Sunday, July 27, 2014

“Doing What Matters” (I Kings 3:5-12)

It is a part of the journey of life . . . we have all done it . . . usually early in our lives . . . we have declared that we do not want to be like our parents.  We have declared that we want to do things differently . . . that we do not want to be held up as being an “ol’ chip off of the block” . . . that we want to be seen for who we are and not somebody else.  We have all done it to some degree, and to be quite honest, it is just a part of life that we all go through.

So, who could blame Solomon for wishing the same for himself.  Solomon was the “boy king” who succeeded his father—King David—to the throne of Israel.  Solomon was not the rightful successor to the throne as he was not the oldest of David’s sons, but he was the one chosen to move into the seat of power.  This is pretty heady stuff for a youth . . . to move into the seat of royalty with all of its fringe benefits . . . there was power and wealth . . . plenty to get any individual into trouble, much less a young whippersnapper like Solomon.  Yet, Solomon stepped into the role as the King of Israel . . . the successor to his father David . . . and would become one of the most beloved monarchs of Israel . . . and, he would be the last king of the unified kingdom.

I imagine that this was heady stuff to the youngster . . . a lot to have to try and wrap his brain around.  This huge responsibility was more than one mere person, much less a young person, could handle alone.  Knowing this, Solomon sought out guidance and advice wherever he could find it.  Our reading this morning reflects this yearning in Solomon to find assistance . . . to find guidance.  A part of that guidance was in how he could avoid being like his father.  Thus the story of him burning the sacrifices and praying to God for help.

Though Solomon would get involved in the political games of being a monarch—just like his father, he was already displaying that separation from his father when he offered his prayer with his sacrifices.  Though appreciative of God’s presence in his father’s monarchy, he did not want to rule as his father had ruled.  Instead he wanted to rule the kingdom and its people from within the community . . . he wanted to be the people’s king who represented their best interests and needs.  He did not want to rule with the power of an iron fist, but as one who listened, discerned, and did the right thing for all involved.  Thus his prayer was simple: Lord, give me wisdom.

Actually, what he asked for was a discerning heart: “Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number.  So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”

God was impressed . . . impressed that Solomon would ask for such a gift . . . the gift of wisdom, the gift of discernment.  Solomon could have asked for anything his heart desired . . . more power, more wealth, more worldliness; but, he asked for wisdom and discernment.  Solomon, despite his age, did not think of himself, but thought about others and their welfare . . . he wanted to serve both God and the people.  Pretty impressive because I know if I had such an opportunity for blessing . . . well, I don’t think I would have asked for wisdom and discernment.  Nope, not me . . . I would have asked God to pile it on and give me more wealth and power than I could ever handle! 

But, Solomon did not do that . . . he asked for wisdom and discernment.

God granted Solomon his prayer.

The Old Testament paints King Solomon as being quite wise as his writings are throughout the book in what is known as the “wisdom” sections.  There is no arguing that Solomon was not wise . . . but, you know what?  Maybe Solomon was wise before he asked God for the blessing . . . after all, he was wise enough to ask God to make him wise and discerning.  God just amplified what was already there . . . made it more pronounced . . . enlightened Solomon to what was already one of his “gifts”.  Maybe the guy knew how to get what he wanted . . . or at least how to butter up the Holy.

It worked.  God was pleased with what Solomon asked for because it was not the usual list of longevity of life . . . more wealth . . . more power . . . wiping out one’s enemies.  It tickled God that Solomon wanted to serve the people . . . to meet them where they were . . . to care for them.  Thus God gave to him “a wise and discerning heart”.  Oh yeah, though it is not mentioned in our reading this morning . . . in the next verse . . . God also gives him what he is not asking for . . . more riches and honor.

The prayer request of Solomon is pretty remarkable whether one considers it in the setting of the story or in our society today.  It is remarkable because it put others before self . . . this is not something we encounter very often in the secular work in which we work and play.  Though we should ask the question more often—how is this good for all the people, we rarely do as we more often than not only consider how it is going to help us or groups that we belong to.  We urge our children to follow their hearts . . . we tell people to watch out for themselves . . . we are still a very self-centered society and world.  We are going to do what is best for us and the heck with the rest of the world.  Thus it is that Solomon’s servant prayer . . . his prayer for wisdom and discernment . . . is remarkable because he put others before himself . . . he asked God to help him know what matters and not what he wanted to do.

From the beginning of creation all of creation has been inter-connected . . . has been related to one another . . . especially the human race.  Yet, it has not been until the last couple of generations that this awareness has begun to sink in.  Thanks to technology over the past few decades we have become aware of how small our world really is . . . how connected we really are.  And, it is slowly beginning to make us aware of the fact that when we throw a stone into the waters of the world . . . its ripple touches the lives of many that we are not even aware of.

