Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30, 2009 - Flowers, Figs and Foxes

Song of Solomon 2:8-15

It’s a love story … pure, plain and simple.

Nothing theological about it.
God doesn’t show up at all …
Folks wonder why it’s in the Bible.

The Song of Solomon has been celebrated and condemned … dismissed out of hand, or twisted into strange interpretations.

But interpreters these days shy away from anything but the obvious, and I quite agree … the Song of Solomon - a steamy love poem between two young people who are madly in love!
Flowers and figs, sweet and tasty, and those dadgum little foxes who spoil the vineyard. Such is love, in all of its wonder and all of its strangeness.

So, why is this love poem in the Bible?
And why would I bother preaching from it?

Well, first of all, it’s one of the lections … someone somewhere thought that we ought to include something written by King Solomon …

But more than that, the Song of Solomon, has a rightful place in the Bible.

Let’s begin in the beginning …

By the way, little Jackie came home one day from Sunday School and said, “Dad, did you know the Bible talks about baseball?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” says Dad.
“Sure,” says Jackie, “the Bible talks about the big inning!”

Let’s go to the big inning, shall we? … the first pitch! When God created the heavens and the earth.

God created you and me, male and female, God created us – with all our strange parts and amazing desires, and God said It is good.

Adam looked at Eve and said,
Bone of my bones and
Flesh of my flesh.

Flesh … these bodies of ours:
We run a mile and scramble eggs …
We hug and kiss and have babies …
We sneeze and get sick …
We cough and we blow our nose …
We eat too much and put on weight … and then we work like mad to take off the extra pounds …
We work and we sweat …
We wash and put on deodorant …
We look at ourselves in the mirror, and we wonder …
We watch ourselves breath … we smile, we frown … we pose, we crouch … we look at ourselves with wonderment … we look at ourselves with shame … we like what we see, or we quickly turn away …
We have hair on our heads, and sometimes we don’t …
We remove hair from where it is, and grow it where it isn’t …
We might get another nose … and make other adjustments along the way …
We’re thin and we’re not …
We’re tall and we’re short …
We’re blond and we’re brunette …
We’re all the colors of the human rainbow, and then some …

We are flesh … we are flesh, blood and bone.
We are conceived in the passionate union of a man and a woman …
We spend the first nine months of our life nurtured in our mother’s womb …
And then, in a few excruciating pulses, we’re pushed into this world, and take our first breath …
Heart pumping …
Organs working …
Brain thinking …
Stomach digesting …
Kidneys producing …

Flowers and figs and foxes!
Amazing, indeed!

The story goes on:
We fall in love …
I like the expression, “fall in love.”
Like tripping on a sidewalk, it just sort of happens one day …
We fall in love …
And it’s all we can think about …
Our mind dwells on the beloved …
We sit across the table and look intently into the beloved’s face– we notice everything.
We touch … hold hands … rub shoulders … get close …

God says: This IS my image …
Arms and legs and mouth and nose …
Tummies and tonsils, toes and bunions …
Sneezes and snorts and belly rumbles …

It’s good, says God, every bit of it is good!

When Jesus came to us, he was wearing skin!
The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a guest preacher in an Alabama church… she arrived early, so she wandered around a bit … a beautiful Episcopal Church, it was, with Tiffany windows and a remarkable mural of Jesus emerging from the tomb behind the altar.
Taylor was all alone in the church, save a lovely lady in the sacristy polishing silver.
They greeted one another, and that was that.

The lady went on polishing the silver, and Ms. Taylor stepped behind the altar to get a better view of it … she writes:
Jesus stepping out of his tomb looking as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing. Roman soldiers slumped in sleep on either side of the tomb with Easter lilies blooming under their noses. Except for a white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.

Taylor remarks:
I could not remember ever having seen so much of Jesus’s skin before, especially in church. …. But I could see the artist’s point. Even in Jesus’s most transcendent moment, the moment that set him apart from the rest of humankind, he remained recognizably one of us. He came back wearing skin. He did not leave his body behind [An Altar in the World, p.36].

Think of the Apostles’ Creed …
It ends with a roaring crescendo:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the BODY, and the life everlasting.

We will not leave our body behind. Our skin goes with us!

Because that’s what we are - flesh, bone and blood.
Flowers, figs and foxes!

We’re not a spirit temporarily housed in a “prison house of clay” as some have said … waiting to flit off to some other world.
We are a human being … fully integrated - the soul needs the body; the body needs the soul!

We live and we die.
Mortal to the core.
But we belong to God - that’s the real story!
That’s the solution!
That’s the answer!
That’s our hope!
We belong to God!
Every last one of us, and every last bit of us - flowers, figs and foxes - and God is not in the habit of losing anything that belongs to God …
He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies… [Romans 8:11].
It is a mystery … how God shall do this … but God did it with Jesus, and God will do it for us, too … God created the first heaven and the first earth out of nothing; the second creation won’t be a problem at all.
We shall all be changed: the perishable will put on imperishability; the mortal will put on immortality … and death will be no more.

Flesh is mighty important to God!
And mighty important to us, too.
We are our bodies, and our bodies are us!
Flowers, figs and foxes!

So, back to the Song of Solomon.
Read it this afternoon, if you will.
You’ll be surprised … maybe even slightly embarrassed.
It’s all about skin …

Just like the gospel stories!
Jesus, born of Mary, we say!

