August 15, 2021
We have a family story of a distant cousin of mine who changed her name, but only changed one letter. See, my mom’s side of the family are the Icenhours, and it’s kind of a weird quirk of fate that the branch that spelled their names with an “s” were often the richer branch of the family tree. So this cousin of mine got her name legally changed, changing only the one letter in her last name, hoping some of the magic of that letter would rub off on her life.
Spoiler: it didn’t work.
But there are stories from all over about how people will go to great lengths and do remarkable things if it means they can get the things they value the most. Fairy tales and children’s movies revolve around the way the hero of the story grows to understand what they really need—the love of family, the acceptance of their uniqueness, how they’re worthy because of their goodness and not their wealth or their power. The villain is always consumed by a desire for power or money or something else that makes them callous toward the suffering of others, and also brings about their ruin.
Today’s first reading looks at just such a story, where Solomon is faced with a dilemma. His father, David, has died. He is the new king of Israel, and it’s an enormous task. Tradition says that he was only fifteen at the time, and in a way, he was wise beyond his years already when he realized that he didn’t have what it takes to run a kingdom on his own. So when God appeared to him in a vision at Gibeon promising him whatever he asked for, Solomon was at a crossroads.
He could have asked for power. The kind of power to hold his kingdom together and enforce his rule, to dominate his neighbors and keep his borders peaceful, to keep his people in line so that strife and crime could be eliminated.
He could have asked for wealth. Deep pockets can manage to get you a lot of things, after all. If he had magnificent wealth, he could afford to buy the kind of power that would keep his kingdom safe, prosperous, and strong.
He could have asked for any number of things that would have made him a great king. But instead of all those things—chasing power or wealth—Solomon asked for a “listening heart.” A listening heart—what our translation calls an “understanding mind”—is a way of being in the world that leads to wise decisions. Solomon knew that the best way to do the thing that God was calling him to do—to be king—was to pay attention to his people, to listen to his advisors, and to be open to the ways that what he thought might be the best way to do things might not be the best way to do things.
Now, that’s not to say that Solomon had an unobstructed life of perfect wisdom and listening. I don’t think it’s good or wise of us to cast any human being as someone who never made a mistake, or never tripped up, or never strayed from the course. Solomon wanted to be a good king for his people, and he wanted a listening heart, but he didn’t always do it right. It says right at the beginning of the reading that he would sacrifice at the High Places—a Bible phrase meaning the Canaanite pagan temples. And later on, Solomon would draft huge parts of the population into forced labor to build his monumental architecture. He would marry a ridiculous number of wives to secure alliances, and then worshipped pagan gods with them. Like all people, Solomon didn’t always get it right. He didn’t always have a “listening heart.”
And honestly, we all mix up our priorities from time to time. Our values get muddled because life is complicated. We get distracted by the demands the world puts on us, and start listening to voices telling us we need more awards, more achievements, more promotions; rather than more justice, more mercy, more Sabbath and peace. We prioritize our personal choices or comfort over the good and safety of our vulnerable neighbors. As a church, we often get more interested in making sure we have a full sanctuary and sufficient offerings over re-presenting Jesus to our neighbors and growing in our own faith and devotion to God and God’s calling in our lives.
But on his better days, Solomon remembered to value a listening heart. He remembered to put the needs of his people, the wisdom of his advisers, and the correction that God would give him at the forefront. And we could all stand to imitate that as much as we can. Because, like Karli’s parents this morning, we mean it when we make our promises to God about growing in the faith, learning what this life looks like, serving our neighbors in the model of Jesus, and becoming the people God has called us to be. We don’t always fulfill those promises every day, but that’s why God always gives us another chance.
And God supports us as we try to do better. Jesus doesn’t just give us the command to love our neighbor, or to serve the needy, or to live with a listening heart. Jesus offers his own self to us, every week, when we come together for communion. When we drift away from the values and priorities God wants us to have, we come back to the table, and Jesus is there for us. He gives us his body and blood for the life of the world. He gives us spiritual nourishment for our everyday work of building up the kingdom of God in our midst. This bread and this wine are what reorient us to remember the listening heart God gives us, and the people God has put into our care. Each week when we eat this bread and drink this cup, it’s Jesus reminding us and empowering us to serve our neighbors.
So we get recharged and reenergized to serve others after this meal. We remember the priorities that God gives us, so we serve at the fair stand taking orders for burgers and pies because we know the community is strengthened by the fair, and the money we raise goes to just causes that help the poor and needy among us. We make promises about bringing our children up in the faith, and keep renewing that commitment week after week. We turn away from all those wrong priorities and mixed up values that set us against our neighbor, and remember that God calls on us to serve others as Jesus served us.
So let’s ask God for a listening heart, and the soul of a servant. Let’s make the good of all our priority and the root of our values in Jesus’ name, so that the kingdom will be made in our midst. And let’s keep coming back to the table, to eat the bread and drink the wine, and be filled with Jesus who will reorient us once again to love our neighbor and do what God has called us to do in the world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.