Servant Leadership?

This sermon wasn’t actually preached out loud on All Saints’ Sunday as The Preacher was out sick. But seeing that it actually exists, here it is:

1 Kings

November 1, 2015 All Saints’ Sunday

Relationships with fathers and sons can be complicated. Michael Jackson’s father was notoriously tough on his kids, especially the one who seemed to have the most natural talent, and so drove him hard, worked him hard. Adrian Peterson, scandalized in the news by his harsh treatment of his own son, credits his parenting with his father’s own example, saying that his harshness made him who he is. So too it will be for his offspring.

So this week we are contending with David’s son Solomon, and Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. Now last week we rejoiced with David as he brought God back to the center of the people. David was a great king and had a good reign even with his monumental screw ups. He wanted to build a temple, but God told him that he wouldn’t build it but that his son, Solomon, would build it.

So Solomon is the next king of Israel and he built the temple in Jerusalem. But he used forced labor, slave labor, to get it done. Working people to the bone to build this opulent worship space. He also increased the size of the kingdom by having many wives.

So now we meet Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, who is being made King of Israel, in the southern kingdom. Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom when Israel separated from Judah, had worked for Solomon and had overseen the forced labor. He fled after a prophet advised him to go against Solomon’s slave practices and then Solomon tried to have him killed. So when he hears there’s a new king, he and his people ask to have an audience with the in-coming King Rehoboam to see if they can find a peaceful living situation and put an end to the civil war that had started during Solomon’s reign. So they ask for him to not reign like his father, to not be so harsh. They ask for him to listen to their needs.

In perhaps the only move of mature leadership, Rehoboam asks them to give him 3 days so he can seek counsel about their request. So, he asks the elders, the ones who served alongside Solomon, his father, and they essentially give him this advice, “If you serve them, they will serve you.”

Be a servant king, huh? That was not the answer he was looking for, so instead he turns to the men who are his contemporaries, the ones serving alongside and advising him now and asks them what they make of it. And I cannot help but imagine this conversation going down in a men’s locker room. Because the macho talk that emerges as they give advice to this new king is the stuff of locker rooms in junior high and high schools and in the professional sports world too. It’s too good to be true, right?

So I hear them mocking Jeroboam as they respond to Rehoboam: (whining): Your father made our yoke heavy, but you must lighten it for us; “no no! – you gotta say this to them”: (ahem!) My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.

So, his options are: 1. Listen to the people and serve them – they will serve you. Or 2. Intimidate and threaten them with power using ridiculous metaphor. You thought my dad was tough on you? You aint’ seen nothin’ yet. Of course this second option is meant to communicate strength and power when, really, they’ve exaggerated the girth of their argument by more than a pinky. 😉

Because do you see what happens? Do you see where his grabbing for power leads him and all the people? It all falls apart. The fighting kingdoms split. 10 of the 12 tribes secede under Jeroboam and create the northern kingdom and 2 tribes, the Israelites are the southern kingdom under Rehaboam.

Now lest you think King Jeroboam is the saint in this story, our reading today ended with him contemplating what it might mean for his people to have to travel to Jerusalem, where the temple was located, where they believe God lived. I mean, if they continued to travel to and from there, they might be lured back into the good graces of King Rehoboam. They might find their loyalty shifting and certainly that would be the end of Jeroboam. So in order to keep them loyal, to keep them near home, he has 2 golden calves made for them to worship and even quotes Exodus – reminds them of the story of their ancestors fleeing slavery. He says to them, Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And then he puts those calves at both ends of the kingdom so they might not have to go out of their way to worship.

Who are you gonna serve? That seems to be at the heart of the story today. Will you serve God? Or will you serve these human kings? Because that’s what they are vying for – your loyalty and your hard work and they will demand it from you and trick you into it and wrestle it out of you and work you to death for it.

Neither of these kings wants to be a servant king – they want to be served. They are grasping at power thinking it will save them. Yet even Jeraboam seems to know their loyalty could shift and he’d be dead.

And that word serve is a tricky one because not only is it about how we are to live our lives – in service of others – it also connects us to worship, in service of God. Because if we’re not careful, we end up serving things that are not God. We end up living lives of servitude toward the things that won’t give us life, things that will only take from us.

These 2 human kings were only concerned with their own power and success. One didn’t listen to those who’d been around long enough to know a thing or two. The other was so fearful of being abandoned he made up his own gods for them to worship for their convenience, for their loyalty.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day when we remember all people who have died this past year and died from this life. And it seems perfect that we’ve just read scripture about kings grappling for power when the king we worship flips power on its head.

Can you even imagine Jesus doing what Solomon’s son did? Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, well God was super mean and hard on everyone. Just look at the pain I’m going to bring.” No, instead, Jesus takes on that pain. Instead of reaching for power and tricking us into loving God, God instead sends Jesus who came not to be served but to serve. God sends Jesus who came not in power and might but in weakness and absolute vulnerability. Jesus, our model of service and the one we worship. Jesus defeats death – that’s what we celebrate each and every week and what we celebrate and remember today. There’s no room for locker room talk. There’s no room for comparing and vying for attention and power. Yet there is even room for the likes of Jereboam and Reheboam. There is grace for even them, just as there is for us. Not even the most complicated father son relationship stands a chance in the shadow of the cross. Death is defeated. We are