The Secret of Life


A sermon delivered by Keith D. Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on July 22, 2012

II Samuel 7:1-14a

Here’s the context for today’s reading:  King David has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination proving he was the right man at the right time as Israel’s powerful and beloved leader. Their enemies (the Philistines and other neighboring tribes) have been driven into submission. David has taken the previously divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms, and united them thus consolidating their power and place in the most precious real estate in the Middle East. As a sign of his power and influence, he named Jerusalem as his capital and commanded that the Ark of the Covenant be brought up where it will reside as a sign of God’s presence. At last they are living in a season of peace and power and prosperity.

Honestly, even David’s toughest struggles have contributed to enhance his success and to enlarge the kingdom even more. Remember the line from the movie Broadcast News, where Tom Grunnick, the hot new talent, asks incredulously, “What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?” To which the rest of us who work hard to achieve the meager successes we can respond as in the movie, “Keep it to yourself.”

David is at the mid-point of his life and he’s looking for a way to legitimize his reign and to secure his place of greatness in history.

David desired to mark his career with a lasting gift of remembrance in the form of the construction of a great Temple as a house of worship. Both he and Nathan the prophet were in agreement that God’s ark had lived long enough in the portable tents of the Tabernacle and it was time to provide a permanent sacred space for the ark in the newly christened City of David.

But surprisingly Nathan was told in a dream that it was not to be. In fact,  in answering David God made a play on the word “house” and offered instead to build David a house of his own, “I, YHWH, will build you a house.”

The word play comes in knowing that the word “house” can mean either a temple or a dynasty. Thus, the roles are reversed. David will not build Yahweh a house (a temple). Instead, Yahweh will build David a house (a dynasty). And in the word play, the seriousness of their conversation shifts. They’re no longer talking about building a place for the Ark of the Covenant to reside. They’re not contemplating building a structure that will house the visible presence of God. Instead, God speaks of the prospects of David’s reign being remembered for all time as a sign of his greatness. The Davidic dynasty is not unrelated to the significance of the Temple, but obviously a historical statement is being made about the reality of David’s contribution to the children of Israel, thus establishing David’s place among the peoples of the earth.

It’s altogether natural that we think in terms of doing something with our lives. Most of us are raised to make a positive contribution to things, to leave significant things behind, to be known for things grand, things large. It’s a part of us to want to look over our shoulders and see that we’ve left something memorable behind us for others to see and to admire. Part of our conflict and struggle at the mid-point of our lives is the reality that may settle in when we fail in accomplishing something great.

When John Claypool was pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, he preached a series of sermons on the various stages of the life cycle from childhood to old age that later became the basis for his wonderful book, Stages: Living the Unexpected.[1] In those sermons he drew upon psychologist Erik Erikson’s developmental stages and wisely observed that in each stage of life there is a corresponding struggle of the spirit. And in the struggle through adulthood, the longest stage of our lives there is a marked difference in climbing up the mountain from descending down the mountain.

There is the obvious struggle of the first half of adulthood we can call “The Season of Accomplishment.” But of the struggle of older age he asked, “Where are the navigational charts for the afternoon and evening of life?” Most of us are so busy in the first half of adulthood achieving and conquering that we are caught unprepared for the uniqueness of aging. It’s the kind of experience that comes when someone has focused all his or her adult energies on only one growth front during the early years of adulthood. How do we then cope with the second half of adulthood when climbing the mountain is no longer the primary goal?

All of us want to rise to the top of the heap in our lives. We want our lives to mean something. When Reece Witherspoon received the Academy Award for Best Actress she was both eloquent and tender in her remarks. She was obviously moved by the contributions her parents and spouse and children had made in her life. One could hear the gratitude welling up within her on this great night of accomplishment. But what could have been self-congratulatory turned into a holy moment. Basking in the glow of the great approval of her peers, she was aware enough in the moment to be touch with the one whom she portrayed in Walk the Line, June Carter Cash.

The story of Johnny and June Cash has been well told. It’s the story of a man in black who was a crazy mixture of heart-felt spirituality and broken earthiness. He was very human and all his habits were demonstrated on the stage where he lived as heartily as he sang. Cash proved for all of us that a life of addiction is a terribly hard life to live. He was a deeply spiritual man but one none of us would exemplify as worthy of emulation.

