effort to hide their feelings. Their eyes and their entire posture make it abundantly clear that this woman does not belong in this store.

Vivian is played by Julia Roberts in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, and when she tells Edward, played by Richard Gere, the man who is paying for her services and expenses, about her experience in the glamorous world of high-end shopping, he tells her, “Stores are never nice to people, they’re nice to credit cards.”

James describes a similar scene in a Christian assembly. Two persons enter. One a rich, gold-ringed man in splendid garments, the other, a poor man dressed in filthy rags. If people of faith receive them differently, the former being given a seat of honor and the latter told to stand over there or to sit on the floor, they commit acts of discrimination that in James’s judgment are an insult against God.

In the Greco-Roman world of early Christianity, significant divisions existed not only between rich and poor, but between various social strata. There was little that was more clearly assumed and enacted than the differences between various groups of people. Within the household, proper division of responsibilities and honor were to be maintained between men and women, householder and servants, parents and children. Outside the household, the state could only function well if each member of society remained in the sphere of activity for which he or she was intended. This fundamental division between groups of people resulted in unequal distribution of deference and honor, not to mention resources and rights.

The scene James describes not only would not offend ancient sensibilities, it would be the obvious and expected pattern of social interaction. Yet he uses it as an example of conduct that is incompatible with Christian faith.[1]

Members of the Christian community pledge allegiance to a Lord who overturned common assumptions of greatness and lifted up the poor to their full dignity as God’s chosen and heirs of God’s kingdom. Not honoring them according to their status before God is an insult against them and against God, says James, challenging us to examine how we treat persons of less social power, such as refugees or folks in rural areas or whoever it may be that we think of, consciously or without even noticing, as below us. And how is it that, in generation after generation, from ancient times to this day, the prejudices of the world rather than the preferences of God come to be manifested in a community of God’s people?[2]

For James, faith cannot be reduced to a series of statements that people profess to believe, like God’s creation of the world or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Faith is what is operative in a person’s life. We act on the basis of what we believe to be true, and we must believe in something if we are to act at all. The question is whether the faith that actually shapes our lives is faith in Jesus Christ or something else.

James calls us back to a central teaching of Jesus and says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” As followers of Jesus we can be presumed to believe in the centrality of that commandment, right? Why then, James challenges us between the lines, would you be so solicitious toward those above you on the social scale and indifferent toward those below you?[3] What is the faith that actually shapes your lives?

Let me tell you a story that continues to draw me in and push me away, but it just won’t let me go. Will Campbell was born and raised during the Great Depression in rural and very poor Amite county, Mississippi. One year after his birth, the Ku Klux Klan visited the East Fork Baptist Church, providing not only a cash donation for the congregation’s work, but also a leather-bound Bible for the pulpit. Engraved into the Bible’s leather cover were the letters KKK. At age seventeen, the East Fork Church made Will a full-fledged preacher, entitled to buy Coca-Colas at clergy discount.

After serving in WWII, Brother Will studied at Tulane, Wake Forest, and Yale, and one of his main study interests was racial justice. He was called to serve a congregation in Louisiana, but it wasn’t a long pastorate. He then became Director of Religious Life at Ole Miss, but left after two years when he began to receive death threats for his controversial views on race. He took a position with the National Council of Churches, working closely with civil rights leaders across the south. In 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Central High School through a hostile crowd; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He got used to getting hate mail from the white right.

In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Campbell understood that African Americans were often American society’s “least of these.” Thus, he cast his lot with them. As the decade of the ‘60s unfolded and African Americans  attained civil rights, however, Campbell came to believe that American society was substituting “Rednecks” as the new “lepers.” True to form, he humbly cast his lot with them. He came to admit that he had become little more than a “doctrinaire social activist,” which was very different from being a follower of Jesus.

I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides. And I had taken sides. Many of us who were interested in racial justice had taken sides and there were good reasons in history for doing what we did. … We did not understand that those we so vulgarly called ‘rednecks’ were a part of the tragedy. They had been victimized one step beyond the black.[4]

Campbell came to see how he had subverted the indiscriminate love of God for all people without conditions, limits, or exceptions into a ministry of “liberal sophistication.” And now he wanted to give embodied expression to the radical nature of the gospel, that is the full embrace of all people in Christ’s mercy, with these ostracized sisters and brothers. And so he started sipping whiskey with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. “Bob” Jones.

