Reflection – Nikki Strandskov
Does anyone else remember the Doubleday Dollar Book Club? In the days before Internet booksellers, it was a way for people who lived far from bookstores to get a constant supply of reading material – in my mother’s case, mainly historical novels. But when you joined, you got four books for your dollar, and two of the ones my parents chose were Bennett Cerf’s Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor and a volume of The Best-Loved Poems of the American People. I dipped into both of these frequently as a child, and parts of the poems stuck with me to this day, so when I looked at today’s Scripture reading, I immediately thought: “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold” – the first lines of Byron’s poem, The Destruction of Sennacherib, which is based on the passages from Isaiah 36 and 37 that we have just heard, and the rest of the chapter, telling of the threat to Jerusalem by Assyria and its miraculous deliverance.
Well, I’ve got a bone to pick with the Narrative Lectionary people. In the first place, I don’t like readings that pull out verses and put bits and pieces together, and this one is worse than most, since it ends by going back 35 chapters. And secondly – although this part is left out of the lectionary, you can read it for yourselves – the miraculous deliverance didn’t come close to happening. As both Assyrian artifacts and history and the book of II Kings attest, the readon Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, didn’t destroy Jerusalem and scatter its people was that King Hezekiah capitulated and agreed to pay tribute to Assyria. (Sennacherib did, in fact, die by the sword a few years later, and it was wielded by his own son.) So for my money, the reading from Chapter 2 would have sufficed, and been a lot easier to pronounce!
And really, it’s plenty to reflect on, all on its own. It’s about 2700 years since those hopeful words were written, and it seems that every time we take two steps forward toward Isaiah’s goal, we take at least one step back. Like many of you, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. I spent a few years in Germany as a child and teenager because my father was stationed there against the threat of Soviet invasion, and I myself served in what was then West Berlin. Yet during that time, a couple of years after Khrushchev’s famous “We will bury you” speech, the Soviet Union gave to the United Nations the sculpture on your bulletin covers, illustrating the prophecy of Isaiah. What rejoicing there was at the fall of the Berlin Wall and later, the dissolution of the Soviet Union – and look where we are now. I fear we are closer to war with Russia than we were during the Cold War.
I don’t know why this is, in terms of underlying causes, but it has made me think more about peace, what it really means, and how we might achieve it. One of the things I like about living in Luck is its sense of peacefulness. Yet outside my little bubble of church and family, there are hungry people, angry people, drug and alcohol problems, and domestic violence. Not so long ago a man was murdered a few blocks away – and the killer was also a victim of the inadequacy of our social and medical services. I think all this breaking of the peace stems from one or another kind of injustice – inequality between rich and poor, inadequate treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, deeply imbedded racism and misogyny in our systems and our culture. Until these are rectified there can be no real peace even in our little community, still less in our cities and the other countries of the world.
Pope Paul VI, fifty years ago, said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. One way we can all show that love in our lives is to work for justice in whatever form we can. Then perhaps Christ’s reign will come on earth, and swords will be beaten into plowshares, munitions factories will make tractors, old military bases can house the homeless, and we shall study war no more.
1 Kings 3:4-28
4 King Solomon went to Gibeon, the principal high place – he used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made me, your servant, king in place of my father David, although I am like 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 me therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the death of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind;… I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”
15 Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants.
16 Later, two women came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while I slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.”
22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.
23 Then the king said, “The one says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’ ” Solomon said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.”
But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—”Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!”
The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.”
Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.”
28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
“What would you wish for if you could ask for anything?”
The Powerball is up to $825 million dollars. I might start there.
It’s a game many of us played as children (wishing, not Powerball). I can picture swirling around with my first-grade girlfriends on the merry-go-round. Jodie sat on the center hub because she got motion sickness and she popped the Question. I suppose we were very wise wishing for fairy godmothers, warm chocolate chip cookies, and longer recesses.
Now that I know better, I would ask for wise rulers. Sadly, that, too, seems like a childish, fairy tale wish.
