A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
October 28, 2018 Reformation Sunday
1 Kings 3
I had another sermon written for today. And then yesterday happened. This sermon is not as nuanced as I would like it to be, but I am grateful for the ability to gather together, with people I love, and consider national events together. Thank you for being a community that is willing to engage the pain of the world, as we seek to also engage in the healing of the world.
Yesterday was the third violent hate crime this week in our nation.
The first happened when a white man tried to get into a black church in Louisville, but the doors were locked, so he went to a grocery store and shot and killed 2 black people. The second was when a man from Florida mailed multiple pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and other critics of President Trump.
And then yesterday, a white man killed multiple people yesterday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The synagogue is a 6 minute walk from where Mr Rogers lived.
We’ve now had a mass shooting in Mr Rogers actual neighborhood.
This synagogue is a place of welcome and support for people who are new refugees in our country. The man who brought violence into a house of God said on social media that he did so because they took in refugees and he wanted to kill refugees before they killed him.
And in response to those events, we have a story of Solomon, King David’s son with Bathsheba. In this story today, to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom, we hear how Solomon judged between two prostitutes, both claiming to be the mother of a child, saying to bring a sword and cut the child in half.
The reason the story works, of course, is because we don’t really think Solomon wanted the baby to be cut in half. We understand that he was trying to prompt a response from the true mother of the child, the one who loved the child, to keep the baby alive.
We don’t hear this biblical story and think, “Yes, by all means, I should start cutting babies in half with swords to show how wise I am, to illustrate how well I do what my president Solomon has instructed me to do.”
We know Solomon didn’t want to incite a rash of people with swords cutting babies in half.
And yet, in light of our news, it appears to be what is happening today. People who hear our elected leaders telling us to fear refugees, or people of color, or “globalists” (which is code word for speaking against Jewish people. Here’s a link with more information), are violently acting out on the fear that is being thrown their way.
This is partly, but not entirely, at the feet of President Trump and other leaders who use such rhetoric. Yesterday’s shooter is so gripped by white nationalism and anti-semitism, that he was opposed to President Trump and he complained President Trump was ‘under control of the Jews’. He found a place for his hate in online groups, spewing violent ideologies. That hatred met up with the news of the president deploying the military to the border as our response to a humanitarian crisis of men, women, and children walking a thousand miles in the heat to escape the violence of their countries. Fear lit a match in him.
Add to the incendiary mix the easy access to weapons, lack of access to healthcare and mental healthcare, lack of hope for the future, and we realize the “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” playground chant is nonsense.
Words that are weaponized by fear, and selfish interest do hurt. Words that divide and cause us not to care about each other, take root n the minds of people who are disconnected from communities of care and support.
The rhetoric being used by leaders in our country about refugees, about political opponents, about people who we’re told are “other”, is feeding the fear and encouraging violent action.
Proposed policies that would erase protections for people who are transgender are dangerous words that could endanger people we love. Government policies that codify dangerous rhetoric have a different level of threat and harm.
And the rhetoric used against President Trump, when it is personal insult, or devalues his humanity may also lead to violence.
There is no wisdom or understanding in fear and violence.
And it is time for us to be very clear that any rhetoric and language that demeans categories of people, labeling them as evil, or the enemy, or a threat must be denounced. While the man who killed the people yesterday is the one who should go to jail for his actions, this individual did not act in isolation. When people act on the President’s words, we should not be surprised. And so we should carefully mark our own words too.
There has been a 57% increase in antisemitic “incidents in 2017 over the previous year. That included everything from bomb threats and assaults to vandalism, desecration of cemeteries and the flooding of college campuses with anti-Semitic posters and graffiti.
It has been just 14 months since white supremacists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue marched through the University of Virginia campus chanting, “Our blood, our soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” They were met not with an unconditional rebuke by Trump but a claim by him that there were “very fine people on both sides.” On the far right, the president’s words were taken as an endorsement of their behavior and their ideas and encouragement to pursue them.”
Our language matters.
We may wish we could just support someone’s economic policies, or tax plans, or social agenda, or whatever plank of their platform it is that we like, and ignore the joking about sexual assault, and the chants of “lock her up”, and the applauding of violence against journalists and protestors. But if we are silent when leaders “joke” about violence, it appears to the world that we support them.
It isn’t enough to say, “he doesn’t mean it”, because too many people are acting violently now in response to the idea that he does mean it. If Solomon were here today, I would recommend he find another way to show his wisdom, rather than suggest the baby and sword scenario.
