"When We Focus Our Desire"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/30/2000
Ephesians 5:15-20; I Kings 3:3-144
When one of our friends purchases a lottery ticket, they usually wear a smile that reflects a dream of what they would like to do with their wealth if the winning numbers on those ping-pong balls matches the ones on their ticket. So whether the genie is a lottery ticket, a perfect relationship, a the perfect job, or a perfect salary, from time to time we all dream.
This morning we are going to consider this process. If we could have anything we wanted, what would that be? Would we select something that would benefit ourselves materially? Would we choose to become a famous writer like the author of the Harry Potter books? Would we elect to have the authority that could shape the destiny of humankind? Might we choose to become the person who would bring a unique knowledge to the worldóa knowledge that would produce harmony, healing and joy? This last wish has already come. What happened to all that knowledge?
Our lesson in I Kings has God asking this very question to King Solomon. Verse five says, "That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked him, "What would you like me to give you?" Solomon's response was, "Give me the wisdom I need to rule your people with justice, and to know the difference between good and evil." Because Solomon had chosen so wisely, God added a number of bonus points to Solomon's humble request. God responded to Solomon with these words:
"Because you have asked for the wisdom to rule justly, instead of a long life for yourself, or riches, or the death of your enemies, I will do what you have asked. I will give you more wisdom and understanding than anyone has ever had before or will ever have again. I will also give you what you have not asked for: all your life you will have wealth and honor, more than that of any other king. And if you obey me and keep my commandments, I will give you a long life."
Readers of this lesson could go in almost any direction with this story. However, if we are to find in it an application to our lives, we first need to understand that Solomon was already wise. God did not need to give Solomon anything. Solomon was already on his way to living a life governed by wisdom. Listen again to Solomon's wise response to God, "Give me the wisdom I need to rule your people with justice and to know the difference between good and evil."
On looking at his response to God, we might view Solomon with a cynical attitude. We could think, "How noble of him to want wisdom. He lived in a mansion. He had a massive accumulation of wealth. He inherited from his father, David, the largest geographical territory Israel ever established. He had 700 wives. And as if that were not enough, he also had 300 mistresses. (I Kings 11:3) He already had anything this world has to offer."
What makes Solomon a great case study is the focus he wanted for his life. He wanted what this world does not give. He wanted to rule justly, and he wanted character-strength so he could determine what was right and wrong for his people. Such qualities never come from the world. Deciding to live by specific principles and values comes from inside each of us. This is what makes Solomon's life-focus so unique.
Currently our nation is approaching a civil war. Only instead of the North and the South, we have the Republicans and the Democrats. And instead of calling it a civil war, we call it the democratic process. We even call the amount of money each candidate has at his disposal "his war chest." The prize is the White House. And few of us are deaf enough to be immune to what will dominate the news media between now and November 7. As both candidates engage in their vigorous campaigning, what they are really doing is lobbying for the mind of America.
Each candidate will amplify past statements and positions taken by their opponent, put a spin to them, and ask for a public clarification. The object of the campaign will be to state publicly the direction each party intends to lead our country, while proving to Americans why the other party is unfit and unworthy to lead our country anywhere. It will be a war of words.
Generally, the party who has the best machinery for creating the most popular image will more than likely win the election. What we are about to witness is, indeed, an incredible spectacle. Who knows where truth and authenticity lie? Who knows what is correct and what is not? Each party has the best make-up artists in the business. Every point and counterpoint can be perfectly justified. Every "sin" can be repackaged so that it makes perfect sense once we "know the truth about it."
However, when the last speech or debate is finished, an army of unnamed people like us will cast the deciding vote. For all its thunder and lighting strikes, our political process is like two competing law firms who have to turn their best efforts over to a jury made up of average American citizens. This is one of the glories of our system. We determine who governs us.
What we see in Solomon has little to do with image-making and spin doctors. He did not have to engage focus groups to discover how his opinions were impacting the masses. He did not have to rely on Gallop and Harris polls to take the pulse of the people. Yes, he had power and wealth. Yes, he had everything anyone could possibly want. But what he asked of God appears out of character for rulers. Solomon wanted wisdom to rule fairly. He wanted wisdom to decide between right and wrong. How refreshing a Solomon would be in today's political climate.
Now, let us review what has happened during our lifetime. Our generation has been educated in how to please people. Our generation has been impressed with the need to achieve material success. Our generation has been reared in a country filled with everything we need to perform exceedingly well. Yet we still find plenty about which to complain. A crowning theme might be that our generation has experienced a fuzziness in the line that has traditionally separated what is right and what is not.
A little over a year ago, I officiated at a memorial service for a woman who did not have a church family. They had recently relocated in the Bowie area. I sat down with the family and we talked an hour and a half about their wife and mother. When one of her daughters mentioned a unique characteristic about her mother, everyone laughed.
Her daughter said, "Everyone in our family knew where Mother stood on every issue. If she told you to be home from at date at 10:00 p.m., there was no debate or negotiation. If you were late, there would be no more dates for a while. And if we whined about the consequences, Mom just shot us a look that effectively communicated, "Don't even go there. You cannot possibly win. You knew the rules going into your date."
