What Would You Ask For – July 30, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017

1 Kings 3:5-12; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

Would would you ask for?

Perhaps a charismatic blue genie, just released from the prison of his lamp, stands in front of you, eager to fulfill the first of your three wishes. Or perhaps God, the Almighty Creator of everything, appears to you in a dream and says, “Ask what I should give you.” Let’s put aside any doubts we might have about the likelihood of such a scenario and simply consider the question: What would you ask for?

Would you ask for money? It sounds a little crass, but we all need money; none of us would survive without it, and most of us rarely feel satisfied with what we have. How much would be enough, though? When would you be satisfied? One thousand? Ten thousand? A million? A billion?

Maybe your answer wouldn’t be money; maybe your answer would be power. Maybe you want to call the shots and hold the strings, to know what it’s like to change someone else’s life with the flick of a wrist. It’s the rush that you’re after, the grand apparatus that does your bidding, the way entire groups of people can hang on every word you say.

Or maybe it’s fame that you want—the YouTube views, the Instagram followers, the Wikipedia page. You don’t have to control others, but it would be great if they knew who you were. You yearn for mobs of fans swarming around you as you make your way down the street, traffic stopping just so drivers can steal a glance.

Or perhaps your desires are less grandiose. Perhaps all you would ask for is a long, pleasant-enough life without too many challenges or interruptions: a job you enjoy, a partner you love, children you’re proud of, vacations every summer, laughter, fun and friendship. It’s not an unreasonable request—it shouldn’t be too difficult to provide—and it’s an outcome you’d be OK with.

Or maybe you’re a really good person. Maybe your dreams are entirely altruistic and you can’t bear the thought of wasting an opportunity to wish for anything in the world on yourself. Maybe instead you would ask only for things that would benefit others: a kidney transplant for your friend, a loving spouse for your son, a college education for your niece. Or on a larger scale, you’d ask for a cure to cancer or an end to bullying or world peace.

Money, power, fame, a comfortable life, the defeat of illness, peace in the world—none of these things are bad. Some are better than others, but asking for any of them is understandable and profoundly human. People have sought out these things for centuries and millennia and their searches have shaped the contours of history. No one should be blamed for making such common requests.

Solomon, however, asks for none of these things. He specifically eschews wealth, long life and settling scores with his enemies, and asks God instead for “an understanding mind…able to discern between good and evil.” In the moment of truth, Solomon does not ask for his own gain or for God to descend and solve the problems of the universe through instantaneous magic. Solomon instead asks for the skill to do what is right on his own.

Unfortunately, Solomon’s brief demonstration of virtue in a dream does not inoculate him from all future inclinations toward misbehavior. Over several chapters of the first book of Kings, Solomon orders his political enemies and family members killed, amasses huge quantities of gold, enslaves workers in order to build a lavish temple, and marries seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines. The humble servant of God who asks solely for wisdom quickly acquires a taste for violence and excess and spirals out of control. Solomon’s excess and violence are so pronounced that one could reasonably assume that the account of his dream in 1 Kings is less an accurate description of Solomon’s experience and more a shameless piece of propaganda that aims to refute the horrific, all-too-real ways in which he actually conducted himself.

Whatever the eventual flaws of its protagonist, though, Solomon’s dream hints effectively at what it means to live a holy and meaningful life. God, it tells us, is skeptical of flashy ambition and naked self-interest, of sudden solutions and easy answers; God favors the slow, methodical and difficult work of discovering time and time again how do to the right thing in a confusing and complicated world. The kingdom of heaven is not a prize to be won or a goal to be achieved; it is a seed that grows for many years; it is the yeast that gets kneaded in gradually and deliberately; it is the treasure, hidden away for the persistent to find; it is the net, gathering everyone in. The kingdom of heaven has its rewards, but it is no trophy to display or weapon to wield or luxury that comforts. It is subtle, delicate and peculiar—only grasped at indirectly, and requiring care, work and risk.

So what will you ask for? Long life and riches? Power and fame? Or an understanding mind and the kingdom of heaven? If you want to give God your answer, you need not wait for God to appear to you in a dream. You can simply show God your answer in how you live your life.

 

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