Sunday, October 29, 2023

Sermon: "From Scratch", 1 Kings 12:1-17 (October 29, 2023)

One of the most valuable pieces of preaching advice I ever got is, “Don’t be afraid to throw out your babies.” It doesn’t mean that children and pets should be exiled until the sermon is written (although that definitely would speed up the process significantly). What it means is that inevitably, an especially clever turn of phrase or a particularly insightful point will find its way into your sermon every so often. You will be tempted to preserve that sentence or paragraph at all costs because you like it so much; you may attempt linguistic or interpretive gymnastics in order to make it work. But if it doesn’t strengthen the point of the sermon – or worse, detracts from it – you have to be willing to cut it out. You have to be prepared to let your “baby” go completely for the sake of the message.

I’ve written a lot of great paragraphs that have never seen the light of day because of this advice. But it can be applied to a lot more than sermon writing. Sometimes, no matter how much you love something, no matter how good or helpful it may be on its own, it just doesn’t fit in the context of the bigger picture. If you want to keep moving forward, you can’t keep trying to force it to work; you have to give it up. When I asked for other examples of things that are better to let go of than to try and fix, people mentioned everything from messy French braids to old vehicles to unhealthy marriages. I even have a few friends who’ve left multiple established careers behind because they were no longer fulfilling to them. It turns out that this is pretty solid advice in general.

Sometimes, though, “throwing out your babies” doesn’t just mean letting go; it also means unexpectedly having to start over again from scratch. This week, Protestants around the world commemorate one of the most historically significant examples of starting over from scratch: Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sent his “Ninety-Five Theses” protesting the sale of indulgences to Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg, thereby kicking off the Protestant Reformation.

The thing is, though, that Luther didn’t intend to found a new religious movement.[1] He was a devout German theologian and priest who just wanted to start a conversation with his fellow Catholics. He loved the Church, and only wanted to “throw out” the parts of it that he saw as contrary to the Gospel. He was hoping to “re-form" the shape of the Church without fundamentally changing what it was.

What he discovered, however, was that the religious higher-ups weren’t interested in conversation. He wound up going head-to-head with the pope, and he was ultimately excommunicated in 1521. Which is why, almost ten years after first drafting his Theses, Luther found himself organizing an entirely NEW Church from the ground up. It wasn’t where he had expected to wind up at all, but the choice had been taken out of his hands. Since he hadn’t been able to fix the parts that were (from his perspective) broken, the only option left to him was to start over.

Sometimes, throwing out your babies isn’t enough. Although we often think of “re-form-ation” as merely adjusting the shape of something, there are times that “re-form-ation” actually means giving that thing an ENTIRELY new form – starting over again from scratch. This doesn’t seem like such an important distinction when we’re talking about hairstyles or broken-down cars or things that happened over 500 years ago – it’s easy for us to say, “out with the old and in with the new.” But when we consider it in terms of things that have personal significance to us, things that are fundamental to OUR identity, suddenly the distinction becomes a much bigger deal. When it comes to these sorts of things, we suddenly prefer our reformation in small doses, with as little change as possible.

Today’s scripture reading is a perfect example of this. Rehoboam had inherited a kingdom from his father, Solomon, that was in dire need of reform. It was, colloquially speaking, a hot mess. Solomon had drifted away from God in his later years, and Rehoboam had continued in this pattern – with increasingly unfortunate results. By the time of Rehoboam’s coronation, the monarchy had become more or less a partisan autocracy: the king wielded his power callously, and the tribes in the north were treated little better than slaves.

God had previously warned that half of the kingdom would be torn away from David’s descendants if they didn’t shape up.[2] But Rehoboam doesn’t seem to care. He isn’t willing to give up the free labor and taxes provided by the northern tribes. He isn’t willing to let go of his status as a totalitarian ruler. He isn’t willing to sacrifice his image among “the boys” (that’s the literal meaning of the Hebrew word translated as “the young advisors”). He isn’t willing to constrain his inflated ego (the vulgar idiom about his “baby finger” and his “father’s waist” screams “toxic masculinity”). He refuses to “throw out his babies.” And because of his unwillingness to make these smaller changes for the sake of the bigger picture, the choice is taken out of his hands, and everything falls apart: the nation of Israel splits in two, and Rehoboam loses half of his kingdom.

