‘FAMILIES FULLY ALIVE’ CONFERENCE
Fairbanks, AK, Mass homily, 2.10.18
1 Kings 12:26-32; 13:33-34
A friend of mine likes to say that life in a modern country, at least a wealthy one like the United States, isn’t a real life at all. It can be very pleasant. It can be very interesting. But it isn’t real – real in the sense of actions having consequences. We live inside a kind of cocoon of noise and distractions; a cocoon of our own making. We “know” nature in order to control and use it. And we’re pretty good at using it to make our lives easier and to soften the damage of our mistakes and bad choices.
But nature also contains a lot of hard facts, like suffering and loss. So we’re also pretty good at walling ourselves off from things that are painful. We use our tools to protect ourselves from anything that might make us think too deeply. Smartphones are wonderful pieces of technology. They’re also a great way to avoid dealing with actual human beings face to face.
Anyway, that’s the way it is in the Lower 48. Even in Anchorage – a city I’ve visited twice in my lifetime and enjoyed a great deal — there’s a little bit of New York wrapped up in Alaskan fur. Maybe that’s inevitable when part of your livelihood depends on making cruise ships filled with visitors from places like Florida and Arizona feel welcome. But I wonder if that’s the real Alaska.
I think the real Alaska is probably here, today, in you and your families. In fact, I wonder if this part of the world might be a perfect metaphor for life itself. It’s beautiful. And it’s also precarious. I come from a city where a few inches of snow can shut down the entire region. Nature here isn’t so polite. It’s intense. And that means a life lived foolishly, a life lived indulgently, might be a life lived briefly. Actions in a hard environment have consequences that can’t be paved over, or circumvented, or reversed. And that breeds a clarity of thought grounded in reality.
We just heard Scripture readings from 1 Kings and the Gospel of Mark. On the surface they seem unconnected. But each in its own way teaches us something very real – and very important for us right here and now — about God, about life, and about human nature, needs, and behavior.
The first thing we notice is the contrast between the two readings. In a sense they embody the differences between the Old and New Testaments. 1 Kings is about law, sin, and punishment. Mark is about mercy and abundance. It seems like we’re dealing with two different Gods – the God of demanding holiness, and the God of compassion and love. But of course it’s the same God at two different points in salvation history; two different stages of forming the people God’s chosen as his own. Every mother has dealt with a stubborn or rebellious child. Every father knows that love involves more than sweet words. Love can also require discipline and correction so that a son or daughter can grow into a mature adult.
In the first reading, God works through imperfect human ambassadors: prophets, kings and royal counselors. In the Gospel reading, he works directly through his son. In 1 Kings, the Jews have already been chosen as God’s people, but they’re a very long way from being faithful or formed. The story of Jeroboam should remind us that God actually never intended a human kingship for his people. His original desire was to lead them directly through his judges and prophets. Scripture tells us that kingship was a concession by God to the weakness of his people, who demanded to have a king like their pagan neighbors. And predictably, that led to the problems that so often come with power; the problems we see in the first reading.
1 Kings tells us three important things about God. First, he’s righteous. God has little patience with theological sophistry or mumbo-jumbo about moral gray areas. He’s very clear about the difference between virtuous and evil behavior. When he says “don’t worship false gods” – whether they happen to be golden calves or modern celebrities – his message is pretty direct and blunt. Second, God is concerned. He’s not simply a divine observer somewhere in the sky who watches the human drama with a mix of interest and amusement. He knows what we humans do, and it matters to him. Third, God is involved. God expects and demands holiness of behavior – a conscious separation by the Jews in spirit and behavior from the pagan world around them. When he doesn’t get it, he acts. God holds even a truly great king like Solomon accountable. No one is exempt from his justice. And he exacts a heavy price for Solomon’s sins through the revolt of the 10 tribes and the breakup of his kingdom.
The first reading also tells us a lot about the natural laws that govern the human story. We’re never so bad that we’re beyond conversion and God’s forgiveness. And we’re never so good that we can stop striving to be more faithful, more loving and more committed to God’s service. John Bunyan, the great Protestant Christian writer, once said that even at the gates of heaven there’s a path to hell — and vice versa. Life is not a series of unrelated moments and actions. Everything we do, every choice we make, matters.
And that brings us to Jeroboam. Jeroboam is one of the most interesting and tragic figures in all of Scripture. He begins as hard worker, industrious by nature, and a good and faithful young man. He’s chosen, protected and uniquely blessed by God. Obedient to God’s word, he leads a successful revolt against the most powerful royal dynasty in Israel’s history. He takes 10 of the 12 Jewish tribes to form a new Northern Kingdom; and God establishes him as their first king. And then things start to go off the rails.
