Category: narrative lectionary

The Multiverse of Grace: Epiphany 3

The Multiverse of Grace: Epiphany 3

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 27, 2019

Read Matthew 5:1-20 (CEB)

Reflection

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I’ve always been a big fan of the multiverse, that trope in science fiction where we discover that there is not just one reality, but multiple realities.  You might be a mild-mannered librarian in one universe and a wild and crazy musician in another.  The best example of this is in the Original Series of Star Trek in the episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Captian Kirk, Scotty, Dr. McCoy and Uhura find themselves in an ultimate universe where the benevolent Federation is replaced with the Terran Empire.  The Enterprise in this universe is filled with the same people, but they are all brutal and sadistic.  Mr. Spock now sports a goatee (which I guess is the true sign of evil). The most recent example is the movie “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” where we learn there are several versions of Spiderman in different universes.

Alternate universes, mirror universes, the multiverse tell us something about life; there is more than one way of looking at things.  What we see isn’t always the last word.

One of the things that are always off-putting to me is when I hear fellow Christians talk in what I call “Jesus talk.” They talk in a certain way that is trying to show that are holy people following Jesus.  I’m not bothered about people talking openly about faith, but I am bothered because the language presents an image of someone that is perfect, someone that is better than anyone else.  I may be totally wrong in this feeling, but there is always a sense that “Jesus Talk” folk are always putting on a mask that hides who they are, and never reveals who they really are.

In Matthew 5:1-20, we are introduced to the Sermon on the Mount. The beginning verses are the Beatitudes or Blessings.  In some ways, the Beatitudes paint another universe, a universe where we aren’t successful, happy people, but rather people who are not perfect. When Jesus talks about those who are not happy or those who are hopeless, Jesus tells us that God’s Kingdom is one for people who are messed up at times.  Jesus paints a world where the down and out, the losers, the imperfect are blessed by God. The last verse of today’s passage is the one the struck me today: Jesus tells the disciples that if their righteousness is not greater than that of the Pharisees, they won’t see the Kingdom of Heaven or God.  The Pharisees and scribes were the types that loved to put on a show to tell everyone around them how holy they were.  They were the original virtue signallers.

In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus calls out the Pharisees and scribes for their shoddy righteousness. He points out that their faith is all for show; and hide their true nature:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Jesus shows a different reality for people; one where we don’t have to pretend to be holy, but to know God accepts us in our lowly state and it is from there that we can change to be the kind of people God wants us to be.

Growing up in the African American church, I heard all the adults in the church being called “Brother so-and-so” and “Sister so-and-so.”  As a kid, I was confused. Why were they called brother and sister when they weren’t?  It wasn’t until college that I understood.  It was not until maybe 50 years ago, that African American adults were no longer called “boy” or by a woman’s first name.  As Rev. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, these names were used to make sure African Americans knew their status in society.  The Black church was one of the few places in the world where they were given names of status, of personhood. The Black church created another universe where they were not second-class citizens but viewed as worthy in the eyes of God.

People live in a universe where they are told they need to be successful or right-thinking or show off all the right virtuous signals. May God give us all eyes to see and ears to hear the alternate universe of the Kingdom of God where we are loved no matter what.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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Into Temptation: Epiphany 2

Into Temptation: Epiphany 2

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 20, 2019

Read Matthew 4:1-17 (CEB)

Reflection

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In the 1980 movie Superman II, Superman disguised as Clark Kent, finally reveals to his colleague Lois Lane his love for her and when he does that, he also reveals that he is Superman.  They go to the Fortress of Solitude where Superman exposes himself to red kryptonite which took away his powers and made him mortal.

At the same time, three Kryptonians led by General Zod break out of the Phantom Zone prison and come to wreak havoc on the earth. When Zod is able to take control of the United States and threatens the world, the President cries out for Superman.  Clark is watching on TV and he knows that Superman can’t respond because of his choice.

The temptation of Jesus is interesting because it shows Jesus facing something we face all of the time: temptation.  For Jesus to be the Savior, to save us from damnation, he had to be able to face all that we face.  The temptation of Jesus shows two things: first, that the devil wants to separate God from the created order and two, that Jesus was in solidarity with us.  He was not some superhero that comes out of time and history to save humanity, but is with us, even in our temptations.

But the message here today is not how we can resist temptation in three easy steps.  The message is not that all you have to do is just say some Bible passages and the devil will flee.  The message here is that following Christ means entering into a life of the cross, a life where you will face challenges to leave a hard life behind and trade it for peace and security.

