Not that Kind of Baptist

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Game of Thrones

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Sunday’s Lectionary reading from 1 Kings 3 allows us to overhear the pious prayer of King Solomon. His prayer? He asks God for understanding and discernment. Seems timely.
 
Everything Solomon does up to the moment of his prayer makes his prayer seem ironic, if not absurd. Read 1 Kings 1-3 if you don't believe me.
 
George R.R. Martin, who wrote the series upon which HBO's Game of Thrones was based, can barely hold a candle to 1 Kings. The Bible's more interesting Game of Thrones has a dizzying cast of characters: Barzillai the Gileadite, Shimei son of Gera, Adonijah son of Haggith, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada. Picking the wrong house, just as in Martin’s saga, is deadly business. 
 
The Lectionary would like you to look away. It is rather embarrassed by the sordid details, the casual executions, the violation of sacred space. So it blithely skips over a few choice details, handily cuts out some offending verses, and patches together a nice passage for the lay reader on Sunday morning. I would rather we look at the text than look away.
 
Solomon’s accession to the throne is built on the unattested claim of his mother, spoken to the ears of the frail and morally compromised King David. Bathsheba says, so to speak, hey don’t you remember promising that my son Solomon will be king? We don't remember because the Bible never narrates Bathsheba's claim. David doesn't remember either. We are left to wonder if this is Bathsheba’s power play or Solomon’s machinations.  
 
No matter. David is too frail and preoccupied with the company of Abishag the Shunammite to interrogate Bathsheba’s claims. He is having trouble staying warm, so his advisors think it wise to supply him with Abishag. An odd solution, that. I would have thought a blanket or two would suffice. 
 
David at least has enough sense to cynically orchestrate the political murders of two rivals: his former hitman Joab and a man named Shimei who had uttered curses against the King years ago. David's memory only extends to grudges it would seem. Solomon knows enough about the secret code of power to hear other unuttered commands. His half brother Adonijah must be killed too. No one will get in his way.
 
I linger for a moment on Joab's last moments. You'll recall that Joab was David's enforcer in the Uriah tale. He had a long body count. Now he finds the tables turned. Knowing he is being hunted, Joab retreats to the Sanctuary where the Ark is kept, gripping the horns of the altar for dear life. His hands will soon be prized off by Benaiah, only the latest hit man to find service in the King's court.
 
It is a telling narrative detail that Joab's only resort to religious piety is a cynical use of a sacred space to save his own life. He cannot call upon a God he never served. The God of Israel is the kind of God who would answer such a call, but this is a tragedy, remember? Joab's thinking seems to be: surely you wouldn't kill in this space? He should have known better. Benaiah kills Joab. Solomon keeps his hands clean, and with that, all rivals to the throne are erased.
 
Where God might find entry to such a Machiavellian tale is unclear. But God does make an appearance, one that is loaded with incredible generosity. Appearing in a dream to Solomon, God says "Ask what I should give you." Would that we mere mortals get such an opportunity. No doubt we'd squander it like Solomon.
 
What Solomon asks for is noble enough: a discerning heart to tell the difference between good and evil. That he does so immediately after an orgy of violence is a tip-off that irony is the dominant register for interpretation. He will be King, and all who oppose him will die, and we must accept that God appears to him in dreams. And that is that.
 
To the victor go the spoils, as the saying goes. I wonder if Solomon thought Yahweh was simply another spoil of battle. A local deity he could claim as his own. The King will not be denied, and the King controls the narrative, and the King employs the historians who give the official account.
 
And yet, a close reading allows us to see beyond the pious and facile claims about Solomon's greatness. What is there in the tale of Solomon that confirms the claim made in 1 Kings 3:3 that "Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David"? Was it the murder of Adonijah, his half brother? The murder of Joab in the tent of meeting? The murder of Barzillai on a flimsy pretext? The alleged brilliance of his judicial decisions, the sole case study of which is his preposterous demand that a baby be cut in half in order to reveal which of two prostitutes was its mother?
 
The tragic denouement to the King's tale comes in chapter 11. It is a Solomonic verse, for it splits the narrative and our understanding in two. We are given a litany of crimes. And then this striking judgment: his heart was not true to the LORD his God.
 
After a close reading, we can now say: we knew that all along.
 
Daniel Headrick, Associate Pastor
 
[image attribution: By Luca Giordano - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15883941]
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Loving Your Neighbor Means Get Vaccinated

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               Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, but since our choir has been disbanded for over a year I’ve lost touch.  So, if there’s one person who needs to hear this, here goes: get vaccinated. 

              There is a mystifying thing going on in this country.  We have a surplus of a lifesaving drug which has been proven to greatly reduce your risk of dying on a ventilator after being infected with a respiratory illness.  And yet, millions of people refuse to get it because of either something called “personal freedom” or conspiracy theories they’ve read online, or what they heard happened to their cousin. 

          Let me be clear.  This is a moral issue.  You should get vaccinated.  Doing so protects not just your own body, but the body of your neighbor and your neighbor’s kid.  To the extent my voice matters in your hearing and reading, I implore you to listen to it.  But don’t just listen to me, listen to the scientists and doctors who actually know what they’re talking about.  They are saying get vaccinated. 

          The difference is: I’m telling you it’s more than just common sense.  It’s required by our faithfulness to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor.

