Sunday, August 19, 2012


I Kings 3:3-14; Eph. 5:15-20

        Who is the wisest person you have ever known? This is a pretty bright congregation.  Chances are that person might be sitting among us.  Then again it might be someone you met years ago.  It could be someone who gave you some remarkable financial advice or steered you toward your life’s vocation.  It might have been a spiritual guru who completely changed the way you look at life.  If you exhibit any wisdom yourself, you might suggest the wisest person you know is your spouse, especially if she is setting next to you.
        According to Old Testament tradition Solomon was the wisest man of his generation.  Our text this morning tells us that God came to Solomon in a dream and allowed the new king to make one request.  Solomon asked for wisdom, or to be more specific, he asked to be able to discern between good and evil.  God responded by promising if Solomon kept the commandments of the Lord, his wish would be granted.
        So how well did Solomon use this gift?   It would seem as long as Solomon kept the commandments, he was able to discern between good and evil.  The most famous example was when Solomon was confronted by two women, both claiming to be the mother of the same child.  Do you remember what Solomon did?  He picked up the child and declared he would cut the baby in half, giving each woman a fair share.  The one woman screamed in agony begging Solomon to give the living child to the other woman.  Through her protest, Solomon determined this was the real mother.
Solomon was also placed in charge of building the Temple.  He did a marvelous job.  No detail was missed.  In fact he did such a wonderful job Solomon decided to build an equally impressive house for himself and his family.  Perhaps this was not so wise.  From that point on things began to fall apart. By the end of his reign Solomon’s days were filled with more self-indulgence than wisdom.  He divided Israel into 12 regions and showed greater favor to the two regions surrounding Jerusalem.  The other ten tribal units were subjugated to heavy taxes and even slave labor.  Solomon justified this by claiming he was fortifying the capital city.  But in truth he was building a palace to occupy his 700 wives and 300 concubines.  You heard me right, 700 wives. Just how wise can a guy be if he has 700 wives?  Most of these marriages included treaties with foreign neighbors, and each marriage brought different customs and the worship of other gods into the city.  By the end of his reign, the kingdom was bankrupt, ten of the twelve tribes were in revolt, and the temple was occupied by foreign gods.  The wisest man in the world turned out not to be so smart after all.
So what is wisdom?  Is it defined by the number of academic accomplishments one hangs on their wall?  Is wisdom transmitted more by pithy sayings or silence?  What about “street smarts” or experience?  Doesn’t that count for something?   What about someone who has graduated from the school of hard knocks?  Where does this rate on the wisdom scale? It seems every one is quick to share their wisdom while too few listen to Mark Twain who said, “Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”  Perhaps I should shut my mouth and sit down, but we all know preachers tend to venture where angels fear to tread.
What intrigues me about the Solomon story is the promise God made that as long as Solomon kept the commandments, the king would remain wise.  Obviously once Solomon opted for foreign wives and foreign worship practices, the promise of wisdom was negated.  But I am not so worried about Solomon. That is ancient history.  Does the offer to Solomon continue to be open to us?  If we keep the commandments, will we be wiser?  Certainly there is wisdom to be gained from not stealing, lying or killing.  I could also make a case that there is wisdom to be found in not being consumed by greed.  I believe it is wise to treat the elderly with respect and work hard to maintaining a healthy marriage.  But what of the other commandments, particularly Sabbath keeping and claiming only one God. The author of Ephesians wrote. “Be careful how you live.  Be wise, making the most of this time.  Be filled with the Spirit.  Sing Psalms and hymns; make melody and give thanks to God.”
There is a fancy phrase that seems to be making the rounds these days.  It is called spiritual formation.  Simply put, this is a process by which we attempt to become more mature in our faith and reshape our character as a human being.  Every week I get phone calls from folks who have developed the perfect program to bring spiritual formation to our congregation.  They have been tested by congregation large and small with amazing results.  For prices ranging from $39.99 to $3,999 I can be assured of a program that will turn us into a God fearing, Bible believing, Army for the Almighty.
And yet I keep going back to the instructions given to Solomon and amplified by the writer of Ephesians.   Follow the commandments of the Lord and fill oneself with the Spirit by singing psalms and making melody.  Could it be that worship is the real key to both wisdom and our spiritual formation?
G. Porter Taylor states that “the worship of God orients us to the Almighty and keeps our lives in right relations.”  He continues by saying “When we worship a number of things are going on which makes us wiser.  We sing, we engage the biblical text, and we connect to the body of Christ each time we gather to celebrate God.”  
