The Impulse Control of the Kingdom

The Impulse Control of the Kingdom

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 for Pentecost +6, June 26, 2016

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

You can go to the store for fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy food, because to you plan to Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.01.17 PMeat right, and then you come to the check-out line.  There they are, all the tempting candy bars, right there at eye level, within easy reach.  You feel the impulse to make an exception, just this once.

Even at one of my favorite fruit and vegetable markets they put chocolate turtle candies right there at the register. The store manager knows you have that impulse.  They call the little items they put near the cash register, “impulse items.”  Impulses are powerful.  Impulse control is hard.

We have to teach our children impulse control; it is not natural.  It can be learned, but not without discipline.  Impulses feel so natural, and therefore, so right.  We hear ourselves making up excuses why indulging our impulses will be OK, for us, since we are exceptions to the rule.

But impulses can lead to very bad, destructive outcomes.  It is not just a matter of diet.  We have all kinds of impulses: from verbal impulses to self-asserting actions.  And impulses that we act on can lead to everything from poor health to ruined relationships.

Learned Impulses

Some impulses are natural, like the desire to eat something sweet, or salty.  It is just an appetite.  Other impulses are learned.  We grow up in a culture with its own values and perspectives which we absorb through the process of socialization.   The values and perspectives that we are socialized to accept become completely internalized to the point that they feel unquestionably natural.

For example, we feel a sense of respect for our flag.  A flag is just a multi-colored cloth. Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.06.00 PM But a flag is, for us, a symbol of our nation, our people, our history.  When we see it, we feel something deep.  We feel loyalty and identity, perhaps gratitude.  It feels completely natural.  And, we do not feel that for anyone elses flag.  Our natural feeling is not at all natural, like breathing is natural.  We learned it.

Learning in Families

I want us to focus on a specific set of impulses today, and the implications of acting on them as people of faith.  They are the impulses we learn as we grow up in our families and the cultures that our families live in.

The texts that we read from Luke’s gospel are going to challenge us to examine our impulses and ask which of them are helpful, and which do we, as people who seek to follow Jesus, need to find the strength to have impulse control to resist.

Families are important to us today, but they are different from families in Jesus’ day.  We Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.08.56 PMfeel natural in a home with just parents and children.  That would have seemed odd, if not morally bad in Jesus’ day, unless perhaps your parents had died.  The extended, multi-generational family was the expected norm.

And although we get a strong sense of identity from our families, nevertheless, we feel totally free to have careers different from our fathers’, to move away from where our parents raised us, to marry whom we choose.  We do not carry around a multi-generational family reputation anymore.  All of that was different in Jesus day.

Radical Demands

So, when Jesus says things that are critical of the family, things that relativize its central role, or that minimize obligations to family, they sounded even more radical in his day than they do in ours.   But they do indeed sound radical in ours.

A man wants to follow Jesus, but wants first to be there for his aging parents, until they die – and Jesus has a problem with that?  What’s up with that?

It is hard not to hear rudeness in his voice when he says to the poor guy:

“Let the dead bury their own dead”

Why would he say that?  I love Marcus Borg’s comment.  Jesus was saying that:

“there is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. [but] it is possible to leave the land of the dead.”  

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (p. 197).

Are there ways of living that I have assumed are natural but that are actually deadening me to something important?  Are there ways of looking at the world and being in the world that I inherited from my family and the culture we live in that have produced impulses that are life-taking rather than life affirming?

If there are, then, because of socialization, they are going to feel 100% natural and normal.  Am I willing to be open and vulnerable to having them critiqued?  This is where it can get hard to follow Jesus.  But also where it is crucial.

The Tough Part of Following Jesus

There are some things about learning to follow Jesus that feel instantly wonderful.  Learning Jesus’ way of knowing God, as loving and forgiving, like the perfect Father who sets you free from guilt and shame and loves you into the family, even after you have been the prodigal child – that is liberating.  It feels great.

But, following Jesus has a non-nonsense tough side.  There are commitments that may Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 2.57.23 PMprove uncomfortable.  It is like the third lap in a four lap race; there are times when it is hard.  It is like not having anyplace to get a good night’s rest.  Jesus is does not back down from the hard part:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  

But come, follow anyway.  Yes it will get difficult, but you do not get to enjoy the harvest without getting out there in the dirt, in the sun, with a plow in your hand for hours at a time.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And again, this was his response to someone who wanted to go back home for some goodbyes to the family.  But maybe the family was pulling in a direction away from the kingdom of God.  Can families do that?  How could family ties keep a person tied down to a place that would prevent them from following Jesus on the road of the kingdom of God?

The People We Feel Free to Hate

Now we come to the story about the journey through the Samaritan village.  Jesus sent some disciples ahead to make arrangements – maybe for lodging or meals – and they got resistance.  Samaritans did not want to have Jews around.  The disciples get offended:

“they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Here it is in plain sight, like a day-old dead armadillo in the middle of the road.  The ugly specter of ethnic animosity is sitting there without any sense of sheepishness.  Samaritans hated Jews, and Jews are ready to return the favor.