But what about the woman behind the man? What better tribute to June Carter’s life of redemption could there have been than Witherspoon’s telling words: “People used to ask June how she was doing, and she used to say, ‘I'm just trying to matter.’” Witherspoon went on to add, “And I know what she means. You know, I'm just trying to matter, and live a good life and make work that means something to somebody.” That could easily be our mantra in living this life that’s ours to live.

In this story, we have an early assessment of David’s greatness. He stands at this mid-point with everything going his way. He conquered all the neighboring powers of the Middle East and he could look over his shoulder and see the fruits of his long, uphill struggle to accomplish something that would last beyond his own life.

Forrester Church was the long-time pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC and also the son of the former senator from Idaho, Senator Frank Church. In his book, Everyday Miracles, he wrote of his maternal grandfather, Chase Clark, who served as the governor of Idaho in the early 40's. Governor Clark was a short man with twinkling eyes and a shock of white hair. He was generous too. Forrester remembers that he would stand close to his grandson and slip him a five-dollar bill on the sly. “Spend it on anything you want,” he’d whisper, “just don’t tell your parents.”

While as a lawyer in Idaho during the 20's he became a member of the board of Directors of the largest bank in the area. When the Depression hit, it collapsed and Clark sold all of his tens of thousands of acres in the area (land that later became Sun Valley) and he paid off all the bank’s customers while keeping only his homestead for his personal keeping.

Facing re-election in 1942, Governor Clark was approached by a Catholic priest who pleaded for him to consider the growing problem of overcrowding at the state penitentiary. There were nearly three times as many prisoners as the penitentiary was built to handle. So within three months of Election Day, he pardoned more than 100 prisoners. [Mind you, only two ever returned to prison and in fact, several showed up for his funeral 24 years later.] But politics being what it is, the voters responded to his opponent’s political claims that the streets were no longer safe at night and he lost the election by two hundred votes.

When he died in the mid-60's the surprise of the family was that he had left almost nothing in his will. He gave every appearance of being the richest man in the world and yet when his will was opened, the shock dawned on them that there was almost nothing left! The truth of the matter was that when they looked over his financial books they learned that he had been dispensing his great wealth over the years in small acts of kindness and support. He gave it all away: $50 here, $20 there.

Everything he didn’t need for his own basic needs, he gave away to good causes. His desk was filled with trinkets. Some boys club in Omaha would send him a plastic American flag lapel pin, and he would respond with a donation. And every Christmas morning, as each of his family took turns opening his lavish gifts, he would mumble quietly, “You can’t take it with you.”

Forrester remembers having a poor relative as well. The only time she took him out to dinner, she absentmindedly forgot her purse at home, and Forrester had to scrounge around to pay the bill. As a graduation gift, she gave him a $50 savings bond that matured to full value twenty years later; only he had long-since lost the certificate for cashing it in. But he didn’t seem to mind because she was clearly poor and had little to give to him as gifts. Besides, his grandfather had given him a car for his graduation!

The biggest surprise was that he was wrong about her as well. While everyone thought that she was poor as a church mouse, the truth of the matter was that she had amassed a small fortune and she spent her life roosting on a golden egg that hatched only after she died.

It begs the question: Who was rich and who was poor?[2]

The trick in creating a sense of satisfaction in life is to figure out where to lean the ladder of our accomplishing so that when we climb to the top, we have the deep sense of knowing that the ladder has taken us to the top where joy and peace are found.

How about one last story to help us see the point?

It’s told in India about an argument among the gods over where to hide the secret of life so men and women would not find it.

“Bury it under a mountain,” one god suggested. “They’ll never find it there.”

“No,” the others countered, “one day they will find a way to dig up the mountain and uncover the secret of life.”

“Put it in the depths of the deepest ocean,” another god suggested. “It will be safe there.”

“No,” said the others, “someday humankind will find a way to travel to the ocean depths and will find it.”

“Put it inside them,” a wise, old god said, “men and women will never think of looking for it there.”

All the gods agreed, and so it is said the gods hid the secret of life within us.[3]



[1] John Claypool, Stages, Living the Unexpected, Waco: Word Publishing Co., 1977

[2] Forrester Church, Everyday Miracles, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1988, 24-26

[3] From James W. Jones, In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life, New York: Harper Collins, 1995,  24-25

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Tags: Forrester Church, Governor Chase Clark, John Claypool, June Carter Cash, Keith Herron, Reece Witherspoon, Sermons