Sunday, August 7, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Omayra (High Places and Torn Kingdoms)"

1 Kings 11:1-13

In addition to Pharaoh’s daughter, King Solomon loved many foreign women, including Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites. 2 These came from the nations that the Lord had commanded the Israelites about: “Don’t intermarry with them. They will definitely turn your heart toward their gods.” Solomon clung to these women in love. 3 He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred secondary wives. They turned his heart. 4 As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods. He wasn’t committed to the Lord his God with all his heart as was his father David. 5 Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes and wasn’t completely devoted to the Lord like his father David. 7 On the hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a shrine to Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and to Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. 8 He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods. 9 The Lord grew angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from being with the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. 10 The Lord had commanded Solomon about this very thing, that he shouldn’t follow other gods. But Solomon didn’t do what the Lord commanded. 11 The Lord said to Solomon, “Because you have done all this instead of keeping my covenant and my laws that I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant. 12 Even so, on account of your father David, I won’t do it during your lifetime. I will tear the kingdom out of your son’s hands. 13 Moreover, I won’t tear away the entire kingdom. I will give one tribe to your son on account of my servant David and on account of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.” (Common English Bible)

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

It’s the eyes. Again. But unlike last week, in imagining those lifeless mannequins in my CPR class from a decade ago, this young girl’s eyes were vivid and full of depth and color, even as she was nearing her own death.

In 1985, just a few years after our own Mt. St. Helens volcano had erupted, the Nevada del Ruiz volcano, a nearly 17,500-foot tall volcano in Colombia, likewise erupted, causing mudslides and landslides that rushed down the volcano’s slopes and into the towns within the river valleys beneath the angry behemoth’s peaks and killing nearly 23,000 people in all.

One of those people, Omayra Sanchez Garzon, was a thirteen-year-old girl whose home was demolished in one of those mudslides, and the concrete from her home pinned her against the ground amid growing pools of water.

For two days while trapped, Omayra sang, prayed, and gave interviews to journalists, but she eventually began to die. Because removing her from the debris would necessitate amputating both of her legs, and because the medical professionals attending to her lacked the life support mechanisms to keep her alive for such a traumatic surgery, it was decided that the humane thing to do would be to let her die peacefully alongside her father and sister, who had also died in the eruption.

This Omayra eventually did, but not before, near death, having her photograph taken by a French photojournalist named Frank Fournier, who later said many years later to the BBC:

When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity. She could sense that her life was going. I felt that the only thing I could do was to report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl and hope that it would mobilize people to help the ones that had been rescued and had been saved.

I felt I had to report what this little girl had gone through.

Stories like Omayra’s were raised in the debates once the dust had settled about why so many people died, and how such a ghastly death toll could be prevented. What emerged from those debates, in truth, is that much more could have been done from the high places, the places of power and riches, to aid people like Omayra. That sort of power is soul-sized in its capacities and its consequences. We learn and re-learn that lesson every now and again, but now, it is Solomon’s time to learn it as well.

This is a summer sermon series in the mold of one that, stylistically, 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 have once more taken on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative has been 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’ve gotten a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem after receiving divine wisdom from the Lord in the dream all the way up to today’s story of the visit from the queen of Sheba, which represented in many ways the absolute pinnacle for Solomon and his reign, to today’s story just one chapter later, in which we begin to see how the seeds of Solomon’s spiritual and political downfall have been sown.

What makes the reality of this downfall doubly sad are two facts that, sadly, overlap with a great many similar circumstances of ineffective rulers: the seeds that were sown were Solomon’s own doing, and those who will be affected by this sowing will not simply be Solomon and his plethora of wives and concubines; no, it will be his people, his entire kingdom, and the crown that was his inheritance from his father David.

We still have this tendency of thinking of disasters as coming directly from God—that God, in a fit of pique, decided to curse us like the ancient Egyptians with frogs, or flies, or locusts, or boils, or any of the other plagues. You still hear it today, packaged in various forms, like the televangelist grouch Pat Robertson claiming that God sent 2011 Port-au-Prince earthquake upon Haiti to punish the nation for its practice of voodoo.

