Year B, Proper 15: Ask What You Should Ask For--Littleness, Not-Knowing, and God Dancing in the Open Place of the Heart
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Ask What I Should Give You
A couple of weeks ago we heard the story of John the Baptist and Salomé, Herodias’ daughter. The line we reflected upon was that powerful question of Salomé’s—“What should I ask for?” The response from Herodias was chilling—“John the Baptist’s head on a platter.” In her mind, the threat of John the Baptist to the maintenance of the status quo, of kingly power and control was so great that his death was the preferred option.
In our story from 1 Kings, we find ourselves in the midst of succession planning with the people of Israel. King David is sleeping with the ancestors, and the throne has been passed to Solomon his son. We tend to think of Solomon as a grand old man, a wise sage who intervened in a custody battle gone horribly wrong. But here we find Solomon at the beginning of his reign. He calls himself, “a little child who doesn’t know how to go out or come in.” He doesn’t know squat about squat. He is new to the game, and this whole King thing.
The Lord comes to Solomon in a dream—that liminal, thin place between waking and sleeping where our ordinary means of ordering and making sense of the world gets lubricated by grace. Things aren’t what they seem, and there’s a possibility of something new, rather than the same-old same-old emerging. It’s interesting that the Lord doesn’t simply say to Solomon, “What do you want?” Instead, the Lord says, “Ask what should I give you.” What a curious phrase! The Lord tells Solomon to ask the Lord what he should ask for!
I’m reminded of the collect in the Book of Common Prayer that reads, “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Sometimes, the collect points out, we don’t even know what to ask for. Our ignorance, our weakness, our blindness, our entrapment in patterns of self-deceit, and self-centeredness all prevent us from even asking for what’s most beneficial in a particular situation. Or, we are so sure of what to ask for (“O Lord won’t you give me a Mercedes Benz…”) that we ask for that which isn’t really in line with the will of God, the flourishing and abundance of life for all of God’s creatures for which we are created and with which we are called to co-operate with by grace. There’s an old Chinese parable that illustrates this in a pithy fashion.
Mr. Sei lived in a small village with his horse. Because he had a horse, Mr. Sei was one of the wealthiest villagers. His neighbors would tell him how lucky he was to have that horse. Now he could plow a much larger field, have a much larger income, and take much better care of his family. But Mr. Sei was a wise man. He didn’t say anything; he just nodded his head.
One day the horse ran away. Then Mr. Sei’s neighbors told him how unlucky he was that his horse had run away. Mr. Sei said nothing. Not commenting, he just nodded his head in acknowledgment of the situation.
Then the horse returned—followed by a second horse. Mr. Sei’s neighbors then told him how lucky he was that his horse had run away because now he had two horses. Again Mr. Sei said nothing and simply nodded his head, acknowledging the state of things.
Meanwhile, his son was plowing the field with the second horse, and he had an accident and broke his leg. The neighbors told Mr. Sei how unlucky he was to have that second horse because his son had broken his leg and couldn’t help in the fields.
Then a war broke out in the province and the lords conscripted all the young men to fight. But Mr. Sei’s son had a broken leg and couldn’t go to battle. So the neighbors told Mr. Sei how lucky he was that his son had broken his leg.
Part of what makes Solomon so wise is the fact that the he knows he doesn’t know anything. Like wise Mr. Sei and Plato’s Socrates who says, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing,” Solomon’s willingness to not have everything buttoned down engenders an openness and receptivity to the in-breaking love of God that is the beginning of wisdom. This is what has traditionally be called the “fear of the Lord.” It’s not that wisdom is born by quaking in our boots for fear of being blasted to smithereens by a tyrannical God. Fear here means something more like wonder, awe, and acknowledgment that there is something greater than our own puny little intellects to which we can open ourselves.
Rather than seeing his littleness as a shortcoming, something to overcome, or over-compensate for in a showy display of drummed-up certainty, Solomon embraces his littleness, and opens himself to God for guidance. He lets himself be taught by God, and asks the Lord what he should ask for. We halfway expect a model of relationship where we ask the questions and God gives the answers. But this is even more profound than that—it is God who gives us the questions to ask, too!
Solomon, of course, eventually asks for a “wise and discerning mind.” He doesn’t ask for riches and honor. He doesn’t ask for enemies to be wiped off the face of the planet as we saw with Salomé and her mother. He asks for what Jesus asks for in the Garden of Gethsemane—“Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
We are all faced with lots of questions in our lives. Part of walking the path of love, is discerning what the will of God is in each of the situations of our life. We have to untangle our self-centered desires, often largely unconscious, from the will of God in particular, complex situations. A big task to be sure, and history is filled with countless people who in the name of “doing God’s will” have wreaked untold havoc.
The difficultly of discernment, and its attendant pitfalls, doesn’t let us off the hook, however. We are, each of us, called to discern what love looks like in our unique circumstances. And the key to any process of discernment is to invite God into the process. It is God who teaches us what kinds of questions to ask. It is God who shows us our attachment to how things should be, or how things have always been that often blinds us to how God is present and active right here and right now.
Discernment is really about bringing a particular situation, person, or choice to God and being willing to open, listen, and receive. It takes time, since the first “answer” to our question is often our most deeply patterned and deeply conditioned response. It’s our will not God’s. So we have to build in time to wait upon the Lord, to not rush to judgment, and let things emerge in new and often expected ways. Whenever someone would ask Donald Allchin, the great Oxford don, Anglican priest, and theologian how he was, he would peer over rims of his glasses and reply from amidst a whirlwind of papers fluttering about his ramshackle office—“Things are emerging. Things are emerging.”
That’s discernment—it’s messy and unpredictable, but also exhilarating once we let go of our version of how things should be and stop requiring the papers to remain in neat little undisturbed piles. “Let’s see what God is up to in this place and how I can co-operate with that,” becomes our orientation instead of simply preserving flies in amber or creating things in our own (very good looking, of course) image. That’s the adventure of love, the exhilaration of journeying into God.
Being close to Jesus is what helps us most in this process. Needless to say, when Jesus is telling us to “eat his flesh and drink his blood,” it’s not of the same order as Wittenberg beer and red sausages. Feeding on Jesus is really about making his life our own, of putting on the mind of Christ, that He might live His life in and through us. “No longer I, but Christ in me who lives,” as Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians. We stay close to Jesus by being faithful in our discipleship, in learning to walk the way of love—through regular dwelling on scripture, daily prayer, worship and participation in the sacraments, serving those in need and listening to their stories, proclaiming with our lips and our lives the Good News of God in Christ. That is how Jesus, the Wisdom of God, comes to dwell in our hearts. Or better, it is through those practices, holy habits, and dispositions, that we come to recognize the astounding truth that Jesus, the Wisdom of God, already dwells there and that all we have to do is open to Him, to receive, to allow ourselves to be loved.
Being like Solomon, is not about acquiring lots of degrees, accumulating knowledge, and storing piles of information. Having a wise and discerning heart, is really about recognizing our littleness, about acknowledging our not knowing how to go out or come in. When our own efforts come to nothing, when we realize and live from our utter dependence on God rather than the illusion of our self-reliance, we become a little more like Solomon, like Mr. Sei, like Socrates, and ultimately like Christ Himself. Our poverty, our littleness becomes an open place in which the love of God dances.