When it seems like my sermons are long, I want you to remember that we have covered nearly the entire Old Testament narrative Genesis‒Chronicles in 8 weeks.
Israel is now split into two kingdoms: the northern, whose capital was Samaria; and the southern, also called Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem. One hundred more years have passed since the time of Elisha, the prophet in our story last week. Elisha was a preacher in the northern kingdom, still called Israel.
Micah was a prophet in the south, as was Isaiah; only, Isaiah was a headliner prophet, working out of Jerusalem. Isaiah had the ear of the king, as well as religious authorities. Micah was a small-town preacher from Bethlehem. He and Isaiah agreed on a few things: that Jerusalem was wildly corrupt, for one thing, in danger of being destroyed by the Assyrians. The northern kingdom has collapsed, been razed, and swept into Assyrian territory. Judah is merely occupied, functioning at the benevolence of the Assyrian king. However, Micah is less optimistic than Isaiah. More likely, he's an independent-contractor-kind-of preacher, less beholden to king or congregation, so he speaks more freely.
He's of the mind that Jerusalem is as doomed as Samaria, Judah as doomed as Israel. Not hard to see why he didn't have a job. Micah's pitch was that Judah's hope lay not in avoiding defeat, but rather in persisting in faith when defeat inevitably comes. Someday a new king will rise, he says. From the little town of Bethlehem. And his kingdom shall be different, not like any king or kingdom ever seen before.
Christians like us attach Jesus to that prophecy and mostly ignore the rest – at least the parts about disobedience and defeat and suffering. Maybe we do that because the defeat of Judah didn’t happen for almost 200 more years, and to us that's a really long time. But 200 years is only about two inches on a Bible page, a speck in the history of time. Nevertheless, we each only have this one life in which to do our part. One life with which to listen to Micah and to choose to hear or to ignore him, to admit that we do know what God requires – justice, kindness, humility – and that we are capable of all three, or to keep pretending that the principalities and powers of this world are somehow magically going to transform a dumpster fire into something other than a holocaust.
Let's pray: We wish you wanted something more exciting, O God, than our daily trust in you. We wish to do great works for you,to change the world for you, to be a great church for you. We pray for wisdom to listen to what you have already said, to do what we already know to do. Amen.
"National theology" is a term I first found in John Bright's book on the history of Israel. Others use it as well. National theology, in ancient Israel's case, was a geopolitical- religious identity of chosen-ness – a belief that God was on Israel’s side in every situation – that was thought to be natural to the very order of creation itself. Inasmuch as God made the heavens and the earth, God favored Israel. By God's own nature, God would preserve Israel in all circumstances. It was who God was. National theology, rooted in David instead of Moses, in monarchy instead of relationship, had no element of covenant. People could behave as they pleased, and God would replace bad kings as God saw fit.
The prophets pointed out the problems in this perversion of faith, faith in a government that impoverished and oppressed its people in order to expand territory, enrich the monarchy, then fund the troops needed to defend those lands and riches. Making alliances with enemies, while provoking division within. A clergy that sucked up to that government to their own benefit, leaving worship polluted and the truth untold.
All these things the prophets were warning Israel and Judah about, long before Micah. Reminding the kings and clergy and people of the conditions of covenant, in sermons nobody much listened to. Then, what was supposed to be impossible, happened. Assyria annihilated the northern kingdom, Israel. It jerked a knot in the tail of that national theology.
You might think Judah would take a new listen to the prophets. You'd be wrong. Remember what Jesus said about that: “A prophet gets no hearing in his hometown.” John Bright says there are two choices for die-hard nationalists (by the way, Bright wrote this in the 1950's). The first choice is fanatical confidence in a failing theology. There is no challenge too difficult, no mountain too high, no battle too fierce; just like when David struck down Goliath, God will forever be on our side too.
King Hezekiah fits this to a T. He was king during Micah's preaching career. He was determined to reform Judah, to restore the two kingdoms, even. He staged rebellions against Assyria, even rebuilding parts of Jerusalem's waterways in the event of a siege. All his rebellions failed, and Jerusalem was besieged, of course, with Hezekiah trapped there like a bird in a cage, the Bible says. What in the world made him think he'd win that? A detailed story shaped over long history – of God's providence, no matter what.