Born a baby from his mother’s womb.
Lived in his father’s house, with brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends.
Ate dates and bread and fish and drank wine.
Laughed and he cried.
Walked and he talked.
Bled when beaten,
Nailed to the cross, he took one last breath, and then he died and was buried.
And three days later …

For years, I wondered why Jesus stepped out of the tomb with his very own skin – different, to be sure, but skin nonetheless … his skin … full of scars, recognizable to those who knew him, touchable … why not a new body? Fresh and clean? Why still the scars?
Might God be saying to us: Everything counts, nothing is lost, because I am work in all things for good, even those things that hurt you and harm you and leave terrible scars?
I was at work in my son’s humiliation and shame, in his death and in his burial … I was there, says God. There’s no need to erase the past, for in time, it shall be revealed how I used the past to bring you into Christ, and to bring Christ into you!

When Jesus ascends into heaven, he takes skin with him …

And with his skin, goes our skin!
Flowers, figs and foxes.
Because Christ is in us, and we are in Christ.

When the final trumpet is sounded, bright and clear, on that great getting’ up mornin’, Christ shall come again.
The dead in Christ shall rise from their graves … molecules and atoms of flesh scattered in time recalled from the four corners of the world … and everything put back together again.

What happens when we die?
Our breath returns to God.
Our flesh to the earth.

But only for a time.
An interlude.
A pause.

The spirit in heaven waits for the final day.
The spirit, without the flesh, is incomplete.
Without skin, the soul is hardly itself.
Without soul, the flesh is dead.
The saints in heaven wait.
Believers on earth wait …
Creation waits …
For the final day, the last chapter … the redemption of our bodies, says the Bible!
The redemption of OUR BODIES!
Jesus says: I will raise them up on the last day [John 6:39].
Paul writes: We await a redeemer from heaven … who will transform our body that it may be conformed to glory of his body [Philippians 3:20-21].

Because we know where it’s all going, we do not give up.
Paul the Apostle writes at the end of 1 Corinthians 15: Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

We live, here and now, for the sake of Christ!
With flower, figs and foxes.

Steadfast and devoted to the gospel.
We keep the church alive and well.
We forgive one another, and we bear one another’s burdens.
We stand with the oppressed, and we work for justice.
We challenge the powers and defy the principalities.
We don’t buy the silliness and nonsense of a false materialism.
Because we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting – the real materialism of God’s creation.
We believe in skin!

Someone asked Ted Kennedy why he devoted so much of his life to the underdog … and he replied, “Haven’t you read the New Testament?”

The New Testament IS all about skin.
The whole Bible is all about skin.

James says: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, Is this: To care for orphans and widows in their distress… [James 1:27].

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
If you say you have faith but do not have works?
Can faith save you?
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,
And one of you says to them,
‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’
And yet you do not supply their bodily needs,
What is the good of that?
So, faith by itself,
If it has no works,
Is dead [James 2:14-17].

John writes:
Those who say, ‘I love God’ and then reject their
Brothers and their sisters are liars; for those who do
Not love a brother or sister
Whom they have seen, cannot love God
Whom they have not seen.
The commandment we have from God is this:
Those who love God must love their
Brothers and sisters also.

Jesus says:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least
Of thes,e who are members of my family,
You did it to me.

You feed me when I was hungry.
You gave me water when I was thirsty.
You welcomed me when I was a stranger.
You clothed me when I was naked.
You visited me when I was sick and in prison.

You went to bat for me when I couldn’t even pick the bat up.
You defended me against the powers and principalities.
You fought for my safety and my well-being.
You took care of my when I was child.
You protected me in the workplace.
You cared for me in my old age.

The Song of Solomon invites us to love the real stuff of life.
Flowers, figs and foxes.

To live life well:
Bake chocolate chip cookies and fill the home with sweetness … take a big bite, with a sip of cold milk, and taste the wonder of it all …
Sail a boat on the high seas … smell the salt, feel the burning sun and the sting of wind on our face …
Hike the mountains and find a high place - sit there for awhile - the grandeur of mighty rocks and soaring trees … the wind rushing through a million pine needles … like the roar of a crowd in a distant stadium …
Hold someone’s hand and caress veins and knuckles and little bumps … rub their feet … wash their feet.
Help someone get across the room …
Work in a soup kitchen … sort groceries in a food pantry … dig water wells in Africa … go to Nicaragua … stand up for the fallen, defend the powerless …
Worship faithfully, pray deeply, live daringly.
Put our lives on the line for Jesus Christ and for the world: all the flowers, figs and foxes!

Love IS touching and hugging …
Sweat, blood and tears …
Love IS skin …
Love is real!

Keep it real, folks; keep your love real!
Flowers, figs and foxes!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

August 23, 2009 - "Solomon's Gratitude"

1 Kings 8 - selections

Three sisters, ages 92, 94, and 96 live in a house together.

One night the 96 year old draws a bath. She puts one foot in and pauses. She yells down the stairs, "Was I getting in or out of the bath?"

The 94 year old yells back, "I don't know. I'll come up and see." She starts up the stairs and pauses. Then, she yells, "Was I going up the stairs or down?"

The 92 year old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters. She shakes her head and says, "I sure hope I never get that forgetful."

She knocks on wood for good measure.

Then yells, "I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door."

Life can be mighty confusing!

For any of us.
What am I doing?
And why?

Where am I going?
And for what purpose?

The classic questions of life.
Good questions.
Where and
Why …

I’m not sure we ever have closure on these questions.

There’ve been times in my life, when I thought I had it all figured out, and then Donna reminded me that I needed to put out the trash, mow the yard and pick up the kids from school.

So much for highfalutin’ ideas.

I remember when I turned forty.
Felt really good.
Sense of achievement.
Confident about what I knew and what I was doing.
For about six weeks.

Then on the seventh week, it said goodbye to me and took a hike, and it’s never again paid me a visit.

Life is a huge journey.
Does anyone ever arrive?

