Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fear, Folly, and Power

King Solomon's got it goin' on. (Photo credit Wikimedia)
Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon? I mean, he’s got it all. He comes from the right family—I mean, move over, Daleys. He’s got enough money to look Bill Gates in the eye and seriously play poker with Warren Buffet. And he’s so famous that other world leaders come just to see if the hype is true. The Queen of Sheba looked Solomon up and down and, “Dang, Sol, you got it goin’ on.”

            King Solomon’s legacy even lasted into the incredulous Scientific Revolution. The Freemasons adopted symbolism that connected their fraternal order with the splendor of Solomon. And who could forget that classic Nick Cage movie, National Treasure, where the protagonist discovers King Solomon’s treasure in, um, Manhattan, but where else would King Solomon’s treasure be? That’s just one of many reasons why it’s a classic.

            But setting aside Solomon’s celebrity, let’s get some back story here. A kind of  “behind the music” look at Solomon, you know, like if Bob Woodward worked for VH1. So Solomon is the son of King David, a man after God’s own heart, and Bathsheba, whom King David pursued apart from God’s heart. If you don’t remember that story, after he had become king, David played peeping Tom after Bathsheba while she was bathing, had a child with her while her husband was off fighting in David’s army, then had her husband killed, and finally admitted his guilt once the prophet Nathan called him out. That’s Solomon’s daddy, all right. Now Solomon wasn’t David’s only son, no far from it. Solomon’s step-brother, Amnon raped Solomon’s step-sister, Tamar, and Solomon’s other step-brother, Absalom, killed Amnon in revenge. Then Absalom staged a military coup against David, in which he killed most of his step-brothers, except, obviously, for Solomon, but eventually Absalom’s head got in the way—literally, his head got stuck in a tree branch. If you want the whole story, read it in the Bible. It’s even better than Game of Thrones. So, back to Solomon. He and his mother convince King David, who eventually gets old and dies, you know, like kings do, that Solomon should succeed David to the Israelite throne. David agrees, and then Solomon goes and kills everyone who might oppose him. I think Francis Ford Coppola was reading the Bible when he was directing The Godfather. Now stay with me, we’re almost to the best part about Solomon. He was humble.

            Yes! Believe it or not, Solomon was incredibly humble. See, Solomon knew that the Israelites he was to rule were a great people and were difficult to rule, as evidenced by the deaths of all of his step-brothers. That’s enough to humble anybody, I suppose, even a Kennedy of antiquity like Solomon. But one night after a long day of sacrificing all sorts of things on a high mountain to the Lord God, God comes and asks Solomon what he wants. I kinda bet the first thing that comes to Solomon’s mind is, “I’d like know if I have any more step-brothers who might want to kill me,” but no, that’s not what Solomon asks. Solomon recognizes that God is steadfast in love and mercy, and he asks God for an “understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil step-brothers (no wait, he didn’t mention step-brothers), for who can govern this your great people?” No, seriously, God, who can govern these people, because they are, like, crazy.

            Solomon’s request for an “understanding mind” strikes a deep, harmonious chord with God, and God grants Solomon’s request, along with a bigger bank account than the entire Saudi royal family and more fame than all of the One Direction guys plus Justin Bieber put together. If you don’t know what One Direction or a Bieber is, then blessed are you. I bet you didn’t expect a beatitude tonight. But God does bless Solomon! God blesses Solomon so much! God blesses Solomon so much that Solomon makes a bunch of alliances with the historic enemies of God’s people, and Solomon develops a harem of hundreds of women, and Solomon conscripts thousands of peasant Israelites to build the temple to the Lord, because God blesses Solomon to be a blessing—and a slavemaster. Yes! God. Bless. Solomon. I even bet he made a patriotic song out of it.

            In case you haven’t been able to cut through my sarcasm, let me make this plain. I don’t really like King Solomon. I don’t really like his daddy, either. Honestly, I have a hard time reading a lot of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible. I might enjoy watching House of Cards on Netflix, but I don’t enjoy reading the same plot lines in the scriptures that leads us to salvation and liberation and redemption. Blame it on the highfalutin seminary education I’m getting in Hyde Park, but I can’t read the story of God’s gift of wisdom to King Solomon without my hermeneutic of suspicion leaking out my ears. Of course King Solomon starts out on the right foot! I mean, besides killing a bunch of political enemies, but Solomon is all right to start with. But so was King Saul before God replaced him with David. And so was King David before he had that fling with Bathsheba, Solomon’s mom. I can’t help but recall the prophecy of Samuel, through whom God said,

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon?