The second choice Bright calls, simply, cowardly faith: faith led, guided, and directed by fear. Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, is a study in the cowardly faith approach. When his father died, Manasseh couldn't kiss Assyria's foot fast enough. He undid every Hezekiah reform, and Judah survived as vassals until Assyria fell to Babylon. And in the midst of governments and religion, boomeranging from one form of nationalism to another, there are the prophets. There is Micah. We might hear him. But his people then could not. Because they would not.
From chapter 6, Oh my people, what I have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! You remember this, right? We read it every year. It's the liturgy of reproach which we read on Good Friday. For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, And redeemed you from the house of slavery. A litany of God's saving acts in the time of covenant.
Micah speaks for God, begging to know why the people have forgotten, why they have chosen to treat God this way. Then he turns, Micah does, praying on behalf of people who have not asked him to, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah mocks their cynicism: Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
If Micah mocks them, it is because they have mocked God. And why might they do that? – because people are terrible? Yes. But also, people are generally the most terrible when they are the most afraid. And I can see why rank and file Judeans might have been afraid. There was no good news from the north, from Israel. None from Jerusalem. Leaders who were supposed to know what to do, clearly did not. Every day was a new dumpster fire, if you will.
In that space, Micah delivers the sermon for which he's remembered: God has already told you, O People, what is good and what the Lord requires. To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. It does make a lovely cross-stitch, a nice painted plaque or bulletin cover. But really, as an alternative way of life to Empire? As a way of life in times like these?
Anyone else feel like things are just a little extra crazy lately? I read the news and think, “Is this The Onion? No. This is really happening.” With the Bible open on my lap, I find this text and wonder, Am I supposed to believe that justice, kindness, and humility are the alternative to. . . democracy? And friends, here’s the thing. If we’re going to compare the times, we have to admit that our empire is NOT Israel. We are Assyria, running roughshod over the little places of the world, taking what we want because we want it and we can, then needing bigger armies to defend it all.
Justice, kindness, and humility? Really? To which I hear Micah responding, Why are you asking questions you already know the answer to? Is it because you don't like the answer and are hoping for another? That's usually why we keep praying, don't you know? God hardly ever strays out of these three lanes: justice, kindness, humility. But these three don’t much suit our ego, do they? Imagining that the things God really wants are those ten thousand rivers of oil? How famous would we be if we gave that? And since we can't, well then, we're off the hook.
It's easier to pretend God wants what we can't give than to accept that God wants what we have: our breath, our will, our privilege, along with whatever influence and energy and resources are therein. God wants those things willingly given to God's purposes. Because God made us and keeps us, because God knows what's best for us. And when we let ourselves know the truth that we know, friends, we know that trusting in empires is a fool's game. You know that, right? Every empire from Egypt until now has the same things in common: they are self-indulgent, abusive, and arrogant; and none of them has ever lasted.
We are citizens of an empire, an empire no less self-indulgent, abusive or arrogant than any which came before. An empire that will not last forever. Does it scare you to think that? Or make you angry to be asked to think that? In empire years, ours is a baby. So maybe it will be around a long time. But back to the question. Am I seriously suggesting that justice, kindness, and humility are the alternative to Empire? I think Micah is. I think the whole Bible does. I think Jesus does, when disciples shake him awake in terror on that boat in the storm, and he says, what are you so afraid of? As if there's nothing in this world we can't lose and be okay without.
Chosen-ness, biblical chosen-ness, always exists as an alternative to Empire. (Walter Brueggemann said that.) What it means to me, is that we can either consider ourselves God's chosen people, or we can consider ourselves an empire. But we cannot, biblically, faithfully, be both. One must trump the other, because the rules are simply too different. Empire demands selfishness, cynicism, and pride. Armies, money, leadership, alliances. Aggression, coercion, and power. Unyielding power. And faith in the power of men and women to save humanity. And friends, the best of us are not interested in saving all of us. Only God cares for such a project as that.
God’s project operates on justice, kindness, and humility. They are so little and undramatic. So quotidian, if you will. Do you know that word? It means daily and never done. And, most of all, ordinary. Like laundry and dirty dishes. No one anywhere imagines laundry done once and for all. My laundry will be done when I'm dead, and probably there will still be a load waiting to go into the dryer. We can do justice, kindness, and humility all day today and have just as much to do tomorrow and the day after. Because tomorrow will have its own set of human beings in need of all three.