Jesus’ temptation is a repeat of the temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis. In that story, the devil comes in the form of a snake using God’s words to get Eve to eat from the tree (though the first clue should be don’t ever trust talking animals). “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” says the devil. He is able to sow some words of doubt and twist God’s words in order to get Eve to pick the apple from the tree. Jesus’ temptation shows Jesus is in solidarity with all of humanity. God understands what we go through.

The craftiness of Satan is that he is able to take scripture out of context and use it for his own purposes. The devil loves to proof-text.

The temptation of Jesus shows how human Jesus was and it also tells us where Jesus is headed: the cross.

The ministry of Jesus was shaped by the cross.  The instrument of death was the shape of his work on earth.  It was a life living for others, a life of sacrifice, a life of challenges. What the devil wanted to do is to have Jesus give in to the creature comforts of life to trade the life of the cross for a place of easy and secure.

The work of the church is to live a life of the cross.  This is summed up in a passage from Acts that talks about life in the early church.  This is what Acts 2:42-47 says:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

Some people have thought that this passage is somehow justifying socialism or support for government programs.  That is not what this passage is about.  It is about life in the early church and gives an example of the cross-shaped life we are to live within our church: a life where we care for each other: to the point that we share our possessions with each other, especially those in need.  Yes, we should do that outside the walls of this church, but it starts in how we treat those in our midst.

The church has and will always be tempted by the devil.  Some say that Emperor Constantine becoming a Christian and elevating Christianity to the state religion of the Roman Empire is the church falling for the devil’s final temptation. We are to say no to the devil’s wiles, but we say “no” knowing that God through Jesus was tempted too. God understands and God is with us as we also live a cross-shaped life where temptations are real.

This time of Epiphany is one where we look for the revelation of Christ in the world.  We see Christ when we see cross-shaped living in the lives of Christ followers.  That doesn’t mean we are all going to end up being crucified, but it does mean that we live a life that is not bound up in self, but in living for others to the point that if it is called for we will put our own lives on the line.  

We all want to escape the parts of life that are uncomfortable.  But God calls us to a sacrificial life, one that starts with the local faith community and branches out into the wider world.

This is an excerpt from a Bible Study from the Chronicles of God series. You can learn more by going to the Chronicles of God website.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Goin’ Old School: Baptism of Jesus

Goin’ Old School: Baptism of Jesus

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 13, 2019

Reflection

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Today’s passage reminds us that baptism isn’t all sweetness and light.  God wants people to live changed lives and when John baptizes these people, they are saying they will live a changed life. Baptism is a wonderful experience, but it’s also asking God to come into our lives and God wants it all.

John talks about the coming of Jesus as the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  That’s important to remember because too often, people see John as an old fashioned prophet who instilled fear while Jesus was all about love.  Nope.  Look at Matthew chapter 23 sometime.  Jesus calls the religious leaders…a brood of vipers. 

Matthew 4:17 has Jesus beginning his ministry by saying “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Common English Bible) Matthew 11:21 issues woes for the towns that refused to repent:

How terrible it will be for you, Chorazin! How terrible it will be for you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their hearts and lives and put on funeral clothes and ashes a long time ago.

-Common English Bible

So Jesus and John were not saying different things, they were preaching the same message; asking people to change their lives.

Our baptism is a reminder that we are loved by God and there is nothing we can do about that. In gratitude, we go from these walls to serve others: our neighbors and strangers in need.

It was Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples of Christ, summed up what baptism is. He said, “baptism is sort of an embodiment of the gospel and solemn expression of it all in a single act. In baptism, we are passive in everything but giving our consent. We are buried and raised by another. Hence, in no view of baptism can it be called a good work.”

Many traditions including Lutherans, Catholic and Anglican have Easter Vigil. People gather on the Saturday before Easter and hear the salvation story from the Creation to Jesus’ resurrection. At some point during the service, the pastor takes a tree branch and puts in the baptismal font. He or she then will throw the water into the congregation, telling them: “remember your baptism and be thankful.”

Now, it’s a little hard for the traditions to remember their baptisms since they practice infant baptism, but that’s not what the pastor means. What it means is to remember that it was at these waters that a person became part of God’s family and that God loves cares.  Remember that baptism and repentance means your world has changed.

Peter Morgan, the past head of the Disciples Historical society said this about baptism: “We rose from the water to manifest the presence of Christ. We are the laos, the people of God born from the water of baptism into a sacramental ministry, manifesting the presence of Christ.”

