Sunday, October 22, 2006

Click here to read 1 Kings 3:16-28.

Our text today is a courtroom drama, and even though it was recorded centuries before the birth of Christ, it's a familiar story. The very same case could be tried today in a court of law—or, just as likely, in the court of public opinion known as the daytime talk show. But more importantly, it's familiar because it is a story about family. No matter our context, no matter where we are situated on the timeline of Creation, we can recognize the compassion of a true mother.

At first I wanted to preach this text because of the powerful story it tells: a wise King suggests an unusual but effective test to determine the rightful mother of a newborn child. But the power in this story is really its characters. So today we're going to spend a little time with each participant in this struggle.

Both of the women involved in the dispute are prostitutes. They probably wouldn't have been in the situation if they did not live in the margins of Israelite culture. So far as we can tell, neither of the women is married. And so there is no one else in the house to see it happen, no husband to awaken and intervene when the first mother rolls over in her sleep and fatally injures her infant son. I do have sympathy for that woman, at least in that devastating moment when she wakes up and realizes what she had done. But whether it is her grief that corrupts her or if she was a cruel woman to begin with, she does the unthinkable. She creeps through the dark and lonesome house and makes a frantic attempt to switch her lifeless baby with the one who still breathes and hungers and hiccups.

She takes what isn't hers. She doesn't simply trespass against the living boy and his mother. She abandons her own flesh and blood. If he wasn't a living boy who could grow into a child and become a man, he was nothing to her, simply a token to exchange for a second chance.

The villain of this story does nothing to redeem herself in the light of day. Standing before the King, she lies. Her testimony is false, her words broken and meaningless. It's no surprise that when the sword is drawn and the life of the kidnapped baby is threatened, she is happy to let him be sacrificed at the altar of her spite.

Let's talk about that King. After all, Solomon is the celebrated hero of the story. When word of his amazing gift for discerning the truth sweeps through his Kingdom, the people are in awe. They recognize that God's wisdom dwells within him. Now, this story is often read as we read it today—taken out of context. This unusual trial and verdict take place soon after King Solomon has awakened from a dream. This is all happening pretty early in Solomon's reign over Israel. He's only been king since chapter two of the book of Kings, when his father, the celebrated King David, went to sleep with his ancestors. (That means he died.) So here we are in chapter three, and King Solomon has the esteemed privilege of encountering God in a dream.

This is a dream many long to have—the Lord shows up and asks Solomon what he should receive. What should I give you? Solomon could have said anything. He could have asked for wealth or beauty or more soldiers for his army. Solomon had an opportunity to receive anything he wanted, and he asked God for wisdom. He said, I'm really small, like a child, actually, and I have a lot of people expecting me to lead them. So give me, your servant, understanding. Give me the ability to discern between good and evil. Give me wisdom, your wisdom. So great a King, and so aware that he was empty and helpless without God's help.

So what's interesting about this story is that Solomon comes across as powerful and wise, but the reader knows that Solomon is only gifted with such confidence and discernment because he had confessed his need to God. He had admitted that he was no better than a little child when it came to knowing what was best for his people. I know why my seminary professor always pestered us to read everything that comes before and after any passage we intended to preach. If we just see Solomon playing the wise judge, we're likely to miss that it's God's wisdom doing the heavy lifting. Solomon was wise enough to know that he knew nothing. In his weakness, he made room for God's understanding.

I have to say, as much as I concur with the awestruck Israelites that Solomon drank deeply from the well of God's wisdom, I think that the true mother in this story is an unsung heroine. Despite the fact that she is a prostitute, vulnerable to the scorn and distrust of good society, she publicly stands up for herself and for her infant son. She will not let her child be stolen from her without a fight, and she fights well. She seeks out the King, and presents her argument as articulately as any lawyer. Yet as passionately as she fights for her right to mother her own child, she is just as quick to sacrifice her experience of motherhood to save her boy.

Solomon may possess the wisdom of discernment, but the victimized mother possesses the wisdom of love. The scriptures testify that compassion for her son burned within her. Her heart is scorched by the fierceness of her love for the child she had conceived, delivered, and nursed. Though pains her, she is willing to give him up if it meant that he could live. That is the wisdom of love. By revealing that she puts the life of the child before her own, the plaintiff proves that she is the true mother, and her son is saved from both the kidnapper and the sword. Solomon returns the child to her arms, unharmed.

There is another character in this drama, and I'm not talking about the crying infant. God's wisdom is at work, and in the Hebrew tradition, the wisdom of God is personified. She speaks in the language of poetry in the book of Proverbs, calling for all people to seek her out and learn her ways. She is, in a way, a literary technique, a metaphor. She gives voice to what could otherwise be a dusty and lifeless theological CONCEPT. Wisdom is not simply a set of rules to obey or disobey. Wisdom takes to the street in the poetry of Proverbs. She is loud, dynamic, bossy, and more precious than diamonds. She is a teacher, a guide, a voice leading us away from evil and toward the will of God. Wisdom calls us into our best selves, and challenges us to live in a way that is in harmony with Creation. She is an active, invisible presence in the story, giving insight and strength to the humble King and the brave mother so that the truth can be discerned.

