Sunday, June 16, 2013

June 16, 2013 - Proper 6C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            So often the Old Testament presents us with the most illustrious and captivating stories in all of the Bible, and today’s reading from 1 Kings is no exception. It would make a great opera, as it has all the needed tragic and dramatic elements. It tells the story of the king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, a princess from Phoenicia who follows other gods, Jezebel, and their plot against the Israelite Naboth. It is an old story, but one full of wisdom for us today. It should be rather obvious after hearing this reading that one of the major themes deals with justice.
And to put us in the right frame of mind, I’d like to begin with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu- “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say ‘Now is this political or social?’ He said ‘I feed you.’ Because the Gospel to a hungry person is bread.” I begin with this quote because, at times, this might sound like a political sermon. At times, I will say thing that sound like they’ve been taken from a Republican stump speech. At other places, you might hear me as Democratic speech writer. And other times, I just might sound plain crazy. But I want to make it clear: I am simply preaching the text as it was read this morning, pointing toward the Gospel truths.
As Americans, we’re obsessed with the law and justice, and our reading from 1 Kings is very much concerned with law and justice. Supreme Court cases get major media attention, we have several shows about law and order, and courtroom drama is now its own television genre. And in particular, the Constitution has become our focal point. We look to it to discover what is right and what is wrong. But anyone willing to give our country an honest look will soon realize that the Constitution does not lead to justice. We have billion dollar mud-slinging contests to decide who will win the White House every four years, and perhaps the most important job that any president has is appointing Supreme Court justices. And not even for one moment does anyone seriously think that any president will appoint impartial judges to the court; but instead they stack the court with like-minded people. As the prophet Habakkuk notes, “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” And he might as well be talking to modern day America. One has to wonder if what we have is actually a justice system, or rather a punishment and revenge system.
One of the themes that we’ll run into in 1 Kings is the problem of idolatry. And we have made the Constitution an idol. But compared the Word of God, the Constitution is just a piece of paper with ink smeared on it. The justice of our courts is nothing compared to the justice of God. King Ahab of Israel forgot that. He didn’t have our Constitution, but he had his own vision of how a nation should be run. He turned from the Covenant with God, making idols out of everything. And we have begun to do the same. So let this story about Ahab and Naboth be a reminder to us that we keep our focus on God’s law and not laws that we create to suit our own desires and needs.
As we enter the text, it begins with a simple business proposition- “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” Ahab is committing the sin of coveting. He wants what is not his. And if this doesn’t speak to our human nature of being selfish and materialistic, then I don’t know what does. Here we have the king of Israel, with more land than he could ever need, with two palaces, with armies and servants, and yet he still isn’t satisfied. He still wants more. He isn’t content with what he has.
And how often do we fall into that pattern? We all do it, so there’s no sense denying it. As St. Augustine said, “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in thee.” But we put our hearts in other places. We have other priorities that end up higher on the list than God. We have soccer tournaments that keep us from church, we have budgets that focus more on our own standard of living than the standard of living of those homeless people that live in our communities, we put our faith in political leaders who are just as corrupt as Ahab and Jezebel. We live in a culture of planned obsolescence, always wanting the next best thing. We have all committed the sin of Ahab.
Ahab shows us the dangers of desire; the evils that can come through coveting. You perhaps have seen in the news over the past few weeks the unfolding saga of the young girl in need of a lung transplant and the action of her parents to move her to the top of the transplant list. Now I’m all for a parent doing everything in their power to help their child, nothing wrong with that. But where sin enters the picture is when it devolves into coveting in the way that Ahab did. The problem comes when we focus on our own needs and desires above and against the needs and desires of others. In all of the media coverage, I have yet to hear about what happens to those who get “leap-frogged” on the transplant list; as those parents who have enough money to hire lawyers and create a media-storm seem to get whatever they want, while not considering how their actions might affect others. We often say “you have to follow your heart and be true to yourself.” And the danger in this is that we make desire our ethical standard. We must consider where our desires leads us.
Ahab didn’t consider what taking the land of Naboth might do to him. Ahab commits the sin of saying “I want,” and that is where the whole debacle begins. When we covet, we lose ourselves. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the character of the same name in the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab. The captain becomes obsessed with catching the white whale, and is willing to sacrifice is ship, the lives of his crew, and his own live in chasing what he covets. It consumes his entire life, and he exclaims “to the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” When we covet as Ahab, both the captain and the king, did, we lose our relationship with ourselves and with others.
