“The Preposterous Posthumous”
September 5, 2021
1 Kings 3, Selections
I don’t know if you are familiar with what is called a Lectionary. A lectionary is a suggested schedule of Biblical readings to order worship in the Church. The point of a lectionary is to help the Church survey the key stories of scripture over the course of three years.
Personally, my relationship with the lectionary is complicated. I love its intention to educate us about Scripture. I have mixed feelings about the parts of the Bible it chooses to leave out. When it comes to our reading for today about King Solomon, let’s just say that the lectionary can be awfully selective.
I’m going to invite you to open the pew Bible to 1 Kings, chapter 3 and I want you to keep a finger in that page and not close it after the reading is finished…I’ll make a few references to the text and it might be helpful to have it on hand.
Prayer for Illumination
God, let the reading of this Word today hold up a mirror for each of us – a mirror in which we might see our own selves reflected – flawed but favored, imperfect but deeply, deeply loved. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who came to save the lost, we pray. Amen.
Scripture 1 Kings 3:1-15
1 Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David.
2 The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD.
3 Solomon loved the LORD; Only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.
4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there. Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.
5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”
6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness.
7 And now, 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. 8 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.
9 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?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word.
Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14 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.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
In a chapter entitled “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus,” Christian author Brian McLaren wrote about the moment in his under-graduate education when he realized that history is not as tidy as he had been led to believe.
What we often know about Christopher Columbus could be reduced to the rhyme “Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue in Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two.”
McLaren goes on to describe how much it rocked his world to discover that when Columbus’ crew landed in present day Haiti and Dominican Republic, these European explorers set in motion a chain of events that brutally exterminated the native Taino population and then replaced them with imported slaves from Africa.
“Why wasn’t I told this sooner?” he asked.
“Why is it that history has been packaged in such neat and tidy stories, as if – in the words of Jack Nicholson – I can’t handle the truth.”
(“A Few Good Men,” and that’s your first of several film references in this sermon)
McLaren is poking around at what I’ll call the preposterous posthumous – the idea that given enough time and distance (and selective memory) anybody can come out smelling like roses. McLaren discovered that to be true for Christopher Columbus, and I would argue it is true for King Solomon as well.
If you’ve ever heard of King Solomon – there’s probably one quality you associate with him above any other – Wisdom. “The wisdom of Solomon,” we say, like an aphorism. There’s a reason we remember Solomon for his wisdom – it’s because that is often the only story we ever hear about Solomon.
In an argument over child custody, Solomon flexes that God-given wisdom, and suggests cutting the baby in two. He deduces that the woman who backs down and tells the King to give the baby to the other woman is in fact the real mother. Only the child’s real mother would have such compassion. That’s the story most people remember about Solomon’s wisdom.
You’re probably less familiar with how Solomon became King in the first place. Anybody ever seen The Godfather? Do you remember the coordinated assassinations at the conclusion that solidified Michael Corleone as the new Godfather. I’m pretty sure Mario Puzo got the idea from 1 Kings chapter 2.
Turn back and look for yourself. Chapter 2, verse 12 says “Solomon sat on the throne of his father David and his kingdom was firmly established.” Same chapter, but verse 46 uses a similar phrase: “…so the kingdom was firmly established in the hand of Solomon.”
What transpires between those two bookends is a rather bloody coronation. Solomon sends his own Luca Brasi type hit men to eliminate any and all political threats, including his own elder brother. It’s messy and awful and we do ourselves no favors pretending otherwise. Solomon is a complicated character.
Flip back to chapter 3 where we started today, we hear Solomon has married the daughter of Pharaoh. Now, even if Moses looks like Charlton Heston in your mind, I don’t have to tell you that Pharaoh is a loaded figure for the Hebrews. A marriage alliance with your ancient enemy does not bode well. What’s more, though, is that Solomon’s Egyptian bride would lead him to idol worship.
Our reading today speaks of Solomon sacrificing at the High Places. The High Places were shrines devoted to other gods. This is a gigantic No-No according to the Ten Commandments. And when the King worships idols, the people are bound to follow suit. That they are called the High Places makes my unusual brain go to a certain anti-drug advertisement from the 1980s.
Picture it with me: Solomon walks into a messy bedroom…a teenage Israelite takes his headphones off. Solomon holds up a lamb devoted to Osiris and says:
“I found this in your closet…where did you learn to worship other gods…who showed you how to do this stuff…ANSWER ME!”