Let’s begin with the music.  Let’s face it, you folks don’t show up here each Sunday Morning to here me preach.  No one in this area has a better music program than this church.  I am amazed at some of the voices we have in our choirs.  When someone like Jane or Marianne or Sarah gets up to sing, my heart is taken places I seldom visit.  But the wisdom to be received from our music only begins with our talented musicians.  Before we sing our hymns, it would be worth our time to look at the text of those great songs.  This morning you have already sung the words, “Let courage be our friend, let wisdom be our guide, in bold accord come celebrate the journey and praise the Lord.”  Those are marvelous words.  But don’t stop there.  We will conclude our service by singing If Thou but Trust in God to Guide Thee.   This song was penned by Georg Neumark.  As a young man Georg set out to attend the University of Konigsberg but along the way was robbed of all his possessions except his prayer book.  In his darkest hour Georg was unexpectedly offered as a job as a tutor, allowing him to save the money he needed to attend the university.  On receiving the job he opened his prayer book to Psalm 55 and wrote, Sing, pray, and swerve not from God’s ways, but do thine own part faithfully. Trust the promises of grace; so shall they be fulfilled in thee.  God never yet forsook at need, the soul secured by trust indeed.  There is more wisdom in the last verse of this song than any words I have spoken from any pulpit.
Second, how do we approach the biblical text in worship? Obviously that happens in the sermon, but we also begin each of our services with a selection from the Book of Psalms.  Each Sunday you only get a few lines which are used as our call to worship.  I would invite you, starting next week, before the service begins to turn to the Psalm used and read the passage in its entirety.  You will never be disappointed.
Listen to portions of this mornings Psalm. Praise the Lord! I will give praise with my whole heart.  Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.  God is full of honor and majesty and God’s righteousness endures forever.  God is gracious and merciful ever mindful of his covenant.  The works of Gods hands are faithful and just and all God’s precepts are trustworthy.  God has sent redemption to his people.  Holy is God’s name.  Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
These are words of salvation on which the people of God can feast. They sing of God’s justice and mercy.  They reveal a God who bestows wisdom on those who are righteous.  These words are the cornerstone of a community that understands the commandments are not a burden but rather a gift of grace. 
In other words, when we worship, we are not doing do so alone but rather within the body of Christ.  As much as I like my space, I realize that I cannot become fully human by myself.  Humans were created to be interdependent and communal.  Desmond TuTu writes, “My humanity is caught up in your humanity.  It is not. ‘I think therefore I am.’  I am human because, I participate, I share, and I belong to a greater whole.”
Here, in this sacred place, we worship together. 
Here, in this sacred place, we live the Holy Text together.
Here, in this sacred place, we praise God together.
Here, in this sacred place, we are the body of Christ.
Your joy is my joy.  Your song is my song. 
Your pain is my pain. Your ache is my ache.
Your wisdom becomes our wisdom.
Your vision becomes our vision.
Your life becomes our lives.
We are One in the Body of Christ.
In the songs, in the text, in each other,
We have seen the glory of God;
And that can make us wiser than Solomon.
                       Thanks be to God.    Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In the Garden of our own Discontent

Gen.3:1-7; II Sam. 11:26-12:7a

        After some pretty strenuous days of carrying block and sand up mountain paths in the Guatemalan Mountains, our mission group was rewarded a respite along Lake Atitlan.  Sunday morning we took a boat across the lake to a little village where we worshiped with a local congregation.  It is impossible to describe the beauty of Lake Atitlan.  We were more than 6,000 feet above sea level.  The lake is surrounded by ancient volcanoes, many of them exceeding over 11,000 feet.  The Mayans believe that Lake Atitlan is where creation began.  In theological language this would make Lake Atitlan the Garden of Eden.  As I rode in the bow of the boat on our trip to Santiago I could understand why they would make this claim.  It was indeed the most beautiful lake I had ever seen.
        Of course this was not the first time I had been to the Garden of Eden.  My first encounter with the mythical garden was on the corner of US 29 and McKnight Mill Road in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Many of you traveling south into North Carolina have passed the spot to which I am referring.  It looks a lot different now.  There is a walk way over US 29 and the store I remember at the intersection has long since disappeared.   But in 1957 that store not only existed, it was the center piece of our little community.  It was stocked with bread, milk and everything essential including a rack exhibiting my favorite candy bars.
        I was seven at the time and was trying to break in with a local group of guys that roamed that end of McKnight Mill Road.  They were pretty cool.  Each kid had a bike and together they would ride to the end of our universe and back. I wanted to join and I think they wanted me to join but there was an initiation that each new member had to perform.  To become a member of this particular group it was required that I  walk into the store on the corner of US 29 and McKnight Mill Rd., take a bar of candy from the Tree of Knowledge, and slip out without paying for the candy.  I later learned that was called shop lifting.
        I remember the incident as if it were yesterday.  With my new friends waiting outside the store, I ventured in.  I walked over near the magazines and comic books.  I waited until the clerk was busy with a customer and then quietly made my way to the candy counter.  Without hesitation I grabbed a ZERO BAR and put it in my pocket.  I returned to the comics, and waited until another customer entered the store.  Then I slipped out the door, waved at my friends, and hopped on my bike. I showed my friends proof of my bravery, and then headed home.
