081521 Pentecost 12 
The sermon begins at minutes 18:00 of the video
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Eph. 5:15-20 John 6:51-52

This past week we have been being challenged to face the positive and the negative in some of our leaders. Andrew Cuomo accomplished many good things; he also harassed women. Joe Biden had many successes in his first six months; the quick departure of American troops in Afghanistan has led to a Taliban revival. Gavin Newsom was hypocritical in his dealing with COVID; but he’s lightyears better than his Republican opponents. Even Barack Obama is being called “Barack Antoinette” after his 60th birthday soiree. And those are just the ones in this week’s news. 

King Solomon also had his pluses and minuses. In today’s reading we see Solomon asking for wisdom and God blessing him because of it. That’s part of who Solomon was. Many remember him mainly for that. But Solomon also abused his power, oppressed workers, and harassed women. If we’re honest, each of us brings positives and negatives to the world. What kind of religion can help us deal with that reality?

Last Wednesday a friend shared an old parable about a deep-sea fish that finds its way into a very small pond. When it gets to the pond, it strikes up a conversation with the pond fish. This pond fish has never left his pond before. The pond fish is very excited to have a new friend, and says to the ocean fish, “You wouldn’t believe how deep my pond is. Just watch as I swim to the bottom.” So, the little fish dives proudly down to the bottom of the pond and comes back up and says to the ocean fish, “Did you see how far I went?” And the ocean fish says, “That really was amazing, but do you know that where I come from it’s even deeper than that?” And the pond fish asks to hear more about the place the ocean fish comes from. The ocean fish says, “I can’t tell you anymore, but someday I will take you there, and you will see for yourself.”

      Religion offers two ways to deal with the attractive and unattractive parts of our leaders and ourselves -“pond religion” and “ocean religion.” The first three of today’s lectionary texts –Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, Psalm 111’s orderly view of God’s action in the world, and Ephesian’s clear alternatives between right living and wrong living – could be called pond religion, focusing on two important parts of life and religion: right belief and right practice. When Jesus says, those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, he blows the lid off pond religion, and invites us to dive deeper into the waters of experience – the third part of life and religion. 

       For young Solomon, wisdom was a belief. As he grew in age and power, that belief had to battle success, prosperity, power, sex, and a host of other real-world temptations. He prayed for wisdom and acted with foolishness. Measured by his own prayer, his life was a failure. That God honored his prayer didn’t mean that he was absolved of moral responsibility. His apparent blindness to that led to a tragic schism of the kingdom at the end of his life. 

    So, we dare not solely praise Solomon for his prayer, though many have. Neither should we judge him only on the excesses and oppression of his adulthood, though many of his contemporaries did. The two parts in Solomon exist in all of us; they exist in our churches and in our country. When we refuse to acknowledge the both/and of life, we deny what actually happened and whitewash history. This is what is at stake in the debate about Critical Race theory: some seek to literally whitewash American History.  

Today’s Psalm (111) presents the orderly side of religion. It mirrors the controlled state of affairs that 

I Kings presents as the politics and piety of Solomon. Almost forgotten in this poem is the realization that the God of Israel is unpredictable, offering startling and merciful surprises. Such control might be expected in Solomon’s court, where God’s freedom and spontaneity are submerged to the orderliness and propriety of a great, affluent enterprise. But it’s not the spirituality needed in our time, when so much “law and order” has actually exposed the injustice of the system. 

The letter to the Ephesians tells us not to be unwise, not to be foolish, and not to get drunk with wine. We all agree in theory that wisdom, obedience, and fullness of the Spirit is the better path. That is our belief, just like Solomon’s prayer for wisdom was belief. His success as a builder and ruler were impressive practices. But Solomon, and we Christians, are sometimes wise and sometimes we lack wisdom; sometimes we are sensical and sometimes we lack sense; sometimes we are filled with Spirit and sometimes we lack sobriety. We must go beyond belief and practice to engage in experience. 

Of course, we can also go too far in accepting our experience. The key is to acknowledge it. If we accept our fearfulness, lack of wisdom, lack of sense, and lack of sobriety too much, we lose the edge that calls us toward courage and wisdom and sense and sobriety. The New Testament counsels us to focus on Jesus. Ephesians says, sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel says, those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.

In the Gospel, Jesus’ accusers had been disputing among themselves, how can this man give us his flesh to eat? Rather than clarify that he wasn’t really saying something as scandalous as what they were accusing him of saying, he said that, in eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we find life. Religion is incomplete when it only deals with right belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthpraxis). Complete religion includes experience, which isn’t as neat and systematic as belief and practice. Experience sometimes questions right belief and acts outside of right practice. Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood goes beyond belief and practice. It’s offensive, scandalous, and counter-cultural. It{s also something necessary to experience on the path to life. 

The ocean spirituality that Jesus was inviting the pond dwellers to explore, was a relationship with the God who is not just a new and improved object of sacrifice, but one who doesn’t want sacrifice. How many times had Israel’s prophets and Psalmists said that? But people wouldn’t go there. And they still didn’t want to go there with Jesus. And people still don’t want to go there today. Many still insist that Jesus death was a sacrificial payment to appease God’s anger at sin. We must see Jesus’ sense of humor in pushing people outside of their comfort zone.  

Jesus used a different Greek word for eat than his accusers did – a cruder word, often used for animals. One preacher suggests that Jesus wanted them to think about what he is saying as cannibalism because, even though his fellow Jews had given up older forms of sacrifice like human sacrifice and cannibalism, they had yet to give up sacrifice as a way to appease God. Even though they saw themselves as worshiping the true God, they continued to see in God the qualities of false gods who demand sacrifice. 

Friends, are you ready to climb out of the pond and jump in the ocean? The consequences of our choice are huge. Pond dwellers are not only distorting religion; they are destroying democracy. Sacrificial religion defines what kinds of sacrifice please God and merit blessing. It creates systems in which some are worthier than others. Ched Myers and Elain Enns summarized this consequence for this nation in a single image: The border wall reminds us that there have always been two Americas: one of inclusion and one of exclusion. Inclusion found expression in the ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” and has been realized whenever Indian treaties were honored, civil rights embraced, “huddled masses yearning to be free” welcomed, or child labor laws passed. The latter was articulated in a Constitution that originally enfranchised only white landed males, and was consolidated through land grabs, segregation, economic stratification, restrictive housing covenants, and laws precluding gay marriage. The America of inclusion is the only hope for democracy. Lincoln’s ultimatum about a “house divided” warned 150 years ago, is unsustainable.

Who’s ready to dive in?