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St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

"A Tale of Two Kingdoms": Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

The readings today tell of two kingdoms. The first is a kingdom of man, the second the kingdom of God.

The reading from 1 Kings describes the dream of King Solomon. It is the beginning of Solomon’s reign, not long after the death of King David. The Lord appears and offers Solomon whatever he wants. David’s son praises God for his faithfulness to his father and acknowledges that God has made Solomon David’s successor. Solomon humbles himself, referring to himself as “only a little child,” claiming “I do not know how to go out or come in.” Solomon asks only for an understanding mind to govern God’s people, to discern between good and evil. Although David had been a great warrior, David did not act diligently in addressing the legal claims of his subjects. Solomon famously would be different.

In the dream, God is pleased by Solomon’s answer. God rewards Solomon not only with a wise and discerning mind but also with long life, riches, and the lives of his enemies.

The dream is excellent propaganda, but Solomon’s self-description is a little too humble. Far from being a little child, Solomon came to power by displaying cunning and ruthlessness worthy of the War of the Roses or Game of Thrones. His mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan secured David’s selection of Solomon as his successor just before David’s death, outflanking an attempt by David’s oldest son, Adonijah, to become king. While sparing Adonijah’s life while their father lives, Solomon soon takes advantage of a misstep by his half-brother to execute him. He banishes the priest who supported Adonijah’s bid for power. To clear away another supporter of his now-deceased rival, Solomon has the head of the military murdered even as the officer claimed sanctuary at the altar of the Lord. His rivals purged, Solomon secures his temporal power with a marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, trusting in that great power for help. Only then does he have his dream about God’s favor.

Solomon’s reign is famous for the wealth he gathered to his kingdom, including tribute paid to him by foreign rulers. Many of those rulers came to him to hear his wisdom. He reorganized the kingdom, establishing a taxation system. In a move far too similar to that of the oppression by Pharaoh of the Hebrews before the exodus, Solomon conscripted labor for his public works, lavishly building the temple, his palace, and his administrative center.

At the end of his life, King Solomon strayed from the Lord. He loved and married hundreds of foreign wives. Under their influence, he followed foreign gods in addition to the one God. Angered, the Lord created rebellions against Solomon. The empire began to fall apart. While the Lord allowed Solomon to keep a united kingdom, after Solomon’s death, God stripped away the northern ten tribes into a different state. Beset by rivalries and foreign threats, the Hebrews would never again be so powerful.

In Solomon’s kingdom, the fight for oneself was what was most important, most praiseworthy. Even at the cost of others’ lives, success was all that mattered. We all know who Solomon was. Few of us recognize the name Adonijah. Glory and wealth counted in this kingdom, even if others were enslaved as a result. The tragedy in this kingdom is that the glory and the wealth faded away, which is the fate of all temporal kingdoms.

Life in the kingdom in the Gospel of Matthew stands in sharp contrast to that of Solomon’s kingdom. The kingdom of heaven, called the kingdom of God by the other gospel writers, is not a place. It is not limited to any time. It never ends. The kingdom of God exists in the here and now, but because of our limitations, we have more work to do to bring it fully into the world.

What is this kingdom of God? First, it is political, not merely personal. Jesus did not talk about “God’s guide to self-improvement.” He repeatedly said “kingdom.” His use of that word was no accident. Jesus used that word even though his listeners were under the rule of the Roman emperor and of puppet rulers subservient to Rome. He used the words “kingdom of God” because his listeners were under the authority of other kingdoms. The kingdom of God is a challenge to the existing human political structure. It was so then; it is so now.

Ever since Christianity became the religion of rulers, the church has sought to deemphasize this political challenge. It is far safer to talk about the kingdom of God in terms of personal responsibility, of our personal moral duties. A person may be as pious or personally generous as she wishes with her own resources. We rightly look up to her for being a better person, for being kinder and more generous to others. We honor those who give of their time, treasure, and talent for the service of others, particularly for the least fortunate. We call some of them saints.

Once someone advocates changing the political and especially the economic structure of the country to further the kingdom of God, our opinions often change. “Saint” may not be the adjective that comes to mind for such a person. But if God is our ruler, then as a society we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. As a society, we must address the same issues for our neighbors as we would for ourselves and our families. Instead of a personal, moral obligation to donate some time and money, in his kingdom God calls us to greatly improve the lives of neighbors in our city, state, country, and world, even at a sacrifice to ourselves. How different is life in Solomon’s kingdom—or in our United States—in which we first take care of the needs and wants of our families before we consider what we will do for others.

Life in the kingdom of God creates a tension between what is best for ourselves and what God requires. The kingdom of God is a tough challenge. In a nation that is wealthy compared to most others, we can start to understand why it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

In each of today’s parables, Jesus tells a brief story to make a point about the nature of the kingdom of God. While the subject matter of each story came from ordinary life, the listener has to struggle with the story’s meaning. That struggle is the power of the parable. Each listener must wrestle with the parable to discern what the meaning may be. There is no right answer written in the gospel.

As great is our challenge of living in the kingdom of God, these parables can offer encouragement. Here are some interpretations from me. Like the mustard seed, the effect of the gospel may start small, but because of God, its effects will be great. Great change can start in small ways. A woman can refuse to give up her seat in the front of a bus. You and I can ask questions, advocate for a better, more just society, even if only in small ways at first.

Like the mystery of yeast, which acts unseen to create leavened bread, we do not see or understand much of God’s work. We can change minds and courses of action without ever suspecting we are the cause. We may feel we are alone, only to find others share our same concerns, the same desire to further the kingdom of God.

Finally, recognizing how afraid we may be to commit to life in God’s kingdom, Jesus teaches with the remaining parables how compelling that life is. These parables teach us that to give all for the kingdom of God is not a sacrifice. There is no better use for what we have than to obtain the kingdom. Perhaps we should consider how much we stand to gain by living in God’s kingdom—if economic disparities were addressed, if lives were not disposable, if the needs of all were genuinely and equitably met, if we did not have to look away from the suffering of others, if the stresses on us of living in an unjust world were eased. Perhaps instead of long life, riches, or the lives of our enemies, we should ask God for a wise and discerning mind to see how living both personally and as a society in His kingdom would be our greatest joy.

 

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