Ask the Audience

Location: Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, MN)

Scripture: 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29

Last Thursday, one of the new generation of conservative leaders—the so-called “Young Guns”—was elected to a place of near ultimate political power. Over the last few weeks the man with two first names, Paul Ryan, became the consensus candidate to replace outgoing Speaker John Boehner. Ironically, he didn’t even want the position. It was pressed upon him after there were no other viable candidates who could lead the splintered Republican side of the House of Representatives. On Thursday—at only 45 years old—he became one of the youngest Speakers of the House ever.

Now that he has been voted into office, Paul Ryan faces an onslaught of choices about his leadership. Will he stay close to the bedrock fiscal conservatism which is his longtime brand? Will he use his new power to enact the dramatic spending cuts his budgets have always dreamed of? Or will he moderate his positions in order to find common ground with the Senate and President Obama? How will he satisfy—or at least take turns disappointing in equal measure—the various conservative to moderate lawmaker groups that elected him as Speaker? How will Paul Ryan navigate these waters now? I heard John Boehner describe being Speaker as the loneliest position in Washington, except perhaps for the presidency. Everybody has an agenda for you, and all this power makes you a target for instant valorization or vilification—usually both, all the time. So who will Paul Ryan listen to while he makes his first moves as the Speaker of the House?

These questions of leadership don’t just pile up at the new Speaker’s desk. They are common questions for anyone who has decisions to make. Who do you listen to when you are choosing a baby’s name? Where do you get your information as you prepare to cast a ballot? Who gets your phone call when you go out to buy a car? We ask ourselves, “What will my parents think? What are my friends going to say? Can I justify this to my children, my grandchildren?” We don’t have the press and warring political tribes breathing down our necks like Paul Ryan does, but each time we go to make a big decision there are a host of people we want to consult and consider. It’s a little like that “Ask the Audience” lifeline on the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The contestant facing a tough question has a chance to get audience feedback on the right answer. This crowdsourcing technique is the only lifeline that’s been consistently used throughout all seasons of the show. And it’s proven to be successful. Over the life of the show the audience has been right at least 90% of the time. Asking the audience and getting advice is often the right way to go, but as King Rehoboam discovers, terrible things happen if you listen to the wrong audience.

The new king—fresh from being crowned at Shechem—gets to his desk on Monday morning and the first order of business is to deal with is a massive petition. The pages are wheeling it in on handcarts, one box after anther. As they start to pile up in his office, Rehoboam reaches into the top box to pull out the petition. It says in bold at the top: “Let Our People Go!” The first lines begin: “We the people of the united tribes of Israel, in order to secure a better future for ourselves and our children, do call on King Rehoboam to cease and desist the heavy labor and conscripted service which was imposed on all the Hebrews by your father Solomon. We will not be slaves any longer to pay for the conspicuous consumption at the king’s palace. But lift the yoke of this heavy burden, and we will continue to serve you.” The first signature on the page—followed by thousands more in the boxes stacked around—was that of Jeroboam, son of Nebat. Rehoboam needed a little time to figure out what he was going to do. So he pulled out his phone and tweeted: “@JerBarNebat, Got ur msg. Need 3 days. Come back Thursday.”

King Rehoboam decided to do what all the power-brokers do to figure out answers. He called up a few guys from the old-boys club, and they met for a round of golf. Between putts, he asked their opinion on the petition: should he lighten the load of the Hebrew people? These seasoned veterans had their sense of what would play well over the long haul, so they responded: “Sure, this petition nonsense is overblown. But make it look like you take them seriously now, and they’ll be eating out of your hand for years to come. Consider the optics, Rehob. See the headlines now: New King Rebuilds Trust with Commoners. We’ll call you ‘Rehabilitating Rehoboam’—the press will love it!” That sounded pretty good to the new king, but it’s not what he decided in the end. Because on Wednesday night he ended up shooting hoops with some of the young nobles he had grown up with. Over beers after the game, they said, “Nonsense, Rehob! Give in now, and they’ll be walking all over you the rest of your reign. You gotta show these people who’s boss around here, and it ain’t them! Tell them you’re twice the man as your old man Solomon!”

