Every great magic trick has three acts.
The first act is called the Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards or a bird or a lovely assistant. The magician shows you this thing, and maybe even asks you to inspect it to see if it is, in fact, real and unaltered and normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t.
The second act is called the Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. The cards change, or the bird disappears, or the lovely assistant is cut in half. And now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because, of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know; you want to be fooled.
But you won’t clap yet. Because the turn is not enough. The cards have to change back. The bird has to reappear. The lovely assistant has to be put back together again. And that’s why every great magic trick has to have a third act… the hardest part… the Prestige.
Every great magic trick has three acts. The pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The ordinary, the extraordinary, and the astounding.
Last week, we met King David, the all-caps-and-in-bold KING OF ISRAEL to whom all other kings would be compared. But no one can be king forever. Well, almost no one. So, this week, we meet David’s son and successor, Solomon.
And the first thing that you need to know about Solomon is that he is fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God, loved and worthy of love. And the second thing that you need to know about Solomon is that he is wise. And not just wise, but more wise than anyone. else. ever.
In fact, one night, not too long after he ascended to the throne, Solomon had a dream where God appeared to him. And God said to Solomon, “Ask what I should give to you.”
And Solomon could have asked for anything. He could have asked for a long life, or for wealth and fame, or for the destruction of his enemies.
But instead of asking for any of those things, Solomon asked for a wise and understanding mind… the power to discern between good and evil… the tools to be a good king.
(And that’s a pretty good prayer. That’s the kind of prayer that I should be praying—that all of us, probably, should be praying—a lot more.)
So God gave Solomon wisdom. And, because Solomon had asked for wisdom, and not those other things, God also gave Solomon wealth and fame and other good things.
And our reading today is a little… magic trick… to show us Solomon’s wisdom.
The first act. The pledge. The ordinary.
Two women… two prostitutes… who live alone together… come and stand before King Solomon.
Both of the women had sons just a few days apart from each other. And, in the night, one of those two sons died. And now, each of the women is claiming that the living son is their son. And they are arguing about it in front of the king.
And I want to be fair here, because grief can make people do crazy things, and it is possible that both of these women really truly do believe that the living child is their child. And even if they don’t, there are no maternity records or DNA tests. So King Solomon certainly doesn’t know.
An ordinary baby; and no way to decide who he belongs to.
The second act. The turn. The extraordinary.
King Solomon takes a sword and proposes a simple solution, “We’ll just cut the baby in half. And you can have one half. And you can have the other half. And everyone will have exactly the same amount of baby. And everyone will have exactly the same amount of happiness.”
And in that moment, one of the women cries out, “No! Give the boy to her. Just don’t kill him.”
And in that moment, the other woman cries out, “No! Cut the boy in half. Neither of us will have him.”
And King Solomon, who is wiser than anyone. else. ever. hands the boy over to the woman who would rather give the boy up than watch him die. And he declares that she is the mother.
And that is a terrible magic trick… because one woman would rather watch the child die than take the win… and grief can make people do crazy things… and Solomon still doesn’t really know who the mother is.
An extraordinary moment… and it could fool us if we wanted it to… but it is not enough.
The third act. The prestige. The astounding.
It is easy to hear this story and thing that the act of crying out… proves that the woman who cries out… is the biological mother of that child. And that’s possible. That would be nice. I would like that to be true.
But… and I know that our reading today is about a baby… I know that there are biological mothers—and biological fathers and biological grandparents and biological siblings and biological whatevers—who have put their child out for being queer, or getting pregnant, or using drugs, of failing to do as they were told, or otherwise falling short of being the child who they are supposed to be.
And, again, I know that our reading today is about a baby, but… about one in thirty adolescents (kids between the ages of thirteen and seventeen)… and about one in ten young adults (folks between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five)… experience homelessness each year.
And some of those are part of families who are homeless and together. And some of those are part of families who are homeless and separated. And some of those are part of families who have homes that they are not welcome in. ((https://nn4youth.org/learn/youth-homelessness/))
And what I am saying is that biological mothers do not always cry out for their children. Sometimes it is up to other people—people who know that there is no such thing as other people’s children—to cry out.
And, maybe, the act of crying out does not prove that someone is a parent or a grandparent or a sibling or a whatever. Maybe, the act of crying out is what makes someone a parent or a grandparent or a sibling or a whatever.
And maybe, in this story, the biological mother is the one who cries out. And maybe, in this story, the other woman is the one who cries out. And maybe, in this story, it doesn’t matter, because it is the act of crying out—the desperate willingness to put the well-being of that vulnerable and threatened child above her own deepest desires—that makes that woman a mother to that child.
Maybe wisdom is not about uncovering the facts, but about discerning the truth of that astounding love. And maybe the magic is not about revealing the child’s mother, but about turning someone into a mother.
In a couple of sermons recently, when our readings were about the covenant between God and the people of Israel, I riffed on this bit that Paul wrote to the church in Rome about how we—who have no part in those commandments and who are not bound by that covenant—have been grafted into a priestly people and a holy nation.
You see, when we were groaning in our slavery to sin… when we were covered by the stains of our iniquity… when we were crushed under the weight of our debts… when we were vulnerable and threatened… God cried out for us.
God laid aside glory and came into the world for us. God lived and loved for us. God went to the cross and the tomb and the gates of hell for us. God overthrew death and rose from the grave for us. And in that act of astounding love, God adopted us.
And this is the thing…
We do not worship God because God is powerful. We do not sing songs of praise to God because God is insecure. We do not strive to obey God because God is scary.
We love God… because God loves us with an astounding love… because God is love.
And the way that we love God is by loving everyone: friends and neighbors and strangers and enemies and everyone. The way that we love God is by crying out for anyone who is vulnerable or threatened or marginalized or oppressed. The way that we love God is by becoming parents and grandparents and siblings and whatevers to all of those people who need parents and grandparents and siblings and whatevers.
And that is magic.
You see, every great magic trick has three acts.
The first act is called the Pledge. It’s an ordinary world, blessed and broken. You can inspect it. You can run your fingers along it. You can see that there are no hidden buttons or secret compartments.
The second act is called the Turn. It’s an extraordinary act, when God cries out for all of creation, and takes it under their wings, and opens up the places that we could not see to reveal the seeds of a world that we could not imagine.
And the third act is called the Prestige. It’s an astounding call, when God asks us to nurture those seeds… and God instructs us to grow a world rooted in love… and God transforms us into children of God and neighbors to one another and humans as humans were always meant to be.