He listens to bad counsel. He excludes God from his reasoning. He becomes suspicious and protective of his power. He worries that his people will turn back to the son of Solomon as king because of their continuing pilgrimages to Jerusalem. So he bans the Jerusalem pilgrimage. He sets up new worship sites. And he creates a new, false priesthood to compete with the old religion, including golden calves, which incarnate the worst sin of Jewish belief — idolatry.
The result, as our reading says, is that “this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.” And this is exactly what happened. In real life, actions have consequences. The people of the Northern Kingdom were conquered, carried off, and erased from history as “the 10 lost tribes of Israel.”
There’s also some vital background to this story in the bible verses from 1 Kings that immediately precede today’s reading. Rehoboam – the son of Solomon – provokes God’s anger and the revolt of Jeroboam and the 10 tribes through his brutality and callousness. But when God warns him not to seek vengeance against Jeroboam, he listens. He repents and takes the first steps toward restoring God’s friendship. And again, actions have consequences. Obedience to God’s will and God’s law leads to life. Judaism as we know it today – and our own Christian faith that grows from it — descend from Rehoboam’s remaining two tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
The tone and content of our Gospel reading are very different from the story we’ve just heard. So why is that?
The ministry of Jesus takes place more than 700 years after the events of 1 Kings. That means seven centuries of Jewish experience that saw Babylonian Exile, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the return from exile, the rebuilding of the Temple, war, fidelity and infidelity, pagan invasion and persecution, and finally Roman conquest. In a sense, that’s one long diary of suffering. And suffering is one of life’s great teachers. It’s a teacher of humility and the truth that we’re creatures, not gods.
So in the Gospels, we’ve come to the central moment in salvation history. It’s the moment when all of God’s fatherly discipline and shaping of the people he chose can finally bear fruit in the revelation of who he really is, and how profoundly he loves. We call God our Father as Jesus did, and rightly so. But he has the heart of mother with a passion and tenderness for her children. That kind of love is powerful. It’s magnetic. It’s why 4,000 people followed Jesus around and into a desert with almost nothing to eat for three days – just listening to his words.
How many of us can pay attention to anything for more than 10 minutes today? We’re drowning in too many distractions, too much noise, too little silence and too little love. And by “love,” I don’t mean the fantasy love that fills our entertainment, but the real love of real people that fills us with life because it costs us something of ourselves.
We human beings can go a long time without food. And we can go a little while without water. But without love, we’re no longer human. That’s because God made us to need each other, to complete each other, to love and be loved by each other. We yearn for love, all of us. Even in an imperfect family – and all families are imperfect – we know that someone cares for us; and that familial love anchors us and licenses us to be in the world. Love is what makes our lives mean something. It connects us to God’s great story that goes from generation to generation and leads us finally home to heaven.
Sometimes, when I read today’s Gospel passage, I marvel at what knuckleheads the apostles were. They’ve given their whole lives to this man Jesus. They’ve stayed with him because he clearly has something special going on. They have a pretty good idea that he’s the Messiah, the son of the God who filled all the universe with galaxies of beauty and life. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. And yet still they wonder if he can replicate a few fish and some loaves of bread. But this is exactly how all of us act, isn’t it. Even when we’re banged over the head with clues to the presence of God in our lives, we still find it so hard to simply surrender our fear and our pride, and believe.
Every once in a while a homilist will try to present this Gospel reading as a kind of metaphor for God’s abundance; a beautiful story that maybe didn’t physically happen but still has a wonderful meaning. That’s just nonsense.
If we really believe in a God who created nature, then his son, Jesus Christ, has nature at his command. The people on that day of the miracle certainly believed, because they were fed very well, with plenty left over. And it’s the physical reality of that miracle that allows us to see beyond it down through the centuries to its larger lesson: God is a God of love and tenderness and abundance and mercy. He cares for us not just as a people, but for each of our families and each one of us personally. And this allows us to hope for the joy of heaven despite all of our weaknesses, our failures and sins. God loves us.
In Bishop Zielinski’s beautiful pastoral letter of last August, he reminded us that “the family is the foundation of human life.” We need to plant those words deep in our hearts because they’re so deeply true. The more unselfishly we love and teach others to love, the more human we become. So beginning today, and every day ahead, may God help all of us to make our families schools of that love.