Successful Succession

Notes from
Sunday, August 19, 2018
‘Trinity on Church’ UC Kitchener

Text: 1 Kings 2

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows…

We listened to Leonard Cohen sing the whole of “Everybody Knows” before I spoke today.  You had already been talking together about success and succession: what are Trinity’s successes, and United Church successes, things of which we are justly proud – and what might those thing look like next.  Implicit was the invitation to assess our personal success and succession.

Our organization is good at a managerial culture of SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. A generation of church planners have taught techniques from MBO ‘management by objectives’ and Carver’s ‘policy governance’.  We were the first outfit to implement planned giving to capital funds, as a congregation and as a denomination.

Our movement, including this local organism, is less sure about maturing and growing, discerning and guiding succession planning, to honour the trust represented by our legacy funds, recently realized as liquid financial assets.  Success, and succession, share Latin and Old English roots with meanings like ‘going close to’.  To what, or to whom, are we going closer? 

What does ‘succeeding’ mean to you? Our culture tells us all the time
that succeeding is all about us: what we buy, what we own, how we dress, 
what we drive, where we have travelled.  Encouraged to meet challenges, surpass standards, accomplish goals or objectives, realize ambitions, trusting the myth of meritocracy, assured of our equal rights and opportunities.  

We hear less in our secular culture about legacy succession. ‘Succeeding’ has this other sense: replacing a predecessor, occupying a post or role or office in one’s turn, assuming duties and obligations, taking on power or authority, or inheriting. We hear about it in political leadership succession or in estate planning for tax avoidance.  In personal or religious life, it’s less clear.

Are we succeeding? How can we tell? Are we ready to take our turn, succeeding others? Who will be succeeding you, and how can you help them succeed?  You begin to tell what I am thinking about, as we enter Year 2 of Transition, and anticipate the succeeding that will continue here.  Worship Team and Board meet this week, Investment Committee next.

This was the 8th and last sermon this summer about David – and the end of almost 5 months of reading through the ‘Latter Prophets’, histories of Joshua, Judges, the Samuels and the Kings. These stories were written, of course, in retrospect, by winners or survivors, and rewritten in exile, as people asked: ‘how did it go wrong’? Somehow, all that succeeding didn’t keep succeeding. 

I invited you to recall Marlon Brando’s deathbed counsel to Al Pacino, in The Godfather movies: ‘I promised that I would not kill take vengeance, to make peace – but you can’.  And remember Pacino’s coordinated murders while he is standing godfather for his nephew: ‘Today all family debts are repaid’.  Our bulletin cover quoted another movie-maker, Ken Burns:

History isn’t about the past – settling old scores.
It is about the present, defining who we are.

Last week we recalled the civil war with Absalom.  Since then another son, Adonijah, attempted to assert himself as successor to his father, with support from Joab and the army, and Abiathar and the priesthood.  David tells Solomon to settle some scores, to keep his friends close, and his enemies closer. Shlomo would have to be shrewd, given who preferred his elder brothers. 

Solomon’s story admits how hotly contested and bloody was his succession.  He was ambitious, marrying Pharoah’s daughter early on to open trade through Egypt into Africa, to balance the trade axis to the north and east into Asia. In the end, even the Queen of Sheba will come round, if a bit like Reagan visiting Mulrony and making him sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ like a waiter.

John A MacDonald used to say that his job was to be a ‘cabinet maker.’  That did  not mean he was like a finish carpenter making beautiful furniture like Krug in Kitchener, but a politician building and balancing alliances.  ‘Making sausages’ is a similar metaphor, familiar to Schneiders or Pillers in Kitchener.  Political succeeding is never as easy or pretty as national myths teach children.

This week, the statue of John A. MacDonald was removed in Victoria, due to his genocidal policies about first nations, residential schools, and the carnage of his National Dream railway across traditional buffalo hunting grounds.  Maxime Bernier’s own scandalous rant against ‘identity politics’ continues the struggle between assimilation into a collective hegemony, or smaller collectives.

