Fearless Serving

“To whom much is given, much is expected.” So Jesus said in the gospel of Luke.

Or, if you prefer the gospel of Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Our lesson today from First Kings is a cautionary tale of how not to wield power. It is a glimpse on the much larger story and battle for power following the death of King Solomon.

Stepping back a touch, King Solomon inherited the united kingdoms of his father David: Israel in the north, and Judah in the South. He also inherited his father’s wandering eye, accumulating about 1000 wives and concubines. Unlike David, though, Solomon also adopted many of the gods of his wives, setting up altars and places of worship not just for God, but for Molech and Astarte and Milcom and Chemosh.

By birth rite, the united kingdom was left to Solomon’s son Rehoboam to rule. But before Solomon’s death, his trusted servant Jeroboam rose to power and challenged Rehoboam for the throne.

All of this drama led up to the conflict we just read about, for Rehoboam’s coronation. There is tension between the two regions, but Rehoboam has the chance to reconcile through a gentle-handed, fair reign. Instead, he chooses toughness, and the kingdom is split in two. Rehoboam retains Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, but Jeroboam rules over the majority of the land.

“To whom much is given, much is expected.” It’s a lesson that Rehoboam failed to heed.

In the north, Jeroboam is handed a golden opportunity, which he blows. Driven by fear of losing control of everything back to Rehoboam, he crafts golden calves for his people to worship.

From there, things just spiral out of control. The kingships of north and south become revolving doors of mostly reprehensible characters, while the prophets of God become the central characters, the heroes, issuing warning after warning which the kings reject until both are overthrown and the people are carried off into exile as the spoils of war.

“To whom much is given, much is expected.” Unfortunately, these wise words often fall on deaf ears – and not only in the lessons of Scripture. I can’t help but think of them, again, during this political season ramping up toward elections. As I think through how I respond to the gift and responsibility of citizenship, one of the things I take into account is the record of particular candidates’ charitable giving. It’s not necessarily the deciding factor, but I have found that it is something that sheds light on their character in interesting ways.

There are those candidates whose giving is habitually low and suddenly ramps up in anticipation of a campaign. There are those whose giving is quite generous. And there are those whose giving is nothing short of pitiful. Given the fact that running for national office in our country is now the domain of the extremely wealthy, I am disappointed in those who might appear selfless because of their desire to serve in public office but can’t be bothered to open their wallets.

It’s not that financial giving is the only sign of generosity; however, it does tend to reflect how willing people are to share their lives and their gifts with others.

Maybe I’m struck by all of this because we are in a season of Stewardship here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, where we focus on God’s plans for 2016 and the hopes that our leadership has for our shared ministry. We are able to do what we do because so many are willing to share – not only their financial resources, but also their time and incredible talents. Imagine our music program without singers and ringers and players, or our Bargain Shop without lifters and sorters and pricers. Imagine our communion without baked bread; or our worship service without light or heat or a sound system or a new roof. We can do these things because we share.

If only Rehoboam and Jeroboam had learned that lesson. Unfortunately, I believe, they were driven not by the joy of serving, but the fear of losing. Rehoboam had this golden opportunity handed to him. The people of Israel, the northern kingdom, were willing to give him a shot, even though they felt his father, Solomon, had taken advantage of him. Rehoboam consulted with two groups of advisors. The first council suggested he serve them with gentleness and win their trust and loyalty in return. The second, made up of childhood friends, told him not to serve at all, but rule: double-down on toughness in order to win their fear and respect. By choosing this second group’s wisdom, Rehoboam lost all but a fraction of his father’s territory and people.

You would think that Jeroboam would learn from this lesson of his rival. And yet, instead of serving God and God alone, Jeroboam’s fear led him to pander – pander to the people, pander to other gods, pander in order to preserve his power. In the end, both Rehoboam and Jeroboam served for a relatively long time: Jeroboam for twenty-two years, succeeded by his son; Rehoboam for seventeen years, also succeeded by his son. And by then, the damage was done. All that was left was for the results to play out over the generations.

“To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Look: it’s an easy thing to play armchair quarterback to kings long dead and gone, or to politicians whose every move is under the withering light of the 24-hour news cycle. The question that is much more important to ask is: what does this have to do with us? Or, in the same vein, what does it have to do with me?

What I know of this community at its best is of a church where service and fearlessness are central, both of them rooted in the cross and the God we know in Christ. Today, we celebrate the saints. That word, “saint”, means many things to many people. What I hope it doesn’t mean is some kind of impossible vision of perfect living. What “saint” literally means is “set apart”, not “perfect”. Saints are those people of faith who have gone before us. They did not live perfect lives, but strove anyway for what God desires in spite of their imperfection.

Can you think of a “saint” in your own life? Is there someone who comes to mind as that example of a person whose faithfulness shone through, even with their imperfections? Can you recall someone who lived their lives as though grace led them by the hand?

I often think of my own grandparents. They were imperfect, of course; being the grandchild gives me the benefit of seeing them through rose-colored lenses. What is embedded within me, though, is of two people who patiently raised my sister and me in worship – separating us when necessary, giving us paper to draw on and keep us occupied during the interminable sermons, holding the hymnals for us – in short, shepherding us until we were acculturated to the rhythms and patterns of worship. They let us pretend to nap; they let us fake a cough in order to get a sugary cough drop. And our lives have been forever changed because of that.

And I remember all of this because I recognize that there are those who will look to me as the model of what a “church person” is like, whether I do it well or not, and whether I want them to or not. Do I live my life in such a way that others would easily know what it is that moves me? Can I behave in such a way that I point not to myself, but to the God who empowers me to do the good I do and forgives me for the many, many times I miss the mark?

This, I believe, is the model we ought to strive for in our own lives: not perfection, because it is unattainable and will only drive us crazy; but imperfection infused with grace, knowing that it is grace alone that allows us to be faithful.

And this, I believe, is the model by which we ought to be fearless in our serving and in our sharing. It is, ultimately, what this table is all about.

When we come to this table, we do so not because we believe that we are somehow worthy, but because we recognize ourselves and our condition in the elements we share. We break bread. We pour out the cup. We do so in the echoes of the saints who have come before us, remembering that they, too, in ways that God alone can fully comprehend, are here with us in this meal.

And somehow, it is in the parceling out of the bread and cup that we are reminded of the wholeness we share with one another and with God. It is not perfection that brings us here, but hunger and thirst. Let us remember that as we share what we have been given with God’s precious children who hunger and thirst. After all, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”