Sunday, October 30, 2022

Sermon: "Better Together", 1 Kings 3:5-26 (October 30, 2022)


When I was very young – I don’t remember exactly how old, but the memory is fuzzy, so it must have been a long time ago – I learned an important lesson about paper currency. I think what had happened was that my mom had given me a one-dollar bill to take to the corner store so that my friend and I could get some candy (it’s hard to believe, but you could still get some types of candy for a few cents in those days). Now, I knew that the money was intended for us to share equally, and I didn’t want one of us to accidentally benefit from our resources unfairly. Although we were making the trip together, we’d be making our candy selections independently once we arrived, so I did what seemed to me to be the fairest solution: I ripped the bill in half.

I remember my mom reacting in dismay and trying to stop me, and I remember my confusion over her response. Why on EARTH wouldn’t she want me to share?? I thought that was the whole idea! I was just trying to be fair! See, I’d learned by then that some things, like a cookie, are best shared by splitting, and others, like a toy or a game, are best shared by working together. I just didn’t realize that this situation called for the latter strategy. Which isn’t that surprising given my youth and naiveté at the time that this story takes place.

As a full-grown woman, however, I’m expected to know better. If I were to try and share a dollar by tearing it in half today, I’d get some very strange looks. We all should know by this point that that’s not how our monetary system works. It should go without saying that we ALSO know that it’s not how babies work, either. But in today’s scripture reading, a full-grown woman somehow thinks that cutting a living child into two parts is a reasonable solution to her predicament. THAT certainly deserves more than just a few strange looks.

When we read this passage, it’s easy to judge that second women harshly. She must be either cruel or stupid. Who could possibly believe that Solomon’s proposed solution was a good one?! Maybe (MAYBE!) a kindergartener, but CERTAINLY not someone vying for the right to be entrusted with the child’s care! Based on her response to Solomon’s proposition, she clearly knows that the procedure would be fatal to the child. She isn’t under some bizarre misapprehension that babies are like plants, thinking she could grow a new infant from a clipping of the old one. Yet, her twisted logic somehow concludes that the only fair solution is split the child in two, with the result that neither woman would be left with a living child. Callous. Offensive. Horrific.

It made me wonder WHY someone would agree to this. And I realized that, specifics of the story aside, this woman’s attitude isn’t as far outside of the norm as we might initially think. Underlying this strange account is the fact that the woman knew she didn’t have a strong case, so she determined to be vindictive and take the most she could get, at any cost. That’s a VERY human reaction. Sometimes, if we aren’t careful, our animal instinct to look out for our own interests speaks louder than reason or wisdom. And as a result, we inflict damage on others AND ourselves.

Although there are plenty of contemporary examples of this human tendency (goodness knows we’ve all been there), I instead want to focus on a relevant story from 2000 years ago. Jesus lived so that humanity could learn a better, more faithful way of life. But those who opposed him were afraid that Jesus’ success would take something away from them. – whether they clung to power, safety, status, or comfort, they were unwilling to change their hearts and lives. And so, rather than recognizing the wisdom of letting others follow God on their own terms, they chose a path of destruction: they literally broke Jesus’ body to prevent him from sharing God’s Word. If their way of life was threatened, then everyone else’s should be, too. Of course, their strategy ultimately didn’t work – God’s plans were bigger than any of them – but that didn’t stop them from trying.

Whether we realize it or not, we, too, are guilty of this very same thing. I hope we know better by this point than to consider dividing a baby or crucifying a teacher as viable solutions, but we still readily inflict damage to an entirely different body: Christ’s Church. This body of Christ is like a dollar bill: it’s not meant to be divided. It can’t flourish that way. And yet, too many of us would rather be party to its destruction than see it go in a direction that we don’t like. Too many people have left their congregation because the pastor said something they didn’t agree with, or the Session decided to try something new, or because it’s “not the same as it used to be”. Too many denominational splits have been the result of collective movement towards change. We withhold our money, our presence, our support, because we can’t stand to see a Church that has always been “ours” belonging to someone new. We claim to believe in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”, but only insofar as we get to define what that means. Too many of us adopt the perspective of the second woman regarding Christ’s Church: “If I can’t have it, neither will you.” We would rather cut the baby in half than share it or, heaven forbid, let someone else be responsible for it.

I’m not saying that we should never part ways with our fellow Christians. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, division becomes inevitable. When the choice is between unity and faithfully following God’s will, of course God’s will must prevail. But first, we have an obligation to figure out whether we can have both. Today, on Reformation Sunday, we mark the anniversary of the Protestant split from the Roman Catholic Church. But we also remember that Martin Luther didn’t nail his ninety-five theses on the door with the intention of splitting the body of Christ. He wanted to REFORM his beloved Church, to help it better conform with what he perceived as God’s will. He wanted the Church as a whole to confront its conflict and move forward together – more holy, catholic, and apostolic than before.

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic authorities had a vastly different vision of the Church than Martin Luther, and so eventually it split in one of many divisions that Christ’s body would see over the centuries. But the split didn’t happen immediately. There were years of examinations, debates, and protests before Luther was excommunicated, and still more before he began organizing a new church in earnest. Both parties eventually arrived at the conclusion that there was no way forward but separation only after a great deal of engagement and discernment.

Even so, it was still a sad occasion. It always feels funny to me to “celebrate” Reformation Sunday. Whenever one of us is separated from another of our kindred in Christ, that is a rending of Christ’s body. And when we choose division as a first resort, we’re being just as reckless as a woman willing to cut a child in half.

No matter what we might wish or believe, the Church has never been ours to control. It belongs to God. And like Solomon, God in their wisdom will ultimately not allow those seeking its destruction to triumph. So, our job is to stay the course, do what’s right, and seek reconciliation first, last, and always. It’s a hard thing to do. It always will be. But Jesus allowed his physical body to be broken so that his collective body doesn’t have to be. He willingly submitted to his own destruction for the sake of reconciliation. Every time we take communion, we’re reminded of this truth. We eat the broken bread together in recognition of its origin as a single loaf, and in hope that we might see the day when God’s people are likewise united in one body.

So friends, although it might be hard to let go, don’t be afraid to try something new, even scary, for the sake of the body. We have to trust that God is in control, and that something different or difficult may, in fact, be for the best. We have to give change a chance before we give up the body as lost. God created us to be in communion with each other. We aren’t just individuals who happen to be walking the same path. Each of us is a half looking to be a part of a sacred whole – and we truly are better together. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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