This is an excerpt from a Bible Study from the Chronicles of God series. You can learn more by going to the Chronicles of God website.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Drawn Towards the Light: Epiphany

Drawn Towards the Light: Epiphany

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 6, 2019

Read Matthew 2:1-23 (CEB)

Reflection

threekingsIn the summer of 1984, I was fourteen. I was part of the cross-country team in high school, and the coach thought it would be a good idea to go up to a state park in northern Michigan to train before school started. I should state that I am NOT the world’s best runner. I wasn’t then, and as I am not now. During the evenings, we would walk from the campground to the lodge, which was probably a good mile or two away. We would hang out and play pool and listen to the radio. When we were done and headed back, we made our way down a very, very dark road. It was scary, but I knew I wasn’t alone, so I could deal with it.

Well, one evening, we were at the lodge and I stepped away for a bit. When I came back, my fellow teammates were gone. They had met some local girls and decided to head down to the lake. I was alone and I didn’t know what to do. I could try to follow them down the tricky path to the lake, or I could just walk back to the campground. Neither option was that pleasant, but I went for door number two and started walking back to the campground.

Did I say walking? I meant running for dear life. The road was pitch black and I could not see in front of me. I probably did my best mile ever. Here I was running alone in the darkness. I was incredibly scared. 

At some point, I saw a light. I felt a sense of relief. I went to the door and knocked. A woman came to the door and I frantically explained my situation and asked for a ride to the campground. I didn’t want to continue on this dark road. For whatever reason, the woman did not offer much help except to say that I was not far from the campground. So proceeded on the dark road. I saw a small glimmer of light ahead that broke through the darkness. I kept running and the light grew and multiplied. I started to give thanks to God as I realized I was nearing the campground. I was finally home and the complete darkness was replaced by the warm glow of a campfire.

In our world today, there are many like the Wise Men who are looking for Christ, looking for the light. They are our loved ones, our friends and our workmates. Sometimes they come to our churches wanting to seek Christ. What will they find here? Will they find Christ or will it be a Herod and the priests, who seemed to be more interested in worldly things than in the things of God?

Christ is present in the world. The way most people know of Jesus is not simply the words found in the Bible but in the lives of Christians. When we publicly live as Christ would have us to live, people are drawn to the presence of God.

The light of Christ is in the world, but it can only be known when those who dare to call themselves Christians are living in the light.

When the Wise Men finally found Jesus, they gave gifts and worshiped him. So it is when today’s Magi find Christ, they will give worship to Christ when they see it happening. And they should see that happening in the gathered community of believers called the church.

When I was 14, that light shining in the distance have me hope. When the Magi finally found the baby Jesus they were filled with joy. So should it be when people encounter God’s followers. When the encounter a place where they are welcomed and loved; a place where they are fed when hungry, clothed when naked, befriended when lonely.

Arise and shine, for your light has come.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

A Change Is Gonna Come: Advent 3

A Change Is Gonna Come: Advent 3

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 16, 2018

Read Isaiah 42:1-9 (CEB)

Reflection

Advent gives us hope.  Hope is a hard thing to concentrate on when the wider culture forces cheerfulness and sentimentality.  There is a lot out there that wants us to forget the world we live in that is filled with sin and injustice. Isaiah 42 tells us that the world has problems, big problems. Problems that might seem hopeless.  But God speaks into that dark time to remind the people of Israel that whatever they are experiencing is not the last word. God has not forgotten them.

Advent is a corrective to the culture that wants to rush headlong into Christmas.  Advent not only tells us what their world is like, but what it can be. Even when we face the bad times, Advent reminds us that something good will happen, maybe not right away, but soon.  Evil will not have the last word.

The late R&B singer Sam Cooke once sang a song called “A Change Is Gonna Come.”   It was an important song of the civil rights movement. To a younger generation, it has a prominent part towards the end of the 1992 movie Malcolm X, the biopic on the life and death of the civil rights leader.  

Part of the inspiration of the song came from Cooke trying to register at a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana.  He had called ahead to make a reservation, but when he, his wife and his entourage arrived all African Americans, the hotel said it had no vacancies.  Cooke, of course, was furious and demanded to see the manager.  After a while, they left the hotel to go to another hotel in town.  As they arrived, the police were there ready to arrest him for disturbing the peace.