          To test your moral thinking on this issue, ask yourself: is my objection to taking the vaccine grounded in my faithfulness to God, and is such faithfulness part of the shared values and thinking of my community of faith?  Or, is my thinking derived from some other source which is unrelated to my moral and religious center? 

          Perhaps we need a theology of public health or a theology of vaccinations.  I have an idea, let’s use Matthew 22:37-40 where Jesus answers the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment.  Everything “hangs” on this, Jesus said.  Put differently, personal freedom ain’t on the list. 

          I love you.  And you matter.  That’s why I’m willing to tell you the truth.         

 

[image attribution: U.S. Secretary of Defense, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons]

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"An Examined Faith"

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I recently finished Christian ethicist James Gustafson's slim exploration of the intersection of faith and science called An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt.  

I find that so many of the themes of this book have lingered in my mind, slowly expanding.  

For example, he notes that most thinking Christians have had to re-evaluate their interpretation of the Creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis based on emerging theoretical models of how the Universe began.  But he also notes that Christians have largely left unexamined how their theology of "final things" is impacted by what we know about global warming.  

How does our understanding of God's activity in the world become shaped by the little pieces of science that we pick up, sometimes in newspapers and TV shows, occasionally in the classroom and in conversations?  

 The books is fascinating and nuanced, but the part that has stayed with me longer is the example that Gustafson uses to frame his entire book.  He quotes from a 1737 letter by the American preacher Jonathan Edwards to his friends about the collapse of a meeting house during a Sunday worship service:

“We in this town, were the last Lord’s Day the spectators, and many of us the subjects, of one of the most amazing instances of divine preservation, that perhaps was ever known in the land. Our meeting-house is old and decayed, so that we have been for some time building a new one, which is yet unfinished. It has been observed of late, that the house we have hitherto met in, has gradually spread at bottom; the cells and walls giving way, especially in the fore-side, by reason of the weight of timber at top, pressing on the braces that are inserted into the posts and beams of the house. It has done so more than ordinarily this spring; which seems to have been occasioned by the heaving of the ground through the extreme frost of the winter past it’s now settling again on that side which is next the sun, by the spring thaws. By this means, the under-pinning has been considerably disordered; which people were not sensible of till the ends of the joists which bore up the front gallery, were drawn off from the girts on which they rested by the walls giving way. So that in the midst of the public exercise in the forenoon, soon after the beginning of sermon, the whole gallery—full of people, with all the seats and timber, suddenly and without any warning—sunk, and fell down with the most amazing noise upon the heads of those that sat under, to the astonishment of the congregation. The house was filled with dolorous shrieking and crying; and nothing else was expected than to find many people dead, and dashed to pieces.
The gallery in falling seemed to break and sink first in the middle; so that those who were upon it were thrown together in heaps before the front door. But the whole was so sudden, that many of them who fell, knew nothing at the time what it was that had befallen them. Others in the congregation thought it had been an amazing clap of thunder. The falling gallery seemed to be broken all to pieces before it got down; so that some who fell with it, as well as those who were under, were buried in the ruins; and were found pressed under heavy loads of timber, and could do nothing to help themselves.
But so mysteriously and wonderfully did it come to pass, that every life was preserved; and though many were greatly bruised, and their flesh torn, yet there is not, as I can understand, one bone broken or so much as put out of joint, among them all. Some who were thought to be almost dead at first, were greatly recovered; and but one young woman seems yet to remain in dangerous circumstances, by an inward hurt in her breast: but of late there appears more hope of her recovery.
None can give account, or conceive, by what means people’s lives and limbs should be thus preserved, when so great a multitude were thus imminently exposed. It looked as though it was impossible but that great numbers must instantly be crushed to death, or dashed in pieces. It seems unreasonable to ascribe it to any thing else but the care of Providence, in disposing the motions of every piece of timber, and the precise place of safety where every one should sit, and fall, when none were in any capacity to care for their own preservation. The preservation seems to be most wonderful, with respect to the women and children in the middle ally, under the gallery, where it came down first, and with greatest force, and where there was nothing to break the force of the falling weight.
Such an event may be a sufficient argument of a divine Providence over the lives of men. We thought ourselves called to set apart a day to be spent in the solemn worship of God, to humble ourselves under such a rebuke of God upon us in time of public service in his house by so dangerous and surprising an accident; and to praise his name for so wonderful, and as it were miraculous, a preservation. The last Wednesday was kept by us to that end; and a mercy in which the hand of God is so remarkably evident, may be well worthy to affect the hearts of all who hear it.”

As Gustafson notes, what was it precisely about this event that prompted Edwards to say it was God's providence at work?  What if all the worshipers had been killed?  What if half had been killed?  When people of faith encounter human tragedy, they are invariably engaged in this kind of calculation, wittingly, or not.  

What disastrous events are we willing to ascribe to God's activity in the world, and what do we give up to purely natural causes?  I would wager a guess that most of us (myself included) have a deep sense that God's love for Creation is not compatible with his directing tornadoes, collapsing buildings, and other tragedies in such a way that people die.  But what are we saying about God when we carve out a bit of providence within that natural disaster?  Say, for example, a child who is found in the wreckage of a tornado destroyed home?  Providence or something else?  Or in other cases, when a person dies, is that also Providence?  

Gustafson urges us to examine our faith.  This is difficult work, but once you begin the examination, going back to an unexamined faith seems impossible.  

 

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