A simple example.  Years ago at a church I was serving in Iowa, the Disciples Women’s Fellowship had a studying about the poor conditions of the factories in Asia that produced a lot of the products we Americans enjoy at cheap prices.  They learned that everyone except the people actually making the product were getting rich while the workers were living in poverty . . . pretty much living a slaves.  This made the women upset.       One lady in particular stated that letters should be written letting these companies know how despicable this practice was . . . and, to stop doing it.  I suggested that they consider their retirement funds that were stuck away in stocks . . . that they might want to diversify what they had to make a point with those companies.  After all, whether they realized it or not, they were a part of the problem too.

When I wore a Nike ball cap into the establishment of one of the ladies, she told me I should not where the hat.  It was wrong for how Nike used basically slave labor to create that product . . . paying pennies on the hour for the labor while selling the product for hundreds of times more than it was worth—thus making Nike quite wealthy.  I told her to call her broker and find out where her money was invested.  The next day she told me I could keep on wearing the cap . . . Nike was one of her most profitable stocks.

Here was an example of doing what one wants to benefit one’s self.  It was not a matter of doing what was good for everyone.  Solomon chose to do what matters, not what one wanted for him or herself.  He sought to have the wisdom of a discerning heart.

A discerning heart takes a lot of hard work because it is a heart that is willing to listen to all the facts from all sides of the issue.  A discerning heart then lifts these facts up to God in prayer . . . prayer seeking to do what is the will of God’s heart, not the heart of the one praying.  It is a matter of doing what matters to all of God’s family . . . of recognizing the thin thread that weaves through all of us to make us one.  And, it is doing it over and over again until the will of God succeeds and all of God’s children are considered.

Given the opportunity . . . what request would you ask of God in prayer?  Would it be focused on yourself . . . focused on others?  Would it be to get what you want or think you need . . . or would it be for the good of all of God’s creation and children?  Let us listen to the words of our prayers . . . may they be words that reflect the will of God not only for ourselves, but for all of God’s people.  Let us do what matters.  Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


There is a lot of anticipation with the birth of a baby whether you are the actual parents waiting for the child to arrive or you are the rest of the family sitting on the sidelines.  Today it is not so much as to what the child is going to be—boy or girl, as that is easily determined long before the child ever arrives thanks to today’s advance pre-natal testing.   No, I think that the anticipation is on what . . . or who . . . is the child going to look like.  Inquiring minds want to know.

I can attest to that anxiousness of anticipation as we waited . . . and waited . . . and waited for the arrival our newest family member.  We all knew that the baby was going to be a girl . . . we even knew what her name was going to be—Finley Kate . . . but, what we did not know was what or who she was going to look like.  Despite all the hard facts that we already had—her gender and name, we still did not know what she was going to look like.

Well, now we know . . . she looks like Finley Kate.  I really do not like getting into the game of declaring that babies look like this parent or that parent . . . or that he or she has her grandmother’s nose (heaven forbid), her grandfather’s eyes, or her aunt’s chin.  How in the world do we even know?  And, why in the world would we want to burden the child with such expectations?  The kid is going to be who the kid grows up to be.

When it comes to birth, well, you get what you get . . . and, you get a lifetime of unraveling that gift with the child.  When it comes to birth . . . you created it and you get what you get . . . it is yours . . . love him or her because it is your child.  You wanted that child, you brought that child into the world, and now it is yours to discover and raise.
But, not all children are lucky to have been born into families that love them and want them . . . some children are born and rejected . . . some are born and abandoned . . . some are taken away from their parents because of neglect and abuse . . . some are just thrown away.  They’re just not wanted.

In the United States there are over half a million children in foster care waiting for adoption . . . fifty percent of those children are minorities . . . approximately 14 percent of them have disabilities . . . many of them have been abused and neglected.  The average age of these children is almost ten years old.  In a given year approximately 20 percent of the children will be adopted.  By adoption I mean that someone or some family will purposefully chose to take a child to become a part of their family.  They will be chosen . . . chosen with whatever known and unknown baggage that child brings into the relationship.  They will be loved for, cared for, and wanted no matter what comes with it.  It will be a purposeful decision on the part of those who are adopting. 

I want us to understand this because in the scripture reading I shared earlier . . . in verse 15 . . . it stated, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”  At least that is what our translation of the Bible said.  I like the way that other translations say it: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”  I think using the translation that states that we come into the relationship between us and God is through adoption is more accurate in describing that relationship . . . and, it is more powerful.

In other words, God chose us.  God chose us to be God’s children . . . to be a part of God’s family.  God chose us because God wanted us . . . desire us to be in relationship.  God picked us all . . . just as we are with all of our strengths and weaknesses, especially our weaknesses.  God picked us because God loves us for who God created us to be as God’s children.  God adopted us . . . God did not get stuck with us, but desired us. 