Cooke wrote this song about racism and the hope that things would change.  The song became a staple in the civil rights movement because of the lyrics.  I want to close with some of the lyrics:

 

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, “Don’t hang around”
It’s been a long, a long time coming

 

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

For Cooke and countless African Americans who were alive in the early 60s, it might have been hard to have hope when things seemed like nothing would change.  But Cooke believed that things would change for the better, even if he couldn’t see it clearly at that time. He had hope that the evil of racism would not stand forever.

That is Advent hope.  It is the hope that Christ will return to establish justice forever.  It is that hope that informs the church in mission in the here and now as we long for the not yet.

1. Sam Cooke. A Change is Gonna Come. (1964), RCA Records.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

With Great Power…: Advent 2

With Great Power…: Advent 2

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 9, 2018

Read Esther 4:1-7 and 7:1-10  (CEB)

Reflection

“For such a time as this.” This phrase is commonly used. A time to stand up and speak out. Sometimes we can be called to speak a truth at a certain place and certain time. For Esther this meant a big risk. As we saw earlier, King Xerxes deposed his last queen for
refusing to come to his party. For Esther, it was a big risk to come before the king unannounced.

Even though God is not mentioned in this book, God is working behind the scenes, giving Esther the courage to go to the King, to display cunning in dealing with a very evil man and for being honest about who she really was. In our day to day lives, God tends to be in the background. There are no burning bushes or chariots of fire. Esther reminds us that God is still there as we face challenges to speak up to the powers that be.

What does this have to do with Advent? It has everything to do with this time of waiting for Christ. The Jews in Persia needed a savior and Esther was that person, a person that didn’t know if she had the power to do anything who was able to stand up to Haman and win. For Esther to be successful, she had to go to the King. This was a risk because no one
came to see Xerxes unless they were called and she hadn’t been called in a month. When she appears in the throne room, she has to see if the king will lower his scepter to allow her to come forward or be killed. She had great power, but she also had to be able to
risk losing that power to save her people.

This sounds familiar. Kind of like Jesus. Jesus had great power. He was the son of God. And yet he came to earth as a baby, the weakest of creatures and then lived as a human. As Jesus neared the cross, he could have opted to not get crucified, but instead allowed
himself to be killed for the good of others. Advent reminds us that God will deliver us, will free us from the powers of sin and death. “With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility.” We all have some sense of power. How will we use it? Peter Parker decided to work at saving people in his native New York as Spiderman. Esther decided to use what she had to save her people. Jesus used it to save all of creation. What will you do?

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

The Last Word: Advent 1

The Last Word: Advent 1

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 2, 2018

Read Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19 (CEB)

Reflection

There is a story told about Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu during the apartheid era.  It is an example of this faithful waiting, knowing that the injustice that reigns now will fall one day.  

Tutu held a church service/protest rally at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town.  Outside of the church were hundreds of policemen there to intimidate Tutu and the worshippers.  While he was preaching, the police, who were armed, broke into the cathedral and lined the walls of the sanctuary.  They took out notebooks to record Tutu’s words.

The Archbishop continued preaching, talking about the evils of apartheid and reminding those gathered that this oppression would not endure.  

Then Tutu made a pointed statement directed at the police. 

“You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”

And then those gathered broke into song and dance.  The police were left dumbfounded.

Tutu was correct of course.  The police and the whole apparatus of apartheid had already lost.  In a few years, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison and South Africa would become a multiracial democracy.

We live in faith because we know that one day, the walls of injustice will come tumbling down.

Our text today reminds us that God is with us as we faithfully wait.  Even when it might seem dark, we can put our hope that the barriers that keep us from becoming a whole society will fall.  God has promised this and God will do it.

More likely than not, you are reading this around the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas where we prepare for Christ’s coming.  The word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which means, coming or arrival.  So we have a season where the practice of waiting is front and center.  Advent is about waiting for the arrival of Christ, but it is also about waiting for the time when God’s kingdom is fully realized.  God’s kingdom is breaking through now, but it is not fully here.  We trust in the future when the things that divide us, like race will be thrown away.  But we have to live faithfully in now where there is still distrust and fear.  We have to wait.

The prophet had to learn to wait for vindication.  God was calling the prophet to trust in the midst of waiting; to live a holy life expecting that God will answer in due time.

But that is a challenge, isn’t it?  It’s hard to wait for God’s justice when injustice seems to be running amok in the land. Waiting means sometimes waiting a long, long time. Waiting means having to see more injustice.

Towards the end of C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, we are told that Aslan the Lion is on the march to restore Narnia.  It’s interesting when these words are spoken because at the time the kingdom was still under the power of the White Witch who had made Narnia where there was only winter.  The winter was slowly receding, but winter was still here. 

