Listen to Your Elders but Live by the Scandal of the Christ: 1 Kings 12.1–17

scandalDelivered at Ames UCC on November 1, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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I really want to talk about Jesus today. I keep a note on my fridge at home that reads, “Scandalous birth, life, community, death, spirit, resurrection, and coming of Jesus.” It’s a snippet of a lecture by The Rev. Dr. Dow Edgerton, a son of Iowa and one of the UCC’s best preachers. Dow wanted us to always remember that, despite how sanitized and commercialized and colonized our Christian story has become, it is at its core a scandal.

The stateless whelp in a barn? We say he is ours.

The guy who ate with Philistines and foreigners? Oh, yeah, we want to be with him.

The one who endured a filthy, bloody, slow death intended by the state to humiliate? Our most precious love.

A counterintuitive presence and power that yet remains? The foundation of our hope.

The tenets of our story are irrational and foolish!

Despite all of our robes and organs, the formality and conventions we have adopted and developed, the beating heart of our faith is a scandalous affront to the comfortable and the careful.

Today’s story, though, is a different kind of insult altogether.

If you are feeling completely lost, you are not alone. Even those of us who came up in the church, going to Sunday School and Confirmation, don’t know a lot about the tension described here. But it is connected to last week’s creation of a united kingdom.

Remember that the prophet Samuel anointed Saul the first king in the Hebrew community. Saul is replaced by David, with whom he shares no love except the love of killing Philistines. David is then succeeded by his son Solomon. Solomon rules for forty years, but not with complete peace. Solomon’s 700 wives lure him away from total devotion to God, and into the worship of the gods of other peoples. So God reprimands Solomon and lifts up two adversaries against him and his family, including Jeroboam.

When Solomon dies, his son Reheboam goes to be made king. Although ancient Israel was by no means a democracy, the people at this stage could refuse to accept an anointed king. So adversary Jeroboam goes to Reheboam to make a challenge: will you be as brutal as your dad? Reheboam asks his dad’s advisors: no, be kinder. Reheboam consults his own advisors: no, be more brutal. Reheboam opts for brutality, and so Jeroboam and his people walk away, thus tearing the united kingdom apart.

What a fool Reheboam was! Why didn’t he just listen to his elders? That bull-headed, arrogant, young pup. He acted rashly, out of ego and testosterone. He ruined what his grandfather David had earned through great bloodshed and sweat. Reheboam insulted those who would have been his people. Why didn’t Reheboam just listen to his elders?

Today is a great day to ask that question, as we celebrate 150 years as a faith community.

Our Ames UCC elders have a lot to teach us:

First, we don’t need a fancy building to worship God. When the original nine gathered, it was over at the train depot.

Second, it is nice to have a building, though only if we continue to keep it useful: We have remodeled the education wing next door several times to address changing demographics and ministries. The pulpit was moved from the north wall, to the east, to better serve the worshipping body. An elevator was installed so that all bodies would have access. Our church building is only a sanctuary if it responds to the needs brought to its door.

Third: Our elders have taught us that labels do not matter much. In 1957 we voted, along with other Congregational churches and the Evangelical and Reform church, to merge into one: The United Church of Christ. The greater voice for justice and mercy that we have as a united and uniting church matters more than our original denominational label.

Fourth: But sometimes labels are part of justice and mercy. In 2001 we formally qualified to be called an open and affirming congregation. This means that we intentionally welcome those who have been so viciously and vociferously excluded before: children of God who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and our loved ones and allies.

Fifth: Give generously. In 1963 we purchased this organ and set the precedent for charitable giving by the church: every time we have a major campaign, 20% of the total raised must be, and is, given away.

Now, there is one activity of our elders we might want to avoid: In 1915 we had an “examination committee to ensure members continued godly lives and to investigate rumors.” Maybe there’s a negative lesson in that: what not to do.

And there is another part of history that might make us question what not to do: our census. In 1920 we had 482 members, 1925 there were 646. By 1940 we were up to 739 members. Now? We now have about 200. That’s an 80% decline.

So what went wrong?

In Reheboam’s story, the answer to what went wrong is God. That’s what the author of today’s story wants us to believe:

It was the will of the Lord to bring about what he had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through the prophet Ahijah from Shiloh. This is why the king did not pay any attention to the people.

Reheboam couldn’t listen to his elders because it was God’s will that the nation be torn into pieces, a generational punishment for Solomon’s infidelity to God.

I don’t think that is what is going on here in Ames—or in the Biblical story, for that matter. The notion of God having a plan that involves geopolitics does not sit well with me. As I said last week, how can God be God and take sides? God has to be that which does not engage in such a divisive human activity.

It isn’t that I don’t perceive God to be in our every waking moment, but God as the coordinator of all life trajectories feels more like a mid-level manager than one who invited life in all its wild and even combative expressions out of the deep and into the light.

So it seems to me that the author of this portion of 1 Kings is an apologist for Reheboam’s bad behavior. Blame God rather than the man.

But what about us? Who do we blame for the decline in membership at Ames UCC?

I say no one. I say no one, because blame-seeking is both backward-looking and unfair. I do not believe any of our elders here at Ames UCC could have predicted the radically remade society of 2015. Yes, the economic divide of this time is painfully familiar, but the religious pluralism and technology that have so challenged our theology and our capacity to build community, those could not have been predicted.

So instead of looking for who or what to blame, our work now is to gauge our history and our present, to build a future, according to the scandal of Jesus Christ.

Maybe we will need, like our elders, to worship at a bus station or rearrange the sanctuary.

Maybe we need to intentionally affirm not only the queer community, but the African American, Latino, Asian, and indigenous ones, too.

We most assuredly need to make public that this is not a self-centered church but one that double-tithes to the community. Even more importantly, we must get the word out that we do not practice the finger-wagging damnation of more visible branches of the Christian family tree and our own historic examination committee.

When we refuse to let the ignominy of Jesus’ beginnings and shame of his death embarrass us when we let the revelation of the Easter mystery guide us we will secure our present and our future.

If we do not, it is not another of humanity’s kingdoms that will fall, but the beloved community God in Christ invites us to build.

My prayer today is that when my successors 50 and 100 years from now look back, they will be able to name all of the ways the Ames UCC of 2015 took responsibility for itself by allowing God to lead the church out of bounds, out of comfort, and into wildernesses, spiritual, social and material.

Let us set the standard for 21st century church life by asking over and over whether we are not just telling, but living, the scandalous birth, life, community, death, spirit, resurrection, and coming of Jesus Christ.


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