I remember calling in a nursing home 30 years ago in a tiny little town in northern Wisconsin … a tiny little lady in a tiny little bed … her physical strength gone; her mind yet agile and her memories clear … we visited a good many times together, and then one day, she said to me, her watery blue eyes looking straight at me:
I have something to tell you.
I’ve carried it within me since I was a little girl.
A great shame.
I have to tell you … I have to tell someone before I’m gone … I don’t want to take this with me.

With sighs and tears,
From her tiny little bed,
This tiny little lady told me,
A sad story about a tiny little girl
And a very bad man,
A family member,
An uncle.

You can fill in the blanks.

When she finished telling me her tale, she held my hand tightly,
Looked at me tearfully,
In a tiny little whisper,
Thank you.

Life is strange.
Enough twists and turns to break the back of snake.
Bad things, good things …
And everything in between …

That’s why grace is so important.
That’s why love is the only thing that really counts.
And the fruits of love:
Faith and hope.

The ability to rise above ourselves.
To be more today then we were yesterday.

To push the envelope - go the extra mile.

But keep our eyes on grace … grace for others, to be sure, but grace for ourselves, as well.
We can’t do everything.
We can’t solve every problem.
We can’t be everywhere and everything all at once.
We can’t always say it right.
We won’t always do it right.
We won’t always be on top of our game.

But if grace gives us latitude,
Grace also compels us to greatness.

We can do a lot, and we’ve already done a lot,
Grace encourages us to take a loving look at ourselves – That’s okay, says grace.
We solve problems all along the way.
We’re in many a place, and we do a ton of good things.
The world is better because of us, and it’s okay to know that, celebrate that, and believe that.

The problem is rarely that we try too much.
The problem is mostly that we don’t believe enough in ourselves to really try at all.

The original temptation still plays havoc with us.
The snake in the grass,
You’re not good enough as you are.
You can’t and you won’t and you never will.
Something is missing.
God cheated you.
There, on the tree … yeah, that’s the one; ya’ see that fruit?
Pretty, isn’t it?
Take it …
It’s yours.
It’ll fill your tummy and finish the work.
You’ll be better off than ya’ are right now.

The snake in the grass is alive and well.
Telling us the same old tired stories:

So we go shopping,
For this and that and everything else we can cram in our little carts.

That’s too bad.
We pay so little attention to who we really are:
Our gifts.

Because you and I are wondrously made.

Things in life will hurt us … and hurt us bad …
But nothing can take away our true character, nothing can change the fact that you and I are remarkable, even in our hurt.
We can love beyond the limit.
Forgive and get on with it.
Tackle huge problems and make a difference.
Change course in mid-stream.
Back up and turn around.
Start all over again, we really can!

One thing I’ve learned over the years …
When we look at God for a long time,
Slow and steady …
Something good happens to us.

It doesn’t happen over night.
It takes time!
As all good things do.

Carl Sandburg said to a young writer, If you want to be a writer, read, read and read.

Immerse yourself in what you want to be.

“Julie and Julia” – delightful film.
Julie Powell, a young lady from Texas, newly married, living in a tiny apartment in Queens, looking for a life, decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” – all 524 recipes in one year, 365 days.
A giant undertaking …
As she’s doing it, she says to a friend, I think I know Julia. It’s like she’s here, with me, in my kitchen, looking over my shoulder.

To be a Christian
Immerse ourselves in God.
Read, read, and read the Bible.

We are people of the book.
Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus.
Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Galatians and Ephesians.
Titus and Jude and the Book of Revelation.

And that’s how we get to know God.
Working our way through … cooking God’s recipes …
One day, we say, I’m getting to now God. God is with me, right here in my kitchen, looking over my shoulder, helping me.

And that’s where prayer begins.
Solomon’s kind of prayer.
For wisdom, a good mind, to know the difference between good and evil.
Between the imitation Gucci handbag and the real thing … between the cheap knockoff and the genuine article.

One of our Presbyterian Saints,
And we don’t have saints, as Presbyterians go,
But if we did,
I’d nominate William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
He’s one of MY saints, at least.
His stuff shapes my life.
His writing inspires my own.
His insights grip my soul and galvanize my energy.

He wrote about the real thing:
There is, says Coffin … a difference between having a friend and being a friend.
Between having success and being successful,
Between getting an education and becoming learned.

[Credo, p.122].

Julie Powell might have followed a recipe or two, or even three or four.
And that would have been just fine.
But working her way through the whole cookbook, every recipe, day-by-day, tempted to give up, she learned about the AUTHOR of the cookbook.

It’s one thing to know the recipe; it’s another to know the author!

Solomon knew the author … and here are some of the recipes:

v. 14, Solomon turns around and blesses the assembly … Solomon knows full well that he didn’t get there all by himself … the people stand with him, behind him, for him.
Solomon knows: we’re all in this together, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
Turn around sometimes – you’ll see a giant parade behind you … parents and grandparents, teachers and preachers … friends and family … folks you know, and folks you’ll never know … bankers and attorneys, doctors and nurses, firefighters and police officers, folks who make your cars and build your homes and fight your termites and clean your pools and change your oil and turn your bed down and serve your food and write your books and entertain you on TV.
Quite a parade, isn’t it?
Solomon turns around.
It’s a good thing to do now and then … we may be at the head of the parade, but we’re not alone, and it’s a parade, after all … there’s no such thing as a one-man parade, though some have thought so.
Turn around and bless your parade.

Vs. 22, while facing the crowd, Solomon spreads out his hands to heaven.
Solomon knows that whatever the crowd needs, only heaven can give it.
Solomon knows that he’s the middleman.
Aren’t we all?
Heaven’s blessings flow through Solomon to the crowd that day.

