1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I wrestle with this collection of stories that we call the Bible is that it so often fails to be the collection that we want it to be. What I mean by that is this: we Christians sometimes have this unfortunate habit of deifying the Bible, placing the Bible on such a pedestal that it becomes almost as important to us as God. In many ways I understand that impulse. The Bible contains stunningly beautiful passages about God’s love for us, about the lengths to which God will go to forge relationships with humanity and the whole creation, and about the grace that is offered to obviously imperfect people like you and me. Some of these passages truly make my heart sing, and I treasure much of what Scripture has to say about God in Christ.
Then, of course, we have passages like the one before us today. Just two generations after David, the great king of Israel and Judah, we read of the division of the so-called United Monarchy because of the arrogance of Rehoboam, the newly crowned heir of Solomon. At the beginning of his reign, Rehoboam had the opportunity to right the wrongs of his father, who despite all of his famed wisdom made some really terrible choices as king, none worse than the establishment of a system of forced labor that was used for the construction of both his palace and the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead of heeding the advice of his more experienced counselors, who urged him to lessen the demands placed on the people and deal with them compassionately, Rehoboam threatened to increase the workload to prove his supremacy over the people. In response, the vast majority of his subjects – the members of the ten northern tribes of Israel – returned to their homes and pledged their allegiance to one of their own, a man named Jeroboam.
This is not a story that inspires love or devotion. It has little redeeming value except as an example of what not to do as someone who seeks to be faithful to God. Yet here it is, included within the pages of this holy book alongside the stories of hundreds of other broken and beautiful people. What makes Scripture so beautiful, so timeless, so important for us to dig into time and again, is precisely this fact – it is an imperfect book filled with stories about imperfect people who were nevertheless the object of God’s love and grace and guidance.
This is an important truth for us to ponder, not only because it helps us to see some good in an otherwise terrible story of abusive and unresponsive leadership from one of God’s anointed people, but because it reminds us of an equally important truth that often gets lost in our observance of the Feast of All Saints. When we gather to remember the saints, God’s holy people from throughout time and space, we are sometimes in danger of speaking of them the same way that we so often speak about Scripture. It is customary for us to observe to an extreme degree the old adage that it isn’t good to speak ill of those who have died, and again, I understand that impulse. Calling to mind the best and most admirable qualities of our departed loved ones is a practice born out of our affection for them. It helps us to focus on positive memories and to remember what is excellent or praiseworthy. I certainly wouldn’t counsel anyone to do the complete opposite and look exclusively at the faults and failings of those who have gone on to be with the Lord. Yet there is room for a middle way, and I think that middle way is beneficial to us in a number of ways.
First of all, it allows us to remember our loved ones in all their fullness, as complex individuals with their own particular mix of strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, bright spots and dark moments. Second, by remembering that all these “saints” of God were not perfect, we are reminded that our own imperfections are not barriers to relationship with one another or with God. Most importantly, refusing to look at the saints as perfect helps to shift our focus to the one who alone is able to make us saints – Jesus Christ, who came to live among us, to die as one of us, and to be raised for us and for our salvation.
In direct contradiction to the character at the center of today’s Scripture reading, we who are numbered among God’s saints are called to boast first and foremost in the power and presence of God that moves in our lives and enables us to do things that we might never think we were capable of doing. Instead of trumpeting our own status or influence or ability, we are called to draw the gaze of others beyond our own accomplishments to the one who does everything well. In their best moments, the saints we remember today would have told us that themselves – perhaps not in so many words, but in the subtle ways that so many of them deflected attention, or refused to receive praise for things that seemed to them to be perfectly unremarkable, or readily acknowledged their rough places and growing edges.
The stories of Scripture and the stories of the saints are first and foremost stories about the one who created us, redeemed us, and sustains us minute by minute. To read the Bible rightly is to remember that it is not holy in and of itself; it is holy because all of its letters, words, verses, chapters, and books point to the reality of God that is ultimately beyond our comprehension. To honor the saints rightly is to remember that they are not holy because of their own works or piety or prayers, but because God called them (and continues to call us) to faith, to a reliance on the grace of God that is ours in Christ that transforms us to be Christ’s body in the world. So on this All Saints Day, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for Holy Scripture, this collection of stories that bears witness to God’s magnificent and messy relationship with creation, with humanity, with each one of us. Let us give thanks for God’s holy ones – both those known to us and those who stories we may never know – and for the testimony that they gave to the power and grace of Jesus Christ through their lives of faith. Most of all, let us give thanks to God, the one who calls us and makes us holy by the gospel of our Lord, and who sends us out to tell the story of love and life that is offered to all in Christ. Amen.