Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins, Associate for Member Incorporation
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 2, 2013
May what is spoken and what is heard be spoken and heard in the name of God; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
I love to read, and so two week-ends ago, I picked up a novel by one of my favorite authors and read it over the course of the two days. Imagine my surprise as I turned the last page, anticipating the conclusion only to discover a cliff-hanger; no resolution! I flipped pages, went back to the book jacket, examined the fly-leaf only to discover I was reading the 2nd book of a trilogy. It feels a bit like that this morning, especially with the passage from 1 Kings, as we come into the middle of a long story. So, I have 4 recommendations for your summer reading list to help you fill in the gaps. These books have it all; love, rivalry, sex, war, adultery, murder, marriage, birth, death, the rise of its characters, and the fall of its characters. Trust me, you could do far worse than to download 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings to your Kindles and head for the beach!
These are the books that give us those fascinating and colorful histories of the boy David, war with the Philistines and the slaying of Goliath, David’s ascent to Kingship, Saul’s fall from the throne, David’s breaking of at least 5 of the 10 given to Moses, the birth of Solomon to he and Bathsheba, Solomon’s wisdom, his wealth, his multiple marriages, and even more concubines, the building of the Temple, and as we hear today, the blessing of that temple upon its completion. These books tell the stories of complex – and quite imperfect characters – those who are examples of God’s chosen ones. And you, no doubt, have been comforted – as have I – by other sermons on other days that point out that if God can unabashedly love one such as David, and continue to keep covenant with him and his offspring, Solomon, well then, maybe – just maybe, it is possible for God to love you and me, too.
Now don’t be fooled by this seemingly rather tame passage we just heard – a small portion of Solomon’s prayer of dedication. Today – as is so often the case in biblical narrative, we hear stories from those ancient days, and stories from Jesus’ day, that illuminate even further, deeper truths for our day. What both of these passages reveal is not simply God’s embrace of His chosen Israel. What each reveal is the deeper truth that God’s embrace extends far more broadly … to those we might consider the other. The “foreigner” for Solomon and Solomon’s people; the Centurion – a gentile; a non-Jew, an “other” for Jesus and Jesus’ followers.
So, some context for each of these tales … and just a thought or two for this too warm, early summer’s day.
The completion of the Temple – David’s unrealized dream that comes to fruition through Solomon – brings Israel to a pinnacle in its life. Solomon has led Israel in a time of obedience to Torah, to the Law. The dedication of the temple and this prayer Solomon invokes is timed to coincide with the Festival of Booths and with Jubilee; that moment when every seven years, the people reaffirm their loyalty to God and their Covenant with God, forgive debts, and mete out justice. There is prosperity and peace. Spoiler alert: it won’t last, of course – but you’ll need to follow my summer reading recommendations to find out how Solomon’s head gets a bit too big and the destruction that follows.
For now, though, Israel has hit a peak. And the major thrust of Solomon’s petition, in the skipped verses, is to acknowledge the magnitude of YHWH, to offer thanks for God’s faithfulness in keeping covenant with David and subsequent generations – even though they have not always kept their end of the Law — and to implore YHWH to continue in relationship by listening and responding to the prayers that would be made in and from the temple from that day forward.
There is nothing particularly unusual about this part of Solomon’s prayer. It is a bit unusual that it is made by the King, himself, in front of the assembled people rather than by one of Aaron’s descendants, the Levitical priests. But, what is even more unusual and striking is that which follows. Solomon implores YHWH to listen and respond to prayers that come toward the temple from the foreigners who will undoubtedly arrive, having heard about YHWH’s greatness.
Why is this so surprising, so unusual, so striking? Well, while Israel may have hit its apex, it is also true that they had not lost their memories along the way; nor had those who followed and would read this narrative. In spite of the prosperity they enjoyed at the time, they also had not forgotten the real threat that strangers did and could bring. These Israelites had lived their whole lives in the presence of different nations, different cultures. Descendants of Canaanites and Philistines – even Hittites – each with their own languages, rituals, beliefs — formed large portions of the population in the region and these cultures clashed mightily with Israel’s. There is little reason for these Judeans to look kindly either at the local foreigners with whom they lived nor newly arriving people with their dramatically different dress and accents.