            I grew up with the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even well-meaning people have a really hard time resisting the corruption that often accompanies power. I am a student of major revolutions in world history, and I can get pretty disheartened when I survey them. The American Revolution cast off the bondage of the British crown, but Americans kept African-descended people in bondage for another century after that, and then established Jim Crow and systematic mass incarceration came after that. The French Revolution brought down the Bastille, but after a decade or two of beheading each other, Napoleon warped the revolutionary spirit to conquer most of Europe. The Russian Revolution promised the dictatorship of the proletariat, but instead got secret police, gulags, and Ukrainian famine.  It’s enough to make an idealistic revolutionary leave the Occupy camp, put on a tie, and sit in a cubicle. At least there’s a better shot at good health insurance. Eventually.

            It’s enough to make somebody fear the folly of power, too. I remember during a community organizing training a faith leader shared that he was afraid of getting too much power. Now this faith leader had more musical talent in his little finger than most whole church choirs do, and he had a magnetic personality that sucked you into whatever project he’s working on. But he’s a man of God, and a Christian of undeniable integrity, so he was very nervous about associating with the corrupting nature of power. He didn’t want to be another Elijah Muhammad, who fathered several children by his secretaries while he was leading the Nation of Islam in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, he also wanted to participate in the great missio dei, the mission of God to liberate and redeem all of creation, and, well, what can I say but the missio dei needs powerful people.

            Yes, we may be afraid when we decide to get into God’s mission of liberation and redemption. In fact, we should approach the great throne of God with more than a little fear and trembling, but let’s not let that fear stop us from accepting the liberating power of God. Rather than leading to the worldly folly of greed, malice, and lust, the power of God works in us so that we can have power over the temptations of our culture. Accepting the power of God moves us while still amidst our folly to overcome our fear and participate in the holy missio dei.

            Dear friends, God did not wait for King David or King Solomon to be perfect before God began using them for God’s great mission. And what about Moses before them? While Moses was a prince in Pharaoh’s corrupt court in Egypt, he murdered a man, and yet God still used Moses to lead the Israelites out of their bondage and embark on the great exodus to the Promised Land. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who betrayed all her neighbors to the invading Israelites, but God still used her to help set up the sabbath communities where widows, orphans, and strangers would be cared for. And who could forget how Paul locked up Jesus’ followers and thought it great fun when they were stoned to death. That didn’t stop God from busting into Paul’s life, messing him so much that he blacked out for a couple weeks and then started answering to a different name.

            Our worldly folly does not prevent God from busting a move and delivering us from the tempter’s snare. We get caught up in our security and safety and a life where nothing surprising can ever happen, trying so hard to live out a life that doesn’t need God, turning away the unaccompanied immigrant children, ignoring the disheveled street people, and denying our LGBTQ sisters and brothers the opportunity to marry with the blessing of our church. We are so caught up in playing it safe that we are caught in the same fear and folly that we were trying to avoid.

            But fear not, sisters and brothers! God doesn’t wait for us to get it right to work the holy missio dei in us and around us. God’s love is so great that Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, lived and died amidst worldly fear and folly so that all of creation, even you and me, might know salvation, liberation, and redemption. There’s no mountain too high, valley too deep, or expressway too busy that God’s love in Jesus Christ wouldn’t cross to save, liberate, and redeem all of creation, even you and me. In the words of the apostle Paul, written once he had recovered from that nasty blackout, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not even Solomon’s corrupt politics nor his daddy’s crooked wheeling and dealing can stop God’s love from blessing them from blessing the world around them. That is the power of God’s love!

            So let us seek power, dear friends, not the power that leads to folly and fear, but the power of God’s love which organizes us for the holy missio dei. With the power of God’s love organizing our lives, fear and folly lose their corrupting power. With the power of God’s love organizing our church, no walls can exclude any of our sisters and brothers from Christ’s body. With the power of God’s love organizing our world, all widows, all orphans, all strangers, indeed all of God’s creation will be reconciled and redeemed back to God and to each other. Praise God almighty! Amen.

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