Sermons That Work

Of Cabbages and Kings, Proper 12 (B) – 2012

July 29, 2012


The world is a hungry place. People are hungry for food, for jobs, for love, for care, for leadership that cares. The list of our hunger goes on and on. What the Bible knows is what we all know – all of our hunger centers around a spiritual void. We are hungry for God. That hunger is very real, and yet we deceive ourselves into believing we can feed that hunger with other things such as food, money, fancy clothes, fancy cars, more technology, more stuff. We accumulate so much stuff, stuff that we believe says something about who we are – stuff that we somehow mistaken for who and what we are. We accumulate so much stuff that our homes overflow with stuff, until we have to go beyond the home and rent storage spaces. That is, we have to store the excess amount of our self somewhere else, so that our self becomes fragmented, separated into different places. We become a problem to ourselves – or what we believe is what we are, what defines us: the clothes we wear, the house we live in, the cars we drive and so forth.

This, in all likelihood, is mostly a Northern Hemisphere problem. It is a problem driven by our desire to be like everybody else – especially those who have more than we have. And it is becoming a worldwide problem, as our principal export is a lifestyle based on the accumulation of more and more stuff. The whole world desires to be just like us.

This is all driven by a belief that there is not enough stuff in this world, so we had better stockpile as much as possible for ourselves. This perceived scarcity of stuff leads to trade imbalances, the stealing of resources from other parts of the world, and eventually manifests itself in trade wars that can soon turn into outright warfare. So then we need to accumulate more resources, more stuff, dedicated to the protection of what we already have. We end up demanding leaders who can assure us that our stuff will remain ours forever and ever.

Into such a world steps Jesus. Rome had conquered Israel and turned it into a client state, exporting all its goods to other parts of the empire, and charging outrageous taxes on those goods at the same time. It was a dangerous time to be a client of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Rome demanded full loyalty.

So along comes Jesus. The Jesus in John is declared from the first verse of the fourth gospel as God – the Word, the logos – in the flesh. Indeed, this is the only way to make sense of someone who can take five barley loaves and a couple of fish and feed thousands of people with lots and lots of leftovers! Barley loaves, as opposed to wheat loaves, is the food of the poor. The lesson here is quite simple, and yet one that we refuse to accept: The need of the world is not too great for our resources if it is the Lord who directs the use of those resources.

A mighty big “if.”

Meanwhile, the people try to make him king. That would seem to be appealing. Look at how people in every conceivable human community clamor to become king. Right now we are looking at two individuals who will marshal millions if not billions of dollars for the right to become or remain “king.” Look around the world where competing individuals and groups of individuals resort to violence to gain and maintain “kingship.”

Then look at Jesus. Nothing doing. As soon as there is a hint that the people might make him the next king, he sneaks off to be alone. Why, we might ask ourselves? It might have saved him having to go to Jerusalem only to be crucified, dead and buried. Why would he turn his back on what others count as the ultimate goal?

Here we may do well to recall that Jesus appears to have studied scripture pretty carefully. At every possible turn of events, he can marshal quotations from every corner of Hebrew scripture. So no doubt at this juncture he very well may have the eighth chapter of the First Book of Samuel in mind. This is the episode when Israel demanded that the boy prophet Samuel appeal to God to give them a king – because, after all, they reasoned, all the surrounding countries have kings, so they should have one too.

This signaled a lack of trust in the God of the Exodus, who up to this pivotal moment, had raised up judges to pull the tribes together in times of great danger. When the danger passed, so did the judge, and folks went back to life in their tribal clans with their diffuse political connections. But at the time of Samuel, with threats from surrounding kingdoms, the people demanded a king to unite them and make them strong. God tried to dissuade Samuel. Samuel tried to dissuade the people in chapter 8 of First Samuel, saying, in effect, “A king will take your sons and make them soldiers and send them to war; and take your daughters and make them his servants; he will take your fields and produce, and tax you on all of it; until you will wish you had never asked for a king, but by then it will be too late.” But the people persisted and God gave them Saul, which did not work out particularly well. And then David, and, well, look at what happened to David in this Sunday’s episode in 2 Samuel 11:1-15. After failing to pull off a cover- up of his indiscretion with Bathsheba, he used his authority of the military to have her husband Uriah killed in battle. Under the reign of Solomon, the kind of consolidation of power and goods becomes so acute that the people attempted a social revolution, so unhappy were they with their once-desired king.

Verna Dozier, a wise lay leader in the Episcopal Church, in her book “The Dream of God,” called this demand for a king the “Second Fall” after the episode in the Garden of Eden. The third fall happens early in the life of the church, at the time of Constantine, when the church goes from being an alternative to the Empire and allows itself to become the Empire – the Church becomes king. The impulse is the same in 2 Samuel as it is under Constantine – we want to be like everybody else. And yet, to this day we are still looking for a way out of being an Imperial Church and somehow find our way back to the very beginning.

For as anyone can see, Jesus will have none of it. And yet, we continue to hitch our wagons, our stars, our souls and our very being, to the belief that with just the right “king” all shall be well.

We find ourselves clinging to models of leadership and institutional power that the Bible repeatedly warns us against. And we wonder why it no longer works. Again, read about David and the so-called Wise One, Solomon, and see how quickly it all fell apart even then, approximately 900 years before Jesus.

It is no wonder that God decided the only way to get our attention was to come down himself and be one of us. God in Christ invites us once and for all to give up any notions that being like everybody else has having any life-giving sustainability. The accumulation of power and stuff will never fill the spiritual void that keeps us from becoming the people God wants us to be.

Our portion of the gospel ends with the disciples heading off in a boat across the sea. They run into rough waters and high winds. When all seems about lost, Jesus appears. The text is not entirely clear – it could mean he was walking on the water, but it can also mean he was “on the seashore.” So we can read this to say there he was, on the shore, to welcome them ashore when after much hard work and treacherous time they approached him and the shore. He simply says, “Be not afraid.” Note, as soon as they see him, as soon as he says this, they are immediately safe ashore!

Can it be that for St. John the meaning is to be found in the peace that pertains once we willingly receive Jesus to be our companion? Companion – literally, one with whom we share bread. He who is the Bread of Life, the Bread from Heaven, the True Bread – our manna, our sustenance, our daily bread. As theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “Christ is the guide of life whom we follow in the strength that He supplies into the way of Peace.”

That’s pretty much it. We can continue to trust in our appointed and elected leaders, and trust in the accumulation of more and more stuff. Or we can trust in Jesus, who withdraws again to the mountain to be alone.

What if we were to withdraw day by day to be alone with Jesus? How might we allow him to be our daily bread? The need of the world is not too great for our resources if it is the Lord who directs the use of those resources. Once we trust in the Lord, we will find ourselves on the other shore, safe and secure from all alarm with nothing to fear. Our deepest and true hunger can and will be satisfied, if only we will continue to row our way to the other side – his side – to the country that needs no king.

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Christopher Sikkema

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