Friday, November 9, 2018

“Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly” - November 11, 2018

Text: Micah 6:6-8, Mark 12:28-34

The world is changing rapidly.  We all know this.  Culture and technology and social dynamics keep changing and evolving.  For better or worse, the world is a different place than it was 20 years ago.

One of the big changes over the past 20 or 25 years has been that more and more Americans, when surveyed, claim no religious affiliation.  I have mentioned before that this group has been called “The Nones.”  Writing a few years ago, researcher Robert Putnam said that “It is now, roughly speaking, 35 percent [to] 40 percent of younger Americans … who say that they have no religious affiliation.”

That’s a big change.  For many years about 5 to 7 percent of Americans said they belonged to no religion.  The shift, Putnam says, is “a quite novel and interesting, significant development.”

Well, it is more than novel and interesting and significant.  For those of us in the church, it is scary.

The reason many people are staying away from the church is not so much that they don’t believe in God or find Jesus an appealing figure.  It is because of the ways that Christians and church leaders have presented themselves in public: as judgmental, hypocritical, and overly political.  Somehow, people have got the message that the Church is mostly concerned with toeing the line, being on the right side of hot-button issues, and gaining political power.  Love and grace and welcome are not the first things that come to mind for a lot of people when they think of the church. 

Our situation is not terribly unlike that of the prophet Micah, who lived 2700 years ago.  It was a time in which there were elaborate outward shows of religiosity but a lack of deep, transforming faith.  Religious leaders had promoted a status quo religion that kept the powerful in power but turned a blind eye to injustice.  And then Micah showed up.  His message of judgment against the faithful – against the religious leaders and those who considered themselves righteous - must have been quite a shock.

If we were to go back to the verses and chapters preceding our reading from Micah this morning, we would find a no-holds barred condemnation of the faith and worship of Israel.  God’s acts on behalf of Israel are made clear.  God had been faithful, but Israel had turned from God.

Last week we looked at the prophet Elisha and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian military general.  Elisha prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Micah lived about a hundred years later and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah.  He was one of the writing prophets, many of whom we find in the short books at the end of the Old Testament.  Micah is one of those books that is kind of hard to find when you look it up.  But don’t be misled by the brevity of the prophetic books; their message is powerful. 
The prophets thundered against Israel for cheating, abuses of power and privilege, exploitation of the poor and powerless, self-indulgence, and retreat into vain religiosity.  “You cows of Basham,” raged Amos, “who oppress the poor, and crush the needy.”  “Your wealthy are full of violence,” said Micah; “your inhabitants speak lies.” “Because you have plundered many nations,” said Habakkuk, “all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you.” “The people went far from me,” said Jeremiah, “and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”

Pretty tough stuff.  The people had turned from God and failed to live as God had demanded. 

Micah’s understanding was that Israel had turned to elaborate ritual sacrifices while at the same time engaging in wickedness, cheating, violence by the wealthy toward the poor, and rampant lying.  Now, it wasn’t that God was against ritual practice per se.  Ritual can be very meaningful.

I mean, think of our own ritual practices.  Things like communion and then joining hands in a circle after a communion service.  Baptism.   Christmas Eve.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer.  And yes, giving our offerings.

Ritual can be important, but Micah said that these rituals were meaningless without accompanying righteous behavior.  Offering a ritual sacrifice was no substitute for faithful living.

Micah brings an indictment against the people and then turns to a kind of ridiculous hyperbole.  Speaking for Israel, he writes, "OK, we are guilty as charged.  So what do you want, God?  Do you want burnt offerings?  How about thousands of rams?  How about 10,000 rivers of oil?  Would that do it?  Would that be enough?  Would that set things right?”

Just what is it that God wants from us?  Essentially, Micah says that God doesn’t really want anything.  Because God is not after things; God is interested in us.  Faith is a relationship.  Micah 6:8 describes that relationship. What God wants is a certain way of living from us, a way of living that walks alongside God. 

Amos and Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, all of the great 8th century prophets can be summarized in this one verse: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”  This is the high water mark of prophetic religion, and is seen clearly in the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t about laying down a bunch of legalistic rules; he was about living in relationship with God.  For Jesus, it all boiled down to love God and love your neighbor, which is pretty similar to what Micah is saying here.

First, we are to do justice.  Not just like the idea of justice, but actually do it.  This means that we work for the good of all people, especially those who are powerless.  We work to change structures and systems so that everyone is treated fairly and equitably.  There is a social dimension to faith, and as Christians we are to be salt and light in our communities.  We are to live in a way that honors and respects and values everyone.  We do justice and we work against injustice.

Righting wrongs, providing opportunities for those who need it, seeing all people as God’s children, full of worth and value – these are all elements of justice. 