Come Thursday morning, the royal motorcade driving Rehoboam to his office was stalled by a huge crowd gathered outside the palace. Through tinted windows he heard the crowd shouting: “What do we want? Our answer! When do we want it? Now!” Stepping out the limousine door, protected from the crowd by velvet ropes, Rehoboam walked to the center podium. “My fellow Israelites!” he called into the microphones, and the raucous caucus grew still. Rehoboam had decided to follow the hotheads from the previous night, so he said to the rally: “If you think you had it hard under Solomon, you ain’t seen nothing yet! My father used whips to get his way—I’ll put iron hooks in those whips!” Needless to say, this isn’t what the people wanted to hear. “Secession!” they called. “Down with Judah!” The mass of people slowly uncoiled into a long march, a defiant Exodus from the capitol. As Rehoboam listened, the chorus of the marchers’ song echoed off the high temple walls: “Tried to make us go to Rehob, but we said ‘no, no, no’.”

When you seek advice, the quality of that advice depends on the wisdom of who you ask. Rehoboam listened to foolish counsel, and choose poorly on his first big test in office. The united kingdom of Israel under Saul, David and Solomon was broken under Rehoboam, and it was never put back together again. This moment, when Rehoboam listened to foolish advice, resulted in a civil war that lasted for hundreds of years. The strong northern kingdom of Israel came to be ruled by Jeroboam and his successors, while Rehoboam in the south kept only Judah and several other small tribes that remained loyal to the throne of David.

It’s easy enough in hindsight to judge Rehoboam harshly for his foolish decision, but he was doing what all of us do when we’re faced with a tough choice. We crowd-source, consult our friends, or put a question up on Facebook. I’m not sure we’re any smarter for these modern ways of “asking the audience”. Are we asking in the widest way possible, so as to get broad, representative answers? Or do our questions go into echo chambers where we—like Rehoboam—only hear from those who think like we do? What would happen if instead we asked the widest audience possible, the Body of Christ, living and dead? What if we sought to follow the wisest advisor who ever walked the earth, Jesus himself? I believe our decisions, our lives, and our society would be infinitely better for it.

This matters because we are in the midst of a great societal conversation about how to live and act as the American people. What governmental policies and individual practices will lead to the greatest good? Our newspapers and Facebook feeds are filled with social commentary on this candidate or that. Voices clamor for recognition—“Black Lives Matter” and “Police Lives Matter”—as though choosing one means excluding the other. I hope you are planning to head to the polls on Tuesday to cast your ballots. Here in south Washington County, there are urgent questions about who will best represent the public interest, and three vital ballot measures about education funding. The success of our students, the expansion of Spanish-language learning, modernizing classrooms, or cutting extracurricular activities is all up for a vote. Rehoboam needed three days to consult his advisors; that’s about what we’ve got also. You could sit this out, but because so many do, a single person has the greatest power to shape election outcomes in local races. The quality of our leadership and our education systems relies on your voice. This is the point where our government, seeking direction and clarity, turns to every voter among us for “Ask the Audience” help. So as you prepare to vote, I invite you to ask your own audience of advisors—the Holy Spirit of God and the body of Christ, made up of past, present and future saints.

In a little bit you’ll be invited to come forward and share in the sacred meal of Holy Communion. As you line up, or await the bread and cup brought to you, I want you to see who else is gathered with you. Surrounding the table are people of all ages, races, tribes and nations. This is the spiritual body of Christ, saints who have gathered as the church throughout all generations. Those named and those unnamed, those celebrated and those forgotten. The communion table unites us with Christ at the Last Supper, and it also connects us through time and space to all who have ever had food and drink at this holy table. They are our advisors, giving us examples of righteous, sacrificial living. They gather with us at the Table, and they watch over us all our lives. As the writer Ronald Knox puts it, “The floor of Heaven is like a window with a muslin curtain across it; we can’t see in, but the saints can see out…. If you are ever feeling [confused or disheartened] about your…efforts to live a good Christian life…think of the saints in Heaven bending over the balconies in front of them and shouting out ‘Stick it!’ as people do when they are watching a race.”[1]

Let our daily lives, and our actions this week, follow the example of those who have fought the good fight and are now cheering us on in Heaven. In feasting at the Table of Christ, let us be filled with his Spirit and formed once more into his spiritual Body, to show Christ’s love, mercy, justice and kindness as all the saints have done before.

Let us pray: God of wisdom, pour out your Spirit of discernment and wise counsel on us and all leaders as we seek your ways for this coming week. Help us to make decisions which reflect your life in us, and which will cause those who follow after to count us among the saints as well. Amen.

[1] Ronald A. Knox, The Creed in Slow Motion, as cited by William Griffin in “All Saints”, Stories for the Christian Year, ed. by Eugene H. Peterson and copyrighted by The Chrysostom Society (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 188.

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