So after this proposition is made, Naboth responds to the king, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ancient laws in Israel prohibited the selling or trading of land, as the land was seen as a gift from God to the family. Even when the law was ignored and land transactions did happen, every 50 years, when the Jubilee year came, the land would revert to the original owner. Naboth was not willing to forget who he was. Ahab was after something that he could not have, and Naboth respected God’s law, even though Naboth stood to gain a lot of money or an even better homestead.
There is an interesting point in Ahab’s speech- he says that he wants to turn Naboth’s land into a vegetable garden. It seems innocent on the surface, but there is a deeper meaning. The other time in the Bible where a vegetable garden is referenced is in Deuteronomy 11:10, where God says “For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.” Ahab intends to take the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and turn it into a new Egypt, a place of slavery, a place of oppression, a place without God’s justice. And so Naboth refuses to allow this atrocity to happen.
Ahab returns home and sulks. He is so overrun by jealousy and covetousness that he has made himself sick to the point where he can’t even eat. Jezebel enters the story, and seeks to console her husband. She says “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” For the first time in the story, we see the wisdom of that old phrase on display- “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
What I find to be perhaps the most disturbing part of this whole story is that Ahab doesn’t say anything in response to Jezebel. He does not ask, “how are you going to do that?” He doesn’t say “you can talk to Naboth about it, but be mindful of God’s justice.” Instead, he just sits there, complicit in the evil that he knows is about to be done. At the end of the passage, justice comes down on Ahab, reminding us that we are responsible for the actions of those under us. If you’d like a modern example of how this works, I suggest you ask President Obama about it. When we turn a blind eye or abdicate responsibility, the entire house of cards will fall and it will come crashing down on us.
We should also consider how we are like Ahab at this point in the narrative. What are we complicit in? When do we look the other way when it benefits us? There is a great alternative form of the Confession, that, in part, prays “We repent of the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” And it’s a great line- the evil done on our behalf. For the most part, if we have a comfortable life, it is the direct result of someone living an uncomfortable life.
I’d like to draw your attention to the growing movement in Raleigh known as Moral Mondays. It is a group of faithful people gathering to peacefully protest against the disgusting legislation being presented before our State legislature. The issue is that the North Carolina General Assembly is considering bills that will remove Medicaid and unemployment benefits from many; that would add a consumption tax that will adversely impact the poor, who will face increased prices on basic goods; and that will force college students to return to their often distant homes to vote, seeking to control election outcomes. In short, the Biblical teachings and imperatives to protect the poor, respect the stranger, care for widows and children, and love our neighbors are being ignored, much in the same way that Ahab and Jezebel ignored God’s justice in favor of their own desires and power.
Do we really think that $4 gasoline, out of season vegetables in every grocery store, and $10 jeans have no repercussions? There is a price to be paid for convenience, but we’re not the one’s paying it. Naboth is. And far too often, we are like Ahab, turning a blind eye so that we can get what we want. The saying is “out of sight, out of mind,” but nothing is out of God’s sight.
And so Jezebel begins scheming, and commits several evils in the process. This is the ultimate nightmare as far as Biblical crimes go. In this one story, Jezebel orchestrates and compounds the sins of Adam, Cain, and David. First, she creates a national crisis by proclaiming a fast. This decree would be as if the president instituted martial law as a means of preventing voters from going to the polls; it is an extreme abuse of power that would have caused panic. It was a way for Jezebel to control the situation and not give Naboth a chance. The fast would have been declared as a way of making amends to God. It was a way of saying, “there is a sinner in our midst, so we need to fast and find them, lest God’s judgment come down on us all.” It’s a rather heinous act to appeal to God’s justice as a way of perverting that same justice. And I can’t help but think of the infatuation that Fox News has had with Benghazi over the past 6 months as a modern day parallel of having an inquisition and crisis for political gain. In both cases, it is a distraction so that people don’t pay attention to the other issues that are going on. And Jezebel is setting Naboth up for doom by creating the conspiracy of someone having angered God.
