Sunday, July 3, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Kohanim"

1 Kings 8:54-62

As soon as Solomon finished praying and making these requests to the Lord, he got up from before the Lord’s altar, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out to heaven. 55 He stood up and blessed the whole Israelite assembly in a loud voice: 56 “May the Lord be blessed! He has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. He hasn’t neglected any part of the good promise he made through his servant Moses. 57 May the Lord our God be with us, just as he was with our ancestors. May he never leave us or abandon us. 58 May he draw our hearts to him to walk in all his ways and observe his commands, his laws, and his judgments that he gave our ancestors. 59 And may these words of mine that I have cried out before the Lord remain near to the Lord our God day and night so that he may do right by his servant and his people Israel for each day’s need, 60 and so that all the earth’s peoples may know that the Lord is God. There is no other God! 61 Now may you be committed to the Lord our God with all your heart by following his laws and observing his commands, just as you are doing right now.” 62 Then the king and all Israel with him sacrificed to the Lord. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel,” Week Five

It was a scene you would think had been ripped straight out of the pages of a Law & Order script (although the trial did make onto television screens anyways via Court TV)—a zealous prosecutor tearing into a wholly unrepentant murder defendant. And what made this particular murder defendant so unrepentant was because he thought what he had done was ordained by God.

Ray Hemphill served as the de facto exorcist of his brother David’s Faith Temple Church in Milwaukee, and in 2004, the brothers went on trial for the death of a young boy who had autism and whom Ray had killed in 2003 while attempting to exorcise the boy of his autism—which, of course, as a disease and not an actual demon, cannot be exorcised.

This led to this vivid exchange between David and prosecutor Mark Williams, as Dr. Paul Offit, M.D., recounted in his book Bad Faith:

Hemphill: My church is going to do exactly what the word of God tells us to do.
Williams: So, you’re saying God is giving you the power to take away…
Hemphill: I say he has the power! If I lay down on someone and he passes away—God took him. I didn’t!

That’s a horrifying passing of the buck there, a complete dereliction of authority, because far too often, we put ourselves in the hands of people who will try to claim authority over us in the name of God with no such actual claim or calling. Think of the televangelists—Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Peter Popoff, Robert Tilton—or the faith healers who tell you, as the Hemphill brothers did, to reject modern medical science, like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland or Benny Hinn.

And just as there is such a thing as medical malpractice or legal malpractice, there is such a thing as spiritual malpractice. Fortunately, we have a baseline for what a cleric, a priest, a minister, should proffer as a message, because it comes to us from a king who acted as a de facto priest: Solomon, who, unlike many absolute ancient monarchs, does not claim divinity himself. And that actually really does matter here.

This is a new sermon series for a new season in the church—spring has now officially moved into summer, and just like a couple of years ago in 2014, when, if you’ll remember, we spent most of the summer reading verse-by-verse through the beginning of Acts, we’ll once again take on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative will be the life and reign of King Solomon, a fascinating figure in Israelite history who has probably been somewhat mythologized and made into a King Arthur-esque national legend over the years, but who nonetheless represents an epoch centered around a singular truth that was not achieved again for hundreds of years, and then again for thousands: ruling over Israel as a unified and independent kingdom.

Believe it or not, a unified and independent Israel is a rarity in history. After Solomon, an independent and unified Israel would only really exist twice: during the short reign of the Maccabees (of whom you have probably heard via the Hanukkah story), and during present history since 1946.

So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ll get a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem to his eventual downfall. We began by spending two weeks with the story of how Solomon comes by his divinely-bestowed wisdom for which he is eternally famous and then with Solomon applying that wisdom in this well-known story of two mothers, and then we moved on to the building of the Jerusalem temple itself. Now, today, the temple has been completed and Solomon has been praying at its dedication ceremony.

In this role of prayer leader-in-chief, Solomon is taking on a very traditional role of an ancient king: a high priest, demigod, or whatever state of being that made the king (in the eyes of the state religion) the person closest to God of anybody else.