Now, I do not want anyone to think that parenting of any sort is not a gift or blessing.  Parenting of any sort is a responsibility . . . a tough responsibility whether you are a birth parent or an adoptive parent.  Parenting is not easy . . . period.  Either way, parenting is a lot of work.  Trust me, I know . . . and, it never gets any easier even when the children grow up and become adults. 

But, there is a slight difference in the way that I came into parenting than does the individual who comes in by the process of adoption.  Dana and I chose to make the children that we have . . . in our decision we knew what each of us was throwing into the mix, good and bad . . . and, we waited.  We waited to see what the combination of the two of us would create, and for the most part we have been quite blessed despite some hardships along the way. 

For people who adopt, well, they have to pick from what is available.  As I stated earlier, it is a purposeful choice that they make with very little knowledge of what issues there might be.  At least Dana and I had some idea of what could happen and we loved our children no matter what sprung up.  For people that adopt they are choosing to bring a child in their lives that has usually grown beyond the baby stage as the average age for an adopted child is almost eight years old.  These are not newborns waiting to be mapped out for the journey ahead, these are children who have issues and problems, children who have already collected some baggage, and very little information about their past.  Despite it all, these people go ahead and adopt because they desire that child in their lives and want—like any parent—to provide the best for their children.  Despite the odds stacked against them, they still chose to adopt.

So it is with God when it comes to each of us.  God—knowing us—still desires to take us into the family . . . still desires to make us one of the children.  Which is pretty darn special . . . special because it puts us in the same boat with Jesus . . . we, like Jesus, are heirs to the promises of God . . . heirs to the Kingdom of God.  What Jesus gets, we get as the adopted children of God.  God does not see us any different . . . we are God’s children.

I like that fact.  I like knowing that God has chosen me . . . you . . . and everyone else . . . to be God’s children.  Unfortunately, as much as I like that I know that the rest of the world doesn’t quite embrace it as strongly as I do.  There is still a lot of judgment and prejudice in our world today . . . not everyone is seen as the adopted children of God for a variety of reasons ranging from one’s skin color . . . to one’s abilities or disabilities . . . to one’s place in society . . . to one’s education . . . to one’s nationality . . . to even one’s gender.  All of God’s children are not treated the same.

Now I know that the best example of that is what is happening in the community of Billings right now as the citizens of that city argue and fuss and fight over a Nondiscriminatory Ordinance being instituted.  Some argue that it is not fair to inflict such guidelines upon people when what it represents is giving the rights that all people have to groups of people that they do not agree with or value.  Yet, when it is pointed out that all are God’s children, there is the argument that some people are more God’s children than others.  Which is exactly the reason for the ordinance.

Where does God weigh in all of this?

Debi Jackson is the mother of a child in Kansas City who is transgender—transgender meaning that her child was a girl stuck in a boy’s body.  Of course upon the slow realization of what was going on with her child she became frustrated, angry, and ashamed . . . this was not what she and her husband bargained for . . . yet, this was their child.  Upon acceptance of her child for who she was the family had a lot of hardship as they faced the prejudice of having a child that was not like everyone else.  They lost friends and members of their extended family.

Recently Debi Johnson gave a speech to address this issue in her life and to let people know the toll it has placed upon her and her family.  If you want to watch and listen to that speech you can do so at Huffington Post.  There is one part in the speech where she addresses the statements and questions thrown at her about her daughter.  Everything from her being a liberal—which she assured folks she was not as she was raised in the South, Republican born and bred, Southern Baptist, and definitely conservative—to the statement that her daughter, being transgendered, was doomed to hell forever in the eyes of God.

To that question she answered:
“My God taught us to love one another.  Jesus sought out those who others rejected.  Some people choose to embrace biblical verses that appear to say that transgender people are being wrong. I choose to focus on verses like I Samuel 16:7, which says, “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

     “My daughter is a girl in her heart . . . she knows it . . . God knows it . . . and, that is good enough for me.”

God has chosen us as the children of God . . . God has adopted us.  We are good enough for God . . . God desires us . . . God wants us.  Do we want God?  Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

“Hospitality Is One Form of Worship” (Matthew 10:40-42)

In his book,  The Answer to Bad Religion Isn’t NO Religion, author Martin Thelien tells the story about Heartsong Church—a United Methodist congregation in Cordova, Tennessee (a suburb of Memphis):   “A few years ago the Heartsong Church found out that a mosque was going to be built right next to its property. At first the church felt startled.  Some of the members were angry, many were fearful, and almost all of them were uncomfortable.  But as they discussed the situation, they asked themselves the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’  In spite of their fears and prejudices, the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ was easy to answer.  Jesus would love his neighbors, as he taught in the Great Commandment.  In fact, Jesus even teaches us to love our enemies.  So they put up a big sign in front of the church that said, ‘Heartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood.’”  But that’s not the end of the story.