She then lies and bears false witness, both in concocting the story, but also in signing decrees in Ahab’s name. Naboth’s initial response was “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Jezebel likely committed the same crime that every news outlet commits on a daily basis- she probably just misquoted Naboth. It is quite likely that she reports Naboth to have said “The Lord forbid that I not give you my ancestral inheritance.” And in doing so, Naboth was swearing an oath before God, and then breaking it by not giving the land to Ahab. And so the trumped up charges of “cursing God and the king” begin to stick. Words are powerful, they can be used to build up or tear down. And Jezebel’s twisting of words urges us to consider how we use them.
Jezebel’s plan is working perfectly, and Naboth ends up being stoned to death for blasphemy against God. This is perhaps one of the greatest crimes that we can ever commit: the killing of an innocent. As I mentioned before, we have an imperfect criminal justice system. We are not God. And so why we insist on utilizing the death penalty is beyond me. This story clearly shows that the death penalty can be improperly applied. Naboth was put to death, following the exact laws of the land- there were two witnesses that corroborated the crime. And as we’ve seen, DNA results have cleared those wrongly convicted, the death penalty is unfairly applied to minorities, and it doesn’t really bring about any sort of justice, but instead focuses on vengeance.
And now that the land owner has been killed for violating God’s law, the king can rightfully take the land instead of it staying with the family, who now has a cursed name. This is the last of the evils that Ahab and Jezebel do. The prophet Elijah comes to Ahab and asks “Have you killed, and also taken possession?” The end of the plot has finally been realized, Ahab has the land. It is a story about the ultimate abuse of power.
You’ll recall the story of King Midas, the king who turned everything he touched to gold, which wasn’t so bad until he touched his daughter and turned her into a statue. Power weakens those who are eager enough to exploit it. King Ahab will live to experience this truth, as Elijah tells him “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood…Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.” There is an old hymn that sings “this is my Father’s world, oh let me never forget / that though the wrong seems oft so strong / God is the ruler yet.” It is a truth that Ahab would come to learn, and we would do well to remember that lesson.
So what do we do in response to a story like this? How do we live faithfully when justice is so often perverted? We forgive. Justice unravels when we lose sight of who we are in relation to God. Once justice is broken, it is awfully hard to restore. Somehow, we must break the downward spiral of justice and injustice, the cycle of retribution, the vendettas of vindictiveness. And forgiveness is the one thing that can do this.
To some of us, forgiveness in the face of the evils of Ahab and Jezebel might seem na├»ve or soft.  We worry that we’re not doing anything to stop these evils from happening again. And we end up pushing forgiveness aside, because we think it gets in the way of justice. So we charge into the situation with our own vision of what justice should look like, and the pursuit of justice becomes an idol for us, and before long, we can’t remember if we’re Naboth or Ahab.
We must remember that justice belongs to God. Though the sins we commit are horizontal, going from person to person, there is also a vertical element to our sin. We sin against God just as much as we do others when we violate divine justice.
To be clear, forgiveness isn’t the last thing that Christians are to say in the face of injustice; but it is to be the first thing. We say, “you can harm me, but you can’t take away my allegiance to Christ. You can be cruel to me, but you can’t make me become like you. You can hate me, but I can forgive you.” Forgiveness is God’s justice; it is the way to make things right and restore order. Of course, repentance and restitution have to be part of the equation, but without forgiveness, the cycles will never be broken.
As the former dean of Duke Chapel, Samuel Wells, writes, “why do we forgive? Because Jesus in his cross and resurrection has released the most powerful energy in the universe and we want to be a part of it. Why do we forgive? Because Jesus is dying for us to forgive.” And he goes on to say that forgiveness is the Christian word for justice. When Christ came earth and entered the vineyard, he didn’t come as an Ahab to claim authority and bring about revenge; he came as Naboth, a man who was killed on false charges. And the way that Jesus sought justice wasn’t in condemning the wrong, but it was in saying “Father, forgive them.”
It’s a rich story about justice and forgiveness. We see the problems created by the sins of idolatry, the dangers of desire, and the evil scheming to get whatever we want, regardless of the cost to others. This ancient story gives us a good opportunity to consider justice in our own lives and nation. Where do we sit by and let justice be perverted? Are we able to recognize those moments when we are Ahab or Jezebel and need to be forgiven?
If only we could be a people who were known for forgiveness instead of being obsessed with the law and our own idea of justice. Perhaps when modern day Elijahs confront us, we will repent of our sin. Perhaps then we could be less like Jezebel and Ahab. Perhaps then the Kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

June 9, 2013 - Proper 5C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Well today is a busy day- we have two young children to welcome and initiate into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism, and during the announcements we’ll be recognizing Mike Taylor for his exceptional and dedicated ministry at St. Francis as our facilities manager as he departs to work for Habitat for Humanity in Wilmington.