It was wonderful to hear how liberated everyone in the family was. Mother's values were extremely clear. Not one of her children felt that their Mother had crushed their little psyches. She loved them and they knew it. Their mother had provided a structure for the family. She repeatedly announced, "This family is not a democracy. You first need to learn the rules of responsibility and accountability. Then you will be ready to live in a democracy."
The children had chores and expectations. When a child stepped over the line, there was no such things as a "time-out." That mother had developed a very effective method of getting each of her children's attention. And their behavior was corrected immediately. Bad habits were not given the chance to form let alone grow. Irritability and mood swings were not tolerated. Each child was taught respect for those in authority. Right and wrong became very clear for those children and such knowledge has served them well.
Back in the early 1970s, I used to subscribe to Mad Magazine. In those days the magazine produced satires on everything in our society. Nothing was sacred. A favorite theme of the magazine was the shift taking place in every sector of our American culture. A regular feature was a strip entitled, "Scenes We Like To See." In one issue that strip featured the United States Army.
The top strip featured a John Wayne character showing how life used to be. He said, "Tomorrow morning we are going to attack the enemy before daybreak. A lot of you are going to die. If you have anything to say at this stage of your life, you had better write your parents, your wives and children. That's all gentlemen."
The strip underneath showed the Army of the future. The dress code had been relaxed. The men had bellies that hung over their belts. The same officer said, "Gentlemen, the General is thinking about attacking the enemy at daybreak. He has asked me to invite all of you to his house at 3:00 p.m. so that you can have input into the decision-making process." Could we imagine a military governed by such a structure?
If we want to understand why we need to have metal detectors in some of our schools today, it is because a few of the students do not know the rules. For the few, the boundaries between what is appropriate and what is not were never set. For the few, the understanding that governs respect, dignity, and authority was never learned. For the few, the meaning of the word "No"was never given roots, backbone, or connected to consequences. All of us pay for this in one form or another.
What Solomon asked for was an identity that understood both justice and character. What Jesus taught was that we do not need to be a king to seek and use God's wisdom. When we know who we are because of our values, we are not going to be compromised by the people who have not yet formed theirs. We are in this life to help each other find freedom. We will fail if we become a crowd-pleaser or a person who is always shifting our masks to match the values of a particular group of people, e.g., one mask for the church, one for our golf partners, and one for our business associates. Some people are so talented at this that they do not know who they are anymore.
We have all seen Solomons in our lifetime. When John Muir learned that the lumber industry was going to cut down every redwood tree in California, he went to President Lincoln. Simply by refusing to eat, Ghandi freed India from Great Britain's rule. By marching and by refusing to engage in violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. moved our nation's conscience to change our laws. And because of fearless women who cry for increased justice, glass ceilings are being shattered.
The people who have stood out in history as agents of major change are people who have sought justice and have brought clarity to the line that separates what is good and what is not. The one who did it the best was Jesus. He did it with one simple teaching. "Love one another as I have loved you."
He did not say, "Love one another when it is expedient to do so. Love one another because it will get you votes or a particular block of supporters. Or, love one another when they respond by loving you in return." He simply said, "Love one another."
Solomon provides us with a valuable image. He had everything the world had to offer. What he wanted was what the world could not give him. The world cannot give justice, and it cannot give us the ability to choose between right and wrong. All the world can do is offer us alternatives. It is we who must decide the value of those alternatives. The decisions we make and the actions we take are always based on what we value.
When we authentically care about people, the line separating justice from injustice and the line between right and wrong is very clear. But to get there, we have to focus our desire on what captured Solomon's attentionójustice and character. That time is now. Do we have that courage?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Ever present God, we welcome this opportunity to still our minds. We know ourselves well. Our emotions can hold us prisoner or fill our spirits with joy. Our thoughts can generate walls or build bridges. We confess that we live with few answers that work all the time. We confess that often we seek resolution to issues that have many possibilities. And we admit to our confusion when we wonder if what we want conflicts with your will for us. We come today desiring to know the unknowable. We come wanting to find the pearl of great price. We come wanting to harness what remains unseen, so that our success will enhance who we are becoming. Guide us, O God, so that peace and harmony may become our gifts to the world. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, for these moments when our lives are open to you in a very unique way. It is true that we can worship you anywhere. It is also true that we can pray to you anywhere at any time. Yet what makes this experience so unusual is that here we are not in control of what we experience. What happens here can unmask us. One of our perceived problems might become less important when a brighter light shines on an unrecognized need. Such possibilities can only present themselves because we are here.
We confess how easy it is for us to make excuses by mentioning our love affairs with other things. How often we justify our prejudices, our predispositions, our attitudes, and our judgments. We are surrounded by so many incredible blessings. We live in a day that was only dimly visible to those in our past. Yet how adept we are at finding areas within our lives about which to complain. Our lives can be disturbed by such trivial matters. We lose sleep over issues we cannot control. We hear the cries for love coming from those around us, and we shy away because we do not want to become involved in their personal lives.
May we ask ourselves everyday, "Why am I here?" Lead us to uncover the answer. May we come together to enhance the value of our community of faith. May we discover in each other the source of what heals us. May we continue to experience the joy of finding new friends as we help newcomers to find the peace and joy that we share. Help us to remain open to your Spirit. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .