Summit Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2009
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
A Listening Heart
I have a friend whose daughter graduated from 8th grade this year. Melissa's an intelligent person, but she's always struggled in school and gotten so-so grades. But this year, something clicked. To her surprise and my friend's, she was on the honor roll the first quarter. And the second and the third. My friend, being both amazed and pleased, in an unguarded moment, told Melissa that if she made the honor roll for the fourth quarter she would get her a laptop. So that fourth quarter, Melissa made sure to do her homework and listen to her teacher. She wanted to learn and was enjoying school more, but there's no denying the thought of the laptop spurred her on. She had what we call an ulterior motive.
The country is in the middle of a debate about healthcare. On all sides people are claiming that their plan would be the best one: that it would help the most people, that it would be fiscally responsible, that it would be the most just or efficient. Although some folks are deliberately spreading lies and misinformation, most people sincerely believe the plan they support would be the best for the nation. But everyone also has a personal stake, a personal interest, in the debate: medical care they like or don't; a job in a hospital or with an insurance company; profits or potential profits from the health industry; a good insurance plan or no way to pay a doctor. For all of us, our self-interest - or what we perceive as our self interest - is likely to influence the plan we believe would be best for everyone. That's not necessarily a bad thing - what's best for us could be best for all - but self-interest can also distort our understanding. At the very least, we must confess to mixed motives for supporting one side or another.
And it's not just in school, or in politics, that it gets complicated. Jesus said to make disciples of all nations, and I know that both the Summit and Mount Airy congregations have made evangelism - what we also call church growth - a top mission priority. And for good reason: we believe that Jesus saves. That Jesus Christ saves us from hopelessness and despair. That through Christ we have forgiveness and eternal life. In the church we find purpose, and love, and we want other people to hear this good news and share in our joy. But we also can't help thinking -- and I include myself in this - that if we had more members, we'd have more money to repair the roof. More money to fix the tower More people to teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, make the coffee and help us meet the budget. Now, if you're a visitor, I hope that doesn't scare you. We really are faithful, vital loving communities that want to welcome you. But I'm going to be upfront: if you're looking for purity, you won't find it here. (Or at First Germantown or Chestnut Hill for that matter).
It's complicated in the Bible, too. In our scripture today God appears to Solomon in a dream and and tells him to ask for whatever he wants. Solomon asks for wisdom. He asks for wisdom, he says, so he may govern God's people with an understanding mind, able to discern between good and evil. There's nothing in this passage to suggest that Solomon had any other motive for asking: indeed, God - who would know - is pleased with Solomon's request, and tells Solomon it will be granted. In church teaching this prayer has been held up as a model. Solomon's wisdom is legendary. The riches and honor he also received from God are seen as a consequence of Solomon's upright heart, not something he was angling for.
But if we step back and read what comes before and after this passage, we may wonder. When Solomon makes his humble petition, recognizing that he has been given the throne by God and claiming to be like a little child, he leaves out the part about how he killed his brother and a few other people to consolidate his power. Solomon also makes no mention of the fact that he's been worshipping God in the so-called high places, something he wasn't supposed to do because the ark was in Jerusalem. But then, Solomon had built his own palace before he got around to building the temple. The Biblical historians note other problems: he enslaved people to complete his over-the-top building projects. He made political marriages with hundreds of wives and concubines and later in life he turned his heart to their Gods. Given his mixed record, we may wonder if there wasn't some calculation in this prayer. There was a well-honored teaching that wisdom would bring honor and prosperity. Even if Solomon was sincere, did he think - maybe on some subconscious level - that if he asked for wisdom the riches would follow? They certainly did. The wisdom God gave brought untold wealth to Solomon and his kingdom. You may know the story of the Queen of Sheba, who came to test Solomon with hard questions after she heard of his wisdom. The Bible doesn't say what hard questions this forerunner to the host of Do You Want to be a Millionaire asked, but apparently Solomon answered so well there was no spirit left in the queen. His answers inspired her to a frenzy of gift-giving - gold and more gold, spices, precious stones, almug wood, lyres and harps. (Solomon gave her some stuff, too.) (1 Kings 10:1 ff) Yes, Solomon asked for wisdom so he could rule with discernment -- but did he have other motives? We may well be suspicious.
We can't say what was in Solomon's heart, but we can say this: whatever mixed motives may have been behind that prayer, God responded. God invited Solomon to speak; and when he asked for wisdom, it was granted. As long as Solomon followed God's way and used his God-given wisdom, God blessed Israel and other peoples. The Bible says all the nations came to hear Solomon's proverbs and songs; it says he also spoke of trees and animals, and birds and reptiles and fish - an early scientist. Solomon kept all the tribes of Israel together, and he built a magnificent temple that was the center of Israel's worship for centuries. Solomon's disobedience towards the end of his reign angered God, but his lack of purity - religious and moral - did not stop God from using his reign for good.
And we can be thankful, for that is how God deals with us as well. We're called to purity. We're called to strive for a clean heart and clear conscience. We're called to discern God's will - what is right and good - from other motives that may drive us. But thank God we don't have to achieve purity before God loves us, responds to us, and uses us for God's purpose. Our desire to be a better student or worker may have more to do with getting a reward or a raise then doing God's will, but that doesn't stop us from achieving. Our political commitments may grow more out of self interest than love of neighbor, and we always have to be asking that, but that won't stop God from using us to reform our health system. Our evangelism and other mission is almost always entwined with other motives besides doing God's will. We act out of yearnings for power, or approval, for desires to hold onto the people and buildings that mean so much to us. We need to be vigilant, to try and discern our will from God's. But our mixed motives don't stop us from being Christ's church. God uses us to spread the good news anyhow. Indeed, if Christ had waited for the church to be pure, pure in its desires and actions, it would still be a tiny tiny sect in the Middle East. So as we pray for wisdom: as we pray for a thankful heart and a discerning mind; let us also thank God for loving and using us in the meantime.
The commentaries by Choon-Leong Seow (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994) and Kathryn Schifferdecker (www.workingpreacher.org) were use din preparing this sermon.