And then we are to love mercy.  If you look in five different translations of the Bible, you might find 5 different words here.  It may read kindness, or loyalty, or love, or grace.  The word that is hard to translate here is hesed – a word that has shown up again and again as we have made our way through the Old Testament – almost every week, it seems, in our scripture reading.  It means something like loving kindness.

Hesed is when you are in serious trouble, you are really hurting, and there is someone who has no reason to help you but they do anyway – they go out of their way to help.  That is what it is to be on the receiving end of hesed. 

I remember a really bad ice storm several years ago.  There were tree limbs down everywhere.  We have a big sycamore tree in our back yard, and every time the wind blows we have a bunch of sticks to pick up.  That happens routinely.  But with this huge ice storm, there were all kinds of limbs and branches down in our backyard, along with an unbelievable amount of the smaller stuff.  I was working on it with both a chainsaw and a rake, thinking that this would take days to clean up.

And about then a woman just showed up in our back yard to help.  I had never met her but she apparently lived nearby.  She had already cleaned up her yard - it was a small yard and she didn’t have much to clean up - but she wanted to help other people.  So she was out looking for people to help.  And she did.  I couldn’t believe it.  That was hesed.  Kindness and mercy and help that was in no way expected, but freely chosen.  She helped out for awhile, and the job didn’t seem so impossible, and then she went on and helped somebody else.

It is interesting that we are to do justice, but we are to love mercy or love kindness.  So it’s not just that God wants us to do good toward others; God wants us to love doing good toward others.  We are not just called to love our neighbor, God wants us to love loving our neighbor.

And then we are to walk humbly with God.  The key word here is walking.  Life is a journey, and walking humbly means that we journey with God; we learn from God.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  Our walk is never taken alone.  Psalm 23 says, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Walking with God.

The life of faith is not about a bunch of arbitrary rules.  It is not about outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about walking humbly with God.  As that relationship with God grows, we more and more are led to do justice and love mercy.  As we love God, we are more and more led to love our neighbor.

Micah says that authentic faith is not about outward show or ritual acts; it is about relationships.  Our stewardship theme this fall is taken from Micah 6:8: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  As a church, we are engaged in all of this and our gifts support all of this. 

The focus on relationships extends to our financial giving.  We don’t receive a bill from the church and we are not asked to pay our dues.  We give willingly and joyfully, out of a relationship.  The Old Testament idea was to give 10% of one’s income as a tithe, or gift to God.  Jesus’ teaching goes beyond this and says that it all comes from God – it’s not that 10% belongs to God; 100% belongs to God.  We are stewards of all of these gifts.  So the question is: how do we use what God has blessed us with and entrusted to us?

We give out of relationship.  God blesses us, and we want to give.  We see needs, and we want to give.  We understand how important our mission is, and we want to support it.

God has created us for giving, and we are at our best when we are giving.  E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary to India back in the mid-20th century.  He was from Baltimore and on trips home from India he would speak in local churches.  One Sunday he was scheduled to speak at a church in a small town in Pennsylvania.

It was his habit to get to the church where he was speaking very early.  When he got to this particular church there was no one there except an older man sitting and playing a simple one-finger tune on the organ.

They got into a conversation.  Jones learned that as a young man, he had been very successful.  He made a lot of money.  Then the Great Depression hit and he lost everything.  He couldn’t find a job until his church needed a custodian and hired him for the job.

The organ that he was playing a tune on with one finger was the organ he had donated to the church when he was young and affluent before the Depression.

He said he loved coming to the church early in the morning before work and just sitting at the organ.  And he told E. Stanley Jones, “The only things I have left, are the things I gave away.  The only things that I have been able to keep are what I shared with others.”

God has created us for giving.  And we are at our best when we are giving.  Cheryl Chatman is the Dean of Diversity and Executive Vice President at Concordia University in St. Paul.   She told the story of her uncle and his life of stewardship.

Cheryl’s uncle was an electrician.  He owned and operated an electrical business.  He was not satisfied just to hire people and provide a job for them.  He strategized about how to give them a sense of self-worth and dignity.

So he started with three men in his mother's garage, teaching classes at night to help them secure electrical licenses.  The class grew and had to be moved to the church’s fellowship hall.  Eventually 46 people regularly attended classes that he taught and are now either journeymen electricians or master electricians.  This resulted in first time home ownership.  It resulted in tuition money for advanced education for their children, four of whom later opened their own successful electrical businesses.

This stewardship trickled down through families and generations.  Aside from the employees and their families, this man provided assistance to senior citizens through gifts of meals, help paying bills, and home repairs.  Chatman’s uncle was a steward who provided opportunities, supported livelihoods, and cared for the elderly.  He was doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  And in the next generation, that legacy continued.  
What does God require?  What does God ask of us?  Not ritual practices, not going through the motions of religiosity.  God wants lives of justice and kindness and humility – God wants people who will walk with God. 