Rebuffed and re-tariffed by the USA, do we reach out to UK and EEC ties, stick with NAFTA, or bid into the Pacific Rim to develop trade? What is wiser: less regulated markets or protectionism? Free trade or fair trade? Solomon was as shrewd as a Canadian politician – or Canadian voter.  Sure, we remember the leaders, but they have to maintain legitimacy, if we find them credible.

Certainly, these months of Former Prophets have recited a succession of kings, with little relief from tales most Israelites, who were women, or otherwise not in control. However, the story is not a genetic run of eldest sons inheriting – quite the opposite, as David supplants Jonathan, and his elder sons lose the throne to Solomon. It’s not ‘will our children have faith’, but ‘will our faith have children’?

The real success story, and the centre of the succession story, is Bathsheba.  She paid some dues, as David the king abused his power with her and killed her husband, then she lost her son in divine punishment of David.  She demanded a deal from David, that Solomon would be king.  She was neither seductress nor victim, but a woman who exercised her power of wit and influence, rather than through unilateral ‘command and control’.  

Abishag is the other pivotal person in the story.  The Shunamite paragon of beauty and virtue, celebrated in Song of Solomon, was recruited to ‘warm the feet’ of David who was described the way 99-year-old Avram was – but unlike the patriarch who was potent, David was shown impotent by Abishag.  Adonijah wanted to claim her as one more object signalling his imminent succession.

Bathsheba uses Adonijah’s mistake about Abishag, agreeing to act as his powerful interlocutor with David.  David, predictably, is outraged by the request which highlights his impotence and Adonijah’s over-reaching ambition.  Bathsheba gets her way, and Shlomo gets the throne.  Bathsheba has lived out her ‘long game’, and will be remembered in our tradition in Jesus’ lineage. 

Who is successful in this succession?  I suggested that it was Bathsheba, who provides a better model for the majority of hearers, women and men of less than ultimate power.  She was neither victim nor seductress, virgin nor whore.  She had significant power, and used it well and faithfully, shrewdly, with wit and influence in relationship with others.  Would that we might learn more of her!
We opened the service with reflections on success and succession, as a congregation and as a denomination, and as individuals and community.  I closed with a couple of responses to the question from Americans:

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 To laugh often and much,
To win the respect of intelligent people
And the affection of children,
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
And endure the betrayal of false friends,
To appreciate beauty,
To find the best in others,
To leave the world a bit better,
Whether by a healthy child,
A garden patch…
To know even one life has breathed easier
Because you have lived:
This is to have succeeded!
Reinhold Niebuhr
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous,
can be accomplished alone;
therefore, we are saved by love.

What word to you have for our hearts, O God, give us ears to hear.

God who was,
and is,
and is to come,
God becoming

The prophet Habakkuk lamented
‘Summer is ending,
The harvest passing
And we are not yet saved’

How are we to construe
our days and seasons,
To shape our stories,
If not by your story?

What periodicity is fit to match cost and benefit,
Profit and loss, against what good or goods?
We count on our monthly pensions,
Regular dividends or interest accrued,
Capital gain on investment –
Our own short fetish for short term results
distorting our view of growth, or maturity

As we hear of David’s end,
Echo of so many others,
And sign of many yet to come
What word do you have for our hearts,
O God, give us ears to hear

Is it all about settling scores
Playing-out zero-sum games of vindication of agonies
Defining the present, written by the arrived
Or pointing beyond itself, fingered by ascendants?

God of Grace
Whose providence provides,
So much more than we could ask or imagine,
Let alone exceeding our just desserts

God of Mercy
Whose forbearance withholds
Restraining the consequences invited by our choices,
Giving us time to repent, to turn again

You’ve been telling time story
and retelling it again and again,
Since David’s time,
1000 years before Jesus

You told us again,
In a story of Jesus, son of David
And retelling it gain and again
2000 years more

But we were younger
When we heard it last,
Younger still
When we heard it first,

And some of us, frankly, were not listening,
Caught up in our own concerns
And others heard a bit, then forgot,
Distracted by the big and little things of our age

So tell us the old, old story again,
And make of it for us a living word