Solomon is a mediator between God and God’s people in this story in a way that is really very new to the Israelites under monarchical rule. Solomon’s father David, while a talented psalmist, didn’t lead his country in the same sort of reverential religious rituals as Solomon is now doing—David famously danced before the Ark of the Covenant, not prayed before it.

It is more than simply a reflection of the differences between the temperaments of these two kings, though. It is an indicator of what they each thought their job description as king was. As Biblical scholar Norman Gottwald puts it, “The combined work of David and Solomon moved Israel a long distance from “chieftainship” to “hierarchic kingship” along a trajectory that catapulted Israel into the forefront of ancient Near Eastern states.”

Okay, what does that mean, though? Remember: before the kings (the first being Saul, and then David, and now Solomon) Israel did not have a central ruler; rather, charismatic leaders called the judges would arise to unite the tribes, often against a common external enemy. Israel was less a unified country then and more a loose confederation of tribes.

The kingship changed all of that. It made Israel an “is,” not an “are.” But crucially, unlike most ancient absolute monarchies, the duties of religious leadership did not transfer right away to the king; rather, they remain with the prophets. In fact, Samuel—the last judge of Israel and Saul’s prophet during his kingship—scolds Saul so harshly for Saul deigning to offer a sacrifice to God in Samuel’s absence that Samuel pronounces that Saul’s dynasty will end with him.

Solomon, though, employs no such prophets, at least as documented in 1 Kings, even though Saul had Samuel and his father David had Nathan. In truth, that probably has something to do with Solomon’s eventual slide into idolatry, because one of the most valuable things religious teachers can do is to help keep their people accountable to God—out of love, of course—for their actions. And Solomon will sorely need someone in the future to be able to point him back towards this day, and these prayers that he is uttering, and say to him, “Whatever happened to that believer?”

For a great depth there is to the belief that Solomon is professing through this prayer. He is calling out to a God who is first and foremost to Solomon eternal and faithful, a God who keeps promises, who does not abandon people, of whom Solomon says, “There is no other.”

More than anything else, that is what separates God from us. God is capable of such patience in love, such endurance in grace, such durability in mercy, that those sorts of qualities are really a one-way deal in the covenant between God and us. Even the very best of us can stumble and forget God in a moment. Solomon certainly did.

Which is why the whole notion of a purely human high priest, or a human elevated to demigod status, does neither that person nor their followers any favors. Nor does it do any favors to the very real tradition of priesthood that stretches all the way back to Moses’s older brother Aaron.

The Hebrew word for this priesthood is kohanim (the singular, kohan, is where we get the common surname Cohen), and as a plural, it deliberately invokes an authority far greater than any one person.

The Disciples of Christ believes so deeply in the priesthood of all believers—the idea that you are all a part of the kohanim—that it is one of the only four or five points of settled doctrine that our tradition upholds, along with the Messiahship of Jesus Christ, the weekly partaking of holy communion, and the performance of believer’s baptism by immersion.

So it isn’t just me. It isn’t just you. It’s all of us.

It means that my authority is enmeshed with yours, and yours with mine, so that we might not have a circumstance like the church of Ray and David Hemphill, or of Peter Popoff, or Robert Tilton, or any number of others who elevated themselves to demigods among mortals and whose flocks paid the price for their chutzpah and ego.

Solomon may be a king of unmatched power and splendor, but his message to the people is fundamentally one of humility before God: “May you be committed to following the Lord your God with all your heart.” Not “May you be committed to following Solomon.” But “May you be committed to following God.”

He is in the role that so many others in other contexts have occupied as demigods: the Egyptian Pharaohs, who claimed to be the god Horus made flesh. The Roman Caesars, whose fathers were deified upon their deaths.

But not Solomon.

He is made of the same stuff we are, and, in truth, by his eventual temptation by idols, is the same sort of sinner that we are, as we too feel the pull and push of our own idols, whatever they may be--greed, lust, a certain Seattle-based football team...

Yet all of us have been delivered here, as sinners called and redeemed, and sent out to likewise call and deliver other sinners.

We are all, though so flawed, still a part of that priesthood of believers, that great cloud of witnesses.

What a gift from God that is.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 3, 2016

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