But Aslan was on the March.  We are on the winning side. Hope is on the way as we wait.  God is coming.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Rosa and the General: Pentecost 24

Rosa and the General: Pentecost 24

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 4, 2018

Read 2 Kings 5:1-17 (CEB)

Introduction 

British author P.G. Woodehouse wrote a series of books focusing on two characters: Jeeves and Wooster (which was also a popular British television series in the early 90s).  Set in the 1920s, Betrie Wooster is a member of the idle rich. He tends to come off as very immature, a man with no goals other than hanging out with other members of high society.

Wooster was taken care of by Jeeves, his very intelligent and wise servant.  He is the one that gets Wooster out of fixes and keeps Wooster from flying off the handle.

Woodehouse’s stories remind people that the smartest person in the room is not always the one with the position or the big bank account.

Our text today deals with a number of nameless people who work to help the general, Naaman. Naaman was a great military hero,  dealing with a skin tradition. Naaman was clueless as to how to heal his condition, but a Jewish servant is able to point Naaman in the right direction. When Naaman initially refuses Elisha’s command to bathe in the Jordan River, it is another nameless servant that persuades the general to do what was asked of him.

Today, we meet Naaman and Elisha and the forgotten servants who helped Naaman see the light and be healed.

Engaging the Text

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

-2 Kings 5:8

The passage opens with the first character, Naaman.  He is a mighty warrior, not in Israel, but in Aram (what is now modern-day Syria). Notice what is said in verse one about Naaman: “Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. (Emphasis mine).  This tells us that God works not just for the Jews, but even those considered outside of the covenant.

Then we learn that Naaman has a skin disease.  Some versions will say he had leprosy, but it is more likely that he has some kind of skin disease that might make him appear like he is dying.  No one wanted to be around a guy who they think is death warmed over.

We also learn in those early passages that Aram goes on out on a raid and captures a young Jewish girl.  She is serving the wife of Naaman and then says that she wishes Naaman could go to the great prophet who lives in Israel.  This is kind of surprising.  This is a young girl that was ripped from her family and is now a servant to a foreign leader.  And yet, she was concerned about this foreigner, who took her away and maybe killed her family.

Naaman takes what the young girl has said and comes before his king who then sends a message to the king of Israel.  The king of Israel is kind of a comic character in that when he gets the letter he tears his garments, a sign of grief.  He thinks this is the end of the world, seemingly forgetting that there is a prophet that can heal Naaman.  While the young slave girl believed that Elisha could heal, the great king of Israel has forgotten that there is a prophet that can heal.

Naaman brings the bling to pay Elisha.  But Elisha isn’t interested in money.  He isn’t interested in fame. He doesn’t even come out to meet with Naaman.  Instead, he sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go out and wash seven times in the Jordan in order to be healed.

Naaman is angry. Elisha doesn’t even bother to show his face to Naaman, he just sends a servant to tell him to go and bath in what is nothing more than a muddy stream. You could also imagine he is angry because it feels like again, people are keeping their distance because of his skin condition. Again, someone that was behind the scenes steps forward to calm Naaman down.  The servant asks, “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’”  Naaman is a general and he took orders and obeyed orders.  Isn’t this just one more order to take, one that can heal you?  Naaman takes this to heart and bathes in the Jordan and his skin is healed. Naaman returns to Elisha asking him to accept a gift, which Elisha refused. Not only is Naaman’s skin healed, but he also becomes a believer of the God of the Israelites.
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Conclusion

I’ve always been fascinated by Rosa Parks.  This was a woman who was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was not a mover or shaker.  She was involved in the civil rights movement, but no one thought a simple seamstress, let alone a black simple seamstress could do anything that could change the world.

And yet, her refusal to give up a seat to white man and sit at the back of the bus as all African Americans were supposed to do, changed the course of history.  It started a movement, launched the career of Martin Luther King and helped the United States live up to its ideals.

I sat in the actual bus where Parks said “no.” It’s located at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. I was visiting my parents who lived up the road in Flint.  Here was a simple bus, a bus where the world changed.

In this text, there are the big people, the movers and the shakers, and the small people, the servants who weren’t even named.  But notice who were the ones that changed things.  The young slave girl told Naaman and his wife that there was someone who could heal Naaman.  The unnamed servant helps Naaman to get over himself in order to do what needed to be done to be healed.