“We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,” he had told his friend P. D. who had challenged him to tell him, in ten words or less, what the Christian message was. “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[5] And since God’s love for us is indiscriminate, Campbell concluded, he would have to try to let his love for his neighbor be indiscriminate as well. And he started getting hate mail from the left. As a witness to the reconciling love of God, he found himself walking back and forth between the lines, seeking to really fulfill the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” every neighbor, and not just the few people you’d love to have as neighbors.

In 2004, Parker Palmer started writing the book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. He was in despair about what was happening in the country, about our inability to talk to each other, about democracy going down the drain as big money was becoming more powerful. In the book he proposes that what we call the “politics of rage” is, in fact, the “politics of the brokenhearted” and that there’s heartbreak across the political spectrum. He believes that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

Whenever people want to argue with him about issues, he tries to say something like “Will you tell me your story? I want to listen. I know I can learn from your experience.” The more he listened to people’s stories and managed to get beyond knee-jerk reactions and ideology, the more he found that suffering is one thing we all have in common. “Animosities are unraveling the fabric of our civic society, degrading democracy’s infrastructure,” he said in an interview. But “the more we learn about other people’s stories, the less possible it is for us to dislike them, distrust them, or dismiss them. Anything we can do to help people form relational ‘habits of the heart’ … will help.”[6]

Palmer calls the space between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible “the tragic gap.” We see greed all around us, but we have also seen generosity. We see division and fragmentation, but we also know of people coming together in community. As we stand in the gap between reality and possibility, the temptation is to jump onto one side or the other.

If you jump onto the side of too much hard reality, you can get stuck in corrosive cynicism. … If you jump onto the side of too much possibility, you can get caught up in irrelevant idealism. You float around in a dream state saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if ... ?’” These two extremes sound very different, but they have the same impact on us: both take us out of the gap — and the gap is where all the action is.

The gap is where Martin Luther King Jr. stood his entire life, where Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day and Brother Will stood. Palmer calls the gap “tragic” because he doesn’t see it ever closing. He says,

No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.[7]

Yes, we do need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul. But the gap is not tragic; it is already bridged by hope. Trusting in the faithfulness of God we can stand in the gap and love as indiscriminately as we can, looking forward to the day when love reigns supremely in all things.


[1] Jeannine K. Brown, “James 2:1-13,” Interpretation 62, no. 2 (April 2008), 173-174.

[2] See Frances Taylor Gench http://jointhefeast.blogspot.com/2009/08/september-6-2009-james-21-13-frances.html

[3] Craig Koester http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=384

[4] Brother to a Dragonfly, 225-226.

[5] Ibid., 220.

[6] https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/443/if-only-we-would-listen

[7] Ibid.

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Unstained?

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” we read in James. Caring for orphans and widows in their distress I understand. James reminds us that religion is not so much about the things we have heard and seen and read and come to believe, as it is about the actions these beliefs generate, the lives they shape.

What I don’t understand is the notion of keeping oneself unstained by the world. Wouldn’t that imply that I distance myself from the world, that I limit my interaction with it, and wouldn’t I have to ignore the fact that the world is a part of me and I am a part of the world? And how can we follow Jesus into the world when we’re worried about getting dirty?

Wherever Jesus went, according to the gospel, people gathered. They simply came; they brought themselves, they brought the sick and the possessed, hoping that they might touch the fringe of his cloak. People came because his presence was healing, it was liberating, it was restoring and affirming.

People come to Jesus hoping to find life, new life. Keeping oneself unstained by the world implies a movement away from the world, a withdrawal to some place perceived to be at a safe distance from it, when Jesus’ entire life is a movement into the world, for the redemption and healing of the world.

We read in the gospel that some found Jesus’ proximity to “certain kinds” of people confusing and disturbing. Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem were closely watching him and what he said and did. They didn’t understand why he and his disciples ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other known sinners, or why he didn’t observe the sabbath like they did.

