July 29, 2017

Leadership Lessons


Text: 1 Kings 3:5b: “…and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’”

By the grace of God the lectionary sets before us today the third chapter of the first Book of Kings, one of the major historical records of the Hebrew Scriptures. If your knowledge of the Bible is a little hazy—and that’s certainly understandable, if you, like me, grew up as an Episcopalian—then you might be a little hazy on just what the two books of Kings are about, what part of the story of Israel they have to tell.

I’ll spare you a bit of homework by reading to you this summary from The New Oxford Annotated Bible: “Although the subject of the Books of Kings are political history, their theme is the moral and religious failure that eventually led to the loss of national identity and autonomy. Each king is evaluated by how well he upheld the primacy of God and God’s temple in Jerusalem or—more usually—how he failed in this responsibility, and in this departed from the ways of David.”

So on this last Sunday of July, after a week of all manner of news items about our own leaders, we are brought by the grace of God an unambiguous lesson in leadership from the pages of scripture.

I was formed as a preacher by teachers who held firmly to the view that there is plenty enough material to explore in the text of Scripture offered for our hearing every Sunday that it is better to leave the topics in the headlines to the pundits and commentators. None of them are likely to take up the urgent matters that are addressed in our weekly scripture reading, and if they do, they are not likely to do so very well.

I have now been spending part of each week preparing for the pulpit for nearly twenty years, and I hope my long-suffering fellow ministers of Saint John’s would at least bear me out in saying that I have followed my teachers’ advice pretty good discipline.

But of course, that does not mean that our scriptures do not speak to questions that are right in the middle of our public debate. The Books of Kings deal with moral and spiritual themes, but they do so by taking up the subject of political history. So if we build a house out of those moral and spiritual themes this morning, we are likely to see the political tensions of our own day just outside the windows.

The First and Second Book of Kings are some of the earliest works of history ever written, and as the little description I read out to you just a moment ago makes clear, they take as their structure an evaluation of the character and the leadership of each next king that followed King David, the model of kingship for all of the history of Israel. Of course, the first of those to follow David, David’s own direct successor, is his son Solomon.

This morning we are brought into the story at the very beginning of Solomon’s long and successful reign as king. We’re reminded of a story about him that is meant to teach us not just why he ends up being regarded as wise, but how it is he came to be that way.

At the most obvious level, the reason Solomon became so wise was that he asked to be. As we pick up the story this morning, Solomon is invited by God to make a request—a sort of inauguration gift. He asks for wisdom, and so that is in fact what he becomes.

But there is more here. First of all, we are meant to understand that Solomon is already wise enough to make this his request—to ask for this in response to God’s offer. He asks for nothing for himself, for nothing for his family; he asks for no revenge over enemies and no advantages over adversaries. He asks to be wise, and he makes this request because he knows that the burden of leadership placed on him will be heavy. “Who can govern these people?"

Even more than this, that wisdom itself—the wisdom to ask for something truly valuable, the wisdom to ask for the capacity, the discernment, the discipline to govern a great nation—that wisdom comes from a specific source somewhere in Solomon’s character. It comes from Solomon’s humility—his ability, in the first instance, to acknowledge with no false modesty the limitations of his own humanity.

Solomon is the son of the king, a child of privilege, a young man to whom everything has been given. He’s gone to the best schools, joined the best clubs, hung out with all the winners. But because he has the grace to be humble, he has the place in his heart for true wisdom to take root.

He would not make the request he does if he did not have at the very core of his being a quality of humility. But because he does, he is wise enough to understand his limits; and because he is, he is selfless enough to ask for wisdom.

All of that we can unpack from a close reading of the lesson from the first Book of the Kings. But there is one thing more we should keep in mind about this story. It’s about what happens just before what we heard today, in the two verses before the beginning of the story that explains why Solomon is in a place called Gibeon in the first place.

Here’s what those verses say: “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.”

Now, mind you, later on in the story Solomon is going to build the first Temple of the Jewish people. But right at this moment in the story there is no Temple yet; the way you worship God is to go out to the highest place you can find and offer your sacrifice there.

So to say it in different words, the story we heard this morning happens right after, and at the place where, Solomon has been to church. Yes, Solomon is humble; and his humility springs from his understanding that he is, in some essential way, dependent on God, dependent on something or someone he acknowledges to be the source of all that he has been given in the first place.

Now, right here might be the place where another preacher might turn a corner to pose a set of questions. We see in Solomon an example of leadership. He asks for greater wisdom because he is wise enough to know he has limits. He is wise enough to know he has limits because he is genuinely humble. He is humble because he knows in some fundamental way that he is dependent on God. And because he knows this, at the beginning of the story that ends with him being the wise king, we find him worshiping God.

And from this we might ask: What of the leaders we see around us? What would they ask for if God came to them and invited them to ask for just one thing?

Would they ask for something on behalf of us? On behalf of their ability to govern? Or on behalf of themselves? Have they the humility to know what to ask for? Do they have a sense of God, any god, in their lives, a sense from which that humility springs, and in response to which they make some sort of offering of worship, some act of putting themselves in second place to something else?

As I say, another preacher might do that. But when I look out on all of us, what I see is that all of us are leaders, in some way, in some sphere, in some realm.

So I wonder: What would you ask for? What do you think? Would you have that same sense of the expanse of your responsibilities and the close proximity of your own limits that you might also ask for greater wisdom? Do you have the gift of that same humility—not the Facebook kind, not the humblebrag kind, but the kind that lives deep in your heart, the capacity for self-examination that makes a space where real wisdom can find a home?

And does that humility have its own foundation built on the ground of our being—a sense of your dependence on God’s grace and mercy in your life?

If we want to be the change we seek, then it falls on us to develop, and live out, the kind of leadership we believe God needs for bringing in the kingdom. Let us pray that we can find in ourselves the humility to ask for the wisdom we need—and the strength to exercise it on behalf of others. Amen.