Usually, in the Narrative lectionary, the pairing of readings for Reformation Sunday has been that of Solomon building the carved, gilded, embellished, magnificent temple – probably because of his prayer acknowledging that God does not dwell in temples made of human hands, no matter how splendid, that even highest heaven cannot contain him, but asking almost sheepishly for God to stay with them.
This year, however, the passage paired with Reformation Sunday is this, about Solomon’s dream in which God says, “Oyvey, enough with sacrifices already! – ask me for what I can give you!” – and Solomon asks for wisdom – for a fair and discerning mind so that he can rule God’s people.
It seems particularly appropriate this year. The candidate ads flooding our TVs and my recycling box show how far from wisdom we’ve fallen. And it’s not just the campaigns. The barrage of ads must make some kind of difference – they must bear some kind of fruit among the populace or they wouldn’t be profitable. But if so, it’s a bitter, sour, foul fruit their negativity produces.
Why is wisdom, or common sense, open minds, humility about our short-sighted self-interest … why is that gift set so far from our current cultural mindset and practice? And is there some way to appeal to it, to wisdom, to come and stay, to dwell among us?
Since I can’t possibly answer that, I will say that we shouldn’t long for Solomon to be our ruler, either. He started well, but by the end fell into the same trap of self-indulgence as his father David before him. Power corrupts.
The Deuteronomic tradition which brings us these history books and the wisdom genre is dualistic, black and white, and judgmental – so perhaps it isn’t what we would ask for. The Deuteronomic authors or compilers who put final form on these biblical books were trying to make sense of the Assyrian and Babylonian disasters that took their people out of Israel forcibly and into captivity. How does one account for that, if you are indeed the chosen people of the Most High? How can you navigate that theologically? Their answer? It had to be somebody’s fault – some human’s fault.
Biblical scholars don’t know who the authors were by name, but they can recognize the motivations, logic and arguments as threads woven through scripture. They were leaders and thinkers – influencers – looking for answers to life’s most challenging questions, and typically, the Dueteronomists blamed the kings for straying from God’s law. If only the leadership would stay true to the word of God, the precepts, the mandates, then God would reward them with peace and prosperity. It was a reward and punishment theology. The scribes and pharisees in Jesus’ time held to the same beliefs. God’s grace and mercy are contingent upon our good behavior. If we don’t hold to the letter of the law, well, it’s a slippery slope out into the utter darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth. God’s judgment is righteous.
Actually, this belief has been true for most of Christianity in various strains and is seen in the prosperity gospel of modern America. If we but return to a Christian nation, then God will bless us richly. That is to assume that we are not already richly blessed, that this was ever a truly Christian nation, and that Christians are a monoculture of like-minded, well-behaved souls. We have the benefit of history and actual, living proof to know those are gaping assumptions. But still, they hang on to the idea.
Martin Luther had an awakening to the great flaw of that thinking and came to see grace, mercy, and forgiveness as the true realm of God’s action, not punishment and judgment and wrath. This insight completely reversed the responsibility and duty of humans to God. We are unable to be holy, we are unable to lift ourselves to deserve God’s love – because we are the creatures. But God knows this and always has. The bible is a record of human activity and God’s constant, creative adaptation to our cunning, God’s forbearance and mercy and continual forgiveness. We always sin, fail, fall away – and God always comes looking for us, gathers us back.
That was the great reformation. The insight that it is God’s nature to love. The best that we can do is to be aware of our shortcomings and failures, own up to them like David did; pray for wisdom and the ability to discern truth, like Solomon did; enact justice and walk humbly with God, not overplaying our hand or trumping up our preeminence among the world’s creatures. To live desiring to know God.
Martin Luther said the Church constantly stood in need of reformation. Every system, every institution, every tradition shares that need. We need to pray for wisdom, clear-eyed, open-minded, humble-of-heart honesty for ourselves in our daily lives, and pray mightily for our leaders. Examples of hubris and the corrupting nature of power are ever before us. But there is another way, another path to follow. It begins with the willingness to listen first, and then to say, “I might have this wrong, but I pray for God and people of good will to guide me as we go forward.”