This coming weekend is All Saints Sunday.  We tend to think of the big saints, like Francis.  But saints also include the older woman who shows up at mission events, or the developmentally disabled man who always greets you with a smile.  Saints are not necessarily famous people, but they are faithful people.  If it wasn’t for a servant girl and an unnamed servant, Naaman would remained unhealed and not knowing the God of the Israelites.  Sometimes it is the “little people” that can change the world.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 28, 2018

Read 1 Kings 3:1-28 (CEB)

Introduction 

“The Wisdom of Solomon.”

That phrase has been used in our culture as a way of saying that someone needs to have the smarts that Solomon had in order to solve a problem.

Solomon was wise.  But his wisdom was not something that was innate, it was something that came from God.

Solomon is the son of David and succeeds David as king.  Solomon’s rule is a time when the kingdom of Israel was at the height of its power.  Israel was a miniempire.  Solomon started a massive building program which included the building of the temple.  A fleet of ships was sent to far-flung places around the known world to bring back riches.  Solomon met many of the leaders of the day, including the Queen of Sheba.  Solomon brought a sense of cosmopolitan flair to Jerusalem.  Solomon, like President John Kennedy in the US, ushered in a Jewish version of Camelot. Things were good in Israel.

Or were they? As we read the text for today you have to look more closely to see that things are not perfect.  Just like President Kennedy’s time as President wasn’t the Camelot that we tend to think it was, Solomon’s actions carry within them the seeds of destruction not only for Solomon but for the entire nation of Israel as well.  Today, we learn the Wisdom of Solomon, an imperfect king trying to follow God.

Engaging the Text

Now Solomon loved the Lord by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.

-1 Kings 3:3

When people think of Solomon, they think of him in two different stages.  The first stage is when he is young and asks for wisdom.  A later version of Solomon is a man who has forgotten who he is.  He has become unfaithful to God, worshipping other gods instead of the God of Israel.  In real life, people are not all good or all bad and they are not all faithful or all not faithful.  As we learn today, Solomon was already making mistakes that would have severe consequences.

Chapter 3 opens with Solomon entering into a “marriage alliance” with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He marries not out of love, but out of politics. Marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter meant an alliance with the regional superpower which made Solomon a player on the world stage.

While aligning Israel to the Egyptian superpower through marriage had its advantages, there were also problems. For one, marrying someone who was not an Israelite was troublesome. Deuteronomy 7:3 notes that Israelites were told to not intermarry.  Why? The reason for this prohibition was that it could lead the Israelites away from God and worshipping foreign gods- which is exactly what happened to Solomon. His Egyptian bride was just the beginning. As he married other women from other nations, he would end up worshipping the gods of his wives.

Starting with verse two, we see that the people are still sacrificing in the high places. These high places were named not because they were in the mountains. In many writings, high places were not portrayed in a good light. Some saw them as a sign of their lack of loyalty to God. There are hints that the high places sometimes were places where people could worship other gods. A future king, Hezekiah, destroyed many of the high places as a way to get back to worshipping God alone. The talk about the high places could also be a foreshadowing of what will happen to Solomon: his worshipping the foreign gods of his wives.

It was at a high place that God came to Solomon in a dream. God’s first words to the king are to make a request. Solomon doesn’t take time to think about this. Instead, he blurts out that he wants wisdom. He asks for a “listening heart” or “understanding mind” to rule the people. The word wisdom in Hebrew is associated with legality and justice. In this time, the King was also the final arbiter of justice, in essence, Solomon was the Supreme Court as well as the President. God is pleased that Solomon chose…well, wisely. The king gets his wish; he has an understanding mind far beyond anyone else.

Solomon paints a portrait of a human faith.  He loves God and seeks to be faithful, and yet he is marrying foreign wives- he’ going against what God had commanded. This is not an excuse to sin, but it is a reminder that when we come to God, we bring all of ourselves, both good and bad.  Solomon wanted to be wise, to be faithful to God, but he is also doing things that will bring him trouble.

We get to see Solomon’s new found wisdom in action when two prostitutes came forward. It is telling that the king of Israel adjudicates a problem between two women on the lowest rungs of society. Both women had children. One mother rolled over during her sleep smothering the child. A mother decides to take her dead baby and switch it with the other baby. The case was about deciding who was the real mother. Solomon offers a shocking judgment: slice the living child in half and give both halves to the mothers. Was this a callous response to the women? We don’t really know. What we do know is that the judge allowed the two women to respond which revealed who was the real mother. The baby’s life is spared and Solomon gets a reputation for a wisdom that comes from God.