As we offer our financial pledges of support for God’s work today, we are committing to support the work that we all do together, the work of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.  Our financial commitments are symbols of what is in our heart, symbols of our commitment as individuals and as a church to follow Jesus as we love God and love our neighbor.  Amen.

“The Gifts of Everyday Saints” - November 4, 2018

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Last Sunday, we thought about wisdom and discernment as we looked at Solomon, known as the wisest of Israel’s kings.  Under his leadership, the great temple was built in Jerusalem, along with an ambitious program of public works, including a palace for the king.  Beyond that, Solomon lived lavishly.  He became fabulously wealthy and lived a life of luxury.  To support all of this, the people were taxed heavily, and by the end of his reign, the nation was nearly bankrupt.  He was known as the wisest of Israel’s kings, but he did not always make such wise choices.

After Solomon’s death, the nation was divided north and south.  It is during the time of the divided monarchy that the prophets Elijah and Elisha arose in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Elisha was Elijah’s protégé, and at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha took up his mantle, or cloak - literally.  This is where the expression comes from for passing on authority from teacher to student.

It was in the time of Elisha the prophet that we come to today’s scripture.  Naaman was the commander of the army of Aram, an ancient country that is today part of Syria.  Naaman was a military hero and a powerful man. 

But there was a problem.  Naaman had a secret.  He had a terrible skin disease.  Presumably, he had gone from doctor to doctor seeking help for his affliction.  Unless one was born into the royal family, a person could not rise any higher than Naaman.  But his power and status did not protect him from illness.

Now, Aram was on the northern border of Israel.  There was a history of warring and raiding between the two nations, but at the moment they were at peace.  But during an earlier raid on Israel, an Israelite girl was taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant.

Inexplicably, this servant girl cares about Naaman.  It’s hard to imagine why; perhaps because this slave girl had suffered, she had compassion for the suffering of Naaman and his family.  And so she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a great prophet in her home country, back in Israel, who might be able to cure him.

Although this servant is unnamed and seems a relatively minor character in the story, there would be no story without her.  It is her suggestion that makes everything possible. 

It says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this slave girl.  They were at peace at the moment, but the Arameans generally held the upper hand with Israel.  It would be humiliating for this great man to go to Israel, of all places, on bended knee.  But the leprosy threatened to take everything from him, and so he willing to try almost anything, even willing to listen to a Hebrew slave girl. 

Naaman mentions the servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea.  Of course, there were political implications to consider.  Naaman’s visit would create quite a stir.  The king sends along gifts: silver and gold and ten new suits, the latest in Aramean fashion.  And rather than sending Naaman to the prophet, he sends him to the king of Israel.  This needed to be handled at the proper level.  A person like Naaman wouldn’t just go hat-in-hand to an Israelite prophet. 

The letter sent to king says, “I have sent Naaman to you so that you may cure him of leprosy.”  And the king of Israel is scared to death.  “What, you think I can just cure leprosy?” he asks.  He was obviously being set up.  When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to beat up on Israel again.  It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.  But word of Naaman’s visit reached Elisha the prophet, who sent a message to the king of Israel.  “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this.

Naaman and his whole entourage, with horses and chariots and servants, goes to the house of Elisha.  As commander of the Aramean army, he expects to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Naaman and his traveling group pulled up at Elisha’s place.  And they waited.  He was surprised that Elisha did not rush out to receive him.  But instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet just sends out a servant.  Imagine that!  Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, arrives at the home of an Israelite prophet.  This had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in who knows when.  This mighty general arrives, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him!  A scrawny messenger boy tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and he would be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was.  Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner.  The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek.  It was shallow and at times rather foul-smelling.  I mean, if you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is infuriated.  He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole.  If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home.  Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say magic, mysterious words to cure the leprosy.  I thought there would be drama.  I thought there would be spectacle.  I thought it would be a big production!”  And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

And for the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing.  His servants approached him and said, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?

The servant was right.  If Elisha had prescribed a vegan diet, or sent Naaman on a difficult quest, or asked him to do a dangerous mission for God, he would have done it.

That kind of prescription would have been easier for Naaman because it would have meant that he had earned his healing.  It would have meant that he himself was responsible for it.  Likewise, he wanted to pay for the treatment with gold and silver and fine clothing.  But Elisha would not take it.  For Naaman, to simply accept a gift was a lot harder.

But the servant’s words were true.  He would have done anything.  So it made sense to at least give Elisha’s prescription a try.  He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and he immersed himself seven times in the water.