Micah was a small-town preacher from Bethlehem. Like King David. And Jesus. Between them, actually. A lovely preacher, though virtually ignored in his own time and place. The essence of his preaching was hope. Quotidian hope. Hope re-centered in little-ness. In the ordinary, in the everyday lives of people who know God made us and saved and sustains us. Hope re-centered away from Empire, away from government and religion.
Both are corrupt beyond redemption, Micah was not afraid to say. He said that the only hope his country had left lay in whether or not ordinary, god-fearing people would choose to do what they already knew God wanted them to do. Would you pray with me?
Naaman was a foreigner – and Syrian at that. Syrian, mind you. He was general of the army of Syria, called Aram in the story. Naaman's Aramean army had recently crushed Israel and carried young girls away as slaves, one of whom lived in Naaman's own house. Today we call such men – what? Syrian militants who attack other countries and enslave their citizens? Terrorists, right? We call them terrorists.
Not the Bible, though. The Bible's adjective for Naaman the foreigner is “highly favored of the Lord.” The Bible says it was the Lord who gave him the victory in battle, battle against Israel whose children were captured and enslaved. Friends, I cannot say the Bible has an answer for every question of our lives. But one thing I know for sure: there are more lessons here than we can learn in one lifetime.
Would you pray with me? How you, O God, manage to teach redemption out of violence and war is a mystery to us. And yet, our own hearts are neither free nor clean. We covet. We wish harm upon our enemies. We need much faith if we are to let ourselves know the truth of our own fear and weakness. Let us read and hear your word with faith, we pray. Amen.
How rarely I open my commentary on 2nd Kings became clear from a note I found there, dated July 14th, 1998. “Annette, congrats on being officially voted in. That made me very happy. I'm leaving for a 5-day vacation so I won't be there Wednesday or Sunday. Rob D. already knows I won't be there Sunday. Also, here are the ushers for Sunday: Andy C., Michael U., Alisa T. Andy and Michael will find a 4th person, perhaps Mitchell, and Andy has the notes I made about what needs to happen. I think they'll do a great job. See you next week. Greg.”
The church knows something of the healing of Naaman – more from Luke, chapter 4, than from 2nd Kings, chapter 5. Jesus' mention of it made his hometown congregation so angry they tried to throw him off a cliff – on the same day they praised his parents for what a good son they'd raised. They tried to kill him, simply for pointing out that God chose to heal a Syrian leper rather than a Jewish one.
How afraid does a people have to be, to get so worked up over the idea of God being kind to foreigners? There's the story-you-know; today is the story-we-don't-know, the story of Gehazi. Gehazi isn't a foreigner. He's Jewish – and religious. A prophet in training. An assistant pastor, we might call him in church. In the service of Elisha, 2nd Kings says, as Samuel had been to Eli once upon a time.
Naaman is headed home from Israel now, healed both of leprosy and his arrogance. He professes faith in the God of Israel, and he promises henceforth to worship Yahweh only. Furthermore, as a symbol of his gratitude, Naaman offers Elisha a fortune: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. Two to three million dollars to us. Every penny of which Elisha refused, as was – and is – entirely proper. The healing of God is not for sale. The grace of God is not for sale.
Instead, Naaman asks for two things. He asks for some dirt – two mule loads are enough, apparently – to take home and spread around so he can worship Yahweh on the ground where he'd first met Yahweh. Secondly, he asks for some pliancy around the interpre- tation of the first commandment. “Yes, I'm only really going to worship the God of Elisha,” he says, “but I still have to work for Aram, which means I'm going to have to pretend to worship those other gods. So, just know, really, I don't mean it.”
Naaman is gone from Elisha just long enough for Gehazi to drum up his angle on the offering Naaman mentioned. Gehazi catches up to him with an adjusted explanation. Turns out there's need for a small gift, after all – just one talent of silver and two sets of clothes. $15,000 and the clothes. Some other prophets just arrived and need to be outfitted. Can Naaman help?
Classic, I am telling ya. I've been in ministry a long time. It’s a classic, minister, sideways way of pretending their malfeasance is for the benefit of others. Naaman couldn’t be happier. He gives Gehazi double what he asked for, plus servants to carry it back – 150 pounds of silver, plus the clothes. Gehazi has his hidey hole picked out, and he's back at work before Elisha could miss him.
