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.