And that Israelite bursts out:
“FROM YOU ALL RIGHT, I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU!”
Anybody remember that commercial? So yes, the King had an idolatry problem, and we do ourselves no favors pretending otherwise. Solomon is a complicated character.
And yet, in spite of all of these missteps, God comes to Solomon right there at the main High Place at Gibeon, right at the scene of his deepest sin – and instead of punishing Solomon or asking for sacrifices from Solomon, God instead offers to grant him any wish he desires.
It’s difficult for me to read this part and not imagine a Robin Williams-voiced blue Genie zipping around, saying things like “Wake Up and Smell the Hummus” or “PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS!!!…itty-bitty living space.”
Now with such an open-ended offer from God – to give him anything he wants – this is when we might really test Solomon’s character. What is he going to ask for?
In a surprising move – Solomon does not ask for riches or for long life but instead he asks for what this translation calls “a discerning mind.” Solomon asked for wisdom.
The Hebrew is actually a lev shome’a – more literally “a listening heart.” Solomon asks for a listening heart. You can’t help but wonder if this listening heart is somehow a contrast to the notoriously hard heart of Israel’s favorite villain – Pharaoh.
One might even hope that perhaps this is a conversion story – sure Solomon has a spotty past, but maybe he can be the Comeback Kid here and make good in the end.
I wish that it was that kind of story. Unfortunately, were you to read ahead into chapter 5, verse 13, Solomon repeats the mistakes of that hard-hearted Pharaoh – and to enable his lavish capital campaigns, he practically enslaves his own people to build equally grand – even if less triangular – buildings.
You may be asking yourself, “Preacher, why are you taking us on a tour of King Solomon’s Hall of Shame? What purpose does it serve to recast his character in such unflattering light? Tell me this isn’t some Trojan Horse for reassessing American history like the 1619 Project. Tell me you’re not sneaking in some condemnation of North Carolina House Bill 324 are you? The one where the legislature seeks to ban any discussion of critical race theory concepts in our public schools.
I don’t want to talk about any of that stuff.
I want to talk about something that is far more uncomfortable.
The lectionary carefully picks the verses that show you Solomon’s good side. It carefully snips away any hint that maybe the man was more complicated – that he was both faithful and deeply flawed.
I want to ask “Why?” Why does the lectionary avoid his more messy moments?
And why do we do the same exact thing? Why do we feel compelled to sweep our own mistakes under the rug? Why do we conceal our own messiness under a thin veneer of “Everything is perfect” and “I’m fine’s.”
Because if the lectionary can’t be honest with us about Solomon, what hope do I have of being honest with you, or even with myself. What hope do any of us have?
Brene Brown is probably a household name by now. She made a splash a number of years ago through her research on what makes people feel connected to one another.
After countless interviews, she determined that those who feel alienated from others had one thing in common – a pervasive sense of shame; that there is something about me that, if people could know it or see it, that I would be unlovable.
The common denominator among those who DO feel a sense of belonging was a particular courage to embrace vulnerability. Dr. Brown reminds us that the word Courage comes from the Latin root Cur – Heart. This group of people were able to tell their story with their whole heart…their whole listening heart – lev shome’a – exactly the kind of heart that Solomon asks from God.
These people didn’t edit their story. They didn’t trim away the shameful parts. They didn’t hit back space until it felt safe again. They told it all. These were the people who believed that what made them vulnerable is precisely what made them beautiful. These were the people who believed that, in spite of their messiness, they were still worthy of love.
I don’t know about you, but that kind of personal vulnerability scares me far more than any reassessment of Christopher Columbus or any reckoning with our own history.
The Christian faith is filled with so many things that are hard to swallow?
I mean, Easter. Jesus raised from the dead – c’mon. The Holy Spirit? A mysterious power that flows in and through us. There’s an awful lot about this faith that sounds far-fetched.
But in my humble opinion, none are harder to swallow than this:
You are worthy of love…God’s love, the love of somebody else.
And it doesn’t matter what you’ve done or who you’ve been.
It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you’ve made or even how much a mess you are right now.
None are harder to accept than the truth we put on every single Baptism banner: “I have called you by name. You are mine….Because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you.”
Show me the person who hears that and believes that with their whole heart listening…
May you be one of those.
May we all.