But that would be a very, very unsettling takeaway from this story. Because while God’s plagues upon the Egyptians were necessitated by a particular circumstance—the Egyptians’ enslavement of the Hebrews—so too was there a particular end in mind that the plagues were meant to achieve: the demonstration of superiority of God over the Egyptian idols and the liberation of the Hebrews out of slavery.

Natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake, or the eruptions of Mt. St. Helens or Nevada del Ruiz, they don’t happen to free people from slavery. They happen because that is the way the earth scientifically exists, and they kill as many people as they do because of us, not God. If Haiti hadn’t been plundered again and again, first by colonizing empires and then by autocratic dictators, maybe it would have had a better infrastructure to withstand such an earthquake at the cost of fewer lives. And similarly, if the Colombian government had cared more about disaster preparedness for its own people, it might have saved more lives in 1985.

These death tolls as a result of catastrophes, then, are a result of humanity’s shortcomings, not God’s machinations. And God makes this abundantly clear to Solomon by laying the coming schism of Israel at the feet of the aging king. Solomon has turned away from God, and such apathy does not occur in a vacuum.

We live in a world where people, our leaders, and, yes, ourselves all turn away from the callings and responsibilities that God has entrusted us with and that other people have entrusted us with. We live in a world full of Solomons, pulled away from that which may have initially inspired them and called them and drawn forth their wondrous gifts into the world but that now are only ignored by them.

We live in a world, in short, full of people whose hearts, like Solomon’s, have been turned not by God or to God but by the convenience and enviousness of the trappings of the high places: of riches they do not need, of status they do not require, and of egos in constant need of stroking.

Solomon may well think that he has outgrown God, that when allayed with the glory of his many women and material riches, he has no need of the God who long ago created him and crafted him.

And if that sounds familiar, it is because it should. Because we as Christians need to be able to stand up and say that we have had enough of such Solomons, because the alternative is to see more people hurt by their decisions and priorities, and in the most extreme of stories, like Omayra Sanchez Garzon’s, killed by their decisions and priorities.

Omayra is instructive for one of the cults listed in this passage in particular: the cult to Milcom, or Molech, which was explicitly banned in Levitical law and is believed to have included child sacrifice, something that even Israelite royalty eventually practices when, hundreds of years later, King Ahaz has his own son burned as a sacrifice. Children are sacrificed around the world to our mendacity as a people, and Omayra was one such person, and one such sacrifice, lost upon that altar.

We are in a position that most of Solomon’s subjects were not: we have a voice, and we can proclaim God’s truth to power. That’s not something easily gotten in the ancient world—even a royal court prophet like Isaiah can lose everything; his prophetic career ended by, according to tradition, his execution at the hands of the ungodly King Manasseh.

And the one person who is in a position in Solomon’s Israel to speak truth to power—Jeroboam, who we’ll meet very soon—is Solomon’s chief slave overseer, hardly the candidate for strong moral leadership in the face of a slowly rotting monarchy to begin with, but Jeroboam himself will likewise abandon God the minute it is politically expedient for him to do so by building two golden calves for his future subjects to worship rather than to actually worship God.

Which means that it cannot be left simply to the ones with power to actually proclaim and live God’s truth, no, it must fall to us as well.

It falls to us to say “Enough” to the Solomons and to the Jeroboams of the world.

It falls to us to say “Enough” in face of suffering at the hands of corrupted leaders, radicalized zealots, and know-nothing demagogues.

It falls to us to say “Enough” in response to the Caesar who campaigns to rule over us with an authoritarian bent that cares not for the outsider or the oppressed.

And it falls to us to follow up those cries of “Enough” to our earthly rulers by proclaiming with one prophetic voice, “Long live the one true King, and long may He reign!”

Solomon’s failure became Jeroboam’s failure.

Solomon’s failure, then, has become our failure. We are responsible for responding to it.

Let us do so, then, with vigor, and passion, and compassion, a compassion for the Omayra Sanchez Garzons of this world who may have been left behind by their own earthly kings but who have never fallen from the sight of their one true Lord in heaven.

Let us live for them, and not solely for ourselves.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 7, 2016

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