Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2018
Year B, Proper 15: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
I hope you’ll indulge me in a story this morning.
Once upon a time, there was a wise prince. Following his father’s death, the prince assumed his divinely appointed throne, married a beautiful princess from a neighboring kingdom, and settled down to govern his people to the glory of God. Soon afterward, God appeared to him in a dream and promised to grant the young royal whatever his heart desired.
Being a humble man, the king refused to ask for wealth, power, or long life, and instead replied thus: “I am only a child. Therefore give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, and to discern between good and evil.”
God was so pleased with the king’s request, he promised not only to grant it — to make this king the wisest human being in history — but to grant him every other measure of greatness as well. Untold wealth, matchless honor, and long life.
In time, the king’s reputation for brilliance spread across the land. Nobles traveled from distant shores to hear his pithy sayings and witness his wise judgments. In accordance with his wisdom and God’s blessing, the king’s wealth and power grew beyond measure. He made strategic political and economic alliances; maintained fleets of ships; built gorgeous temples and palaces; traded in luxuries such as gold, silver, and ivory; penned the greatest wisdom literature of his time; presided over the Golden Age of his kingdom; and finally handed over the throne to his son after a peaceable reign of forty years.
By any measure, a “happily ever after” story.
Here’s another story. Once upon a time, there was a shrewd prince. Following the death of the king, the prince ordered the murder of his older brother — the rightful heir — and assumed his father’s throne with blood on his hands. He spent the earliest days of his reign carrying out the vengeance killings his father had requested before his death. Then, believing himself to have divine wisdom and a divine mandate, he set out to build the kingdom of his dreams — a kingdom of wealth, prestige, and power.
The king’s appetites were beyond excessive. To support his extravagant lifestyle, he levied taxes his subjects could not bear. To control knowledge, he gathered the surrounding world’s wisdom traditions to himself. To complete his lavish building projects, he conscripted thousands of people into forced labor. To satisfy his desires, he assembled a harem of seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. To quell his spiritual restlessness, he constructed pagan shrines and offered worship to gods who demanded child sacrifice.
The king found himself confronted by enemies. Though he attempted to fight back, God’s hand was against him, and he enjoyed little success. He died shortly thereafter, denied the long life he had dreamed of. His son then tried to force the disgruntled masses back into servitude, but they resisted, and a civil war that would last for decades broke out across the land. The kingdom split in two, and the famed king’s once-golden dream dissolved into chaos.
By any measure, NOT “a happily ever after” story.
So. Which story is true? Who was King Solomon? A sage or a fool? A noble or a glutton? A leader or a tyrant?
What happens if the answer is yes? What if King Solomon was all of the above?
We always hear about the wisdom of Solomon. And there is truth to the wisdom of Solomon. But if we are to understand the wisdom of Solomon and what it means to us we must understood the whole of Solomon’s story.
We didn’t hear about the slaves who toiled in the king’s copper mines and stone yards. Or about the excesses of Solomon’s daily menu. Or about the forbidden gods he honored with dubious and possibly sinister sacrifices at shrines on the outskirts of the city.
I started this by dividing Solomon’s story into two parts. The good and the bad, the noble and the shameful.
What we are left with is that the Solomon of the Bible is a human being. Blessed with wisdom and cursed with foolishness. Devoted to God and attracted to idols. Committed to his intellect and shackled to his appetites, I’d suggest Solomon is rather like us.
If we are willing to look at Solomon’s life in its full complexity, we can learn much.
First, Solomon may very well have received a vision from God, but Solomon’s own dreams very quickly left God’s desires in the dust. Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “The wisdom that Solomon does not learn is attentiveness to those for whom God has special attentiveness. There are all kinds of dreams — of power and money and prestige and control. But the dream of justice for widows, orphans, and the oppressed – the dream that is God’s dream – that is the dream that Solomon never fulfills.”
Solomon had material prosperity, but is that truly important? Roofs over our heads and clothes on our backs we need. That’s not material prosperity. What is it that we don’t need.
I have a friend I love dearly. He’s a good person, who loves his family, and works very hard to support them and make a wonderful life for his daughter. Just three generations into American life his family is by all objective measures living the American dream.
Earlier this week we were talking about various things we’ve done in the past to make ourselves comfortable and we found ourselves laughing at ourselves. I was whining about ridding myself of perfectly good, expensive clothes that still fit because I’ve started to downsize from the immense number of clothes I’ve always had. He is talking about downsizing from two Mercedes. Such first world problems, aren’t they?
The laughing and joking had ended by Friday as we grappled with the ongoing abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and he continues to struggle with raising his only child, a daughter, in that tradition. And at Friday noon, he texted me the news that a former co-worker of mine had been murdered by her husband Friday morning who then killed himself. They have two beautiful four-year-old twins left behind who were in the house at the time. Another former co-worker is devastated because she missed an early morning call from Linda. We’ll never know why Linda made that morning call. What we do know is here was an intelligent, hard-working woman who had worked herself up from a seventeen-year-old high school intern to become the Director of Human Resources for the City Council of Philadelphia. She had earned the material wealth and prosperity, but in the span of twenty seconds her daughters became orphans and a dream of God’s justice was once again shattered.
Let’s try this again: once upon a time, there was a king. A king who told us that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them”. A king who dreamed of justice for widows, orphans and the oppressed, and fulfilling God’s dreams for the least and most vulnerable of God’s children.
What we hear in the 1st Book of Kings tonight is to look to God for wisdom. And what we hear in the Gospel of John is how to attain some of that wisdom. Abide in Christ Jesus. John shows us the way.
We don’t know how many tomorrows we will have, but I do know it is when I turn to God, even in pain and in anger, that God sustains me, and I believe God sustains us. And God can take that anger and allow us the bread of life. Amen.
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