Christians have long struggled to figure out how to show support for leaders we like, while standing strongly to repudiate the things they say and do that don’t measure up to our ideals.
As we talked about David last week, he was both God’s beloved king, and he was a man who did terrible things. Wisdom is in claiming the good in each other, while not ignoring the way we sin.
Today, we mark Reformation Sunday, the anniversary of when Martin Luther shared his 95 complaints with church leaders in Wittenburg. Martin Luther and John Calvin left us with brilliant theological writings, and hymns, and understandings of what it means to be church. AND they were also horribly anti-semitic.
We repudiate the anti-semitism in our own Christian tradition. We repent of the way our faith has been used as a weapon against our Jewish siblings. And we commit to stand with them, in solidarity against such violence.
Listen to these words from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, from the Union of Reformed Judaism:
“This time the Jewish community was targeted, in what may be the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history. Other times it has been African-Americans. Or Sikhs. Or Muslims. Or members of the LGBTQ community. Or too many others. What we know is this: the fabric holding our nation together is fraying. It is our task to ensure that it does not come apart. We mourn as one people along with all people of conscience.”
As the fabric of our nation frays, it is our task to ensure it does not come apart.
God, give us wisdom.
Solomon asks of God, ’O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’
How do we get that wisdom that, like Solomon, we so desperately need?
We can attend to what scripture says about wisdom. In Proverbs, a book attributed to Solomon, wisdom is personified as a woman.
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’ (Prov 9:1-6)
I’m struck by what Wisdom does in this passage. She does a lot of work. You only need to hew seven pillars to hold up a roof if you’re going to have a big house. Wisdom prepares her house for a big crowd. She cooks a big feast, preparing food for everyone who needs to come to the feast. And she spares no expense to make sure people know about the feast, sending her servant girls to gather people in and going out herself to call from the highest places in town. Her welcome is expansive and inclusive. She uses what she has to make sure that other people are cared for. “You who are simple, turn in here. Come and eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”
On a practical level, wisdom is in the business of bringing other people up to a better starting place—feeding them—both literally and figuratively—so they are equipped to walk in the way of insight.
Because when your basic needs aren’t being met, when you are hungry, or when you aren’t physically safe, or when you are in real pain or desperate circumstances—it is hard to make wise choices in those moments.
Wisdom seeks to offer help to those who need it so they can walk in the ways of wisdom. She doesn’t ask if they deserve it, or are worthy of it. She doesn’t really even seem to worry about whether or not they are seeking wisdom. She knows the way to build a better community is to put people in a position where they are better equipped to make good decisions for themselves.
There’s blessing in it for her too. If you live in a stronger community where more people are able to live by wisdom and good choices, then your life is going to be better too.
If building a better world for only yourself is the goal, you won’t find Wisdom there. She’s serving dinner to everyone else at her place. Solomon didn’t ask for wisdom for himself either. He didn’t want it so he could be the wisest guy in town. He asked for wisdom so he could give good counsel to God’s people. That was the answer that made God glad.
When Solomon woke up from the dream when God asked him to make a request, did you notice Solomon’s first act?
He “provided a feast for all his servants.”
Wisdom directs itself, primarily, toward others. What would the world be like if the blessing of other people were our primary motivation?
Our world is in need of wisdom. Can we live lives of generous wisdom as a counter to the diet of fear and violence we see in the world? What if we could, instead, create neighborhoods of wisdom?
The problems of the world seem immense to me right now. If the fabric of our nation is fraying, how do we stitch it back together, repairing the tears, strengthening the seams?
Mother Theresa is quoted as saying “there are no great things, only small things with great love”. And so I think about Trunk or Treat last night. I confess, I was not in the mood to put on a costume and come hand out candy in the church parking lot. But I knew we needed people to be there, so I went.
And I’m so glad I did. Seeing the wide eyes of little kids as they looked at our costumes re-knit my connection to wonder and joy. Looking at the kids in their cute costumes re-knit my connection to playfulness and creativity. Being with you, having time to visit with no big agenda or “work” to do re-knit my connection to friendship and our connectedness.
It wasn’t a summit on hate crimes. It wasn’t a big political statement. It was gathering on a lovely fall evening, with people I love, offering safe and fun space to the community. Watching Bret Gertje eat his very first s’more. It didn’t solve all of our problems. But it helped mend my fraying heart. Perhaps there is wisdom in small acts of great love.
What kind of a world might we yet create if wisdom were something we directed beyond ourselves and toward the world? Let us knit the world back together with each act of love, and acceptance, and kindness, and wisdom.
Let us dream, pray, and work this into being together. Amen.