The middleman,
Who stands between heaven and the people.
Hands open to heaven, ready to receive,
Ready to pass it on.
The church at its best.
The church of Jesus Christ.
Standing before the crowd,
Hands open wide to heaven,
Ready to share the blessings of God.

Vs. 27 – Solomon acknowledges that his great achievement isn’t big enough or good enough to hold all the glory of God!
Solomon remembers that God is always greater, always bigger, always better than any of our buildings, our theology, our history, our hymns and our missions – great at they are, God is greater still.
God didn’t stop inventing the day God created Presbyterians and Covenant on the Corner …
God didn’t stop inventing when God created Israel, and then the church.
We sometimes forget that.
Fundamentalists forget it much of the time.
Christians sometimes think the church holds ALL of God’s glory.
The whole truth, and nothing but the truth – as if we had it all … our story, our buildings, our traditions, our hymns, our faith, our take on things.
But Solomon wisely understands.
There’s more to God then we can hold in any one temple, building, book or tradition.
God is always greater.

But … and this is important: Solomon also knows that his temple is special.
As is the church.
As is our faith.
As is every religion on the face of the earth.

God is pleased to shed God’s glory in all it.

So we go with what we have.
There’s no need to put anyone else down.
No one has to be wrong in order for us to be right.

What we have is terrific.
It’s not all of God, that’s for sure.
But what we have of God in Christ is real and true and good.

I love how Solomon prays:
For this building, this temple.
When folks look at it, God will look at them.
I like that.
When they pray within it, or toward it, God will hear them.
When they have sinned, and all hell breaks loose, if they but turn back to God and remember the temple, forgiveness will flow and a fresh start be made.

When you pray this week,
Think of Covenant on the Corner …
In your mind, as you pray, roam around here.
The pews, the windows, the sounds of music …
Fellowship Hall, the Fireside Room, the courtyard.
Pray your prayers to God this week through Covenant on the Corner.

