February 24, 2019
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
St. Luke’s UMC
February 24, 2019
This Is Us series
Civil Living in an Uncivil World
1 Kings 12:1-15
Last Sunday was the Daytona 500. Apparently Nascar, in an effort to boost ratings, wants drivers to mix it up a little more. Well, they got their wish last week with major crashes. Interesting isn’t it, that crashing increases ratings.
In 1979 Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 even though he was 30 seconds behind the two leaders on the final lap. The second place car got bumped by the leader so just a short distance from the finish line he rammed the lead car into the wall, allowing Petty to drive by them both and win the race. I guess revenge does payoff, just not for the avenger.
All sports probably has a bit of this. Like they say about people who watch hockey. You’re really going to a fight to see if a hockey game breaks out!
But unfortunately incivility, particularly in recent years is not just a game. Attacking others, going after an opponent, creating opponents so that everything is a win-lose proposition is behavior that is becoming pervasive throughout our society. The other night Susan and I were sitting in the living room and I turned on the news. Because we don’t often get home in time to watch the evening news on the main networks, I turn on a news show once we are home. The problem is, by that point, the programs focus on one item from the day and have two opposing voices argue back and forth. The other night Susan said, “You are either going to have to go downstairs and watch on another television or turn the channel to something else. I can’t sit and listen to constant arguing.”
Now that sounded like a legitimate choice for me, but I have learned it is not. There was only one right answer, so I changed the channel! I can sort of sift through all the rancor to catch the news bits, but for Susan, it’s a different experience. She gets exhausted listening to the constant fighting, bickering, putting someone else down. And she’s not the only one. According to one study ¾ of Americans say that incivility is at a crisis point in our country. (Weber Shandwick 2017 Report) People talk about the way our modern incivility has a way of making us more uncivil ourselves. But is the only alternative to cover our ears and withdraw from it all?
How can we live in a civil manner in such hostile and divisive times as we are in? Perhaps it helps to know that our world is not unique in this way. We can go all the way back to the 11th century BC and find, that though there was no cable television, internet, or newspaper, incivility still had a huge impact on the culture. This is the story about the transfer of power that happened after the death of Israel’s third king, Solomon. It is a story that represents the impact of incivility on individuals and the culture at large and what could be different if people chose to make civil responses. This story deals with a very specific time and place, but its lessons apply to any time and place.
Peaceful Transfer of Power? (Notes on 1 Kings 12)
So let’s set the stage for this transfer of power. Solomon dies around the year 1020BC. He was known for his tremendous wisdom which God gave him in response to his request. But Solomon’s life was also marked by opulence run amok. He had over 700 wives and 300 concubines, which makes you go back and question the whole wisdom thing. He also built the beautiful temple in Jerusalem and an elaborate palace for himself. To do this he used forced labor from his own people, many of them from the northern tribes. Solomon being from the southern tribe of Judah thus created a resentment within the nation.
After his death his son Reheboam became king, but in the north, a man named Jereboam has been told by a prophet that the kingdom will be torn in two, and he will lead the northern tribes. Now what happens next is the story that was so entertainingly told by Matt a moment ago. This is a story that shows what happens when incivility reigns and how things could be different. As I go through it, I want to pause at a few places and offer some reflection points to consider.
So we begin with Reheboam’s coronation in Shechem. Schechem was a northern city. Why wouldn’t Reheboam be crowned king in Jerusalem among his own tribe? Some say this was a savvy political move to win over the northern people, but given his actions we are about to see, others speculate if it was more of an in-your-face action. He was telling the northern tribes, “I am your king, get used to it!”
So Jereboam shows up and says to the new king, “Your father put a heavy yoke on us. Now lighten our hardship and we will be your servants.” So a choice has been put to Reheboam: will he continue the pattern of his father, or will he choose something different, something better?
One thing that is true of everyone in this room, is that we inherited some type of pattern than shapes our choices. Patterns shape our lives. My other used to sew a lot of our clothes growing up. She would patterns, like a pattern for a dress, that had the whole articles of clothing outlined on thin paper. You took the paper and pinned it to the material you wanted to use, and then cut out the pattern. The pattern determined the shape of the clothes.
