Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Surviving the Rites of Succession

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

It may be with some relief that we hear today that David has gone to sleep with his ancestors. It has been a long summer hearing his royal saga. And no wonder: he ruled Israel for forty years. That’s a lot of material. Today we’re reminded that David passed the baton—or the crown—to his son Solomon, and thus was born a dynasty.

That may be a more practical model of governance than electing a president every four years. On the down side, dynastic rule does tend to entrench the bad ideas and mistakes of the past; but even in a democracy those seem to have a long shelf life. And even in a democracy we occasionally get dynasties, however short-lived.

But at the rate of David’s tenure, his dynasty would be a long one. And sure enough, Solomon also ruled Israel forty years. His reputation vies with that of his father. It was Solomon who built the great temple in Jerusalem that David wanted to build for God. Among Solomon’s wives was the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, which gave commerce a boost and made the good times roll. Solomon is celebrated for his wisdom and his wealth. Jesus used his name as a benchmark when he urged us to recognize God’s superabundant blessings in life, calling us to admire the lilies of the field, which Solomon in all his glory could not out-dress—a famous sermon which makes the point that we should choose gratitude as an antidote to anxiety.

Solomon’s prayer to God, early in his reign, is strong in gratitude for all that God had done to secure the reign of his father David. Solomon saw this as God’s approval of David’s faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart towards God. Huh? Wait, there’s more: Offering Solomon access to that same covenant mutuality, God says to him, “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

Now, hold it. Hear the umpire’s whistle on that play. Is this the same David, now being saluted by God, the same David who went way beyond coveting his neighbor’s wife, stealing the lovely Bathsheba, eliminating Bathsheba’s husband by the dirtiest of deeds?

Yes, but when you’re King you get to tell the story, and, Bathsheba being Solomon’s mother, he puts the best of faces on his royal history and hers, the ends justifying the means.

And yes, there is one more aspect for which Solomon is remembered: his wisdom, his wealth, and his women. So many wives we lose count. And through them, Solomon was drawn to dabble in the religious practices of their native cultures. While this put the King at odds with the orthodox, the criticism in today’s reading represents a soft landing: “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.” Lesser mortals would have been drummed out of Israel for that offense, but again, the King gets to tell his own story… and, after all, he kept the economy brisk, those forty years.

What endeared Solomon to his own and subsequent generations appears to have been his humility before God. Again, from his inaugural prayer: I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. I don’t know everything and I’m not going to pretend I do. 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. I don’t know how to do this without you. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; I am not always going to know which is which. And who can govern this your great people, without your guidance?”

Humility, understanding, ethical discernment… doesn’t that sound like a winning package in a head of state? When you hear these signs from a candidate this fall, vote for that person!

And read the whole story in the First Book of Kings. This royal succession was not as smooth as we might imagine. Solomon’s older step-brother wanted to be King, even declared himself enthroned moments before Solomon’s backers gave him the title. You’ll find that Solomon could be ruthless, not above having his step-brother and his father’s chief general executed in order to secure his throne. While we expect there to be blood along the campaign trail, in our day it’s metaphorical; in Solomon’s day, it was actual.

Notice the blood in our Gospel today. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. ..”

I remember the deep offense felt by a parishioner, hearing these verses. I remember telling her, Yes, it’s meant to offend us, to catch our attention and wrestle with its meaning. But the King gets to tell his own story, and sometimes it’s not pretty.

And what is it Jesus is talking about here? Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on the altar, we heard today. Now, there’s blood. Jesus spoke to a first-century culture that still believed God required and delighted in the blood sacrifice of animals, though by the time the Gospel-writer John put these words on parchment, the temple had been shut down, obliterated by the Roman emperor’s army as the final blow to the Jewish movement to free Israel. Ceremonial cultic blood sacrifice was a thing of the past by John’s time. By then, for Jews and Christians alike, worship was centered in homes around kitchen tables and in upper rooms for fellowship among neighboring households.

For Jews and Christians, worship was intimately related to mealtimes. The defining ceremony for Christians melded the Jewish Passover supper with all that Jesus did with that liturgy to convey the great and steadfast love of God in the present moment—not just in one historical moment, but now.

But he isn’t describing here the sacramental act of eating the bread and drinking the wine of the eucharist. He digs deeper, into the heart of what that last supper means. His flesh and blood is what God chose to enter and occupy in the Incarnation. In Jesus’s flesh it is God who washes the feet of the disciples, even the treacherous one. The pulsing of Jesus’s blood through the chambers of God’s pure compassion always sustains our Lord’s reach to touch the sick with healing and the obsessed with freedom.

To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus is to want God, to need God with the earnestness of young Solomon. It is to take into ourselves the matter of God on the frontier where divine Spirit must meet our flesh, right in our gut. It is to say, God, we cannot manage our day to day life without you. We’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.

It is, to quote the writer to the Ephesians, being careful—full of care—how we live, as wise people making the most of the time, choosing to be filled with the Spirit that dwells in the flesh and knows how to guide and inspire from within.

We are what we eat. Let it be God. Let it be what is good. Paraphrasing Jesus in his sermon that mentions Solomon, our daily diet will result in either an anxious heart or a grateful one, isolation or communion, pointlessness or mission.

In the vortex of political campaigning swirling around us more and more intensely, we are being asked to swallow a lot, much of it fibs and nonsense. We need the antidote of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, the way, the truth, the life, the Word made flesh.