The church, when it is being a servant of Christ in people’s lives, offers a different model of deliberation, and a different model for living out our values than other institutions in our society.
Here you will hear that to love is to serve. Here you will hear that the last shall be first and the lowest are valued as the greatest. Here you will be called to walk humbly and contribute to the flourishing of all people – even at the expense of personal goals and ambitions. Here is an ordering, an orientation of relationships, a re-ordering of our desires, a reformation that truly offers life, and joy, and hope that does not disappoint.
Somethings got to change. May it begin here and find a voice, and a body, and a willing heart.
There are a few passages that I dread seeing in the rotation of the lectionary. This is one of them. It’s an awful story.
The flagrant abuse of power is nothing new – there are no lessons to be learned in that or in the attempted cover-up. We’ve gotten used to the politics of power and self-protection. It’s amazing that the various editors who put together what we have as sacred texts left this one in. David was their golden boy, the King after God’s own heart. His rule was considered the highpoint of Israel’s self rule. And they have documented his manipulations and the consequences of his lust without blinking.
Bathsheba – the woman – is given no dialog. We aren’t able to determine her wishes, her feelings, her options. Mostly, she is called the wife of Uriah, indicating that it is Uriah who has been wronged. And he certainly was. Bathsheba is little more than an object on the storyboard, moved from place to place to illustrate David’s folly.
In his confessional psalm, the golden king declares, “Against you, Lord, you alone, have I sinned.” Well, really? If David is guilty only to God, then it is Bathsheba who bears the guilt of her husband’s and her newborn’s deaths. For centuries, it has been Bathsheba’s fault for being seen. Her fault because she is beautiful. Modern sensibilities are beginning to change that vision, but just barely.
“You are the man!”, Nathan booms (or whispers) – also without blinking. This phrase has a different connotation in our day, but it’s a clever, chilling sting from the mouth of the prophet. Those of us wishing for better justice than God seems interested in, (or at least better than this author, this era, this embedded patrimony, is interested in) applaud the power of his line. “You are the man. You are the one deserving punnishment, because you had no pity!” Here, finally is a hint of vindication for Bathsheba and for her husband, Uriah, for his stalwart, innocent loyalty to king and country. Nathan confronts David, standing up to one who clearly is willing to kill to silence the truth. But Nathan survives – again, focusing the narrative on David, the king after God’s own heart.
David manages to break all of the ten commandments, I think, most of them in this one story – except he keeps coming back to one… the big one, the first one. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and have no other gods before me.’ He rides the rails with that. David’s ego, his position, his power clearly vie for his affection as gods he idolizes. But, faced with the truth, he’s able to see it. And repent. That is the reason we hear his story with such detail and lazer focus. We are to see it all, know how low he has fallen, how angry, disappointed, disgusted God feels about him, and hear David confess.
How hard is it for you to look someone in the eyes whom you have wronged and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. It was my fault.”
Truthfully, honestly, apologizing, one to one, face to face is excruciating. Confession puts so much at stake, makes one so vulnerable… anything can happen. The fear, of course, is that you will be rejected; that the emotional effort of opening your heart will be of no avail. They will turn and walk away, or lash out, or tell everyone, or…. Emotional, verbal honesty is really difficult.
David apologized to God, begged for forgiveness, lay on his face without eating for the seven days his baby lived in case God would relent and let the child live. Don’t focus on that part, it’s not the baby’s story either. It is all about David, not even God. This is not the way God behaves; it is the way David behaved that lead him to reconcile his behavior with his faith, his trust in God’s steadfast goodness.
This scripture is about the courage needed to look at ourselves and assess the damage, to be accountable and honest. I want David to be this open to Bathsheba, but we can only ask so much of a 3000 year old story.
