Sermons

An Understanding Mind; Rev. Dee Ledger, August 15, 2021

While I was at Divinity School, a friend of mine from high school came to see me.  At the time, I was living in one of the oldest dormitories still in constant use in the country.  It had housed such famous students as Horatio Alger and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  We knew this because there were little brass plaques on the doors.  When my friend came to visit, he had one passionate wish– to sleep overnight in the former room of the great Emerson.  I suspect that my friend’s admiration of Emerson as a great thinker and philosopher contributed to this desire.  Given that the room was vacant, his request was easily arranged.

In ancient cultures, folks sometimes slept in special places of worship overnight in hopes of receiving visions, revelations, or even relief from pain or misfortune.  In Greek and Roman times, the practice was known as “incubation.” We see something similar in the Hebrew scripture for today.  I am not certain if my friend expected a visit from Emerson’s spirit or not, but he was certainly thrilled with the prospect of occupying the same space as this wise man.

In today’s scripture, King Solomon visits a sanctuary at Gibeon, and after making sacrifice there, he spends the night.  Perhaps he hopes for simply a good night’s rest, or perhaps he seeks divine revelation from God.  We are told that he receives the latter—God not only comes to him in a dream, but he also asks the young king what he should give him.

Imagine God coming to you in a dream and asking you what you want.  How would you reply; for what would you wish?  I suspect that many of us would have some deeply personal wishes:  good health, safety and security for our loved ones and families, prosperity perhaps, contentment, world peace, and maybe a nice, new vehicle to boot.  Maybe our wishes would be even more specific:

I want my marriage to work.

I want my child to get back on his feet.

I want my cancer to go away.

I want a new job.

I want my kids to respect me again.

I want a fresh start.

I want to live to see 100.

I want my loved ones to survive this pandemic.

I want to just make it through this day.

 

Yet, sometimes we have trouble sorting out our desires.  Sometimes we confuse what we think we want with what we think we need.  That is, sometimes we give all of our desires equal weight (and often equal anxiety).  Our “fight or flight” response gets triggered equally over delays in the daily commute and in an argument with our child.  Even though we would never rationally equate the love we have for our spouse with the love we have for our jobs or our security—frequently our personal decisions reveal something altogether different.  And then sometimes, if we are truthful with ourselves, our wants and needs are radically oppositional to God’s commands.  Sometimes, in our lives, we discover that what we thought we wanted and needed was not really so important after all, not to us and certainly not to God.

It can get even trickier on a communal level.  Sure, we say we love God—but following that God will often interfere with our prized opinions about the issues of the day or the state of our hearts. When this happens, we begin to move God into the periphery of our lives where God’s ways are, at best, some unattainable ideal for our communal decisions and our collective way of life.  The current trend to separate our Christian convictions from our workday values, or to believe that we can purely separate our professed faith from how we live out of that faith, can make our religious values seem impotent and irrelevant.  Just as religious convictions informed the political world of Jesus, so too, our religious convictions have political implications for ourselves and for our world.

In today’s lectionary text, both faith and politics intersect and inform each other.  For one thing, Solomon is a world leader, a king who understands that governing the people is a tremendous privilege and responsibility.  Yet, despite being relatively new as the king of Israel, he has already eliminated many of his enemies and rivals to the throne, including his brother and a military commander and former officer.  He exiles a priest who had supported his brother’s claim to the throne, and he also arranges a political marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter.  His world is full of political intrigue, betrayal, assassination, strategic diplomacy, allegiances, and the transference of power.  It is also full of an understanding of God’s presence in that world.  At the point when our story begins, Solomon’s power, though new, has been firmly established, though by questionable means.

It is in this context that Solomon replies to God’s question, “Ask what I should give you.”  The king asks God for “an understanding mind” to govern God’s people and the ability to “discern between good and evil.”  Literally, an “understanding mind” means a “listening heart.”  What Solomon wants – and knows that he needs— is something more than intellect or knowledge. What Solomon asks God for is the ability to be open to divine instruction as a leader of God’s people.

To appreciate Solomon’s wish, we have only to consider our tendency to avoid divine instruction or involvement in our affairs, both private and public.  Consider that Solomon was both a leader and a king, with great power and tremendous resources at his command.  Most leaders, indeed most human beings, after becoming successful, believe their success to be attributable to their hard work alone.  Particularly in this country, we are enamored by self-achievement.  It begins at an early age.  I will never forget the high school student who had tremendous success academically, and when asked if he wished to thank anyone for his success, said that his success was his alone.  He conveniently “forgot” that his parents cooked his meals, did his laundry, provided a quiet place to study, and worked hard so that he could focus entirely on his academics.  As one commentator has put it, in biblical thinking, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.[1]

Despite his great authority, Solomon acknowledges that he is a servant.  Several times, Solomon refers to himself as a servant of God and of God’s people.  Solomon realizes that there is someone far greater than him—namely, God.  He also realizes that his father, King David, was answerable to this God, and that tending to this covenantal relationship was an important factor in the quality of his father’s life.

In addition, Solomon realizes how precious little he really knows.  Anthony de Mello, the well-known Jesuit priest, once wrote:  “Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance…When you come to see you are not as wise today as you thought you were yesterday, [then] you are wiser today.”[2]

Have we become overly confident in our own expertise, skill, or knowledge, even knowledge about God’s ways?  According to our scripture, this can be dangerous.  A person who believes that they have all the answers or who trusts that their understanding is the only one possible will not have a “listening heart” for God’s instruction or guidance when it comes.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor, once said, “To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”[3]

Friends, let us pray today that we do not lose sight of what is essential—in our homes, in our nation, or in our world.  Let our hearts be open to listen for God’s revelation, whether it comes to us in the quiet of the night, the tedium of the daily commute, or through the struggle of lives that are very different from our own.  And when God’s revelation and vision comes to us, let us not avoid its implications for our private lives, our communal life together, or our civic well-being.

 

 

 

[1] Dennis Bratcher, “A Lost Future: Reflections on 1 Kings 3: 7-15, 11:1-6,” The Voice, CRI/Voice Institute,

www.cresourcei.org

[2] One Minute Meditations, cited from Spiritwalk, www.geocities.com/~spiritwalk/demello.htm#wisdom

[3] Bonhoeffer’s full quote is: “To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.”  www.wisdomquotes.com