8 Pentecost A—7/26/20
1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:26-39
Pr. Scott Kramer
The story of Aladdin is well-known by generations of young people and much loved across many cultures. The story of a “genie in a lamp or bottle” captures the imagination even of some grown-ups! What if it were possible to ask for whatever we want and have our “three wishes”—or even one wish—come true?
In today’s reading from 1 Kings it’s not Aladdin but Solomon. It’s not a genie but none other than God’s own self! There’s no lamp or bottle involved. God takes the initiative, and in a dream asks the young king: What is it you want from me? Ask what I should give you.
Before we return to Solomon’s answer, it’s worth pondering how each of us might answer that question. If a genie appeared to you out of a lamp—or, if God approached you in a dream!—and asked, “What is it you want from me?” Ask what I should give you—if you knew they would make that request come true, how would you answer?
I can think of a whole list of possible answers: For starters, make coronavirus go away, make racism go away, give us a better President, stop climate change. Any one of those would have a positive, even transforming, effect on our world. How to choose just one?
It also occurs to me that my little list is made up of human-caused problems. Our current pandemic, poor national leadership, climate change, racism—these are all problems created by the poor choices of flawed human beings. Namely, me, you–each and every one of us.
Still another characteristic of my little list is that every one of my wishes is an, “If only…” question. If only these things were different, things would be better.
By way of contrast, let’s look at Solomon’s response. Solomon first of all names his limits: “I’m just a child,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s such a great start! This pandemic that has turned our worlds upside down offers us a great opportunity to learn from Solomon’s example and freely admit the truth: We don’t know what we’re doing!–not as a lament of despair, but as a signal that we are open to learning something new and making courageous, different choices.
But the power of Solomon’s confession is not merely acknowledgement of his limits, but in his recognition of God’s power and faithfulness: You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love.
Now, okay, this is a bit of “rose-colored glasses” on Solomon’s part. His father was no saint!–deeply flawed, in fact. But, here’s the point: Solomon identifies the bottom line of our relationship with God: It is not our goodness but God’s steadfast love that is the bedrock of everything good. The Beatles were right: “All you need is love…Love is all you need.”
This is something that no genie in a bottle can provide. God’s limitless, steadfast love is all we need. And notice this, dear friends: This love of God is not something to wish for, to hope for, or even to pray for. It is not a question of, “If only…” God’s love is a free gift that already exists for all people. This same free gift always has been and always will be.
Notice what happens when we focus less on our scarcity—“If only…”–and more on God’s abundant love: 9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” This is Solomon’s request. The heart that is focused on love is focused on good. The heart that is not likely focuses on evil. With a bit of courage we can examine the patterns of our own hearts where this question is answered minute by minute, day by day.
Listen again to God’s response: “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word.
What is the right thing to do? When we focus on love, the answer can become clearer. It’s a message for our time, for in our time “doing what is right” often seems less important than personal rights and freedoms. In fact, “constitutional rights” when used by privileged people often seems like code language for selfishness, and an excuse not to work for justice for those who have never enjoyed such rights.
To do what is right is to affirm love as the guiding light of our lives, and Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves. Wear a mask. Should I or shouldn’t I? Listen to the voices of those who continue to be beaten down by racism. Should I or shouldn’t I? For the health, safety, dignity and well-being of my fellow human beings, these are not difficult questions to answer. All you need is constitutional rights? All you need is personal freedom? All you need is guns? No! All you need is love. God’s steadfast love. It is this that will lead us to do the right thing: to practice God’s love toward the neighbor in need. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
This is St. Paul’s message to the church in Rome. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul surely prayed for God’s power to change the circumstances of his life and his people. And yet, he had the wisdom not to place his hope in changed circumstances but in the power of love.
This love of God that we proclaim is not some mushy, abstract ideal. No, it is the very pattern for how we order our lives. Hear again St. Paul: We were predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. Racism, selfishness—these things are powerfully represented in the world, in our top leaders, and are on full display today.
We who proclaim that Christ is Lord, at our best, follow the wisdom of Solomon. We become the very being of Christ for the world. We are called and chosen to practice love. When we fail to practice that love (and we do fail!), we confess. We return again and again to the God of grace, whose supply of love is unconditional and unlimited. We are filled again with gratitude for yet another chance to love as we are loved.
Dear friends, we don’t need to rub a lamp. We don’t need to wish for such love. The genie is out of the bottle! The love of God in Christ is on the loose, made visible to the world through God’s people. From Solomon’s time to St. Paul’s time, to our own time and into the future, it is the very power of the universe, and no matter what happens, God’s love will prevail.