Monday, July 27, 2009

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, "Kings"

(Sermon 7/26/09, 2 Samuel 11:1-15, John 6:1-21)


Kings

As we begin our ministry together, my goal is, over the next several weeks, to preach on some key themes, some foundational pieces that I feel are important for you and for me to think about as we start out. What’s at the core of what we do? Why are we in ministry together? What does God want from us? We’ve already talked about Welcome, and what that means, although it is surely a theme we will return to in the Fall. Last week we talked about how we sometimes try to create God in our image, rather than letting God create us, plant us, build us up. Later this summer we’ll be talking about repentance, discernment, and setting priorities, and I’ll talk about the goals that I’ve set for my first year in ministry with you. This week, we’re looking at another key theme: leadership. What makes a good leader in the church? Who is our leader? Of course, we know from Children’s Time last Sunday that God is our leader, that we’re followers of Jesus. But what can we learn about leadership from the way Jesus leads?

To look at the issue of leadership, we have two scripture lessons today about Kings – a human king, in the most famous and beloved Old Testament King, David, and a king of another kind altogether – Jesus. Our lesson from 2 Samuel describes a scene with King David that reads like a gossipy news story: “It happened late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch,” we read. He sees from his roof, a typical place to relax in an ancient Hebrew home, a woman bathing, and he sees that she is very beautiful. Here is where the story could have stopped. David could have let things alone, and put the woman out of his mind. He was a married man. But he was also a man with a great deal of power, and few who would question his actions. David didn’t leave things alone. Instead, he sends someone to inquire about the woman, and hears a report back: She is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Again, David could leave things alone – he’s married – and she is married. But instead, he sends for her, and sleeps with her, and soon after, she tells David she is pregnant.

The story just seems to get worse: instead of now owning up to his wrongdoing, David tries for an elaborate cover-up. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is a soldier, in the midst of war. David calls for him, and encourages him to go home and be with his wife – so that Bathsheba could let Uriah believe that he was the father of her child. Uriah will not, however, when so many others are at war, enjoy the comforts of home. When this plan fails, David makes the most chilling decision of all – he has the commander of the forces send Uriah to the front line, to the worst region of fighting, and directs the forces to then back off from Uriah, leaving him alone and vulnerable, so that he will be killed. That’s where our text stops today, but I can tell you that Uriah is killed in war as David plans, and that David then takes Bathsheba as his own wife. This is a portrait of a king – the most beloved king of Israel. True, it is one horrific set of events for an otherwise devoted servant of God. But it is a warning, a reminder, of what can happen when someone has power, and authority, given by God, and takes them and uses them instead for their own gains, their own purposes, exploiting others in the process.

And then we have a completely different story, a complete change of scene, as we read the passage of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing in a large crowd of people who’ve been following Jesus and the disciples around the countryside. And rather then sending them on long treks back home, Jesus wants the disciples to provide them food. When the disciples seem clueless, Jesus gathers 5 loaves and 2 fish from a small boy, blesses it, and hands it out. Everyone finds they have enough to eat. But whatever miracle took place here isn’t our focus this time around – today I want us to focus on how the crowds responded to Jesus and the meal they ate. He fed them, and the people suddenly started calling Jesus a prophet. “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” they say. And we read that they want to make Jesus their king, on the spot, but he flees the scene: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

The crowds want to make Jesus king, this man who can provide for their physical needs – heal them and feed them. And it is hard to blame them. First-century Jews were living in an occupied land. The Romans controlled their homeland, put limits on their religious practices, taxed them, and controlled their government. The Jewish people wanted independence. They wanted the Romans out. And for many of them, they were ready to do whatever it took to make this happen – they wanted revolution. A political revolution. An uprising, where Rome was removed from power, and holy rule was restored. A return to a King like David. And in Jesus, they see someone who has power and authority. And so they want to make him king.

Do we understand this – this compulsion the people had to make Jesus king? Can we relate to the feelings of those in the crowds who were ready to use any means necessary to get Rome out of power, out of their sacred and holy lands, out of control of their lives? Can we put ourselves in a first century mindset for a minute? Jesus keeps preaching about the kingdom of God being at hand. That’s the good news Jesus is always talking about. And here he is, healing people from disease and sickness, providing food for hungry people, and teaching with a wisdom and authority that not even the religious leaders of the day seem to have. Wouldn’t you want Jesus to be the king? And really, what would have been so wrong with that? After all, the golden days of Israel, the good old days that everyone would have talked about were days when a good king ruled over mighty Israel – the days of King David. And isn’t Jesus even from the House of David? Who better to be made king? Finally, things can be restored, the holiness that once was can be regained, things can be right for God’s people again. If you start to think about it this way, doesn’t it make sense for Jesus to be made king? If God wants God’s kingdom on earth, isn’t Jesus-as-king a good way to make it so?