Naaman had to set aside his pride and humble himself.  The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down.  He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria.  He had to lower himself to the point of being set straight by his own servants, and finally he went down into the muddy Jordan, washing with the very common people of an enemy nation, before he found healing.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer.  As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands.  He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting.  He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own.  He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient.  In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying.  He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them.  Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease.  The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed.  He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

It may have been that way for Naaman.  He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, and was a changed man after the experience.

November 1 was All Saint’s Day, and today is celebrated as All Saints Sunday.  This is not necessarily a major emphasis of our Baptist tradition, but it strikes me that the story of Naaman is fitting for today.

We recognize, of course, saints of the Church, and we might mention someone like St. Francis from time to time.  But our understanding is that all Christians are saints – meaning not that we are all perfect or especially godly, but we are all God’s people, all loved and called by God.  At Helen Sassaman’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago, she wanted to have “When the Saints God Marching In” as part of the service, so Mindy played it.  That song is talking about all of us.

Two of the characters in the story of Naaman that might seem like minor characters are actually crucial to Naaman’s healing.  First, a slave girl points him toward the prophet in Israel.  And then one of his servants encourages him to follow Elisha’s instructions, again pointing him toward healing.

There is even more.  The slave girl was taken from her home, from her family, from her community.  She was a captive in Aram.  She had every reason not to help Naaman.  Yet she does.  Naaman’s servant who tells him to follow Elisha’s instructions is likely also a slave.  How do you wish good and healing upon one who has done you evil?

The last couple of weeks have been awful, filled with hatred and violence.  But in the midst of that there have been rays of hope and love.

After the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooter, a man who had murdered 11 Jews and injured many others, was taken to Allegheny General Hospital.  Even while in the ambulance and in the emergency Room, he kept yelling that he just wanted to kill Jews.

Well, in the ER, his attending doctor was a Jew.  His nurse was a Jew.  They cared for him as they would anyone else.  Jeff Cohen is the president of the hospital.  He lives a couple of blocks from the synagogue, where he is a member.  He heard the gunfire.  He was concerned for his mother, who he thought ma have been in the building.  Yet Cohen went to the shooter’s hospital room.  He asked how the man was doing and if he was in pain.  The man said that no, he was fine.  And then the man asked who he was.  He said, “I’m Dr. Cohen.  I’m the president of the hospital.” 

The FBI agent guarding the patient told Dr. Cohen, “I don’t know if I could do what you just did.”

As I think about the story of Naaman today, in light of all that is going on in our world, I’m thinking that instead of Naaman or Elisha, maybe the slave girl, who does good for one who has done her evil, who points Naaman toward healing, is the person for us to focus on.  This girl may help us to think about the idea of everyday saints.

We are not great military leaders.  We are not national heroes.  We are not amazing, miracle-working prophets.  We are not superstar saints.  But we can do what this young girl did.  We can do what Naaman’s servant did.  In small acts of compassion and caring, we can make a difference.  In our own way, we can try to emulate what the doctors and nurses at Allegheny General Hospital did.  It’s not easy, but we can act justly and we can show kindness and we can follow the way of Jesus even in the face of hatred and opposition.

Each act of kindness and compassion and unexpected goodness contributes to the healing of both ourselves and others – as well as our community and our world.  Each time we care for our neighbor or choose to be generous or help a person in need or express concern for a friend or act to protect the earth or welcome a stranger or give of our time to make our community a better place, we are contributing to healing.  In this season that we think about stewardship, it strikes me that such acts of kindness and caring and compassion are powerful acts of stewardship.

It is not just the big names and superstars.  It is the gifts of everyday saints who make a difference in our lives.  Who are the people that have blessed you, who have made a real difference in your life?  We can look around and see some of those people, some of those everyday saints, here in this place.  And we can give thanks to God.  Amen.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

“Seeking Discernment” - October 28, 2018

Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28

This past week the Mega Millions jackpot reached nearly $1.6 billion.  It was announced as the largest jackpot ever.  As it turned out, that was just an estimate, and the actual amount was only $1.537 billion, the second largest ever.  One individual had the winning ticket, purchased at a convenience store in Simpsonville, SC.  But if the winner takes the payout as a lump sum, it will be only $913 million after tax.  That’s a long way from $1.6 billion.  That’s $700 million less than advertised.  When it gets down to that amount, you have to wonder if it is even worth it, right?

Now, I don’t play the lottery myself, although when it gets to that level it has crossed my mind.  But being cursed with an analytical approach to things, I figure that the higher the payout, the less chance of winning.  So aside from a conviction that the lottery is a regressive form of taxation and a poor way to fund government, I guess I am really just too cheap to play the lottery.

