Friday, August 14, 2015

Sermon on Prayer for Dog Days - 12th Sunday after Pentecost

photo by Mary Beth Griffin Rigsby / flickr
Suppose you go to the mailbox tomorrow to pick up your mail. You open the door to the mailbox and it is crammed full. You pull it out and begin to walk back to the house, sorting it as you go. There is a bill from Belk. A plea from the Boy Scouts. There is a notice that your tags are up for renewal. There is a flyer from Bed Bath and Beyond, Lowe’s and Ruby Tuesdays. There are three magazines—two of which you have cancelled and yet they keep coming. There are two occupant only envelopes. About the time you open the door, a letter falls out. You reach down and pick it up. It’s handwritten. Imagine that. First class. A real live letter from a real live person. Remember when you used to get real-live letters? It doesn’t say Occupant only. It isn’t addressed to the people who used to live here three years ago. No.  It has your name on it. In the corner there is a strange return. I Kings 3. 5-12. And so you pull the page from the envelope, unfold it and begin to read. Sure enough, it has your name on it. It is addressed just to you. And as you begin to read it speaks to something deep down inside. 

Today’s scripture is like that for me. Getting ready for this sermon, surrounded by the clutter of my life I discovered a personal word here, in of all places, the book of  I Kings. I found my name written all over the text. I would if you might your name there, too? Let’s see.

photo by John Atherton / flickr
King David had died and his son Solomon was the next king of Israel.  God asked Solomon what he wanted as king. And here we are given as fine a prayer as we will find anywhere. In fact, when Harry Truman was forced into the Presidency after Franklin Roosevelt’s untimely death, Truman opened the Bible at his inauguration to this prayer and read the words.  “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?”(3 .7-9)

And it was in this prayer that I was addressed. I heard something here I had never heard before. Walter Brueggemann has said this prayer presents Solomon as a model of faith. In the prayer he asks submission to God’s will. The new king is not preoccupied with self. The prayer begins with remembering his father and Israel’s long and special history and how God was with them every step of the way. The king asks not for self, but for the capacity to do his work better.  This is as fine a prayer as we will find in the Bible. 

But history shows it didn’t turn out that way.  Solomon prayed a prayer he could not keep. The young new king intended to serve God and follow his ways forever. He was as sincere as he could be. But before his reign ended the kingdom would be split, Solomon would have forgotten all the things he prayed for and the chapter would end sadly for this wisest of men.

 The third chapter of First Kings opens and even then there was trouble is Solomon’s reign. He had already gone down to Egypt and brought back Pharaoh’s daughter for his wife. Can you imagine what some of the people thought? Years before Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews and would not let them go. And here was their young king bringing back Pharaoh’s daughter along with a moving van full of statues of strange gods. Solomon would try to run Israel as Pharaoh had run Egypt all his reign. The Egyptian princess would be the first of many, many women with strange accents that Solomon would surround himself with. The third chapter says after he brought Pharaoh’s daughter back he built his house and the house of the Lord and then built walls around the city of Jerusalem. There is irony here. The writer was saying first the King built his own house—and what a house it was. It was the finest palace any king had ever built. It took a long time and it took a lot of the kingdom’s money. And then, with what was left over, he built God’s house—which was not as fine as his own house. We could stop there and preach a sermon on that subject. But even that was not the end. Only after he had finished his house and God’s house did he built a wall around the city to fortify them against the enemy. He started with his own needs. He took care of himself first. And after that he built God a house and after that he took care of his own people. His priorities were hopelessly confused. He set out to obey the words of the Lord and ended up under the harsh prophetic judgment of God. The people were overtaxed by all this building and when Solomon’s reign was finally over—the kingdom split half in two. Much like our country in the civil war. 
photo by Adrian Clark / flickr

And as I waded through all first-class letter in my box I found a word for me and I hope a word for you. And this is what I have learned here for the first time. Solomon teaches me that we all pray prayers we cannot keep. And that’s our sermon for today.

Reminds me of the story of two men in a boat in the middle of a terrible storm. The waves just kept sloshing high and it looked like the boat would go down at any minute. And even though these were not religious men they decided to pray. There was nothing else to do. And as the rain and wind beat down on them one man shouted: “O God, you know that I haven’t bothered you for the fifteen years, and if you’ll just get us out of this mess, I promise you that I won’t bother you again for fifteen more years.” Now he didn’t anymore keep that prayer than some of the prayers we have prayed. 