Lady Wisdom, as she is sometimes called, is an unusual biblical character. She is neither spirit nor angel, but she embodies the mind of God. Her presence is not about burning bushes or even visionary dreams; she is subtle. Even as a literary figure, she testifies to a God who isn't afraid to get mixed up in the world. The argument that God created the world and walked away just doesn't stand when Lady Wisdom shows up at the gates of the town, preaching the way of life. The traditions about Lady Wisdom are so much about the very real presence and activity of God that Christians would later recognize the connection between the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, Christ Jesus his son. God is involved with his people, God has a will for us, God is continually making himself present in our lives, in ways that are seen and unseen. We must seek God as persistently as he seeks us.

I don't want to turn this story from the First book of Kings into a simple morality tale. Of course we know that we should endeavor to have wisdom like Solomon and be compassionate like the true mother. What this story can be for us is a guide for discerning how God works in the world. Here we can practice seeing God’s movement in something as ordinary as a family controversy, and practice recognizing what it looks like when human beings—whether they are prostitutes or kings—follow the will of God. Where we accept our weakness, we make room for the spirit. Where we see compassion burning, we are likely to find the presence of God. Where we find the truth revealed, we have surely encountered Wisdom. May it be so.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Today we will consider the point in Israel’s history when an Egyptian slave woman named Hagar experienced God’s grace. Our text for today enters the story partway through the saga, so a little background information is necessary. Back when Abraham was still Abram, God promised that he would be blessed with many descendants. But Abram and his wife, Sarai, were barren. They had no children, and so God’s promise seemed impossible. Sarai was tired of the impossible promise, and tired of the shame her culture heaped upon her for being childless. So she did what women of means could do in such a situation. She volunteered her slave, Hagar, to be a surrogate mother. Once Hagar conceived, Sarai detected contempt in the eyes of her slave. Abram took the hands-off approach to his quarreling wives, and told Sarai that Hagar was hers and she could do whatever she wanted. So Sarai was cruel to Hagar, and before long Hagar fled to the wilderness. There, by a spring of water, Hagar encountered an angel of the Lord. She received some good news and some bad news. She was to return to her unkind mistress and submit to her authority. But she was also informed that the child in her womb would also be the patriarch of many descendants. So Hagar returned to her masters’ house and gave birth to a son, Ishmael.

Soon after, Sarai and Abram become Sarah and Abraham, and despite Sarah’s old age, they also become parents to the long-promised boy, Isaac. At this point we encounter Hagar and her boy in Genesis 21: 8-21.

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (NRSV)

Her name means “stranger.” And that is what she was to her masters, Abraham and Sarah. They did not know her; even though she lived under their roof and bore Abraham a son, she was nothing more than a stranger among them. We can count what we know about her on one hand: she was an Egyptian, a slave, a mother, an outcast. But she encountered God in the wilderness twice. We do not know her, but she knew God. And so the stranger becomes part of our spiritual history. What does she teach us?
The book of Genesis tells the story of the beginnings of the Israelite people; it is an account of their formation as the chosen ones of God. Abraham and Sarah are the great ancestors of Israel; through their son, Isaac, a nation was born. Yet it would be hard to argue that this story is told from their perspective. If they told the story, surely they would have softened Sarah’s cruelty, and made Hagar out to be more of a troublemaker. There they were, the family chosen to give birth to God’s great nation, and Abraham and Sarah were far from perfect. They were complicated people, neither all good nor all bad… which is to say that they were human.

The Old Testament is composed of stories that bear witness to God through the language and history of the Hebrew people. And as with any account of a nation’s history, we are bound to hear about the nations and peoples they encountered along their journey. We cannot understand Israel without spending some time in Egypt; we cannot know King David without getting acquainted with his enemies the Ammonites. Their stories are intertwined, woven into a shared history. For the most part, we hear the story from the perspective of the Israelites. But this unique family drama from the early archives of Israel’s history seems drawn through the perspective of Hagar, the Egyptian.
We don’t get to stay back with Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre to witness the great feast celebrating Isaac’s birth and the promises it fulfilled. Rather, the narrator invites us to wander into the wilderness with Hagar. We see her hope draining away as her water supply dwindles. We witness her despair as she leaves her child beneath a bush, knowing that he cannot survive the harsh wilderness without water. And we hear her wretched cries resound through the vast and unforgiving desert.