You will find all kinds of news stories about the difficulties that lottery winners face.  Sudden wealth can tear apart families.  It can lead to divorce, to abuse of alcohol and drugs.  People give up jobs and find themselves adrift, searching for meaning in life.  Family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers will come out of the woodwork wanting a slice of the pie.  Lottery winners have been robbed, assaulted, and worse.  It’s not always the case, of course, but a large number of big lottery winners regret having won all that money.

Nevertheless, if given the chance, a lot of folks would say, sure, I would love to win $1.6 billion and have to deal with whatever comes with that.  In fact, if given one wish, a lot of people would likely wish for something like $1.6 billion, even if it is just $913 million in a lump sum after taxes.

I bring this up because our scripture today asks us to think about that one wish – if given the chance, if we had one wish, what would we ask for?

This fall, we have been making our way through the Old Testament, considering some of the great Old Testament stories.  Two weeks ago, Joshua asked the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve – as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

After the time of Joshua, with the Israelites now established in the land, the people were led by judges.  The judges came from various tribes.  They led the nation in military battles and established justice in the land.  It was a more decentralized form of leadership, but the time came when the people wanted a king, like other nations.  God said, “Be careful what you ask for,” but in the end God said, OK, if you want one so bad you can have a king.  But don’t blame me if it goes south.”

The first king of Israel was Saul, but while he looked the part, he was a poor leader.  And so God had the prophet Samuel anoint David as the new king.  Though he was clearly a flawed person, David was known as “a man after God’s own heart” and the greatest king of Israel.  Upon David’s death, his son Solomon became king.

That is the short version of how we got to today’s scripture.  And if that is all you know, and then you read 1 Kings Chapter 3, you may think, “Wow!  What a great guy Solomon is.  What a wonderful leader!”  And he was regarded highly by the Hebrew people as a great king – not David great, but a great leader who built the temple.  But there is more to Solomon than what we read in this chapter.

There is a reason that the lectionary reading chosen for today comes from 1 Kings Chapter 3.  If you want to know why we read chapter 3, then read chapter 2.  There was a power struggle after David’s death between David’s sons Adonijah (the oldest brother and the natural choice for king) and Solomon (who has help from political operatives including the military general Benaiah, the priest Zadok, and Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba).  So in chapter 2, there is manipulation, banishment, revenge-taking, exploitation, and lots of bloodshed.  As Adam Copeland puts it, “Solomon learns his winning (though brutal) approach from his cunning old man, King David.”

Our scripture this morning skips over all of that and goes right to chapter 3.  By now, Solomon has consolidated power and all that messiness is in the past.  He has taken care of threats internal and external, and is ready to govern.  But he is young.  He’s a rookie king trying to get off to a good start.  He is not doing badly, but there have been some issues.

Solomon has married foreign wives for the purpose of forming political alliances.  He even married the daughter of Pharaoh, making an alliance with Egypt.  Yes, Egypt - which had held Israel in slavery for 400 years.

Solomon’s wives from other countries often worshiped other gods.  And Solomon himself would make sacrifices at the high places – this refers to places where other gods were worshiped.  So sacrifices were not only made in Jerusalem, but elsewhere around the country, especially as the temple in Jerusalem was being built.  So at one of those high places, those places devoted to worship of gods, you might have a sacrifice to Ba’al at 10:00 then the 11:30 service would be a sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel.  There is not quite the call for exclusive devotion to the God of Israel that we heard about from Joshua a couple of weeks ago.  Solomon is no doubt taking some flak for that, which is why the writer of 1 Kings makes mention of it.

Solomon is at Gibeon – the most important of those high places.  He spends the night there, goes into a deep sleep, and God speaks to him in a dream.  And God asks Solomon, “Ask me what you would like me to give to you.”  God speaks to Solomon and says, “One wish, Solomon.  What would you like?”

Solomon responds, “You have shown great and steadfast love to my father David.”  There is that word hesed we talked about a few weeks back - the same kind of loving kindness God showed Moses and Ruth showed Naomi.  God has showed that kind of loving kindness, steadfast love to David, and now God had made Solomon king in place of David.

And Solomon knows that leading the people is a very tall order.  It is beyond him.  “I am just a kid,” he says.  “I don’t know what I’m doing, and the needs of the people are so great.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

God was pleased by this and said, “You have not asked for long life or riches or to dominate your enemies but for understanding to discern what is right.  So I will give you that, I will give you wisdom, but I will also give you what you did not ask for.  I will give you riches and honor your whole life.”

I think the key word here in what Solomon is asking is discern.  “An understanding mind, able to discern.”