You know what I mean. We stand at some altar and promise for better, for worse, in sickness and in
health, and we mean it with all our hearts. And sometimes soon and sometimes late word comes: “Sally and Jim are getting a divorce.” Fifty per cent of our marriages end in divorce. There are prayers we say but we cannot keep. I stood there at the hospital when they brought her out red and squirming and the Daddy beside me cried and everybody was so proud. Sixteen years later they sat in my office and said: “Sometimes I wish we had never had kids. She is so wild and we can’t do a thing with her.” Sometimes you take a job and promise you’ll give it the best you have. And one day you drive down the road and you can’t stand it go to work. It wasn’t anything like it seemed. I know some church folk that respond to some invitation and begin some recommitment they mean to keep. And for a while it is the most important thing in the world until their hearts get broken by some church, by stupid conflicts and they just drift away. Nobody, nobody ever intended this to happen. They all prayed prayers, like Solomon, they could not keep. 

A substitute bus driver in Winston-Salem began his rounds one morning at 7:30, picking up students that went to one of the city’s Junior High Schools. Not exactly knowing his way to the school, he asked directions of the passengers. Instead of giving him the correct instructions they gave him directions to Greensboro. About half-way there the driver woke up and realized they had pulled his leg. He turned around to go back and he made the same mistake again. His listened to some of the other students. This time they were headed for High Point. Well, eventually he found the right road and the students arrived at school several hours too late to face a worried and irate Principal. Principal Phil Coleman said, when interviewed: “It is hard enough to get bus drivers, and we don’t need incidents like this. We questioned each student individually, and it seems that no one was innocent.” And when we come to talk about prayers that we can’t keep—I don’t know a single one of us that is innocent. Whether it about a marriage or a child or a job or a church or just faith itself—we find it very hard to follow through, don’t we. We can pray the prayers, but sometimes we can’t follow though.
photo by Asim Bharwani / flickr

Why is it, you think that Solomon kneeling there with so much promise and possibility lost the way? I find some help from Jane Hamilton, a very fine novelist when she says: “I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion.”

I think Solomon found it that way. Taking an Egyptian wife, letting her bring her idols and gods with her to Jerusalem. Spending more on your own house than you would one the house of God. Overtaxing the people not because he was mean as much as the kingdom needed the money to do all the things that needed to be done. It was slow, his fall. 

And we too slowly drift. Miss a Sunday here and there. And then several. And one Sunday morning you look up from the newspaper and realize you haven’t been to church in three months. I asked a little girl the other day if she had gone to church last Sunday. And she said: “We went on Mother’s Day.” Mother’s Day—I thought—that was way back in May.  Or you look across the table at the person you pledged your love to way back there and it dawns on you—why don’t I feel anything. It did not happen all at once. It is a slow attrition, like Solomon.

Solomon prayed two wonderful things there at the beginning of his reign. God said I will give you whatever you ask. And the new king bowed his head and prayed for an understanding mind and he asked for the gift of discernment to separate good from evil. When he asked for an understanding mind he was praying for God to help him think of others and not himself. In my heart of hearts help me to be wholly and completely obedient to your will. And help me to discern—to not only understand in my heart of hearts—but help me to follow the right paths and not the wrong paths.

  Not a bad prayer for any of us. Help me God to follow your will all the way to the finish line. And help me, in my daily work and walk to follow the road less traveled where goodness and integrity and decency are found. 

By the end of the story the kingdom would split much like our country in the civil war. They would be overtaxed by the selfishness of a king who wanted too much for himself. He would spend his time on foreign women and not enough time on his duties as king. Slowly he forgot that prayer he had prayed early in his reign.

photo by Paul Boxley / flickr
And yet—this is the miracle. God responds to imperfect love. Even after sinning and doing terrible things to ourselves and others—God does not give up on us. Remember that exile passage when God is just tired of the shenanigans of Ephraim. Ephraim is joined to his idols let him alone. And in a few minutes this same God says, with a broken voice, I cannot give Ephraim up—he is my child. How could I possibly turn my back on him? And Israel would read those words and understand that God always responds to our imperfect love. That’s all we ever have to bring here.

And this is why there is a church. And this is why we keep coming back week after week. Even after great failure—we come back and hear old stories like the one Jesus told about the kingdom was like a mustard seed buried in the ground. Sometimes the soil was not the best. Sometimes rain didn’t come when it was supposed to. And sometimes beetles and bugs would just attack the little plant. But still it grew and still it grew. And sometimes, Jesus would tell his flawed, all-too-human disciples—a wonderful thing. Sometimes that tiny mustard seed grows and becomes the largest of trees and even birds come and build nests in its branches.

Jesus still told that story even though he knew what King Solomon had done years before. And he knew about how his people had gone up and down in their love for God. He knew that. And as he looked out at Peter and James and John and Judas and Andrew—he knew them, too. Flawed and imperfect. And it was, even after Solomon, and knowing us through and through that he tells this wonderful story about a little tiny seed that just grew and grew and grew. For even after prayers that we cannot keep—God isn’t finished with us yet. And that’s what the letter said. It had my name on it. Does it have your name on it, too?

photo by Carol Fernandez / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

(This sermon will be preached at the Piedmont Presbyterian Church, Piedmont, SC, 8-16-15)

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