What can you ask of yourself? Are your values, is your self-image, your behavior reconcilable to the standards you hold for other’s behavior? Do you carry an umbrella around hoping to keep God from seeing you, recognizing you in some part of your life? Would you hold up to storytime with Nathan?
Being honest with ourselves, cutting through the layers of self-preservation and pretense we build up over time is a big, grown-up job. But we can’t find freedom from the inner world that torments us, or spills out onto others, if we refuse the challenge. We all need to do it. The cross formed with fragrant christening oil at baptism, traced with water in remembrance, smudged with sticky ashes across our foreheads once a year reminds us that life is to be lived within the circle of that ritual. Affirming, confirming, assessing, confessing – and receiving, believing the forgiveness and new life offered us… that is the shape, the formation of faith in Christ. Faith grows, changes, deepens, doubts, takes wild leaps based on our honesty and integrity and the attention or intention we give it.
I don’t know about David. He’s kind of a lousy example of one being right with God, but so are Jesus’ disciples, and maybe that’s the point. God’s love, charity, benevolence is real and accessible and life changing for all of us who would be lousy examples. Take courage from that and look within and know that God is already there, waiting for an interesting conversation.
And be of good cheer. You already know the worst and can be confident of the ending.
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a tumblin’ down.
If it had only been that easy, that child-friendly. The biblical book of Joshua is a deeply disturbing read. It’s the story of holy war. It is savage and brutal, a story of violent conquest and destruction of the people who already occupied the land. They are listed there: “The citizens of Jericho who fought against you, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you,’ said the Lord.” This is not an image of God, or of God’s will and working, that we want to claim – although, it is the American narrative, too. It is the story of all colonizing, conquering nations. They act with the conviction that God is for them, with them. Lord, have mercy.
The book of Joshua ends with this chapter. At the end of his life, Joshua summons the people of Israel to obedience to the God who has brought them thus far along the way. The stakes are high: Joshua has been their leader since Moses died. He has led them into the promised land and into the battles that won them the land. Now he is about to die. It’s a time of transition. He prays that transition will not bring forgetfulness. The people are getting comfortable, enjoying the milk and honey, the fruits of orchards and vineyards and olive groves. But in the background of their domestic scene stands the covenant between this small people and the mighty God who demonstrates power both in saving and in destroying. Israel must remember, and commit to their promise. “Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest, our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee; shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our … well, their squatter’s land.” They must remember and say, ‘I do’. And mean it.
I’ve noticed that in wedding ceremonies, puppy love drains out of the couple’s faces when we get to the public, spoken intent to take and keep and cherish for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others as long as they both shall live. Their lips quiver, their eyes take quick flight over family members and friends – noting the various conditions of ‘better and worse’ evident among those smiling encouragement … eyes suddenly cognizant, calculating – in their last moment – the risks involved in covenantal union.
So far, they’ve all gulped, and, trembling, have said, “I do.”
Buying a house causes this kind of trembling, as I recall. I’m guessing retirement does, too. Bringing home your first newborn. Deciding on risky medical treatment or hospice care. There are events in our lives that take on momentous, sobering, life-will-never-be-the-same consequences. There is a strong impulse to turn and run. But something calls us to stay. To say, ‘yes’; to pledge our troth and see it through, to be faithful and trusting, even though there is no guarantee that things will go smoothly or that we will be happy or safe.
I’m betting Joshua felt this. He was trying to convey the danger as well as the promise of a covenant with the Almighty One.
Reading these Old Testament texts are good for us. That’s why I keep dragging you through them. For one thing, Joshua asks a good question. We’ll come back to that.
Another benefit is that they cause us to deal with the dissonance created between the God portrayed in these readings and the cozier, friendlier, more majestic images of God we prefer – those that feature divine love and forbearance and welcome – eagles wings and star-lit mangers. This is the same One God who established the world, and took to the evening breezes to wander in Eden with his earthlings; who invited Abraham out into the desert night to count stars; who provided for Hagar and Ishmael in the desert and created another nation through them; who huffed and puffed on Mt Sinai, but forgave the stiff-necked people and agreed to try again; who, thousands of years later, came to be known in Jesus. All of the various stories and images of God in scripture are facets, human understandings of the one God whose love we still claim.
