Sunday, August 19, 2012

Proper 15

1 Kings 2, 3
Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. 11The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned for seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 12So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established. 3 Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. 4The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt-offerings on that altar. 5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ 6And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And 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. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9Give 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?’ 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’

A genie appears and offers you the opportunity to make three wishes. What do you do?

If your answer is a ’65 Mustang, a ’67 Camero and a ’78 Trans Am, you need serious help. Good choices, I have to agree, but not the right answer. Pick two, any two, then reserve your third wish for...yes, more wishes.

Funny that no one ever says ‘I want to be the genie.’ That seems like a legitimate wish, and wouldn’t it be fun testing people all the day long to see who is clever, and who gets three cars. Or two cars and the Stanley Cup. Or the car, the cup, and money for gas.

Now, in no way do I want to compare God and the genie, or Solomon’s prayer and three wishes, but the truth is God makes the comparison right there in the passage. ‘Because you have asked for discernment,’ God says, ‘and not riches, or long life, or for me to kill your enemies (three wishes), I’m happy to grant you discernment.’

It seems God has asked this question before, and the answer was more or less the three cars (or the ancient near-eastern equivalent). God seems to register some surprize when Solomon gives the unconventional answer, and as a result gives him the wisdom he seeks and more. More, including wealth and honour, but that was just a bonus. God’s primary concern was creating the wisest possible king for Israel. And God does.

Just one verse later two women stand before Solomon with one baby, both claiming maternity. I think you remember the story. The real mother panics when the sword appears and says, ‘no, you have him’ and the truth is revealed. Solomon’s legendary wisdon goes viral, as the kids say, and the rest is the stuff of legend.

Back to our passage, and God’s generous gift to Solomon, I think the case can be made that this is really a passage about prayer. It concerns how we can pray, what we can ask for, and what we can expect from God in response. It’s all there, in just a few verses.

First, how we can pray. The heart of the passage is a dream sequence, a dream where God says ‘ask what I should give you?‘ Solomon is the newly annointed king, he is the second king of the House of David, and as such may expect a unique blessing from God. And God does not disappoint, beginning with the assumption that God can provide something to this new king.

Solomon, however, ignores the question. And for a moment, at least, he has another matter to address: giving thanks. ‘You showed great and streadfast love to my father,’ Solomon prays, ‘and he walked before you with a faithful and an upright heart.‘ (I will come back to this point in a minute). ‘Even though I am young and ignorant,‘ Solomon continues, ‘you have made me king over a great people--a chosen people. Therefore, grant me the discernment I seek.’

Two things are happening here, one commendable and one questionable. The first is a prayer that begins with thankfulness. Solomon is grateful first, and ready to make a petition second. Prayer should always happen in this sequence: First we give thanks, then we bend the divine ear for whatever it is we need. So we have gained our first valuable lesson.

The questionable part, which we simply cannot ignore, is the royal propaganda found in this passage, recorded (or written) by someone who wanted to revive the cult of David: to point to a decade of growth through the 90‘s rather than Monica Lewinsky. I think we will note it for today, then let it go. I think we can agree that all men in power struggle with temptation, and many fail. We can read the Psalms and know that no one was harder on poor David than David himself, so we decide that maybe he suffered enough. We will also give the royal chroniclers their moment of revision, because we know the truth.

Back to prayer, we note (with God) that Solomon asks for the very thing that people in power tend not to seek. People in power want to keep power, first, and then maybe help people sometime after that. And I’m not being cynical or critical, just stating an obvious truth. This past week, Mitt Romney accused President Obama of ‘trying to cling to power,‘ as if that was a bad thing, or something unexpected. Power is what rulers seek, otherwise they could not be called rulers.

So Solomon is thankful that he has power, and asks for wisdom, and receives it in abundance. God notes that he didn’t ask for more power (long life) or better power (with dead enemies) or enhanced power (wealth) but only wisdom. Discernment is granted, and the bonus wealth comes too.

Now, the lesson on prayer here is that there are concrete limits on what you ask for. And that is sometimes hard to hear. Back in the fall, some of the faithful here at Central spend a few evenings looking at systematic theology. One of the things we learned is that God placed limits on God’s own power, and the limits of that power cannot be breached. Let me say more.

In Genesis 3, God tells Adam ‘that you are dust, and to the dust you shall return.’ This is a rule. God decreed mortality for all of us, and this rule cannot be breached. It is a hard and fast rule that touches all of us, both those we have lost and the death we all face. So Solomon could pray for long life like so many other kings, or even be bold and ask for eternity, but it is not God’s to grant. God made a rule that even God must follow.

The same can be said for a prayer to slay enemies. God has obviously heard that one more than a few times, but it rests on a big assumption that is likely false: that is, that my enemies are God’s enemies too. It may be just as likely that my enemies are God’s friends (God has a lot of friends) and so a prayer for the death of enemies is just foolish. God does seem to do a lot of smoting in the early days, so killing God’s own enemies was still on the table, but just not enlisting God to do your dirty work for you.

So we can’t ask for an end to death, and we can’t ask for selective smoting, and we shouldn’t ask for riches (although God may grant them): what can we ask for? In the context of prayer--the kind of prayer that you and I should engage in as often as we can--what can we ask for?

Discernment, or wisdom, or clarity of vision, this seems like a good starting point. Not only did God bless Solomon with wisdom, God got really excited that Solomon asked. And that excitement is the best evidence we have that God blesses requests for wisdom.