Amen and Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2009

August 16, 2009 - Solomon's Wisdom

1 Kings 2 & 3

All good things come to an end … the curtain is falling on David’s 40-year reign …
It’s been quite a journey … beginning with Samuel’s unannounced visit to Bethlehem and the surprise anointing of a young shepherd boy, David, as the next king of Israel.
We’ve traveled with David over hill and dale – through thick and thin, sick and sin … the worst of it and the best of it … David has done it all.
David’s reign spans forty tumultuous years – seven in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem …
Why have we spent so much time with David?
Because we’re a part of David’s house …
Jesus is the Son of David …
When Jesus makes his Passover visit to Jerusalem, he’s greeted with shouts of hope:
Hosanna to the Son of David.
We belong to the house of David through Jesus our LORD.
It’s important that we know these stories, and know them well … know them as adults … the adult version!
Far too many adults know only the Sunday School version …
Which was just fine for that 5th grade boy who dreams about David and Goliath … or that bright-eyed 3rd grade girl who memorized David’s greatest Psalm, the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want …
What we learned in Sunday School is just the beginning …
Still unfolding …
As God continues to love the world back to life.
We’ve spent a lot of time with David, and now the scene shifts to David’s son, Solomon …
But nothing was ever easy for David …
In his 40th year as king, David’s body and mind have paid the price … First Kings begins with an ominous hint: When David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him.
Anyone here sympathetic with that?
Now some of you guys might be interested in the solution: David’s servants got together and said to him, ‘We’ve got the solution for your chills – we’ve found a beautiful young lady – her name is Abishag – she’ll be your nurse – she’ll take care of you and wait on you, and she can lie beside you and keep you warm.
Hey, fellas, what do you think of that for the night chills?
But the text goes one step further – even Abishag couldn’t light David’s fire …
David is old.
David is tired.
Weary in the flesh, and slow in heart and mind … he barely rules … bureaucrats manage things, and things are peaceful now, so it’s not too bad.
But who’s going to be the next king?
Who’s going to fill David’s shoes?
Which son will it be?
That’s the million dollar question.
Amnon and Absalom are dead.
Both were good looking, headstrong and aggressive …
So we can almost guess what happens next in this wild and wooly family …
Adonijah …
He’s good looking, headstrong and aggressive …
Adonijah puts himself forward and says, I’ll be king.
Like his older brother Absalom, Adonijah gets chariots and horses, and fifty men to run ahead of him – think 5 big black SUVS, with well-armed agents in dark suits and dark glasses … a show of power to get things rolling.
Adonijah consults with Joab, David’s field commander, and with Abiathar the priest [Think Colin Powell and Billy Graham] – both of them give Adonijah their support.
Adonijah then throws an inauguration party … and like any party in Washington, or Sacramento, when it’s party time, there’s nothing more important then the guest list – who’s invited says everything; who’s NOT invited says even more!
Adonijah invites all of his brothers and all kinds of officials.
But Nathan the prophet, David’s closest advisor, isn’t invited.
Zadok the priest, isn’t invited.
David’s special guard isn’t invited.
None of David’s closest advisers are invited.
It makes sense for Adonijah to be king … he’s the next in line, the oldest surviving son, but the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray …
Nathan the prophet wasn’t about to let Adonijah claim the throne.
Nathan goes to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, and asks, Did you know about this? Let me give you some advice; take the bull by the horns so you can save your life, and the life of your son, Solomon.
Go to king David and say to him … blah blah blah blah …
So, Bathsheba goes to David:
‘My LORD king, did you not swear to me that my son Solomon would inherit the throne?
 Of course you did, and David, if YOU don’t remember saying it, I remember. And a mother never forgets such things. You said Solomon would succeed you.
So, why has Adonijah become king?
David, you didn’t even know that, did you?
A mistake has been made, hasn’t it?
My LORD king, all of Israel is looking to you for leadership right now, and if you don’t act now, as soon as you take your last breath, my son and I will be killed.
At that very moment, right on due, Nathan arrives at the palace … Nathan the fearless; he’s tackled David before, and he tackles David again.
Yes, David, everything she says is true.
You’ve been duped by another son.
Or is there something you said, that we don’t know about?
A clever piece of work.
Bathsheba and Nathan get David’s attention.
David rises from his bed and issues a statement – As I promised, Solomon is king.
But the text isn’t clear.
Did David make such a promise?
There is no such promise anywhere in the Bible.
Did Bathsheba and Nathan pull a fast one on David?
Take advantage of his declining abilities?
Create memories for him that never happened?
Do they know something beyond what the text tells us?
Does God know something?
Is God at work here?
The story unfolds as we might expect.
Pomp and circumstance … a public anointing for Solomon … party time.
When Adonijah and his guests hear the celebration, they’re confused, and just then a messenger arrives: Solomon is king.
All the guests get up and leave  - I guess we’d call ‘em fair-weather friends.
It didn’t take long for the party to break up.
The next day, the guests told their friends:
 Well, I wasn’t there.
My name was on the list, but I didn’t go.
No, no, no, I wasn’t there either.
Uh uh, Solomon’s the man, not Adonijah!
Does anything change? Is anything different? This is how nations and governments work – the powerful vie for power; the wealthy want a little more … ah, the games we all play as we jockey for position and influence.
A prestigious pulpit becomes vacant, and pastors around the country line up like beauty queens, hoping to be the chosen one.
In every corporate office around the nation, Billy and Susie hope to catch the boss’ attention – and get that next promotion.
Candidates for office throw big money around – parties here and parties there …
And everyone loves a winner …
And when the dust settles, no one even remembers the name of the loser. Adonijah who?
Oh well, so it goes.
But what’s the point of all of this?
We’re dealing here with sacred text.
The Bible … it’s message.
David’s story … our story.
God at work in the world, just as the world is.
Messy and full of schemes.
Silly and sad …
But God still at work, working with what we put in God’s hands … God making the best of it, even when we’re far from our best!
David takes Solomon aside and gives him some fatherly advice.
Kill Joab when you have chance – I never did like him; he caused your dear old dad a lot of sorrow, and he’ll hurt you, too – he bet on the wrong horse, now show him how wrong he was.
And the guy who cursed me, take care of him, too … I promised not to hurt him, but you’re not bound by that promise, so go get him – bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.
But please remember Barzillai and his family … they stood by us in our darkest hour … reward them for their loyalty.
Solomon consolidates his hold.
A bloody business, for sure.
Nothing neat and clean.
Folks who read the Bible for the first time are surprised at all of this … but what do folks expect?
Even Grimms’ fairy tales have plenty of wicked people and bloody death … 
National Geographic says of Grimm’s fairy tales:
“Looking for a sweet, soothing tale to waft you toward dreamland? Look somewhere else. The stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 1800s serve up life as generations of central Europeans knew it—capricious and often cruel. The two brothers, patriots determined to preserve Germanic folktales, were only accidental entertainers” [].
The Bible pulls no punches.
It’s a mirror held up to the human drama.
This is the way of the powerful and the wealthy.
This is the way of the world …
How we all live, rich and poor alike.
A couple of homeless men squabbling about who’s going to sleep where … and corporate giants squabbling over who controls the flow of oil.
Things settle down for Solomon.
He goes to Gibeon to offer sacrifice … 
Solomon knows he sits on the throne of Israel by God’s grace, a strange and mysterious grace at work in the schemes and machinations of Jerusalem politics.
At Gibeon in the night, the LORD comes to Solomon in a dream – Ask what you want me to give you!
Wow, a blank check from God!
Anything you want.
Here’s where we see the evidence of Solomon’s wisdom.
The first words out of his mouth: YOU have made me king.
Solomon confesses his utter reliance upon the grace of God … he’s no self-made man; who he is and who he has become – it’s a gift from God, from A to Z, top to bottom.
Then Solomon says:
… and I haven’t a clue. I’m only a child; I don’t know how to go out, and I don’t know how to come in. And now I sit on the throne; I need your help! Give me, I pray, a discerning mind that I might know the difference between good and evil.
Like the Knight of the Grail says to Indiana Jones: Choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.
Hundreds of grails to choose from – gorgeous and bejeweled – finely wrought works of art – glistening with gold and silver.
But Indiana Jones reasons wisely – the Last Supper - it was a humble carpenter, not a king in flowing robes, who lifted the Holy Grail.
Indiana Jones chooses humility – a simple carpenter’s cup.
And it’s the right choice.
The Knight of the Holy Grail says: You have chosen wisely.
Solomon chooses wisely.
What he asks for is important, but even more important, what Solomon DOESN’T ask for – long life, prosperity, defeat for the enemy.
Solomon asks but one thing: a mind – a mind to know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil … to govern wisely, to live a responsible life for the sake of others!
And God says to him that night: You have chosen wisely; I will give you discernment.
And then God says something surprising: Everything you DIDN’T ask for, I will give that to you, too, in measured doses … with this proviso, that you walk in my ways, keeping my commandments and my statutes …
Jesus said it well: Seek the kingdom of God first … and all the other things you might otherwise care about will be given to you as well.
When we pray … to pray as Solomon prayed –
A simple prayer …
A basic prayer …
O God, that I might know the difference between right and wrong.
Solomon’s wisdom, indeed!
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Son's Rebellion

2 Samuel 18/19 - selections

If you’re on the Genesis Email List, you saw my note this week … to read 2 Samuel, chapters13-20 …
A sweeping saga …
And epic story …
Lust and love …
Victory and violence …
Murder and mayhem …
Loyalty and betrayal …
Treachery and tears …
A steamy drugstore novel …
An afternoon soap opera … and then some!