“When the church found out that the mosque construction was not going to be completed in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Heartsong invited the Muslim group to use its sanctuary for worship and prayer.  That amazed the pastor.  It’s one thing to let the Presbyterians use your church, maybe even the Pentecostals.  But the Muslims?  And they didn’t just let them use the space.  They posted greeters at the church to welcome their Muslim neighbors as they walked into the church.  I saw this story on the evening news.  In the news story a reporter interviewed some of the members of the church.  One woman said, ‘I’ve never met a Muslim in my life.  But I’ve made friends with one of the women from the mosque and found out we have a lot in common.’  Several others had similar comments.  The Islamic community now refers to the Heartsong Church as their ‘Christian brothers and sisters.’  When the reporter asked the pastor of the church why his congregation responded in this way, the pastor said, ‘Because Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors.’”

How could Heartsong say anything but “welcome”?

Another word for welcome is HOSPITALITY.  I think about hospitality often because I see it everywhere.  I notice the effort business owners put into their stores to say to the customer “I’m really, really happy YOU are here.”  I ventured downtown one morning to a store called Calaya.  The owner named the store for her two daughters Callie and Layla.  It featured lots of pretty things young mothers would like for themselves, for the home, and for their young children.  Towards the cashier counter there was a large table that featured a wooden train set on a track.  This said to a young mother shopping with her child, “We want you to relax—let us take care of your energetic toddler.”  That’s hospitality.  That’s focusing on the needs of others.

Have you noticed how many stores train their staff to you look you in the eye and say “hello”?  That’s hospitality.  Everyone needs to feel valued, and when people say hello that’s one way to say to another person “you are valued.”  What’s the next step?  Learning their name.

 If you travel, have you noticed the changes in the area of hospitality in the hotels?  They are listening the needs of their guests.  They have GREAT coffee (and sometimes cookies) in the lobby, and in the room there are several varieties for pillows—hard, soft, and medium.  I chuckle sometimes when I try to manage all of those pillows when it’s time to sleep!
Several years ago now you brought me here to help you understand young adults.  You were sad that there were so few.  The point was that if we listened to young adults—what THEY needed—and met those needs, we’d have more of a variety of persons participating in Central Christian Church.  

Has our need changed?
It’s been a struggle to say the least, to let go of what pleases one generation and to embrace the needs of another.  Young adults are so not like the oldest adults. 

Is any particular generation of persons like the generation of their parents?  My grandmother wore a flapper dress when she went out, my mother wore a dress and heels, I wore blue jeans.  My grandfather loved Glenn Miller, my father loved Elvis Presley, and my brother enjoys Queen and Boston.

When it comes to God, most young people I know aren’t interested in ignoring science, or the right to decide when they’ll start a family, or the wisdom of other religions in order to follow Christ.  What about you?

 I’ll mention coffee again.  For my mom, who is eighty six years old, the thought of spending nine dollars a pound for coffee is outrageous, as is adding chocolate syrup and whipped cream.  However, for my generation and others much younger, that’s the norm.  That’s what we seek.  Who does our coffee selection currently seek to say “welcome” too at Central Christian Church?  Who have we left out?  

In other words, much of what’s troubling many congregations these days -- an increase in the median age of persons participating in the church and a decline in numbers—-is directly related to hospitality.  We reap who we welcome—and we lose whom we neglect.

This includes all kinds of people, not just ages.  It stretches to include income, education, sexual orientation, and race.  

It’s as simple as that.

The rabbis wrote, “Hospitality is one form of worship.”  Hospitality IS one form of honoring God.  In fact, in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being a messenger of God.”  When we welcome the OTHER we welcome the Christ, and when we welcome Christ, we welcome God.” 

Hospitality, then, is serious business.  Who among us would say to God, “I’m not interested in you; who you are, what you need?”  

Joan Chittister, author of The Rule of Benedict, Insight for the Ages, notes: “The message to the stranger is clear:  Come right in and disturb our perfect lives.  You are the Christ for us today.   St. Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our souls so that the God of the unexpected can come in.  (This is) more than an open door.  It is an acknowledgment of the gifts the stranger brings…  Hospitality is the gift of one human being to another.  (It) is not simply bed and bath; it is home and family.”  

Now we understand Jesus when he says “This is LARGE work I’ve called you into.”

This passage from Matthew’s gospel is quite clear.  Disciples of Christ embrace, create and include.  When we feel stuck, the answer isn’t to resort to what’s familiar—it’s to welcome the unknown.

I wonder if we tried that—to refrain from the familiar and welcome the unknown—if we’d enjoy our church more—the variety of persons—perhaps numerical growth?  

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on June 22, 2014 at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)