Discernment is more than knowledge.  It is more than book smarts.  Discernment is knowing what is truly important, what really matters.  And it is connected to action.  We discern the best path forward.  We discern what God would have us do.  Solomon was asking that he might have discernment to know how to lead the nation.   

To have discernment, we need to have humility.  Humility to listen, humility to learn, humility to admit that we don’t know all the answers.  This allows us to be open to possibilities, open to ideas, open to God’s Spirit.  If we think we already know everything, then there is no need to listen to anybody.

Did you notice Solomon’s approach before God?  He says, “I’m just a boy.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  I need some help here.  I’m supposed to be king but this feels overwhelming.”

That is exactly the kind of attitude that God can use.  And when we lose that sense of humility about life, then we can get into trouble.

NBA Hall of Fame player Bill Russell was well known for having anxiety, for getting very nervous before basketball games.  In fact, he would routinely throw up before a game.  He was among the best to ever play the game, and there is no question that he was the winningest player in basketball history, maybe in the history of professional sports.  He won back-to back NCAA championships playing for San Francisco, was captain of the US Gold Medal winning 1956 Olympic team, and then won the championship in 11 of his 13 professional seasons for the Boston Celtics.  Besides playing for the Celtics, he was also the coach in his last 3 seasons.  Despite all of that experience and all of that talent and despite being more successful than maybe any professional athlete ever, he never took the game for granted.

At the beginning of his reign, God asks Solomon what he would like to have.  He doesn’t ask for wealth.  He doesn’t ask for power.  He doesn’t ask for military prowess.  He doesn’t ask for a life of pleasure.  In humility, mindful of what he lacked, he asked for discernment that he might be a wise ruler. 

Our scripture includes a story that speaks to Solomon’s wisdom.  Two women come to him to settle a dispute.  It’s hard to imagine common people coming to the king to settle grievances, but these two women come before Solomon.  They lived in the same house and had babies about the same time.  One woman’s child died in the night, and the other woman accused her of switching babies while she was asleep, so that she awoke with the other woman’s dead child. 

They disagreed as to who the living baby belonged to and presented the case to the king.  Solomon said, “No problem, we’ll just cut the baby in half and you can each have your half.”  One of the women said, “No, please, spare the child – the other woman can have him.”  And so Solomon decreed that the woman who wanted to save the child was its true mother.

At the beginning of his reign, Solomon seems to have everything going for him.  He was known as a wise ruler.  Common people could look to the king for justice.  Solomon was following in the footsteps of his father David, who was a beloved king.  Solomon did not ask for riches or for political power – he asked for wisdom, for discernment.

He seems set up for a great run.  But as it turned out, his reign did not go so smoothly.  I think he lost some of that wide-eyed wonder at being king, at leading the nation.  He lost that sense of humility. 

God said that because he had not asked for riches or for honor, God would grant those as well.  But as time went on, Solomon became addicted to women and to wealth.  He didn’t just build the temple; he carried out a magnificent royal building campaign that nearly bankrupted the nation.  The people were taxed heavily to support Solomon’s lavish tastes.

1 Kings chapter 11 says that Solomon had 700 foreign wives and 300 concubines.  Now I doubt that they actually had a royal scoreboard, but the point is that Solomon’s life became all about excess.  He worshiped the Lord, yes, but also a lot of other gods.  And after he died, the kingdom split north and south.  It didn’t happen in his lifetime, but Solomon’s reign more or less tore the nation apart.
Solomon asked for discernment – for wisdom, but he did not always live wisely.  They say that with age comes wisdom but for Solomon, he seemed to have wisdom as a younger man but then lose it as the years went by.

Jesus said, “Unless you become as a child, you will not enter the kingdom of God.”  A child knows she needs help.  A child knows his need.  A child is open to learning.  That attitude is the beginning of discernment.  That is something like the fear of the Lord, which Proverbs says is the beginning of wisdom.   

Albert Schweitzer said, “Knowing all truth is less than doing a little bit of good.”  Discernment is truth in the service of doing what is good.

I’d like you, for a minute, to think about that dream where God speaks to Solomon.  God appears and says, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”  Except it’s not Solomon, it is you.  God comes to you and says, “Ask me for anything.”  What do you ask for?

Solomon essentially asks that God make him the best king he could be.  What is it you would ask of God?  What would help to make you the best person you could be?

And what about all of us, together?  What would make us the best church we could be?  What would make us the best community we could be?  What would help us to be the best country we could be?  Asking those kinds of questions and truly being open – asking those questions before God with a sense of humility – that is the path to discernment.  Amen.

“Choose This Day” - October 14, 2018

Text: Joshua 24:1-26

You know, making a decision can sometimes be hard.  Choices can be agonizing.  If you have a group of people together – co-workers or friends or family, or maybe just you and your significant other - deciding where to go out to eat, for some reason, can be a paralyzing choice.  I don’t know what it is about that, but we want everybody to be happy, and tastes don’t always align. 