            The lectionary this morning presents us with two very similar stories about widows who lose their only sons and God’s power to redeem those broken situations. Both women found themselves in very desperate situations. The widow of Zarephath, from 1 Kings, is living in a time of extreme drought and famine. There is little food for anyone, and so the charity that a widow would depend on has dried up as well. And in that culture, a widow was in very dire straits, as without a husband or son, she would be unable to negotiate deals, earn a living, or have many civil rights. And so when her only son dies, she is losing much more than her beloved child, which would be a painful enough loss, but she is losing her lifeline to many social structures.
            And the widow of Nain, in Luke, is likewise in a tough situation being a widow losing her only son. She too was not only mourning the loss of her only son, but had lost her male protector and provider. And though it sounds rather sexist and misogynistic to our modern ears, it is the simple fact of that culture- without a man to provide for them, these widows were thrown down several steps on the social ladder.
            And so as the text provides these two stories of funeral processions, we can ask ourselves the same questions that they asked. Where is God? Does God even care about me? Is God around? Why am I being made to suffer? Where is God’s justice? No matter how strong our faith, there are those times when it is only natural to wonder how it is that such a loving and powerful God seems to standby while so much evil and sadness happens. These widows were likely pondering similar questions in their tears.
            Often we think of Elijah and Jesus as very holy men, mouthpieces for God, or in the case of Jesus, God incarnate. But Elijah and Jesus must have decided to skip class the day that pastoral care came up, as they both would receive an “F” for their intrusions in the lives of these widows. First, Elijah comes to a widow in a land of famine and asks for food. Rather rude isn’t it? Imagine going up to the homeless person and asking them for dinner. But he does it anyway. She protests that only has a few morsels left for her and her son, and if they don’t have that, they will die of starvation. But Elijah insists, just do the best you can.
            I wonder what was going through this widow’s mind. She probably wanted to throw him out for being such a demanding guest, not to mention for being the prophet of the God who was causing the famine. But she responded instead with hospitality and trust. We are reminded of the disciple on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that asked, “how will feed all of these people with only five loaves and two fish?” And we recall that in our generosity, in our ability to loosen our grip on our possessions and fears of scarcity, that God’s abundance is made more visible. In her generosity, she opens herself to the miracle of there being food enough. So let us remember, there is always enough to be generous.
            Jesus, likewise, intrudes rather poorly into the funeral procession. Imagine the scene. A solemn procession heading towards the cemetery, people crying, and a complete stranger approaches the mother of the dead son and says “stop crying.” That’s certainly not what they teach in seminary. And this woman, instead of slapping Jesus, or asking a relative to remove this rude intruder, watches as he approaches the bier and touches the casket. Perhaps she wanted a reason to stop crying and wanted to see what this holy man might do.
            Isn’t that the way that God often enters the picture? How often does God come to ask us to take on one more task, to write one more check, to shed one more tear when we’ve already done all we thought possible. God’s intrusions into our lives are not always welcome, sometimes they seem rather crazy. Now to be sure, the widow doesn’t know what Jesus will do. She doesn’t know that her son will be brought back to life, at this point in the gospel, Jesus hasn’t done anything on that level yet. But like the widow at Zarephath, the widow at Nain was open to receiving what God was offering. I’ve shared it before, and I’ll share it again, as St. Augustine said- “without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” We can either be open to what God might be doing in our world and lives, or we can stay closed off from these holy intrusions.
            And in being open, both of these widows find hope. Elijah asks God to send life back into the son, and Jesus tells the dead son to “rise.” And in both instances, the miracle of God’s redemption is seen. In Luke, the author is trying to portray Jesus as the new Elijah, so this link shouldn’t be overlooked. In the Greek text of both readings, the exact same phrase is found, “he gave her back to his mother.” In both instances, the hopeless widow is recast as the joyful mother.