The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism, and their passion was to live holy lives. God had chosen Israel to be God’s people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, and the Pharisees sought to fulfill that calling during a time when foreign occupiers determined much of public life. The Pharisees adapted laws written for priests serving at the Temple and applied them to daily home life in an effort to sanctify every aspect of it. Seemingly small, everyday activities became rituals of remembering, “We are God’s people.” Every moment, every action became for them an occasion to bless the God of Israel. Waking up in the morning, going about their daily work, reciting torah, breaking bread, tucking in the children at night, and going to bed – every moment of everyday life an occasion to remember, to bless, to give thanks.

Marcia Falk published a book of Jewish prayers some twenty years ago. In it, she comments on the practice of handwashing before a meal that some Jews observe to this day and others don’t. It’s not about hygiene; it’s about properly receiving the gift of bread. The Pharisees and the rabbis who came after them “saw bread as a double symbol – of God’s gift of sustenance to humanity and of humanity’s sacrificial offerings to God. For the rabbis, the table was an altar and the meal at which bread was served was a reenactment of the devotional rituals of Temple times.”[1] Marcia Falk writes that “In the case of its use before a meal, [handwashing] was originally intended, among other things, to reenact the priestly purification ritual performed when offering a sacrifice at the Temple. One might say that mandating the washing of hands before eating, the rabbis turned every meal in the daily life of ordinary people into a sacred event.”[2]

Every table an altar, every meal an act of worship, every host a priest. In the days of Jesus and the early church, these practices were still emerging and much debated, especially in the church where Jews and Gentiles had to determine which traditions to continue and which ones to abandon.

In Mark’s story, some Pharisees and scribes question Jesus, because they noticed that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. To them, it was a matter of faithfulness. Pouring a little water over one’s hands before a meal was one small way to maintain a crucial boundary; it allowed them to live as God’s holy people in a world ruled by pagan idolaters. Some of Jesus’ disciples did not observe that tradition, while others apparently did. The scribes and Pharisees suspected that the carelessness of Jesus and his disciples with regard to the traditions of the elders threatened to undermine their identity as God’s people.

Jesus, according to Mark, showed little patience. Quoting Isaiah, he calls them hypocrites who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God. He accuses them of teaching human precepts as doctrines while abandoning the commandment of God and holding on to human tradition.

Now if somebody asked us here at Vine Street whether we live by God’s word and will or by human tradition, we would certainly affirm that we seek to live according to God’s word and will. But we would also talk about how our hearing of God’s word and our knowing of God’s will are inseparably tied to human voices, human perspectives, and human traditions. And we would want to talk some more about how this being inseparably connected to human language, human experience, and human weakness does not defile divine things, but rather reflects and reveals them.

The people questioning Jesus about the washing of hands wanted to honor the commandment of God, “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.”[3] To them being associated with the holy God meant avoiding any association with ungodly people and things. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with wanting to keep oneself unstained by the world? What’s wrong with keeping an eye on that line between what is holy and what is not, and not allowing it to get blurry?

“Holiness demands boundaries and quarantine. [And] Jesus’ ministry of table fellowship was dismantling these boundaries and breaking the quarantine.”[4]

They saw him eating with sinners. They saw him crossing the line. But “the Pharisees never once [considered] the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners,” writes Richard Beck.

Why not? The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean.[5]

When James tells us to keep ourselves unstained by the world, the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity that defiles us. The world as  the place where the risen Christ is present and at work through the Spirit doesn’t enter James’s picture. The only move open to the church in James’s picture is withdrawal and quarantine, separation from the world. What he doesn’t consider is that Jesus isn’t rendered unclean by his encounters with human sin — no, it’s exactly the other way round: his touch makes us whole, his mercy embraces us, his righteousness includes us, his holiness sanctifies us. We follow him into the world without fear of contamination.

“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Not so fast, I want to say. Not so fast. There is plenty outside a person that by going in can defile. We are not born with our prejudices. We are not immune to the subtle or not so subtle messages that tell us that we are unworthy of love. We are not impervious to the attitudes that defile a person’s dignity. We are not invulnerable. But we can’t pretend that we can create islands of holiness in the sea of unholy chaos that surrounds us. And we can’t pretend that the line dividing the holy from the unholy can be drawn between us and the world, with us safely on the holy side. The line runs through the core of our being.

“It is from within,” says Jesus, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” The trouble, says Jesus, doesn’t arise from a world hostile to the holiness of God’s people. Evil cannot be walled out or fenced in or locked away or bombed out of history. The trouble arises from the human heart. And not just the hearts of others, whose intentions, pieties, and visions differ from my own. The trouble arises from my own heart.