We were not led into the desert to watch Hagar mourn her son. In the wilderness we see a miracle unfold, a spring of water burst forth in a land where no water has any business flowing. We might expect, as the spiritual descendants of Isaac, that God would pour all of his care and blessing into the chosen son, the legitimate child of Abraham and Sarah. Certainly, this is what Sarah expected of her God. Instead, even while the feast for Isaac is being served, God saves the son who was not chosen, the forsaken son of the Egyptian slave-woman. God hears the cries of the boy and sends his angel to comfort and counsel Hagar to pick up her boy and take him to the wellspring. The boy and his mother are delivered.

One of the overarching themes of the Old Testament is God’s habit of rooting for the righteous underdog. Time and time again, the stories and prophecies of the Hebrew Witness proclaim God’s compassion for the oppressed. God will deliver his people from slavery and proclaim a year of Jubilee, a time for all debts to be forgiven. God will send prophets like Isaiah to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim liberty to the captives. The thing is, the righteous underdog is usually Israel. After all, throughout Israel’s history, enemies constantly threatened the small nation. The former slaves would become exiles, and later, in New Testament times, inhabitants of an occupied land. The Israelites knew through all of those trials that the God of justice stood with them.

And yet way back in the Genesis of Israelite history, here is a story where God’s mercy and justice is extended even to one who is a stranger. God’s desire for justice could not be contained within the chosen people; when Sarah and Abraham cast out an Egyptian, she was not denied God’s mercy.

The boy who cried in the wilderness, Ishmael, was the son of a stranger. But his name bears witness to the God we know: Ishmael means God hears. In the wilderness of Beer-sheba, God heard his cries. And this is what the story of Hagar and her boy teaches us: God hears when his children weep. No matter if the child is celebrated or cast off; God hears.

People are often very keen on determining just how wide God’s mercy really is, just how far his love reaches. Some almost seem to prefer that salvation be limited to the ones they deem worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. Sarah believed that her status as the chosen mother of a chosen son made Hagar and Ishmael unworthy to receive their inheritance of God’s love. She could not imagine a household that had room for both of Abraham’s sons. But our scriptures reveal that God’s compassion reaches beyond even the ones that he has chosen. God chooses, God hears, God saves. Thanks be to God it isn’t up to Sarah; thanks be to God it isn’t up to us. Amen.


Sunday, October 8, 2006

I decided to go off-lectionary for a bit and spend some time exploring the great stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. So the text for this sermon is Daniel 6.

The story of Daniel's adventure in the Lion's Den is standard fare in Sunday School. If you grew up in church, you might have watched the tale reenacted with puppets, or made a lion out of construction paper, or heard one of the many Children's versions read during Story Hour. The story is popular beyond the church, as well. A brief version of it is included in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a reference book of American culture. The story of the man who was miraculously protected from hungry lions makes for an exciting lesson about a faithful man's deliverance from death.

But let's go deeper.

I want for us to really understand what's going on here, and so a little refresher on the history of the Israelites is in order. For a short time, the Israelites had one united and sovereign Kingdom, ruled by David and his descendents. But the Northern part of the Kingdom broke away, and the divided house soon collapsed. The Northern Kingdom went first, but the Southern Kingdom of Judea was eventually destroyed by the conquests of the Babylonians. That's when the Babylonian Exile began. Thousands of Judeans were deported to Babylon. Daniel was a member of the Jewish community in exile. The Babylonians were smart; they didn't force able-minded people into positions of manual labor. A man like Daniel, with an excellent spirit, could achieve a measure of success in the foreign land. When we first encountered Daniel, he was not some low-level assistant. He was one of three administrators with a lot of responsibility for the Babylonian Kingdom. His supervisor was none other than King Darius himself, and the King clearly liked and trusted Daniel. A major promotion was in the works for our Israelite hero. He stood to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor Joseph, who held a position of authority in Egypt.

The other administrators didn't like Daniel. They had no reason and every reason to grumble about his leadership. There he was, a foreigner whose homeland had been defeated by Babylonian forces. Exile wasn't supposed to mean a fast track to the top for Daniel, and yet he had distinguished himself so highly that he was about to become their boss. They wanted to take him down on principle. But it turned out he was a little too good for their rotten scheme. His character was honorable, his record immaculate. So they played the religion card. "We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God."

They hammered out the perfect plan of attack: flatter the King by drafting a law prohibiting prayers to any other authority—divine or human—for thirty days. And then camp out under Daniel's window and wait for the evidence to fall into their waiting arms.

One of the most important details of the story comes next. "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before."