Hard as some of our choices may be, we have to choose.  For some high school students, deciding where to go to college can be very difficult.  There may be very appealing aspects to several different schools, but at some point, you have to make a decision.

Our scripture this morning asks that we make a choice.  As we have followed the story in recent weeks, Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and God gave the people the Law.  After a 40 year sojourn in the wilderness it was Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor, who led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.

Our text today is Joshua’s farewell speech.  He has seen a lot in his many years.  The first part of his speech recounts God’s dealings with Israel.  It is a kind of highlight reel of God’s Greatest Hits - beginning with calling Abraham and Sarah and moving on through generations to the children of Israel crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.  Now Joshua was asking the people to reaffirm their devotion to God and to renew the covenant with the Lord.

The book of Joshua is the story of the Israelites taking and settling in the land of Canaan.  It is a story of violent conquests and may actually be disturbing to our ears.  It is not what we identify as the heart of the gospel, but it is the story of the Israelites settling in the land that God had promised them.  Our scripture today includes the best-known verses from Joshua, which speak to every age and to us:

“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’”

Joshua called the people to put away other gods.  For the Israelites, these were the gods of the Egyptians and gods of the Canaanites who lived in the land God had given them. 

You might think that this temptation to worship other gods was only a problem for ancient people.  I mean, we’re really not tempted by a smorgasbord of gods, and we don’t have a shelf filled with idols to choose from.  But we do know good and well that there are plenty of things that can demand our allegiance, and just like the Israelites, we can be find those other gods in the land, those other things that can claim our devotion, very appealing.

There was a very wise martial arts teacher.  There was a young student who was very full of himself who one day asked this teacher what he thought about God.

The teacher asked the student to sit down at a table.  He began to pour the student a cup of tea.  And he just kept pouring it.  It filled the cup and ran over.  The student jumped out of his chair to keep from being burned.  “What are you doing?” he asked.

“You are like that teacup,” said the teacher.  “You are so full of yourself that there is no room for God.”

There can be a temptation to place ourselves at the center of the universe.  We may not even be conscious of it, but we can be so focused on self that we have very little empathy or compassion for others.  If faith is a matter of ultimate concern, our ultimate concern can be for ourselves.  We essentially become our own god. 

And then there is the god of consumerism and materialism.  Philip Parham tells the story of a rich industrialist who was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat.  “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked.

“Because I’ve caught enough fish for today.”  “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?” the rich man asked. 
”What would I do with them?”

“You could earn more money.”  The rich man was impatient.  “You could buy a bigger boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish.  You could buy nylon nets and catch even more fish and make even more money.  Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be rich like me.”

“The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?”  “You could sit down and enjoy life.”  The fisherman said, “What do you think I’m doing now?”

It is easy to want to strive for more and bigger and better, but the problem is, it’s never enough.  I am not saying that ambition is bad or that hard work is to be avoided.  I’m saying that the impulse to acquire and to constantly have more can become a kind of god.

The other gods that may be appealing to us have names like impressing others, idolizing other people, sports, technology, popularity, getting ahead, political commitments, ideology, even family.  All fine in and of themselves, but there is the possibility of allowing them to rise to the level of god – to hold a place in our lives above everything else.  Joshua told the people to put away other gods.

Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Years before, he had been one of the spies Moses had sent into Canaan to check out the land.  Upon Moses’ death, he had become the leader of the nation.  Now he was near the end of his life and he understood that time was precious.

He did not simply say, “Make a choice.”  He said choose this day.  Not soon, not when you have had a chance to form a committee and study the issue, but choose this day.  Joshua communicates something of the urgency of the choice we have to make.

Now, we all have a lot of choices to make, lots of decisions.  Sometimes the choices that don’t really matter can divert us from the choices that do matter.  And if it is a big decision, we sometimes just want to postpone it.  The really important things can get put on hold.

We know we should go to someone from whom we are estranged and try to mend fences, but we put it off.  We know we should visit an ailing friend or relative, but we put it off.  We want to go back to school and pursue that dream we’ve always had, but we put it off.

We intend to get more involved at church, we want to get involved in service in the community, but it will have to wait -- till we have more time, till the kids get older, till we retire.  We want to step out in faith and we intend to make our spiritual life a priority, but there will be time for that later.  We have good intentions, but not today.

Joshua, having seen a million things happen that he never would have dreamed, knows that time is fleeting and opportunities may not come again.  He says to the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

And then he says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Here Joshua gets at two dimensions of faith.  It is deeply personal, but it also involves the community.  “As for me and my house.”