The God we attempt to worship and serve isn’t known to us, not really, and we must accept the way God is – mysterious, unfathomable, grand and wrathful, judging and just, merciful, steadfast… forever God of all, not only God of us. It’s important, I think, to have a constantly changing image of God set before us so that we don’t worship an idol of our own design and our own limitations. It’s good to be reminded that the God we believe in – that image or concept – is probably true, but not in any way complete. It doesn’t rule out our neighbor’s truth. Walking humbly with God surely must include that realization.
Related to this, the Old Testament readings might lead us to consider the many and various ways we misrepresent God. I obviously don’t know if the ancient Israelite authors are correct in their historical claims or their interpretations of God’s involvement in battles – but we do know from our own nation’s history that we remember ‘facts’ from our vantage point and assign meaning to events based on our narrator’s privilege. We, too, have claimed God’s favor in the conquest of native people who occupied this land before us. We, too, have taken slaves as rightful and righteous property. Manifest Destiny was our version of occupying a land of milk and honey by divinely established right. If the stones were to witness against us, what would they say?
Our on-going racial entanglements, religious intolerances, class struggles, Christian Right extremists – these and so many other examples claim God’s favor of one group over against another. Sometimes we need the distance of scripture in order to see clearly into our own lives.
And so, we come back to Joshua and his implied question.
“Choose this day whom you shall serve.” This is an invocation we would do well to consider.
To serve God is to worship, discern, obey, trust. Serving the gods of the Canaanites meant sacrificing babies, virgins, I don’t know what else. There may or may not be records – cave drawings, cuniform tablets – of how the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites served their gods, but there are always rules, rituals that must be obeyed to ensure successful harvests, plentiful rain, numerous children, and victory over your enemies.
How do we, how do you serve God?
Are there rules and rituals that must be followed?
Who is in charge of that list?
What end result you are expecting for your faithfulness? Success? Well-being? Assurance? Eternity?
What are the risks in serving God or in walking away?
I imagine that things are going through your minds. A checklist might be comforting – but misleading.
I don’t believe there are simple answers to difficult questions. The Bible argues both sides of most issues. God changes his and her mind. The gospel writers depict Jesus in different ways and record him saying opposite things, at times. The apostle Paul wrote that he tried to be all things to all people because the context changed and the context matters.
The life of faith is nuanced. Subtle.
The life of faith is nuanced and subtle. Modern American Christianity tends to be neither of these things.
Above all, I think, the life of faith needs to be fluid. Our beliefs change with maturity, they change as we encounter obstacles or overcome difficulty, when we experience or live with tragedy. Faith changes when we are transformed by joy or love. God becomes different, come to us differently. That’s spiritual growth. It’s also true that our spiritual life may shrivel up for a period of time.
But if you stay engaged, if you keep considering the God you serve in all of these various times and situations, I believe, I hope, you will come to be grateful that God is not a flat character with simple answers and clear rules or proofs – or a Santa Claus character who checks his list twice to see if you’ve been naughty or nice. I hope that seeking, listening, remembering, wondering is a richer, more life-giving experience than being told.
Joshua took a large stone, and set it up under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. I love that detail – that the sanctuary of the Lord is under an oak tree.
“This stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoken to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.”
That stone in the sanctuary of the Lord has had a lot to say as the years have rolled on. The people of God… well, it’s a long story and we can see patterns repeat themselves. It would be a satisfying legend if this were to be the stone rolled away from Jesus tomb. The stone of witness against us, rolled out of the way. And maybe it was.
“Whom will you serve?” Joshua asks. That’s your homework. We serve lots of idols in our daily lives. Do they fulfill you? Do they challenge you? Can they transform you? Time spent honestly considering Joshua’s question for yourself, reviewing your life in God’s litany of mercy, will be time well spent. I promise.
“Choose this day whom you shall serve.”