But here is Solomon, doing just that. His words convey a dramatic sense of welcome and hospitality to those who are non-Jews; to foreigners; to those unknown. In effect, the message is that this newly completed temple in Jerusalem is to be an open place of worship for all the people, including, and perhaps especially foreigners whose prayers would be directed not from but rather, toward the temple. This call to openness announces the universality of YHWH’s covenant and love. Thus, in Solomon’s dedication prayer, Israel would indeed fulfill its call to be that light to all nations, not privileged only unto themselves or their own.
Similarly, the universality of God’s covenant and love is evident in Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s slave, a story that appears in two other Gospels in some variation. In Matthew’s rendition, the Centurion and Jesus interact directly with each other. In Luke’s, however, notice that the Centurion and Jesus never even meet. Two emissaries come instead; first a group of Jewish elders who appeal to Jesus to heal the Centurion’s slave based on his character; on a sense of his worthiness. Look at how much he cares about a mere servant, a slave, they say. Look at how well he has treated us, the Jewish people; even helping us to build our temple. Don’t think of him as a Gentile, the elders say, because according to the Law he would then be outside the scope of Jesus’ blessing which is reserved only for Israel. In effect, they ask Jesus to make an exception; to see the Centurion as worthy, despite his being foreign.
By contrast the second group of emissaries – the Centurion’s friends, and presumably also gentiles — deliver a far different message. Unlike the Jewish elders, the Centurion’s friends do not want nor ask that Jesus make an exception based on the man’s worthiness. Indeed, it is his very humility and sense of unworthiness that prevented him from coming in person in the first place. What he does offer through the message his friends bring is much more powerful. This foreigner – whom others might see even as enemy – has a clear grasp on authority and who and what Jesus is. He recognizes unequivocally that Jesus shares in God’s authority over even death. I am not worthy to have you under my roof. But I do know that your very Word is God’s power and authority at work.
The Centurion lives his own reality within the hierarchical authority of the military – where he obeys the word – the commands — of those over him, and where he commands by word those under him. And that allows him to see and know the power and authority of God through Jesus. “Worthiness” then comes from faith; not his good works nor his good character. These things are admirable, but they do not make him – or us – worthy of God’s grace and blessing. This is something we rightfully expect the Jewish elders and people of Israel to understand – as God’s chosen ones. Instead the revelation comes through this foreigner, the one we can be most tempted to ignore or disregard.
Solomon’s dedication of the Temple and the story of Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s slave then are yet other examples – among many, many examples revealed in sacred story — that our God is one who continually crosses boundaries, restores all people to life, honors all diversity and is fundamentally inclusive.
Communities – whether social clubs, or neighborhoods; workplaces or homes, towns or countries; secular orders or houses of faith – have choices to make each day. Many of those choices are found in the roots of hospitality; in whom we will welcome, with whom we will share, to whom we will listen. St. Paul’s has been blessed and has been a blessing to those of us here because at some point in its story, it chose to follow the example of Solomon and Jesus by welcoming the foreigner and opening our doors to diverse opinions and backgrounds. Each one of us has been that new and “other” being at one time or another when we walked up the steps and through those doors for the first time; whether we did so fifty years ago or five minutes ago. And Jesus has given each one of us the authority to extend that same recognition and hospitality to another.
So, may we continue to live our lives as people of radical welcome because without it we are in danger of entering into a kind of exclusivism in our relationship to God, something I believe is not pleasing to God. May St. Paul’s continue to be a temple open to all because it is in our engagement with those who may be different or new that we experience most fully God’s amazing mercy in our own lives and we just may fulfill our promise to be a light to all.
May what has been spoken and what has been heard be held in the name of God; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.