The heart of the story, the rebellion and death of Absalom,
And a father’s grief:
O Absalom, O Absalom, cries David.
Why does the Bible go into such detail on these tangled stories?
All of this blood and sadness …

These stories help us along the way in our own story.
And everyone has a story.
The good, the bad and the ugly.

You’ve heard me say a time or two, there is no pretending in the Bible … life is life is life, just as it as
And if there is a God, we find God in the hints of grace that appear without fail …
But hints they are …
Hardly obvious, mostly hidden …
We see them only in hindsight …
Woven into the fabric of life like a golden thread …
The golden thread of God’s love.

Let’s back up a second … to where the story begins.
After Saul’s death, David gains the crown …
And God makes a promise to David.
An unconditional promise.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
Though you will sin, and though there will be consequences, I will stand by you.
I will build you a house, a dynasty.
I will give you a future.
Your throne will never lack a sovereign.
I am your God, and it’s with you that I cast my lot …
Lock, stock and barrel …
The whole nine yards.
You’re da man David.
I will never leave you or forsake you.

God was surely right about the sin business.
There was plenty of it in the land of milk and honey.

The immediate story begins with Amnon and Tamar.
Half brother, half sister …
Different mothers …
David the father.

Amnon fell in love, or so he thought, with his half-sister.
He fell into in a dark place …
Beside himself with desire … unable to sleep …

And then there’s Jonadab, a shrewd man, says the Bible, David’s brother.
What’s wrong with you Amnon?
You look terrible.
Tell me your troubles …

So Amnon unburdens himself to his uncle.
And what an uncle he is.
Jonadab lays out a scheme.
Pretend you’re ill Amnon.
And when your father comes by to inquire about you, tell him that you’d like your sister to come over and do a little baking for you.
Amnon thought, Good idea … I’ll do it.

And it came to pass.
Tamar came over and did some baking.
Send everyone out of here, said Amnon.
And bring this good food into my bedroom.
And when Tamar entered the bedroom, Amnon grabbed her … she begged him to stop, but Amnon forced her …
And when it was done,
He despised her.
Ordered her to leave.
But now Tamar refuses.
Uh uh, she says.
You did this to me; now I’m yours.
What you did was bad enough.
But sending me away in shame would be worse.
But Amnon would have none of it.
He forcibly removed Tamar from the house.
She tore her clothing and removed the signs of her virginity.
She went to live with Absalom, her brother.

Absalom told Tamar, Think no more of it.
But in his heart, he hated his brother.
He was bitter … and bitterness is a bad habit.

Two years later, in the spring of the year,
The sheering of the sheep,
Absalom invites Amnon, with all the king’s sons, to the party.
When everyone had plenty to drink,
Absalom gave the order to his men: Kill Amnon.
And that’s what they did.

Fearful of his father’s reprisal, Absalom flees the kingdom and finds refuge with the King of Geshur …
For three years, Absalom lives in exile.
But David’s heart yearns for Absalom.

Now enter Joab, David’s chief commander.
A man of fire and steel.
Likes things neat and clean …
If there’s a problem here, let’s solve it.
With a clever scheme, and the help of a wise woman, Joab convinces David to bring Absalom home.
But with one proviso from David … he’s not welcome in my house!

A strange moment.
David yearns for Absalom, but when the moment comes, David refuses to see him.
David brings his son back, then walls him off.
David forgives, and doesn’t forgive.
Forgiveness is hard, isn’t it?
Memory runs deep.
Memory plays hard and fast with us, as it did with David.

Absalom remains an exile in the Holy City.
For two years, two long years, Absalom lives within a stone’s throw of his father’s house, but not a word, not a touch, not a moment, from David.

Absalom, it says, is a handsome man with a fine head of hair.
He marries and has a family.
But David will have nothing to do with him.

Absalom contacts Joab, but Joab ignores him, too.
So Absalom orders his servants to burn Joab’s barley field.
Well, that got Joab’s attention.
Why did you burn my field?
Because I want to see my father, and you’re the only one who has enough influence to sway his decision.

Joab goes to David:
Absalom wants to see you.
If you want to kill him, kill him; he’s ready to die.
But he wants to see you, and you can do with him as you will.
David agrees:
Bring the boy to my house.
Absalom bows down to the ground.
And David kisses him.
Welcome home, my boy. Welcome home!

End of the story? A Hallmark Card ending?

Remember how Absalom nursed his hatred for Amnon?
Something dark and bitter grows darker still.
Bitterness is a bad habit.

Absalom hatches a plan.
He acquires a chariot and a horse, and fifty men to run ahead of him – what a show!
He makes himself available to the people; he charms them with his good looks and commanding personality.
The people like him.
All the while, a seething bitterness.
Four years pass … four years to think and plan … four years to nurse a grudge …
Then, one day, he asks his father’s permission to go to Hebron … a sacred city … to worship the LORD God.
Daddy, I wanna go to church in Hebron. Will you let me go?
What’s a father to do when the son asks to worship the LORD?
David gives him permission to leave Jerusalem for Hebron.

David gives him permission to leave Jerusalem for Hebron. Absalom uses Hebron as a base of operations, to declare himself king of Israel. His dark plans emerge. He wants his father’s throne. The word is suddenly given in Hebron: Absalom is king.

The rebellion grows.
David and his cohorts flee Jerusalem to prevent an attack.
Better for us to leave the city then Absalom lay siege to it.