        Once I got home I headed straight for my room.  I took the treasure from my pocket, slowly peeled the wrapper from the contents and briefly admired my acquisition of caramel covered white chocolate.  I ate the whole thing, merrily dreaming of the wonderful time I was going to have with my new friends.  Totally satisfied, I lay down on my bed.  It was at that moment I heard the voice of God, thinly disguised as my mother.  “Andy, wash up, it is time for dinner.”  Not knowing why, I sat on the bed petrified.  My feet would not move.  I thought if I was really quiet maybe she would go away.  But she didn’t.  “Andy, did you hear me?  It is time for dinner.”  I pulled my pillar over my head, thinking that I could somehow disappear.  But there was no place to hide.  The door swung open.  My mother stepped into my Garden of Eden. For what seemed like an eternity, she looked at me, then she observed the empty wrapper of the Zero Bar, and the demanded, “What have you done wrong?”                
I believe each of us has had a Garden of Eden moment.  It comes the first time we realized we had done something wrong and there was no excuse or circumstances that could hide our guilt.  For King David his revelation came when he heard the words,  “You are the man.”
Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?  The winter winds were turning into April showers bringing a time when warriors planned their conquest. But David was growing old.  He would now have to send younger men into battle.  David gazed out across the field from his palace, longing to be among those in the hunt for new conquest when he spied a young woman bathing.  His mind turned from war to lust as he was captivated by this young woman.  David inquired to find out who the woman was only to discover she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite.  Without hesitation David rationalized that a king could have whatever a king desired.  He marched straight into the convenience store and snatched the Zero Bar without any thought or hesitation.  Soon after the encounter David was informed that Bathsheba was pregnant.
Ever notice how one sin leads to many?  Such was the case with David.  His first plan was to bring Urriah home from the battle hoping the husband would have sex with his wife.  No one would suspect David was the real father.  But Urriah refused to go to his wife  and camped outside the door of his king. 
The second plan called for a more permanent solution.  Urriah was placed at the front of the battle.  When the battle reached its peak, David’s troops withdrew leaving Urriah alone to die.  When the news of the death of her husband reached Bathsheba, she went into mourning.  When the mourning time was complete, David married her.  End of story?  Hardly!
David had cleaned everything up into a nice package.  As King he had the right to as many wives as he desired.  His first wife had been a marriage to appease those who were loyal to Saul.  Michal, Saul’s daughter, never loved David and I suspect the feelings were mutual.  Now the king could have a loving wife and await a future heir unrelated to Saul.  Urriah might have been an inconvenience, but who was going to remember the plight of a Hittite.  No one, except the prophet Nathan.
Nathan had the difficult burden of following the prophet Samuel.  Nathan was the one man who could go to the king and offer counsel that might not be what the king desired to hear.  Speaking the truth, especially to a king, is always dangerous.  So Nathan told his story in a way that reminded the aging King of a time when life was not so complicated.
Once there was a poor family who lived on the edge of a great farm.  The family survived by cultivating the land.  They had one sheep, but the family loved the little lamb.  The pet was considered to be a member of the family.   
One day the owner of the great farm had a guest drop by for dinner.  The landowner’s farm was filled with a variety of crops and flocks.  It would have been nothing for him to take any sheep and have it prepared for the meal.  But instead the landowner sent men to steal the lamb of the poor farmer.  The animal was killed and offered as the main course for dinner.
When David heard the story he was outraged.  He rose to his feet and declared that no one in his kingdom had the right to abuse others.  He demanded the name of the culprit in order that the king might bring him to justice.  Nathan looked at David and responded, “You are the man.”                 
Suddenly David was in his personal Garden of Eden.  The King had everything and had chosen to eat of the fruit that was forbidden.  Once David finally realized the enormity of his actions, David cried out, “I have sinned.”
Psalm 51 is the prayer that David wrote once the magnitude of his sin had been revealed.  Listen to parts of this great poem.
“Have mercy on me according to your steadfast love.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.  I know my sin is ever before me.  You desire truth therefore teach me your wisdom.  Purge me; wash me; create in me a clean heart.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart.  O God forgive me.” 
As a seven year old I quickly learned there were consequences for bad behavior.  As a king, David learned he was not above the will of God.  But our Garden of Eden experience revealed something more than just the repercussions for sinful behavior.  The king and I both experienced the incredible expansion of God’s grace.
In the mythical story of Adam and Eve you might remember the couple was forced to leave the garden and venture out into the world.  But they did not venture alone.  God made garments for them to wear.  God showed them how to till the ground and make a living.  God allowed them to produce children and populate the landscape.  God did not leave them alone.
This is the wonder of God’s grace.  When our appetites overwhelm us or our desire to be like a god paralyzes our knowledge of right and wrong, we might justify any action as being legitimate.  But eventually the voice of Nathan …… or a family member …… or even our inner consciousness rises up and says, “This time you really blew it.”   
The question is will we acknowledge our sin? Will we take responsibility for our actions?  Will we admit our mistakes and willingly suffer the consequences?  That is a huge step and can be a tremendous blow to our ego.  But when we do, the release we feel is as fresh as the breeze I felt on my face as I crossed Lake Atitlan.  Forgiveness comes in the refreshing breath of God saying, “Rise up and know my forgiveness. Rise up and begin your life anew.”  
My friends, this is the good news of God’s grace.