            What is fascinating is that these stories differ from other miracle stories in the gospels. These healings are not based on the faith of the people involved. The widow at Zarephath isn’t even Jewish, she doesn’t follow the God for whom Elijah is a prophet. She certainly didn’t expect the God of Israel to do anything for her. She lived in the land of the Baals, another deity in the region. And the widow at Nain didn’t ask Jesus for a miracle as the Roman centurion did in the reading last week. She wasn’t seeking Jesus out, she wasn’t expecting a miracle from Jesus, she wasn’t even expecting a card in the mail from him. These stories demonstrate, not the faithfulness of the widows, but the faithfulness of God.
            These two women were open to God, they responded to the intrusions not with anger or hostility, but with hospitality and grace. And they became witnesses to God’s faithfulness. We often focus on our own faith. How we pray, how we give, how we share, how we read the Bible. And those are important things. But how often do we consider God’s faithfulness?
            When we find ourselves in tough situations, it’s very easy to go inward and look for solutions to our problems. We live in a culture that makes pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps a virtue. Our political commentary casts people in poverty as moochers that take government handouts, because somehow they can’t overcome the systems of oppression designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. When our President reminds us that we didn’t build the schools and the roads that lead to our individual success, we call him a socialist instead of acknowledging the truth that “no person is an island.” Our culture today would likely condemn both of these widows with terms such as “illegal,” “dependent on government welfare,” or “hopeless.” We take pride in our own success instead of God’s faithfulness.
            David Brooks recently wrote a great op-ed piece in the New York Times about individualism and amorality. He notes that Google has recently made available a database of words used in books published between 1500 and 2008. It’s just a list of how many times a word is used. And he notes that in the last 48 years, words such as “personalized,” “self,” “unique,” and “I can do it myself,” have risen is usage, while words such as “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good,” have decreased. Over the same time period, words of humility have dropped by 52%, words of compassion have dropped 56%, words of virtue such as “bravery” or “fortitude” dropped by 74%, and words of gratitude and appreciation have dropped by 49%. And he concludes that these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about communal bonds, obligations, and reliance on others because they’re less central to our lives.
            What Brooks is saying is similar to what these widows are witnessing the faithfulness of God. These women receive grace, not through belief, not through their faith, not because they deserved it, or earned it, or even asked for it, but instead because they were open enough to receive God’s faithfulness.
            Consider today’s Psalm- Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning / You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
            As these widows and the Psalmist show us, though we will experience pain, God’s faithfulness will also show us joy. But how you might ask?  I’ve never had any of my dead loved ones come back to life. It was rather easy for these widows to rejoice, their dead sons came back to life. But as far as miracles go, resuscitating a dead person back to life is just a cheap parlor trick. Now I’m sure many of us would like this to happen in our lives, but if we’re talking about the Creator of the universe, it’s not really all that spectacular.
            But what is worthy of our wonder and awe is God’s ability to raise those who merely live and breathe to living a true life. Simon Weil wrote “the extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use of it.” What is amazing about these stories is not so much that these dead sons came back to life, but it is the transformation of their situation. Those sons both died again at some point, it wasn’t a lasting miracle. What was so powerful about these acts is the way these events changed the people that witnessed the miracles, the way it changed tears of sadness into tears of joy, the way it reminds us that God’s grace comes not because we deserve it, but because God is faithful.
            Theologian Karl Barth said “where [humans] fail, God’s faithfulness triumphs.” We need not obsess over all of our problems, we don’t need to see failing as the worst possible outcome. Because it is in our failings, in our deepest needs that God’s faithfulness will be there. Some pains, such as the loss of a child, will never go away; some scars will never fully heal, but just as those wounds remain, God’s faithfulness remains with us. Grace and healing come not through our individual accomplishments, but through God’s faithfulness.
            And isn’t this what Baptism is about? God being faithful to us, who can’t earn God’s grace. It’s why babies are the perfect sort of people to baptize, people that are completely dependent on others, who receive God’s grace instead of earning it through a confession or class. And we’re setting them on the path to live a life full of moments of God’s faithfulness. And we thank Mike Taylor for his witness to God’s faithfulness through his humility, his care, and his dedication to St. Francis.

            These widows remind us that sometimes when God enters the picture, it can be a rather rude and unwelcome intrusion. But if we can respond with hospitality and openness, we can be witnesses to God’s faithfulness, which will be the true miracle- the miracle of living a life that truly matters, the miracle of a legacy that will endure long after we are gone, the miracle of having God transform our sackcloth into joy. As the refrain of the great hymn proclaims- Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness / Morning by morning new mercies I see / All I have need of thy hand hath provided / Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.