We cannot decide for any other person, not even our family.  But we can bear witness to others and influence others.   And surely that influence starts in our own homes.  Again, as we mentioned in previous weeks, at that time there might be 3 or 4 generations living together in one household.

Christian faith is deeply personal.  It is a gift of God.  But it’s not a gift to keep for ourselves, it’s a gift to share with others.  We would not come to believe without others and we do not worship and serve apart from others.

I was at a training event with a guy named Ed White.   Ed had served on a Presbytery staff--kind of like our regional staff.  He told about a woman who worked in their office.  She was warm, engaging, a hard worker, a committed Christian.  But she started missing work on Mondays.  A pattern developed.  She would call in sick on Monday.  Tuesday she would come in and be in a bad mood, irritable.  Wednesday she would be her happy self, and the same on Thursday and Friday.  But Monday, she wouldn’t show up for work again and the pattern would repeat.

People on the staff recognized that she had become a crack cocaine addict.  They gave her a choice.  She could go to Seaton House, a drug treatment center, or lose her job.

So she went for treatment.  The whole time she was in the treatment center, she could not see anyone from the outside.  She was in a demanding program with 30 other young adults.  When she was released, she cut off all relationships whatsoever with anyone who had been involved with drugs.  She basically had two groups of people in her life: her church and Narcotics Anonymous.

There is good news and bad news in this story.  This woman celebrated her 1 year anniversary of being drug-free.  She was successful, she was happy, she was serving the Lord.  She had a new life.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that of those 30 young adults who went through the extensive drug treatment program at the Seaton House, she is the only one who celebrated a drug-free first anniversary. 

What was different about her?  The difference was the people she surrounded herself with.   

We need one another.  As we make choices, we need the household of faith, the community of faith.  And the choice we make is not just a one-time choice.  It’s a choice we make every day.  Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow him.  We have to choose this day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next.

Joshua said “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Not believe in the Lord, not believe that there is a God, but serve the Lord.  He is talking about living it.  How do we live our faith?  How do we serve God? 

Last week we looked at the Ten Commandments.  Basically what God asks of us is that we love God and love our neighbor.  We serve God as we love our neighbor.

So we are really talking about stewardship.  Serving God with all we have.  With who we are, with our relationships, our hopes, our dreams.  Our abilities and talents and resources.  Stewardship in a nutshell is serving the Lord.

The people respond by saying, “We will serve the Lord.”  And Joshua says, “No, you won’t.  You can’t do it.”  Joshua suspects that they are being glib in their pledge to God.  He warns them that a decision for God is not that easy.  God doesn’t want meaningless words but a genuine life commitment. 

I read a while back about Chad Greene of Hardy, Arkansas.  He drove 550 miles from his home in Northeast Arkansas to compete in a bowling league in Countryside, a Chicago suburb.  550 miles to be in a bowling league!

His wife had died and he moved from Arkansas to the Chicago area to be near his son.  He and his son joined a bowling league together, but his son died about a year later.  So Greene moved back to Arkansas but continued to bowl in the league.  75 years old, and he was making the trip to Chicago and back every other week.  He was named “America’s Most Devoted Bowler” by the American Bowling Congress.

It is amazing that someone could find that much time, have that much passion, that much commitment to bowling.  How many of us have that kind of commitment and passion for the things of God? 

If it took us 11 hours to drive to church to worship with other Christians, how many of us would make that trip?  If it took us 11 hours to get there, how many of us would volunteer to serve meals or read with children or visit in the nursing home or walk in a CROP Walk?  Joshua is asking the people for a serious commitment.

Israel – and we as the church – have to decide again and again about who we are, about defining passions and loyalties.  The same is true of the civic community – we don’t decide who we are as a society by slogans or mere words but by things like public policies and budgets and infrastructure, by the way that those who are most vulnerable are cared for.

Joshua suspected that the people wanted to have it both ways.  They wanted to claim allegiance to God and go on living however they wanted to.  It is like Jesus saying, “You cannot serve God and mammon.”  We do not choose to serve the Lord with mere words; we choose to serve the Lord by actually serving the Lord, day by day. 

Joshua was right when he told the people, “You can’t do it.” We can’t – not perfectly, not completely, not without missteps and failings along the way.  But Joshua was also wrong.  His words were intended as a warning of how serious a choice this was, but when he said, “God is a jealous God and will not forgive your sins,” he was overstating it – or maybe it was a little hyberbole to underscore how important this choice was.  The fact was, God had repeatedly forgiven the people and would continue to do so.  The Good News of Jesus is that in Christ, we are indeed forgiven.

“Choose this day whom you will serve.”  It is a choice for all of us to make, every day.  And while it isn’t easy, it is a choice that comes with a measure of grace.  Amen.