King Solomon was obsessed with women. Pharaoh’s daughter was only the first of the many foreign women he loved—Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite. He took them from the surrounding pagan nations of which God had clearly warned Israel, “You must not marry them; they’ll seduce you into infatuations with their gods.” Solomon fell in love with them anyway, refusing to give them up. He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines—a thousand women in all! And they did seduce him away from God. As Solomon grew older, his wives beguiled him with their alien gods and he became unfaithful—he didn’t stay true to his God as his father David had done. Solomon took up with Ashtoreth, the whore goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the horrible god of the Ammonites.

-1 Kings 11:1-5

1 Kings 3 is not a simple story of Solomon getting wisdom. There are hints of a downfall, one that is revealed in chapter 11. “King Solomon was obsessed with women,” says the Scripture. He started worshipping the gods of his wives and he built altars to these foreign gods.

Solomon’s choice to worship these foreign gods had consequences. 1 Kings 11 notes that like his father, God would judge him for his sins:

God said to Solomon, “Since this is the way it is with you, that you have no intention of keeping faith with me and doing what I have commanded, I’m going to rip the kingdom from you and hand it over to someone else. But out of respect for your father David I won’t do it in your lifetime. It’s your son who will pay—I’ll rip it right out of his grasp. Even then I won’t take it all; I’ll leave him one tribe in honor of my servant David and out of respect for my chosen city Jerusalem.”

Looking at chapter 11, chapter 3 is cast in a more tragic light. Chapter 3 shows a king that wanted to follow God and sought God for help. If we could stay just at chapter 3 this would be a wonderful story of someone seeking to follow and rely on God. Instead, it becomes a harbinger of things to come.
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Conclusion

Solomon was an imperfect leader.  He sought to follow God, but he also did things that harmed his faith in God.  Not so different from those of us who aren’t leaders.

Solomon asked for wisdom.  In the wider culture, we tend to think wisdom is something we can earn.  Wisdom is something that comes with time, from learning life’s lessons and so on.  But in Solomon’s time, wisdom is something that came from God.  Only God could make someone wise, not us.

What does it mean in our day and age to seek wisdom from God?  We won’t be asked to settle complaints like Solomon, but wisdom can be used as we live our lives in our churches, jobs, and neighborhoods.  What does wisdom look like to you?

But Solomon’s wisdom did not last.  Solomon’s story is truly a tragedy. Solomon took Israel to the apex of its power, but that all ended because of his choices.  He was the last king of a unified Israel. After his death, the kingdom would be split in two.

In Solomon’s dream, he was offered riches, but forsook them for wisdom from God.  This was odd, since there are examples in the Bible where material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus picks up this theme of forgoing wealth in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 6:25-34 has Jesus telling the people to not worry about eating or drinking because God would care for them.  Jesus even references Solomon in his talk:

27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?

-Matthew 6:27-30

 

Solomon is both a model to follow and a model of how not to do something. King Solomon has feet of clay.  But if there is any gospel to be drawn from this it’s that God used Solomon even though he was imperfect.  If God can use flawed Solomon, then God can use us.  We can have the wisdom of Solomon if we rely on God.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

One Thing Leads to Another: Pentecost 22

One Thing Leads to Another: Pentecost 22

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 21, 2018

Introduction 

The news is about a congressman or senator or maybe a governor.  This elected official is expected to go far, maybe even to the White House. We hear about an affair with a woman.  The elected official goes before the cameras with their wives in hand wearing a plastered smile that hides the fury she is feeling.  The hope the official had in running for president is gone.  The official resigns their office, wondering that maybe someday he could run again- this time with a chastened heart.

Today, we move from Joshua to David, Israel’s most famous king.  He considered a man after God’s own heart, but even someone as faithful as David could fall into a scandal which is what happens in today’s text.

Today, we look at David, Bathsheba and a king’s attempt to cover up a grave sin.

Engaging the Text

David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lordlives, the one who did this is demonic![g] He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over[h] because he did this and because he had no compassion.”

“You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power.

-Joshua 12:5-7

The story opens with David in Jerusalem.  The text notes that it’s springtime.  War usually did not take place during the winter, so spring indicates that wars are starting up again. The text notes that kings go off to war during the spring and yet David remains in Jerusalem.

Why did David stay behind?  The text doesn’t say.  What we do know is that the primary function of a king during this period was to be a military leader. Saul was made king because of the threat from the Philistines.  Since David had assumed the role of king he was expected to go to battle, but he didn’t.  Staying behind communicated that David wasn’t acting like a king.

He sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof.  Why is she doing this?  Verse 4 seems to say she was bathing for ritual purification purposes.

David is captivated by her beauty.  He learns that this is Bathsheba the wife of Uriah.   So, David knew he was fooling with a married woman. He sends for her and she arrives at the palace.  Verse 4 in chapter 11 say that David “took” her.  What does took mean.? Was David forcibly taking Bathsheba?  The text doesn’t really say. We know that David wanted he and if we look at the verbs being used: it is apparent that David was the actor, while Bathsheba was being acted upon. 

One other, sometimes David and Bathsheba have been considered a passionate love affair, but in reality, it was at the very least one-night stand.

Sometime after the encounter, Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant.  This is the only time in the passage that Bathsheba speaks.  David is in trouble and this leads to the next part of this passage.

It is important to note that Uriah was not a Jew, but a Hittite. So Uriah was an immigrant as was Bathsheba.  Did David’s actions with Bathsheba and his attempts to kill Uriah happen because they were immigrants?  We don’t know, but it is interesting that the Scripture highlights Uriah’s ethnicity.

David now has to cover up his dalliances with Bathsheba.  He recalls Uriah in the hope that he would have sex with his wife and obscure the fact that David is the father of Bathsheba’s child, not Uriah. David might have forgotten that warriors took an oath to abstain from sexual relations while in battle.  Uriah, the Hittite, was faithful to his oath.  David, the Jewish king was not faithful.

David ordered Joab, his commander-in-chief, to put Uriah at on the front lines. This action took Uriah’s life, as well as the life of several other soldiers.  The coverup was as worse as the crime.

The death of Uriah by David allowed him to marry Bathsheba and no one would know who the child’s father was. David probably thought that was the end of Uriah and the end of his problems.  

Then we read verse 27 where it says, “But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.”  David might have thought he had gotten away with literally murder, but it didn’t escape God.

Nathan was one of the court prophets.  He was one of the few people who had the authority to speak out against the king.

Nathan doesn’t directly accuse David.  Instead, he tells the parable of a man and his lamb. 

Why did Nathan use a parable?  Why didn’t Nathan accuse David directly?

The Intervarsity Commentary explains it this way:

The purpose of the parable was not only to induce David to condemn himself, but also to portray vividly the realities of the situation. Kings, if they were greedy, had the power to grab anything they wanted, and ordinary citizens were helpless. Nathan went on to point [p. 327] out how greedy David had been. In addition to his wives, he had apparently taken Saul’s concubines (8) as a symbol that he had taken over royal control from Saul. 1

David’s indiscretion and murder will have consequences for him and his family. Verse 9 notes“You have put Uriah the Hittite to death with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife; you have put him to death with the sword of the children of Ammon.” Bloodshed within his family would follow in the coming years and it would cause David grief.

David repents and Psalm 51 is the result of Nathan’s accusation. Nathan also says the child that was born would die, which is what happens.

While David had sinned and had to face the consequences, God did not forget Israel or David. David and Bathsheba have another child, named Solomon who would later succeed his father as king. God was able to bring good out of a bad situation.
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Conclusion

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” is what Romans 3:23 says describing humanity’s common lot.  David was considered a man after God’s own heart. He was considered faithful to God. Because of his faithfulness, Israel prospered.  And yet, this man sinned. Big time.

The story of David and Bathsheba is important to us for at least two reasons.  The first is that this story reminds us that we are people who sin, who sometimes wander off, that we fall short of the goal again and again.  That’s not something we like to hear, but we can’t understand God’s grace unless we understand that we are not okay.  Nathan’s parable is a story that shines a bright light on David’s sins. He has to face the music, he has to realize that he isn’t all that and a bag of chips.  He has sinned. Maybe our sin isn’t adultery, but we have all sinned and will sin in the future. A church is a meeting place of sinners, or at least it should be.  We come to church to join with other sinners to experience grace and healing. A church should be a hospital for sinners, a place where we can be made whole.

The second thing to remember is that God still uses us for God’s work in the world.  We feel God’s grace, the love that won’t let you go even when we fall short. None this means we should go and sin, but it is nice to know that we are loved even when we mess up which at least in my life is rather often.

I can’t say that I would never sin.  Neither can you. I’m human. None of us are above sin. We are capable of doing terrible things. But God has not given up on us.  There is judgment, but there is also grace.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.