We all have patterns that shape us. Many times are patterns come from our families or the influences in our lives when we were growing up. Those patterns affect the way we see the world. They affect our values and beliefs. They determine the decisions we make. But God always gives us a choice. Reheboam had an earthly father who gave him a pattern, a pattern of wielding power over others without taking their needs into consideration. He can continue living in his father’s pattern or look higher up at his heavenly father, and choose a new pattern.
And this leads us to a first observation in this story: Whose Pattern Do I Choose to Follow? (v.5) It is a choice God gives us. We always have a choice. Some years ago I worked with a guy who had a bit of a temper and could be rough around the edges, particularly when it came to receiving direction. One day he said to me, “You know my dad said he could never work for anyone. He’s just too stubborn and independent. I suppose I’m a chip off the old block and that’s just how it is.” The trouble with the chip-off-the-block pattern is that we remain a block. And the person we end up blocking most ins ourselves. God always gives us a choice. Look at this verse from Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
God presents a choice to Reheboam, so he takes some time to consider Jereboam’s request. First, he goes to the men who advised his father. You can tell their seasoned wisdom from their words. They tell him to show empathy as a way to win-over their support. Then Reheboam goes to his contemporaries who say, “Tell them your little finger is thicker than your father’s loins.” I don’t think I need to explain the kind of euphemism going on there. We get what they are doing to Reheboam. You let them know, “You’re the man!” As an old saying about leadership goes, “If you have to prove you are the leader, you’re probably not!”
Real leadership is based on respect and admiration and those two things are given by people not forced on them. You can enforce compliance, but never true leadership. And because Reheboam is going to listen to his contemporaries he will fail a first significant test of leadership. So another key question here is:
• Who Are My Influencers?
Who are the people I allow to sway my thinking and actions. You could tell which way Reheboam was going to be swayed just in the way he speaks to the two groups. Look at he asks the elders: “How would you advise me…?”(v.6) Then notice how he addresses his friends, “How should we answer…?(v.9) You can predict which way he is going to side can’t you.
Who we allow to influence our decisions will determine our destiny. Do we seek influencers because they make us feel better about ourselves or because we trust their wisdom? Good influencers are like lightening rods. A lightening rod grounds electricity. Just like in a home. It helps prevent the current from passing through the house destroying items. We are either grounders or conduits of electricity.
Once more let’s take a look at a clip from the show This Is Us. The daughter has just sung at her first gig. Her boyfriend and mom have come. After she performs she and the mother end up in an argument and the boyfriend steps away. Watch this…
Isn’t that a great example of saying, “I’m not going to get in the middle of something and just being a conduit for electricity. He even uses some humor there at the end to try to ground the electricity further. If we pass it along we will torch others and ourselves.
Isn’t that what Judas did. Instead of being an evil betrayer, he was probably someone who just got caught being a conduit. He wanted the religious leaders to understand Jesu better. He wanted Jesus to be less critical of them. He tried to be a conduit and he ends up not only getting Jesus killed but taking his own life.
Do your influencers ground electricity in your life or add amps to it?
So back to the story. Reheboam refuses the advice of the elders, and what was that. Just show that you can listen to their complaint. That sounds so simple but it’s the most critical part of civil living, to ask:
• Am I Willing to Understand A Different Perspective?
When you go to someone with whom you have a difference, do you typically go ready to talk or to listen? Do you go ready to defend or to learn? That is the hinge of civility, showing a willingness to try to understand someone else’s view and even look for validation within it. To say, “I want to talk to you about such and such. I think I may take a different perspective than you do, and I want to try to understand your position better.” And then when that person explains, look for valid points to say, “I get that. I think that is a very good reason or point.”
If your goal is to change that person’s thinking, then expect push back. In any tense conversation it takes a whale of a lot of discipline to validate throughout the conversation and look for things that you can in honesty affirm. But those affirmations will keep a spark from becoming a forest fire.