If I expect the threat to holy living only to come from outside, then that’s where my attention will be, and I will learn to watch others, and criticize others, and avoid others, and accuse and condemn others. But in the company of Jesus I learn to look at my own heart with greater honesty, and the better I know my own heart, the deeper my compassion for others will be. The more I grasp that God, fully knowing my heart, still loves me, the more I will be capable of showing mercy to others.

Our hearts are defiled, wounded and broken in more ways than we can know, but Jesus isn’t careful not to brush against and touch those places. He has shown us that holiness is not the static quality of a distant and demanding deity. Holiness is a movement into the world, a loving fearlessness that leaps over fences and breaks down walls until it fills all things. Following Jesus we are part of that holy movement, our hearts and lives no longer shaped by fear of contamination, but by the world-redeeming love of God.

 

[1] The Book of Blessings, 428.

[2] Ibid., 426.

[3] Leviticus 20:26

[4] Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, 78.

[5] Ibid., 30.

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Temple builders

Several of us went on a trip to Germany last year. It was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran reformation, and we toured places where Martin Luther had lived and worked. Before we got on the bus to Wittenberg, Eisenach, and Leipzig, though, we did some sightseeing in Berlin, where our plane had landed.

We got to visit the Bonhoeffer House, and we saw the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust memorial. The Bonhoeffer House is a rather ordinary house in a suburb, but it was extraordinarily moving to step into the room where Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s small desk was sitting under the dormer window and to think of him sitting there reading and writing. The Brandenburg Gate is just one more example of grandiose, imperial architecture, except that many of us, for many years have only seen it with a wall running across the front of it, dividing the city and the country and the world; seeing the gate without the wall was touching. With people moving freely through the open spaces between the massive columns the place had become a living memorial to freedom and unity. Only a short walk from the iconic gate, an entire city block has been rebuilt as a Holocaust memorial, a large structure reminiscent of a cemetery, an attempt to give, in the heart of the capital, a place to the memory of the systematic murder of millions of European Jews and others whom the Nazis had classified as ‘unworthy of life.’

On our first day in Berlin, though, most of us were tired from the long flight and the seven-hour change in time zones, and so we only planned a short visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church was built at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and in 1943 it was almost completely destroyed in a bombing raid. All that was left standing was a portion of the steeple and the entrance hall, and after the war the remaining structure was turned into a memorial. The construction of the church was part of a Protestant church-building program initiated by Kaiser Wilhelm II to counter the German labor movement by a return to traditional religious values like piety, humility, and obedience. The foundation stone was laid on March 22, 1891, the birthday of the Kaiser’s grandfather, Wilhelm I., and the Kaiser named the church in his honor.

Like I said, much of the church was destroyed in WWII, but when I walked into the entrance hall that houses a historical exhibit, I looked up to the ceiling and the upper walls, framed by Neo-Romanesque arches, and covered with mosaics of colorful figures against a background of heavenly gold – magnificent workmanship. Only where I expected to see Biblical scenes or renderings of prophets and apostles, I found myself looking at images of the Kaiser and his wife and other members of the Prussian aristocracy.

When the Kaiser builds a church, he will tell the whole world that it’s to the glory of God on high, but at the same time he’ll make sure that a good portion of that divine splendor also shines upon his own person and throne. When the Kaiser builds a church, the people do the work they cut the stone, they lay the brick and tile, they install the glass, they carve the wood, they haul the slate up the roof, they assemble the mosaics, and, one way or another, they foot the bill but it’s the Kaiser who determines whose images are installed in proximity to the divine, and by what name the magnificent edifice shall be known.

In 1 Kings we read that King Solomon sent word to his neighbor and friend, King Hiram of Tyre, “I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God.”[1] He ordered cedar and cypress timber from Lebanon for which he paid with wheat and oil from the royal store houses. And he conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones.[2]

This detailed description continues for two entire chapters in 1 Kings, but no mention of the thousands of workers: “In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, he began to build the house of the Lord.”[3] Solomon built the house and finished it. He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar. He covered the floors with boards of cypress. He overlaid the wood with gold. He made two cherubim of olivewood and overlaid them with gold. He carved the walls of the house all around. He made doors of olivewood and covered them with carvings and overlaid everything with gold. In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. In the eleventh year the house was finished in all its parts. He was seven years in building it.[4]

And then he filled the house with intricate bronze work and vessels of burnished bronze and gold. And Solomon led the dedication of this magnificent new building. Solomon gave the big speech. Solomon offered the prayer of dedication. Solomon blessed the assembly. And Solomon led the party that lasted seven days.