David flees to another city … on his way there, a man from Saul’s clan confronts him, curses him and throws stones at him, shouting at him: You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood.
David’s men are ready to kill the man.
But David says, Leave him be. Perhaps this of God. Maybe God will see my distress and repay me with good.
David and his cohorts travel on, and the man walks beside the road, shouting and cursing the entire day.
David and his men finally arrive in their city of refuge, exhausted.

It looks like Absalom has won the day.

But spies remain in Jerusalem.
Intrigue and betrayal.
Double agents and double crosses.
Ahithophel offers Absalom good military advice to further the rebellion and finish David off, once and for all.
But David’s counter-agent, Hushai, offers another plan, and Absalom buys it.
The writer of the story interjects:
Chapter 17, verse14 -
For the LORD had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the LORD might bring ruin on Absalom.

In the end, all-out war.

Absalom’s soldiers are no match for Joab’s battle-hardened warriors.
Absalom’s army is routed and Absalom flees on donkey through the thick forest of Ephraim, only to have his head, maybe his thick, luxuriant hair, caught in the branches of a low-hanging oak tree … and there he’s trapped, dangling between heaven and earth, unable to escape.
Joab’s soldiers find him and report back to Joab.
Did you kill him? asks Joab.
We didn’t dare, because King David asked us to treat the boy gently.
But Joab would have none of it.
He’s a man of smoke and steel, with lots of blood on his hands.
Joab makes the decision – Absalom is a threat to the kingdom … as long as he lives, David’s hold on the throne is uncertain.
Joab finds Absalom, and drives three spears into his heart … and then, smelling blood, the soldiers join in for the kill.

When David hears of Absalom’s death, he’s crushed.
Thrown into despair.
Unable to govern.
A portrait of deepest grief, captured in music and art over the centuries, a portrait of a father’s heart torn to shreds.
But what could David have done.
The dilemma of many a family with wayward children.
Every choice a bad choice.
Tough love, soft love?
Forgiveness or punishment?
What’s a parent to do?
Grief … raw and uncut …
A child torn from your heart.
The cruelty of life.
The untimely death of a child.
O Absalom, O Absalom, my son.

Joab, the man of smoke and steel, turns to David harshly.
There is yet a war to be finished.
This is no time for grieving.
You have insulted your soldiers.
They won a great victory for you, and all you do is groan and moan about Absalom.
You haven’t said a word of praise or thanks to your men.
You’ve made them feel like skunks.
You’ve made it clear to us all – you’d rather WE be dead and your son alive … now go out and encourage your men.
There is still much work to be done.
For crying out loud, be the king!

What a strange story.
But here’s what we can learn.

First and foremost, God is faithful.
God’s commitment to David and to David’s house will not fail, though David should fail a thousand times over.
And here’s an interesting question:
Are we not of David’s house, too?
Of course we are.
Because we are in Christ.
Christ Jesus our LORD.
Christ, the Son of David.
Christ, our brother.
We are of David’s house.
And God’s promise to David’s house never fails!
God’s promise to David, God’s promise to you and me, sealed with the blood of Christ, stands the test of time and eternity.

When we turn to the New Testament, the story continues to unfold for us.
God remains faithful and will save the day, though the world be faithless a millions times over,
Though sin abound, grace abounds all the more.
There is a generous forgiveness in the heart of God.
God still bends the course of time and history to fulfill God’s purpose for a new world and a better day.

What we learn next is simple: life is life is life!

I grieve when TV Christians tell impossible stories about a life in Christ that doesn’t exist except in their effort to sell Christ, as if Christ were nothing more than a new and improved version of self-advancement and personal happiness.

I watched a leading Christian on the Larry King Show the other night … this fine Christian man spoke about the release of the journalists from North Korea and the good work of Bill Clinton and President Obama … he urged negotiations on every front – talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime, he said …

I gave thanks for this witness, because he’s a man of influence in the Christian world.
But then something happened.

He launched into his “convert Larry King shtick” – what a life I’ve had since Jesus came into my heart … all victory and all sunshine; all goodness and all glory … and you can have this, too; just turn your life over to Jesus.
It was canned, scripted, and stale … like a bag of half-eaten Fritos discovered behind your couch.
I was crushed.
Why do some Christians do this to Jesus.
Why all the hype?
All the sugar-coating?
Because Americans are gullible?
Do we really believe in some kind of alternative “christian” universe, just around the corner, if we only try harder, believe a little more, read one more book, and buy the CDs of another TV preacher offering health, wealth and happiness, for just $29.95, plus shipping.

The biggest lies told on the face of the earth are told by TV Christians and fundamentalist preachers!

I’ve watched thousands of good and decent folk try to live the lie – how they pump up one another, convince one another, tell the story again and again, hoping to make it true, but they go to bed at night weeping the silent tears of sin and sorrow.

When the church over-sells Jesus , we set people up for heartache.
The church has to tell the truth.
We’re not selling beauty products.
Or five easy steps to wealth and happiness.

We offer Christ.
We offer real truth for real life.
Because the truth sets us free.
The truth of life,
The truth of God,
The faithfulness of God …
The Jesus story …
Come to me all you who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Take up your cross and follow me.

Dear Christian friends, the promises of God ARE real.
Woven into the fabric of REAL life.
Sorrow and hurt.
Sin and death.
Love and laughter, too.
And good things and small blessings.
The love of God, like a golden thread, woven into the fabric of every-day life.
For God so loved the world.
Just as it is – just as we are …
To bring us to a better day.

Dear Christian friends,
You will make it, because CHRIST is real.
You will make it through, to the better day.
You will make it, because GOD is faithful.
That’s the news from the Holy City, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

Amen and Amen!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rough Road Ahead

2 Samuel 11:26-12:15

Any Bette Davis fans here? (I’m dating myself!)
Her 1950 classic … “All About Eve” …
Won an Oscar for Best Picture …
In one memorable scene … a party; heading out of the room, she looks over her shoulder, as only Bette Davis could do, plants her feet, and says scathingly to the gathered snobs and social climbers, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

A bumpy night.
Rough Road Ahead.