Understanding the first century mindset is the first step to learning from our texts. The next is to ask ourselves if we’re really so different today. Maybe we don’t think we’d want Jesus to be our king. But I wonder if things have really changed so much. Aren’t we in fact in desperate need to fix our mess? To overhaul the crises we are currently facing as a nation? If we could find a leader who could end wars, bolster the economy, give us jobs, bail out companies, save our homes, shore up our Social Security, provide health care at low cost, fix the environment, give food to the hungry, educate the children, and keep us the nations of nations, wouldn’t we elect that person? In fact, isn’t that what we expect, in some way, our president to do? And don’t we think about the good old days? I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about former presidencies, and the way things used to be. And we certainly have those conversations in the church – not just this church, but the Church with a capital C – don’t we? About the golden era, when the pews were full? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could just fix things? Make it right? And what would we do, what would be willing to do, to make such a thing possible? If we thought we had a person who could make things right, what wouldn’t we do to get that person into the position of power? Maybe we’re not in first century Jerusalem. But maybe we can understand exactly why the people would want Jesus to be king.

So maybe the better question is this: why didn’t Jesus want to be king? Why didn’t Jesus want to be the next King David? Why didn’t Jesus ask God to command legions of angels for him? Why didn’t Jesus mobilize those huge, waiting crowds, to get rid of Rome? If Jesus is the Savior, why didn’t God put him in place to fix the mess we’ve been making of things? Wouldn’t that have been simpler than trying to get this whole kingdom of God thing to spread by word of mouth through faulty disciples who deny and betray Jesus at every turn? Why leave so much up to us? How is Jesus saving us, exactly, if things are still so bad, and if we still have no one in charge who can make it better?

Well, we may not have Kings today, not in the way people in biblical times experienced them. But we certainly have people in charge – authority figures that we have to deal with and recognize and reckon with, don’t we? Who has authority over you? Your employer has authority over you. The Bishop of the North Central New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has authority over me, to appoint me as pastor where he would like. The Book of Discipline, the United Methodist book of order and church polity, has authority and power over me. This congregation has authority over me, even as I exercise authority in the congregation – our relationship is reciprocal. The government has authority over aspects of our lives. The IRS has power over us. Police officers have authority over us. Elected community officials exercise authority. The military has authority and power to exercise. But where does this power come from? What is the source of this authority? How do these people get this power?

In almost all these cases, we give authority to others to have over us, either directly or indirectly. We elect our government officials. We elect most of our church leaders. My authority as a pastor comes hopefully with God’s blessings, but was given to me at my ordination after gaining approval from a staff-parish relations committee, a district committee on ordained ministry, a conference board of ordained ministry, and an executive session of the clergy at annual conference. Even the IRS gets its authority over us indirectly from us. And whenever we have authority like this, power over others like this, that power is subject to becoming corrupt. We see corruption in the government at time in all levels. We’re reading today about the corruption of power in King David, who was one of the best Kings the Bible has to offer us. And the church is certainly and unfortunately not immune to abuse of power either. What’s the famous quote? “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

How, then, does God have power? How can Jesus have power and not have this power become corrupt? At last, we come to the crux, the key, the core. In the cross, in Jesus’ crucifixion, in his willingness to submit to death, in his commitment to God’s will that caused him to not resist but instead to give his own life, we see authority that is not given by us. We see power that is not lorded over us. Because, as usual, God turns things upside down from what we expect. God’s power, Jesus’ authority – this authority comes not from strength, but from weakness. This power that Jesus has comes not from exalting over others, but from being humbled before others. By emptying himself, Jesus became full, and by submitting to God’s will and the power others sought to have over him, Jesus was filled with true authority. So Jesus is King – not as the people wanted, but as the truest leader leads – by bringing himself low, where he is most needed, not by raising himself up over us, beyond our reach.

When we talk about leadership in the church, the community, the world, we’re looking for leaders who lead like Jesus led. And that means that we’re looking for leaders who are ready to be servants of all. We’re looking for those emptying out their own plans and ambitions so that they can fill up on God’s plans. We’re looking for those want to be filled with God’s power, not possess power of their own. We’re looking for those who are at the end of the line, making sure no one is left behind or lost, rather than those who are first and up front. That’s how Jesus led, and we still call him king.

Amen.

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