It makes me nervous when the king builds a temple or Caesar builds a church, because inevitably, royal and imperial interests will shape the building, the order of worship, and the language of the liturgy. It was common in the ancient near east for kings to build sanctuaries for the gods, complete with thrones on which the deity could sit, and it’s difficult to sort out to what degree images of divine rule shaped earthly kingdoms, or conversely, how royal power arrangements became the templates for how people envisioned the reign of their gods.

There is, however, in Solomon’s long and eloquent prayer of dedication, an important memory, a line reminding the king and the people and us that the Lord God of Israel cannot be boxed in, cannot be domesticated: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” the kings asks. And he answers, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

Nothing we build can contain the creator of heaven and earth, no house, no church, no theological system can contain the One who called Abraham and Sarah, who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, who made covenant at Sinai, who spoke through the prophets, who became incarnate and dwelled among us, the One who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Spirit on all flesh.

Whatever dreams of containment we may have had, when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.[5] This God will not be domesticated. This God will not be put in a box, be it made of stone or wood or gold or royal  or any other ideology.

When Jesus was arrested, witnesses came forward who said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”[6] The next day Jesus was crucified and those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”[7] He didn’t come down, but in three days this son of David began to build a house of God not made with hands. A house built not with forced labor or any kind of coercion, but with compassion and forgiveness and the call to loving service. A structure made of living stones.[8]

In Ephesians, the apostle writes, “In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”[9]

We have long known that any place can be the place of encounter with the living God and that no place can contain the presence of the Holy One. But now Jesus is building the temple, and he challenges us to see every encounter with another person as the place where God is at work, extending the holy of holies.

When King Solomon asked, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” it was a rhetorical question tempering the monarch’s royal ambition. But in Revelation, John of Patmos describes with powerful images his vision of creation come to completion and life fulfilled. This is the horizon against which he invites us to see our own lives unfold:

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
[God] will dwell with them;
they will be [God’s] peoples,
and God … will be with them…”

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.[10]

In John’s vision, there is no temple in the city because humankind is at home in God and God is at home in humankind, finally.

 

[1] 1 Kings 5:5

[2] 1 Kings 5:13-18

[3] 1 Kings 6:1

[4] See 1 Kings 6:14-38

[5] Mark 15:38

[6] Mark 14:58

[7] Mark 15:29

[8] 1 Peter 2:5

[9] Ephesians 2:21-22

[10] Revelation 21:2-3, 22

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Kingdom dreams

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.

These are the opening words of Psalm 72, something like the job description of Israel’s dream king.

May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.

May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.

May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.

You noticed how many of the verses begin with the wishful sounding may. The psalm is not a job description; it belongs to Israel’s poetry of hope, formed by generations of royal disappointment.

In 1 Samuel 8, the people ask for a king, and the prophet Samuel delivers a warning. “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you” and then there’s no hopeful may he, but only a litany of matter-of-fact he-will’s:

He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself … some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to … his officers and his courtiers. He will take … the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work … and you shall be his slaves.[1]

The prophet’s warning looms over the whole account of the rise and fall of the monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. Solomon is presented as a test case for the opportunities and temptations of kingship.

King David is dead, and through carefully choreographed deception and with the help of powerful allies, Solomon has secured for himself the highly contested succession to the throne. After that, the first thing we hear about him is that he made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt – of all the princesses of all the neighboring kingdoms he married Pharaoh’s daughter! It’s not a very subtle hint of the proximity of kingship to slavery, but at this point it’s only a hint. He is young, his reign has only just begun: Oh, the promise!

Oh! The places he’ll go!

He’ll be on his way up!

He’ll be seeing great sights!

He’ll join the high fliers

who soar to high heights.