Before he died I knew a man named Claude Evans. Back in the 70’s he was the chaplain at Southern Methodist University, during a time when college students questioned authority and institutions and searched for new ways to express themselves. This was also the time when hot pants were in vogue for girls. Well, Claude hosted an Advent dance in chapel at the start of the Advent season. He was trying to connect with kids looking for a new way of doing things. So they had this dance in the service, and at one point everyone was encouraged to get up and start dancing. Someone took a picture of Claude Evans dancing in front of the altar with an 18 year old in hot pants.
Well, the next day the picture appeared in the Dallas Morning News. Then it got out to news outlets all over the country. Little tiny towns with newspapers that didn’t even cover World War II covered this story. Alumni started calling the president’s office upset about what was happening at their school. They begin withdrawing their pledges and giving to the university. The president, Dr. Willis Tate, demanded to know of his chaplain what on earth he was thinking. Claude came back at him pretty strong and the disagreement exploded into a heated feud that put a firm divide in their relationship.
Some time later Claude was in California at a Gestalt therapy retreat. The leader demonstrated how you put two chairs facing each other and one sits while imagining across from them sits someone you don’t like. He asked for volunteers and Claude stepped up. He sat down and imagined Dr. Tate sitting in front of him and he gave Dr. Tate a piece of his mind. He told how belittled he felt, how angry he was, how untrusted and micro-managed, and on and on he went. He was nearly in tears when he finished.
The leader said, “Good job. Now I want you to change chairs. Claude wasn’t ready for this part. The leader said, “Now I want you to imagine being President Tate and respond to what you just heard. He sat quiet for a moment, then said, “Well, first of all that hurt to hear that. I’m sorry I’ve caused you such pain. I would hope you know I’m not someone who wants to deliberately hurt anyone, and I know you love the church as much as I do. And I know you love those kids. But sometimes just doing whatever you want doesn’t help. And you know you have done some things just for the shock effect.
Well, by the end of it, he had not only given Dr. Tate a piece of his mind, he had given himself a piece of Dr. Tate’s mind. And when he got back to Dallas, it is said the two of them got together and very soon a friendship was restored.
Civil living means understanding those with whom we have differences, and finally it means asking,
• Who Will Be Affected By My Response?
Reheboam’s response had huge implications for generations to come. The nation split and since that time nearly three millennia ago Israel has been a unified nation less than 200 years. Now that doesn’t mean they would have remained a unified country had Reheboam not been so stubborn, but the point consideration: how different would history have been had the king taken a more civil approach?
Civility is about more than politeness, it’s about understanding the deep potential of silly, even significant ways we can get divided. The things we can argue over can be down right dumb, but dumb things can do great damage. And usually something is dumb because we got petty. We got our feelings hurt, our ego got hurt, we felt disrespected, but as we saw earlier, God always gives us a choice. And our choice needs to consider future implications of our responses because civility can prevent a dumb thing from undoing important things.
The founder of the Methodism is John Wesley. Have you ever heard the story of how John Wesley came to be born? Well, his father was a rather hot-tempered man, and his mother was no fading lily. One evening at the dinner table Samuel Wesley prayed blessing upon the king of England. He meant Prince William of Orange. There was debate at the time over who was the rightful heir to the throne. Samuel’s wife, Susannah, was of the opinion, as were many, that Anne should be the queen, who in fact became the recognized heir to the crown. Well, after Samuel’s prayer, Susannah didn’t say amen. When he asked why, she told him, to which he replied, “If we shall have two kings, we shall have two beds.” And with that he left for nearly a year.
After Prince William of Orange died, and there was no more debate about who should be king or queen, he came home. And nine months later John Wesley was born.
Sometimes we have to let the silly things that divide just die, and focus on coming together, because the future, the people who come after us, will be determined by our reconciliations. History remembers our divides. The future goes in the direction of our unions. Therefore we should always be resolved to stay united in Christ, because Christ joins together. People splinter, but Christ unites.