Things just keep getting worse from there. Eventually, both kingdoms fall to foreign powers, and the people are sent into exile. The kingdom of Israel – the kingdom that the people had begged God for – is over. Although at one point there may have been a chance for things to turn out differently, this ending had become inevitable, all because those with the ability to make the necessary changes were unwilling to do so.

Today, we are watching things fall apart all around us every day. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for all but the uber-wealthy to find affordable housing. Our government is paralyzed by partisan politics. Basic health care is beyond the reach of millions of U.S. Americans; access to mental health care is even worse. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more powerful than ever before. We learned on Wednesday that yet another community has been devastated by gun violence. Some Christians believe that these are signs of the “end times,” and it’s not hard to see where they’re getting this idea from. There are times that it feels like we’re beyond help, and that we’re past the point of being able to fix any of it – that any possible reformation is out of our hands. It seems like all that’s left for us to do is wring our hands, clutch our pearls, and wait for everything to collapse.

But that’s not the lesson we should derive from all of this. First of all, we need to take ownership of what’s going wrong. God doesn’t make bad things happen to us. God didn’t cause Rehoboam to mistreat his subjects. God didn’t engineer Martin Luther’s excommunication. God isn’t behind mass shootings and natural disasters. These are symptoms of human dysfunction, evidence that something is terribly wrong, and that reform is desperately needed. We have to figure out what are the things that have gotten us to this point that we, both individually and collectively, are refusing to let go of, and we need to change them right now.

Even then, it’s possible that despite our best efforts, it’s too little, too late. We may find that we’ve held on to our babies too tightly for too long. We have to face the fact that many of the institutions, traditions, and organizations that we love may be headed towards inevitable demise. This, too, is the natural result of our own dysfunction. God doesn’t cause it, but God also doesn’t stand in the way of the consequences. We’re no better than Rehoboam, so we have to prepare ourselves for this possibility.

But even though the prospect of these endings feels like an earthshattering, insurmountable catastrophe, there’s still good news in all of it. We believe in a God who creates from nothing, who brings life out of death, who works all things for good. For the people of God, no ending, no matter how final, is THE end. Although the erstwhile kingdom of Israel mourned its former life, the people in exile learned how to remain connected to each other and to God without relying on a centralized place for worship. God’s people were not destroyed, even though their beloved kingdom was. Instead, they sprouted anew where they were replanted, and a new, more enduring form of their faith blossomed. The end of their kingdom was an unquestionably devastating loss, but it was also not the end of their story.

If (and when) things fall apart for us, we shouldn’t panic. It’s not the first time such a thing has happened, and it won’t be the last. Every time all has been lost, we’ve seen God picking humanity up out of the wreckage, dusting us off, and walking alongside us as we start again from scratch, in the hope that we’ll create something better from our own failures. That’s the story of the Bible.

Because we know this, we get to be voices of hope among those who aren’t able to find any in the wreckage of what was. We can offer reassurance to those who are struggling to see new beginnings in the middle of heartbreaking endings. We’re able to point out the possibilities that now lie ahead of us in abundance but couldn’t coexist with our “babies” before.

Because we know this, we also can’t waste time trying desperately to hold together the broken pieces around us with nostalgia and regret. We have the opportunity to get a head start on starting over from scratch by figuring out what it is in our own lives that we need to throw out, and by holding each other to the same standards. What must we allow to be destroyed in order for us to re-form our lives and our society from the ground up? Our beloved traditions? Our privilege? Our comfort zone? Our familiar systems of government, economy, or care? None of it will be as easy as deleting a paragraph from a sermon or restarting a French braid, but then, kindom building never is.

It may be painful, but sometimes, having to “throw out our babies” and start over from scratch is exactly what we need. Sometimes, losing everything that we think matters is the only way to discover what’s been missing all along. Endings are scary, but they aren’t the enemy. As long as we follow God out of the rubble, we can trust that whatever comes next will be worth whatever it takes to build it. Amen.

[1] Hillerbrand, Hans J. "Martin Luther: Indulgences and salvation," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007.
[2] 1 Kings 11:11-13.

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