Solomon goes to Gibeon, one of the local shrines, a holy place, to sacrifice, and there, at night, the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Ask what I should give you.” This dream is not like the fairy tale where the fairy godmother grants you three wishes, or the Disney movie where the genie does the same for Aladdin. “Ask what I should give you,” is an offer that comes without a cap. Solomon could just check off a laundry list of everything any king has ever wanted, anything any king could ever want think of the possibilities!

Then the young king speaks, and he presents himself with such piety, sincerety, and humility. He speaks of God’s loyal love toward David and of David’s faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart toward God. “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.”

He’s so humble, he doesn’t even say “I” until he points out how young he is and inadequate to the solemn task. And then he asks for one thing only: “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?”

Can you imagine? A man who has just stepped into a unique position of power and authority and all he asks for is an understanding mind to govern the people, able to discern between good and evil? Not the vanquishing of his enemies, not wealth, not fame, not the unceasing admiration of an awestruck public an understanding mind.

The phrase “understanding mind” is more closely translated, “listening heart,” with the heart being, in Hebrew anthropology, the center of thought, intention, and will. The one thing Solomon asks for is a capacity for attentiveness to the needs and hopes of God’s people. He knows that a listening heart is the antithesis of a hard heart, an inability to notice or care for or take seriously the people he governs. Walter Brueggemann wonders if “in using this phrase [Solomon] is perhaps aware that he is married to Pharaoh’s daughter, Pharaoh being the quintessential hard-hearted guy.”[2] A listening heart is a heart receptive to the purposes of God and responsive to the needs of the people whom God has brought up from Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

The Lord is pleased with Solomon’s answer. He promises to be a king after God’s own heart, and God promises to give him, beyond his asking, wealth and honor beyond compare.

In the chapters that follow, we’re told in detail of his magnificent building projects the temple is an extravaganza of gold! of his global fame and of the trade policies that bring never-before-seen wealth to his house and the city. But while he is credited with wisdom, the narrative itself shows a foolish overreach of inordinate greed that proves unsustainable. He uses forced labor and heavy taxes to build up his kingdom, and he worships other gods, gods more in line with his style of governance. Wealth and honor distort the wisdom he asked for that night in Gibeon and his heart no longer listens. His heart is no longer in tune with the heart of God, no longer attentive to the needs of God’s people, no longer faithful. He has forgotten that the God who appeared to him in his dream did not just promise wealth and honor and long life; God also spoke of walking in God’s ways and keeping God’s commandments, particularly the Torah that instructs God’s people and their leaders in the attentive care for widows, orphans, and migrants.

Governing God’s people well, it turns out, is not merely a matter of successful management  or economic growth or impressive capital projects ultimately it means attentiveness to the socially and economically vulnerable members of the community. The wisdom that Solomon did not learn is how to be and remain attentive to those for whom the God of the exodus has special attentiveness.

Kingdoms are born of all kinds of dreams of power and prestige and wealth and fame. But the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of righteousness is the deep wisdom of human hearts in tune with the heart of God.

So, if you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? “A heart in tune with the heart of God” would be the Sunday school answer, and a good one at that.

Wisdom? The book of Proverbs confirms that putting wisdom first is recommended, and not just for young royal dreamers:

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy
.[3]

If you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? The question is not a hypothetical one, because we are. Only we are not the ones on the throne. And ultimately that may well have been what Solomon in all his wisdom forgot: that the kingdom wasn’t his, but God’s.

Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot serve God and ambition. You cannot serve God and power. And he continues,

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.[4]

When Solomon asked for a listening heart, God was pleased and promised to give him not only what he asked for, but also wealth and honor. And soon the king and, according to First and Second Kings, just about every king after him, forgot that they were servants in the kingdom of God and they made idols of wealth, fame, and power.

Kingdoms are indeed born of all kinds of dreams and the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of faithfulness and righteousness has given birth to God’s kingdom on earth in the person of Jesus. And when we strive first for this kingdom, he reminds us, all that we need and all that anyone needs will be given to us as well.

 

[1] 1 Samuel 8:11-17

[2] Walter Brueggemann https://www.huffingtonpost.com/walter-brueggemann/i-kings-2-10-12-3-3-14-who-will-be-americas-next-leader_b_1776777.html

[3] Proverbs 3:13-18

[4] Matthew 6:24, 28-33

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