at Ames UCC
on October 27, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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I am going to offer two interpretations of this story, one I think you might like and one I think you might not.
Let’s start with what is happening in the passage: Three generations before, God had warned the people, the ancient people whose theological interpretation of their history we study for help in theologically interpreting our time, that kings mean war and poverty. They then experience, under Saul and then David and then Solomon, war and poverty. They also experience internal disunity.
After the death of Solomon, it doesn’t seem certain whether a united kingdom of Israel can hold. The people, as you heard in the story today, call on his heir Rehoboam to be a more gentle ruler than his father.
Rehoboam consults his father’s advisors who tell him to be a king who is a servant. Rehoboam doesn’t like that. Why be an absolute ruler and use that power for others? So Rehoboam goes to his own friends. They advise him to double down on his authority. Flush with their new power by proximity to the heir, they seem to want nothing more than to assert it with violence.
Rehoboam takes that juvenile advice and so the kingdom splits. Rehoboam rules only in the southern part of the kingdom, now known as Judah, and Jeroboam takes over the north, still known as Israel.
The first interpretation of this story, the one I think you will like, and that certainly gives me more emotional satisfaction, is that strong men are trouble. Leaders who surround themselves with sycophants and yes-men, leaders who only want to be affirmed and not actually counseled, are dangerous and un-godly. The only thing they can do is oppress and divide.
While accurate, this is also a bit of a finger-wag, and a not even veiled critique of some of the leaders of our own day. So I don’t know how well that it serves us. I don’t know how that interpretation helps us to serve God, because it isn’t an interpretation that reveals anything new, that gives us a new theological interpretation of our time. We could take one semester of world history and learn that same lesson.
here’s the second reading, which I am not so sure will satisfy. It begins with
a conversation I had last month when I had coffee with the lead pastor of the
Among other topics, we compared notes on the struggle to keep partisan politics out of our churches. Though we are far apart in terms of theology and its application in real life, we agreed that a house of prayer must be for all people, not one party.
This is very hard, for a number of reasons. For one, the messaging in all other venues of our lives is about choosing sides. Democrats cannot vote Republican, Libertarians cannot caucus with the Greens. Loyalty tests abound in terms of our positions on abortion, immigration, policing, prison, and the planet. If we are for something we must be absolute in being against its opposite, or even its variation.
Second, and this challenge is specific to our church, the messaging of our venue seems to play into that side-taking. When we display a gay banner and one professing support of Muslims and immigrants, passersby and church-shoppers alike make assumptions about which political party the members of this body align themselves with. That assumption, right or wrong, will influence whether they will risk walking through our front door.
Between the two, Christianity’s divisions, like those between Cornerstone and Ames UCC, look more and more like those of the American two-party system. We risk becoming a United Church of Democrats rather than a United Church of Christ.
And maybe we are OK with that. Maybe this is the one place in our lives where we can safely make partisan jokes, where what don’t have to worry about who is in the room when we talk about the news of the day, or even where we get our news.
But then we have to stop claiming to be a united, and uniting, church of Christ.
You see the bind, right? There’s the name we have placed in enormous letters on the east wall by the parking lot and then there are our banners. United Church of Christ on one end, yay gay and immigrant and Muslim around the corner. A claim of unity and being agents for unity along with what many experience as some of the most divisive statements around.
I am not suggesting we take those banners down, not ever. Their witness has been hard-earned, prayer-informed, and faithful.
God is as besotted with love for the queer and the immigrant and the Muslim as God is for the straight and the citizen and the Christian. God is equally besotted with love for the blue and for the red.
So a second interpretation of this scripture, one in addition to the warning about dictators and the dictatorial, is about disunity, is about taking care not to play into the hands of the dividers that conquer. It is a warning not to take the self-satisfying, self-serving route like Rehoboam’s friends did but the self-effacing, all-serving path recommended by Solomon’s.
Our work is to be leaders not only in professing God’s radical welcome in response to those who close doors but also practicing God’s radical welcome to those same door-closers.
Am I right in guessing that maybe you don’t like the second interpretation so much? I know I don’t. It is far more enjoyable to stay with the critique of kings than to ask how we can not only stop propping those kings up but also love the people who do.
And don’t hear me patting myself on the back for meeting with the Cornerstone pastor, don’t think I am putting myself out there as some great example: I didn’t initiate the appointment and only went because I knew I had to, because this role and this stole means I have to practice what I preach, I have to be what the church wall says we are: united and uniting.
So maybe this isn’t a sermon at all, maybe it is a kind of request.
As our life-saving banners flap in this week’s snow and next spring’s breezes, as the hurricane-force storms of the election season builds, let’s figure out how to lean on and lean into that statement of unity on our east end.
Without compromising the message of our banners, how do we maintain this space as a house of prayer, as sanctuary, for all people? What do we have to do to be a living example of God’s beloved kin-dom rather than another branch of the partisan American kingdom?
History teaches the same lessons to us all, whether we have faith or not. This time in history needs people with faith like ours—curious, open, loving, intent on integrity—so that we don’t repeat them again.