Daniel and his people had lost their homeland, their temple, and the basic freedom to live and work where they pleased. But Daniel's faith would not be tethered by any ruler. His soul would not be managed by any edict. The conspiracy against Daniel threatened to enslave his spirit, but Daniel's spirit was as fierce as a lion. The narrator of this story is clear as can be: Daniel knew full well of the new law prohibiting his daily prayers, and he prayed anyway. What's more, he didn't lock his piety away behind the relative safety of a cellar door. Daniel disobeyed the law openly, kneeling before his open window to pray to the God of Israel.

To me, this is every bit as awe-inspiring as the lock-jawed lions.

Prayer, for Daniel, was as natural as breath. Three times a day, without fail, he fell to his knees and offered himself to his Lord. A prayer attributed to Daniel is preserved in the second chapter of the book bearing his name: "Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him." Through prayer, Daniel knew God. Prayer connected him to the Living Source of Life. And through prayer, Daniel knew himself. Raising his voice in praise to the God of his Ancestors—the God of our Ancestors— gave him an unwavering sense of identity, even in a foreign land. No matter how high he rose in the ranks of Babylon's leadership, three times a day he turned toward Jerusalem: heart, mind, and body.

With the royal decree limiting prayer only to the King, Daniel's praying took on another shape in his life. Prayer became a form of resistance, a public sign of his obedience to a greater law. Prayer became a form of civil disobedience. Daniel rejected not only the idolatry of the edict, but even the temptation to simply take the truth underground for thirty days.

Daniel's bravery – not in the lion's den, but on his knees before the open window— became a hero to Mahatma Gandhi early in his vocation as a pioneer of nonviolent resistance. Daniel was Gandhi's model of resistance to unjust legislation. When he was working on behalf of the Indians suffering from oppression in South Africa, Gandhi counseled his brethren to "sit with their doors flung wide open and tell those gentlemen that whatever laws they passed were not for them unless those laws were from God."

There are always consequences to civil disobedience. Anyone who publicly breaks a law faces the penalties of the law, even if the law is wrong. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that when he and his fellow civil rights activists disobeyed the segregation laws, they were inviting imprisonment, hatred, and abuse. They expected to land squarely within the fangs of racist Americans. They used that predictable retaliation, hoping that the sight of innocent suffering would transform the hardened hearts of their oppressors.

Darius didn't even want to follow his foolish edict, but the law was the law. King and Kingdom would lose all integrity if he didn't consistently enforce the laws of the land. And so Daniel was thrust into the lion's den with nothing to protect him but the God to whom he had prayed a million times before.

Which was all he needed.

What happened to Daniel in the lion's den was a joyful triumph for people of faith. God saved his servant. Daniel's deliverance from death is one of the greatest, most vividly imaginable stories in all of our Holy Scriptures. It gives hope to the hopeless and proclaims that God will make a way where there is no way. The blameless hero was nearly killed on account of his devotion, yet his devotion to the Most High God summoned an angel to seal the jaws of his predators.

In the lions' den we learn that the rules and regulations of the world are not the final authority over God's children. Corrupt laws are turned to ash, death itself is left empty-handed, and even the most foolish King makes a wise decree: revere the God of Daniel.


I found a book in our church library called Alone with God. It was written in 1917 by a woman named Matilda Erickson. It's the sort of book you could glance at once and immediately dismiss; surely, a volume so old and yellowed doesn't have anything too enlightening within its tattered covers. But listen to what Matilda had to say about Daniel. "When prime minister of Babylon, [Daniel] found it possible to meet God alone three times each day. All that the men asked of Daniel was that he stop praying for thirty days—just thirty days. Many Christians have stopped praying much longer than that, when the only lions in the way were carelessness and spiritual laziness."

Daniel isn't a hero because he was saved from the lions. That was God's doing, God's power revealed. Daniel is a hero because he threw open his window and prayed. His best bravery was spent on his knees. He defied Babylon, and our God stood with him in that defiance to establish life where Babylonian law sentenced death.


It has been said that the Bible comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. In the gospels, Jesus teaches that his followers must lose their lives for his sake in order to live. The part about everlasting life is comforting, but the dying for it can be a bit unnerving. We love that Daniel's faith in God saved from death in the lions' lair… but don't linger too much on the fact that his faith in God landed him there in the first place.

Daniel's story teaches us what it means to be truly faithful. God does not challenge us to be privately pious, concealing our devotion from polite company. God dares us to take our faith public, living out the commands of our God – even when that means irritating the culture or breaking the law. God longs for us to choose the lion's den with Him rather than the palace without him [paraphrase from Matilda Erickson].

Ancient Babylon thirsted for a witness like that of Daniel's. And so does our own time and place. Our witness to the goodness of God is a prayer that must be prayed and a window that must be opened. This tired world needs to encounter the God we know through Jesus Christ, and the only ones capable of giving voice to his glory are the ones who know him.

We will face lions, but none more dangerous than a life emptied of God. Like Daniel, we will be delivered. Like Daniel, we will be saved.