What do we do when we see a sign, “rough road ahead?”

Slow down.
Hang on.
Stay the course.

A simple strategy for rough times.

Rough times were coming for David.
The affair with Bathsheba …
The murder of her husband …
Yes, he’s still king …
But Nathan the prophet tells the truth:
The die is cast.
No reset button.
No way to reboot.
It is what it is.
Rough road ahead David.
Fasten your seatbelt.

Sure, David did it to himself;
We all do, from time-time-time;
Sometimes, we ARE our own worst enemy.
And sometime things just go haywire.

How many of my Michigan friends have lost their jobs … is it their fault? Was it something they did?
Victims they are … victims of huge social and financial systems … board-room decisions made on the 40th floor of a Wall Street skyscraper … policies framed in government offices far away from the factory floor; political decisions made by big money and powerful people …

Things change …
Patterns break down …
Social upheaval …
Rough road ahead.

Slow down.
Hang on.
Stay the course.

Let’s talk about slowing down.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to slow down.
When there’s a problem, I wanna solve it.
Get it behind me.
Done and over with.

But slowing down is a faith issue.
God promises to be at work in all things for good.
ALL things …
So maybe we can slow down a little bit.
Sure, who wants to be in a tough place.
But God is there, in all tough places.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

We can only walk sometimes.
No running, no speeding, just a slow walk.
It’s dark;
It’s hard;
It’s scary.

Haste makes waste …
Slow down in the dark places.
God is there.
At work in all things for good.

In David’s psalm of repentance, David asks of God:
Teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Go deep LORD.
Go into my secret heart.

Like drilling an oil well in the Oklahoma panhandle … it takes time to drill deep … layers of ancient rock and primeval sediment

It takes time to learn.
Wisdom is a slow process … like cooking chili … simmering for hours … a little stirring; add a little more chili powder, some salt … more stirring, more simmering … a good pot of chili takes time …
And so does wisdom.

Slow down when the going gets rough.
Trust God.
Because God is there.

David writes:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And put a new and right spirit within me.

St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century mystic, wrote a small book to young monks, entitled, “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
When the joy of the Lord wears off …
When spiritual delight becomes daily drudgery.
When God seems far away …
Prayers feel useless …

St. John counseled his young monks:
God is doing a might work in the dark night of the soul.

It has to be dark sometimes for God’s mighty work.
If it were all sunshine and light,
We’d rush in and muck it up.
We’d start advising God.
Telling God what to do.
“Here God, try this; work at that.”

So God veils his work from our eyes,
In the Dark Night of the Soul.
God disappears from sight.

Like an artist creating a sculpture for the town square,
The work is hidden from view by scaffolding and heavy tarps …
The public can hear a little bit of the work …
But no one can see the work underway …
Until the artist is ready to pull the tarps away …
And take down the scaffolding …

Then, and only then, can we see what been
Wrought by the artist.
Only then, can we say,
“Ah hah … so that’s what you were doing?”
“I had no idea.”

There are great promises in the Bible,
I am with you always.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
I am work in all things for good.

Rough road ahead.
Slow down.

There’s another part of the strategy here:
Hang on … don’t let go.
Hang on to your dreams.
Hang on to your love.
Hang on to God.

Don’t let go.
Don’t give up.

Here on the LORD's Table, one of my favorite Remington pieces – “Wicked Pony” – the rider has been thrown …
But the rider grabs the pony’s ear …
Hanging on with one hand …
That’s all he’s got … one hand, one ear … but he’s hanging on.
David hangs on …
To his faith, hope and love.
Chastened and wiser …
Battered and bruised.
But David hangs on.
David doesn’t let go.

Paul the Apostle says to his friends,
Pray without ceasing.
Don’t give up on God.
Don’t give up on yourself.
Don’t give up on your life.

And prayer doesn’t have to be eloquent or long-winded.
The shortest prayer in the Bible uttered by Peter sinking beneath the ways, LORD, save me.
Sometimes that’s all we can say.
But say it.
And say it again.
Again and again, if that’s all you can say, LORD, save me.

Maybe your dreams need revision.
Maybe your heart needs an adjustment.
Maybe the whole house needs to come down.
And something new be raised up.

But hang on to your heart.
Hang on to God.
Hang on to your faith, hope and love.

One more piece of the strategy: stay the course.

David slows down.
He hangs on tight.
And he stays the course.

David says of his life before God:
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart.

Not money.
Not power.
Not influence.
Not achievement or glory.

But a broken spirit.
A contrite heart.
A place for God.

Sometimes we’re just so full of ourselves.
So full of everything.
We have to be empty to make room for God.

Life will empty us out now and then.
Hard knocks and swift kicks …
Sometimes of our own making …
And sometimes just the way it is …

Stay the course with God!

John the Baptist said it, and said it well:
He must increase; I must decrease.

Something has gotta give in the spiritual equation …
Full of ourselves, there’s no room for God.

Tough times: a time to pull the plug and drain the junk away … so that God can grow larger in our lives.

This is what life is all about.
To make room for God.

And the rest will fall into place.
It always does.
It always will.

Jesus said it well:
Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the other things that can otherwise occupy our thoughts and distract from the reality of life, will come our way as well.

Stay the course with God.
Trust God.
Trust yourself.
Because there’s a lot of God and a lot of good in you.

More than enough to carry the day.
More than enough to get you through the rough times!

David made it.
So will you.

Amen and Amen