2018 August 19 - Growing In Grace-Arcing Towards Justice

When we seek to evaluate the purpose and direction of our lives, it is not just a matter of where we find ourselves at any particular moment. Just as important, or even much more important, is the trajectory we are on.

Trajectory is an interesting phenomenon. It is especially important on the golf course. When the average player hit a ball reasonably well, it flies in a arc, something like the shape of a rainbow. Unfortunately, sometimes, what might seem like a pot of gold at the end of a golf shot is simply a pot bunker! Now, when a professional golfer hits a reasonable shot, it has a different trajectory. The ball actually climbs a bit like an aircraft taking off. Then, when it reaches the pinnacle of its flight, it tends to drop more or less vertically, because most of the energy has been expended in the climb. This enables the ball to stay on the green, hopefully near the flag, instead of running off the back.

Every now and then, the average golfer might hit the ball sweetly enough to see it climb with the pro trajectory. I suppose that, ideally, we would like our lives to progress sweetly like that, reaching impressive heights of achievement before coming into land at a very nice destination- perhaps near the flags on a pristine beach. The more common experience, if we are fortunate, is some sort of an arc that moves us forward, hopefully somewhere in the general vicinity of where we were hoping to land.

Today’s reading from 1 Kings starts at an interesting place, the death of King David. After a largely successful forty-year reign, he leaves his son Solomon with a kingdom "firmly established.” In anyone’s book, this could be considered a happy landing, after a career fraught with strife and conflict. Only a fortnight ago we were reflecting on the damning judgment on David by the prophet Nathan, where he takes the king to task for his cruel engineering of the death of Uriah, leaving free the way for David to take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, as his own. This lands David in all sorts of psycho-spiritual strife. From there it is a tough and soul-searching road of shame, grief and repentance, before he is once again fit to rule.

Solomon, on the other hand, is off to a flying start. His decision to ask God, not for power and riches, but for wisdom, is like a tee shot at the first hole that flies high and true to the green. God seems very impressed, and decides (perhaps a little hastily) to give Solomon the lot- the wisdom he asks for, and the power and riches, which he does not.

The text sets an impressive scene for the reign of the young king. Ironically, "The reader is asked here to suspend his or her knowledge of Solomon’s real character: tyrannical to the point of grinding under the basic rights of Israel’s people.” He is given credit where it is due, for "the flowering of that cultural-intellectual movement which the ancient writer and modern scholars alike refer to as "wisdom”.” (Quotes from "Texts for Preaching- A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV-Year B”). We are not asked at this point to dwell on the fact that Solomon’s reign ended in disaster- a splitting of the kingdom that David had worked so hard to unite!

But I do want to dwell on it, because what we have here is a classic illustration of two contrasting trajectories. David starts at rock bottom, but through his willingness to see himself through the prophet’s eyes, is able to repent and change his ways, so he can work and and keep working for the betterment of the kingdom. Upward and onward. Solomon, on the other hand, starts at the giddy heights of great promise, and ends up bringing a whole societal edifice crashing down around him.

It is not hard to find comparisons in other famous lives. Robert Mugabe was a true liberator of his people; a real father of the new nation of Zimbabwe. Yet his rule descended into tyranny, his country by and large destitute by the time his greedy hands were finally prised from the handles of power. Nelson Mandela, on the other hand, was convicted early in his career of acts of terrorism- against property, mind you; not against people. His twenty-six years on Robben island would have brought all but the strongest leaders to their knees, yet from there, Mandela soared to emerge as a great reconciler, turning seriously divided peoples into a so-called "Rainbow Nation”. Sadly, like David, his successors have not been up to his standards, but the illustration nevertheless holds.

Now, we can all, I am sure, point to disastrous moments in our lives, which, if they came to dominate our perspective, would probably ruin our prospects of what Jesus refers to as ‘life in all its fullness’. We all carry scars from decisions and experiences that could have crippled us. The thing I want to say to you today, with as much conviction as I can muster, is that these moments, while they can shake us to the core, do not need to shape our lives. Much more important that the unedifying moments and destructive experiences is the trajectory that we travel from there. Just like David.

We do tend to judge one another by those deeds that either elevate us or bring us to shame. If we pay attention to the teaching of Jesus however, there is hope to be found in how we move forward from there. Consider the beatitudes: blessed are the merciful, the humble, the peacemakers. They are not necessarily defined by any one act of glory or shame, but on the consistent living out of these blessed attributes.

So let me in closing suggest three ways to live more like accomplished pros than bumbling amateurs

Value the transforming experience of repentance- by which I mean being willing to make changes, do new things. The renewal that comes from true repentance enables us to live lives that soar to new altitudes, rather than those that are "flat” and going nowhere in particular.

Embrace the attitude that everything we do is a preparation for what comes next. Nothing is wasted, not even the painful, the ugly and the barren times., as long as we reflect on these in order to learn the lessons they have to teach us. In this way we build momentum, gain altitude. This does, of course, require extra energy, just as a climbing aeroplane burns more fuel than one that just cruises. Some call it "doing the hard yards’.

Have a worthy goal to soar towards. Theodore Parker, Unitarian minister in USA, during the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s America said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. It is not always easy to have hope in difficult times, and the way forward sometimes must be "Discerned not by sight but by conscience”. Sometimes we do not really know where we are going. All we can do is keep making decisions based on ‘conscience’ or ‘morality’, and trust that the trajectory this puts us on is one that arcs towards an outcome that serves the common good.

These three attitudes are all embedded in the life and teaching of Jesus. His first recorded words of ministry are a call to repentance based on the imminent appearance of the reign of God. He wanted people to move from their inertia to new and fruitful lives be embracing his good news. His encouraged his disciples to be involved with him in his work even though in the process they would make a lot of mistakes. And so their experience built to the point where, at his death, they were ready to carry on his work. And as far as a worthy goal is concerned, he says "But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Full acceptance of Jesus as both the trajectory and destination of our lives, a body and blood, physical and spiritual, boots and all commitment

As Charles Wesley writes in his great resurrection hymn: "Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted head. Made like him, like him we rise” That’s the pro trajectory

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