Of course Elisha missed him. Elisha is a prophet. We know Elisha always knows what’s going on around him. Furthermore, Elisha is Gehazi’s teacher, his mentor, his spiritual director. Elisha gives Gehazi the chance to turn this mess around. Gehazi declines. Then, Elisha sounds just like Bill C.'s grandma, when he and his brother were acting up: “I seen what you done and I know what you're up to.” Elisha goes on: the leprosy that once afflicted Naaman would now cling to Gehazi and his descendants.
The question that clings to me as the story closes is: did Naaman also know? Did Naaman also know that Gehazi was lying? Did Gehazi really fool him or did Naaman give away the treasure knowing full well he was being swindled? It's always the question, isn't it, when we're asked to help? Whether or not we help depends upon who's asking – and if we believe they're being true. Because, unlike Naaman – who felt privileged to be able to give – our own sense of privilege too often has us feeling like stakeholders, complicit in the outcome of the investment we're being asked to make.
What if Naaman knew? What if he knew and gave Gehazi twice what he asked for anyway? Does that make him crazy or faithful? And is that question “either/or”? Everyone knows, don't be like Gehazi. “Don't be like Gehazi” is a perfectly good sermon. It’s also a really good theme for a mid-career pastors' conference.
But what about “be like Naaman”? The Bible says he was God's highly favored. We first hear of him from Jesus, but it's almost as if Naaman's heard of Jesus too: the things Jesus says about giving everything you have to follow him; stories of Zacchaeus,and Jesus’s friend Mary and her perfume. “Be like Naaman,” who was healed not only of his gross skin disease but his arrogance – the arrogance with which he insulted Elisha in the beginning, that turned to gratitude that had him on his knees ready to give Elisha all he had at the end, because of what God had done for him at his baptism in the Jordan river.
“Be like Naaman,” who couldn't wait to give away his fortune to anyone who asked, apparently, regardless of their motive or their reason – as if he didn't even want it, as if it didn't much matter if he was rich or poor, or what other people did or didn't do. As if what mattered is what God had done for him.
Of the dozen sermons in this story, one runs below them all: God does as God chooses. And if we can get quiet enough to listen, the same true things stay true. Hear two of those true things:
ONE: God loves whom God loves, whether we like it or not. And however articulately we state or how deeply we believe in this world's most sacred standards of who is right or wrong or good or bad or who belongs or doesn't, we'll never pre-determine God’s preference. And if the Bible is any indicator at all, God’s preference leans to the poor, the outcast, the foreigner.
TWO: Knowing God changes people's values. Before he knew the Lord, Naaman cared deeply about his own reputation. How he was greeted mattered to him. Afterward, he bowed in gratitude to the same man. Jesus said, Give to anyone who asks. Naaman did. Was he a fool? was he a victim? or was he, simply, a very grateful, faithful man with his priorities finally in order? And if he was, what does that mean to you, a person of faith today?
Has your experience of God left you more grateful than arrogant, more generous than suspicious, and more sure than ever that God chooses and God favors whomever God chooses and favors, for God's purposes in the world today? – just like God has always done.
Would you pray with me?
Having promised certain of his enemies their blood feud would die with him, King David finally does die. But he dies a liar, because with his last breath he instructs his son Solomon to kill all those enemies. Thus, murder is King Solomon's first use of kingly power.
Solomon, you'll remember, was not natural heir to Israel's throne. Nathan the preacher and Bathsheba his mother colluded to coerce the dying David to skip over his oldest living son, Adonijah, in order to crown Solomon. So naturally, Solomon is also forced to kill Adonijah – along with others, including his father's fixer, Joab. It's ugly business, being king.
Then King Solomon lies down and dreams that he's wise and he'll be rich to boot. God says so, in his dream at least, and the church of my childhood more or less believed the same: that, based on Solomon, wisdom is the thing to ask for. Pray like you don't want wealth and power in order for God to give it to you. Those same preachers always smiled a little sideways at all of Solomon's wives and ladies. One thousand of them, the Bible says; the marriages, at least, forged for political and economic alliances, Egypt being the first. Egypt!
The Bible of my childhood was simpler. Solomon was wise and he built the temple. That's what we knew and loved about him, which only works so long as we skipped acres of scripture. Our Thursday Bible Study students never skip those chapters. One summed Solomon up this way: “the whole thing is just so smarmy” (think of The Godfather ).