And from there, it is simple enough to create a family tree of prayer that God would bless. Wisdom begets imagination, the ability to see things differently, so we ask for imagination. Seeing things differently takes courage, so we ask for courage. Courage requires strength, and a sense of purpose, and the willingness to take risks. Soon our prayers are overflowing with things we can seek and hope to receive: wisdom, imagination, new sight, courage, strength, purpose, and a willingness to take risks, especially in the realm of prayer.

And lets not forget healing. Not healing that will contradict the rule that God made, but the kind of healing that all of us need. Solomon must have been brokenhearted at the death of his father, something that seems to get lost in the transition. He needed healing. He may have needed healing for all the hurt his father created, even though the hurt was forgiven and the dynasty continued.

The prayer list is long, and the potential prayers are many, with some well documents exceptions, exceptions that even God must follow. So I encourage you in your prayer life: may you have imagination and boldness in prayer, and may God’s blessing rest upon you, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Proper 14

Ephesians 4.25-5.2
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Surely I’m not the only one here who watches the olympics and thinks ‘how can I get in on this?’

Travel, new friends, celebrity: and all you need to do is find your event. Obviously anything athletic is out. Middle-middle-age is no time to start sprinting or lifting more than my own body weight. Also, eliminate anything that involves yachts or horses that walk sideways. Too rich for my blood. Shooting: too violent. Winter sports: too cold. I’m at a bit of a loss here.

Maybe an alternate olympics, an olympics for the church, where we compete with say, Presbyterians, for suppremacy. Best baked goods. Longest sermon. Pew jumping. Kindness.

Kindness, now there is an event we could all get behind. We would need impartial judges, maybe some Baptists, who could watch us for a while and decide if we are living up to Paul’s admonition found in Ephesians:

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

In a sense, we could simply let Paul be the judge, or God thorugh Paul, or Jesus in God through Paul, or whatever theological formulation you prefer. It would be a race to see who could be kind longest, fastest, most thoroughly, and so on. It should be an even competition, since we are mostly in the kindness business, or at least we should be.

So looking once more at the list, I can see the kindness branch of sports, and the forgiveness group, but what about this tender-hearted command? What does tender-hearted even mean, and how could be begin to measure it in our hypothetical competition?

One of the preaching rules I strive to follow is ‘never do I detailed word study in Hebrew or Greek.’ It’s generally too much, while good people are waiting for lunch, to torture them with original languages. I will pay for these comments later. However, when we are stumped by a word like tender-hearted, I seem to have no choice but to break my own rule and do a word study. So put on your Greek thinking caps, because we’re going in.

εὔσπλαγχνος, (eusplagchnos) pronounced “yoo-splangkh-nos” means tender-hearted, merciful, or compassionate. Easy so far, but what does it really mean, the word that sounds somewhere between spitting and exploring caves. Eusplagchnos appears a couple of places in the New Testament, here and in 1 Peter, and over there it is commonly translated kind-hearted, so that gets us no closer to the meaning.

Broken down, which is what makes Greek truly fun, we find the meaning: the beginning “eu” is a prefix that indicates goodness, and “splagchnos” means the visceral organs, the guts and the bowels. I told you Greek could be fun. So literally, eusplagchnos means ‘good-guts’ or ‘living with guts’ or most simply showing heart on a gut-level, like compassion or kindness.

So there you have it, the world-class event that we in the church should have mastered: gut-level compassion, kindness you can feel in your gut. It is the kind of reaction that is visceral, which means you feel it long before you think of it or react to whatever demands compassion. I think it will vary somewhat from person to person, but a simple list would begin with unnecessary suffering, or profound loss, or anything that hits us on a gut-level.

A quick look around Weston-Mount Dennis, and there is plenty of tender-hearted activity happening already, much of it begun and sustained by the churches. The foodbank, the drop-in, Fun Fridays: all or these began because a group of people felt in their gut that something should be addressed, or something should change, or something should be provided. It is the visceral response, the gut-level feeling we get in the face of suffering or neglect or injustice that drives us forward, gets us out of the chair and into action, and the same gut response that keeps it going.

All of this leads, it would seem, to the question ‘what else should we be doing?’ What is our gut telling us? Is there something that we are neglecting to do that tender-heartedness demands?

Now, before I delve too far into the topic of ‘what else should we be doing’ I want to introduce you to the Steam-Whistle Principle, name, of course for the brewery here in Toronto. Steam-Whistle, you see, has a very compelling slogan that goes like this: “Do one thing really, really well.” In their case that would be make beer, and I have it on good authority that they have met their goal.

If we apply the Steam-Whistle Principle to the church, we get both a caution and some encouragement. We are encouraged to do our best, to do whatever we do as well as possible, really, really well in fact, and that is always good advice. Like the gut-level response, doing our best is something that we best not ignore, because it becomes a mark of character, a sign of who we are.

As a caution, it goes hand-in-hand with encouragement, because it reminds us that if we can spread ourselves too thin, take on too much, we can diminish the good work we do simply by taking on too much. We feel a strong desire to be tender-hearted, we feel it in our gut in fact, but it always happens in the context of what we are already doing and how well we can manage more.

Overall, it is God that speaks to us through our gut. And God is the source of all compassion, and goodness, and tender-heartedness. So it follows that day-by-day God will present us with examples of brokenness in need of mending, or profound loss, or hurt that is hard to heal. And it is God that will address these needs, that will give us the discernment to pick up some and leave others, and it is God that strengthen us to serve, now and always, Amen.