And therein is the problem – the problem of finding our way as God's people, using people as our guides; the problem of confusing God with people who put God’s name on their own dreams; the problem with being more interested in the ways of kings and presidents than we are interested in the ways of God. We are inevitably forced to shave the parts off his character that don’t feed the story we need, to have the life in God we dream of for ourselves.
Then the scripture offers up a story of two mothers and their baby sons, a possible side door into the hall of justice, where God-blessed kings judge prostitutes.
Let's pray. Some days and places, more than others, O God, bear no resemblance to grace. Where hurt and hate and constant pain thrive like weeds, choking every kindness trying to take root. “How to live in hope and faith, O God?” we come asking once again. Amen.
If the story were thirty-one books later, we'd call it a parable. A parable of justice, maybe. Two women – working mothers; business partners, it appears; and housemates, along with their kids. We don't usually get this much detail about such lowly characters. Each has a newborn son. One baby died. Both claim the living son is her own.
Their dispute lands before the king himself. Are these the moments for which he dreamed of being wise? Settling such small-time cases? Is his outrageous solution some indication of his small regard for everyone involved? “We'll slice the child in two,” he says, “and give each mother half.” My brain and belly hate this story, because I've read chapter 2. King Solomon's not playing here. He’ll do it! This is the kind of king he is.
But if I try to think in parables, I can keep listening. Maybe wisdom's aim isn't fairness, but to cleave open the truth. In which case, it does. My childhood church said, essentially, all's well that ends well. Except, it isn't and it doesn't – does it? My brain feels better, but my gut still hurts. Is my gut less God-given than my brain?
At least one mama is always without her baby, and all is not well in the world. Especially if the people of God have agreed to admire a king who proposes to cleave a child in two. Who is the one who taught us in parables? And how did he teach us to hear them? What does he teach us here? When we sit long enough with this story as parable, we will realize who the hero is . . . and he is not Solomon. She is the second mother. The one who will sacrifice her own motherhood before she'll agree to cleave a child.
Solomon may dream that this is wisdom – and all of history with him. But she'll have no part of it. She doesn't change her story, but neither will she bend to evil. Life isn't “either/or” to her. So justice can't be either. And yet, amazingly, we give all the credit to the king. It's he who saved the day, according to his fans. Finally, for a parable to work, it can't be about the characters, but about the listeners. About us, about seeing the light it trips in us, seeing ourselves in that light . . . and how we need to change.
I know the second mama is the teacher, the one showing Jesus to me, reminding me:
● that to follow Christ is never to be surprised at how broken this world is;
● how badly the best of humanity is prone to act, especially from places of great power;
● that the fact that kings and presidents know what is right is no guarantee they'll do it;
● that if we are surprised to see them protect themselves at the cost of human decency, we are the foolish ones;
● that this lowly woman before a king – she is how God is in parables. God never pushes front and center, never speaks in the loudest voice. God waits on the porch and watches for us to come around;
● that the fact that Solomon was “smarmy” did not make him of no use to God – thank God, or we are all useless too.
And of his dream I will say this: he knew what a king was supposed to do. Give me, O God, an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern so many people? (my paraphrase)
But knowing right from wrong is not wisdom and neither is it justice, if there is a difference. This woman the Bible makes sure we know was a prostitute is the hero of the story. We can't unknow it once we do. We know we ought to be like her, should we ever face her choices. Justice consists of the choices we make in the midst of the terror and tragedy of this world. But justice in the daylight is hard. We're more like the other mother than we can readily admit. Fair matters to us.
If we've been broken, taken from, or offended, we are as likely as her to deny others what we don't have, rather than let mercy and goodness thrive. The difference between the two women is what Richard Rohr calls moral conversion, the difference between fairness and God's justice. Fairness means no one gets more or better than Mama Number One. Justice allows the mother of the living child to act against her own self-interest for the good of all people. That is moral conversion.
Moral conversion is critical to life in Christ. Nothing suggests it's easy. But neither does such faith ask us to pretend that evil isn't evil or that broken things aren't broken. We can hate how hard and hurtful this world is – and choose to live by love, trusting God is always there: above; below; behind; ahead – like we pray at the end of every Sunday. Let's pray now.