They wanted to call down curses!  Can you imagine suggesting that to Jesus?  What were they thinking?  It would be like asking Gandhi to shoot someone.  Asking the one who said, “turn the other cheek” and “blessed are the meek” and “forgive us as we forgive” – to get into the cursing business?!

This suggestion produced one of the strongest responses Jesus ever made:

“But he turned and rebuked them.”

They simply found another village to go to.

Why So Ready to Despise?

Let us ask ourselves the question: why were James and John not embarrassed by their own angry, vengeful, violent impulses?  Why were they not ashamed to actually suggest a violent response to Jesus?

I suggest it is because it felt so natural.  It felt unquestionable.  They absorbed it growing up.  It came with mother’s milk.  It came from their families.  You can just hear their thinking:

“Of course Jews hate Samaritans!  They are ethnically contaminated.  They are religiously heretical.  They are in our space, on our land.  They are dirty and uneducated.  What planet are you from that you don’t get it?”

The impulse to despise people who are different from us, feels natural.  It feels normal.  It feels completely justified.  And it is completely wrong.

An Example

This is no small matter.  In Croatia, I lived within a half an hour’s drive, in more than one Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 3.18.00 PMdirection, from mass graves, dug by people who called themselves Christians, filled with the bodies of other people who called themselves Christians.  Why?  Because some were Serbs and others were Croats.

There is no toddler who can distinguish between Serbs and Croats.  There are some minor language differences.  There are denominational differences between Orthodox and Catholic Christians, but they too are minor, but children do not know or care about those.

But by the time the children are in high school, they know whom to hate.  They have been taught.  And it feels normal.  And it was taught at the breakfast table and reinforced by the conversations at the dinner table.  In other words, it came from their own dear families.

“there is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. [but] it is possible to leave the land of the dead.”  — Borg, again. (p. 197).


We all know what the feeling of disgust is.  We all have things that disgust us.  Some smells are automatically disgusting.  Some sights are disgusting.  Seeing some behaviors disgusts us.  Some of these disgust emotions are actually natural.  Others have been taught to us by our cultures, by our families.

We feel disgust impulsively.  Just the way Jews do when they see Samaritans.  Just they way Serbs and Croats were taught to feel towards each other in many families (not all!  thank God!).

I’m using Serbs and Croats as an illustration, partly because they are neutral for us, so we do not get our defenses up thinking about their conflict, and partly because, as you know, I lived in the war zone that was the aftermath of their civil war.

But neither Serbs nor Croats produce a disgust response in us.  We have no impulses to despise them.

But let us ask the question today: who are the people we find disgusting?  Who are the people that we feel the impulse to despise?

Muslims?  Arabs?  Hispanics?  African Americans?  Gay people?

Uncomfortable Conversations

It is totally uncomfortable talking about this, is it not?  And we get tired of talking about it.  I hear people say that they are tired of talking about racial tensions.  Haven’t we beaten that issue to a pulp?

Bringing it up again is like being exhausted with no place to lay your head and get some sleep.  It is a fun as being out in the field, in the sun, with a plow in your hand.  Well, foxes have holes, but that solves nothing.  We need to keep our hands to the hot, dirty, difficult summer plow.

Yes, it is hard to keep the conversation about these issues going.  But the only ones calling for them to stop are the ones in the positions of power.  Black people do not think the race issue is settled in America.  Muslim Americans do not feel accepted by large segments of our people.   And how should Hispanics feel in this present climate?

This is serious.  Jesus’ strongest rebuke came from people who felt totally natural and justified in their animosity.  But the road forks right here.  One direction is following Jesus.  The other direction is to go back to the way the family always did things.  One way leads to life.  The other way is the land of the dead.  It is a fork in the road: we have to choose.

The Way of Life

The good news here is that Jesus’ way does really lead to life.  It is the path of warm Screen Shot 2016-06-25 at 2.58.15 PMwelcome and embrace of the other, the stranger, the one who is different.  Jesus’ path leads to a table where people from East and West and North and South sit together, enjoying the rich banquet food of the kingdom.  Does it take a huge leap of faith to believe that?  Then the invitation “follow me” is an invitation to take that leap.

It will be, perhaps, uncomfortable, at least at first.  It will feel awkward.  It will feel like it goes against tradition, and against family.  It may be exhausting before it feels rewarding.  Can we keep our hands to the plow anyway?

So, the questions we have before us, are simply these?

Who are the people that I find the impulse in me to despise?  Who are the ones who disgust me?

And, as a follower of Jesus, what do I fell called to do about that?

Silence Matters

Silence Matters

Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a and Luke 5:15-16 for Pentecost +5, Father’s Day, June 19, 2016

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 7.18.56 PMsword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus….”

Luke 5:15-16

But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases.  16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

It is always complicated when times of celebration and sorrow come together.  We want to Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 11.56.37 AMcelebrate Father’s Day with full hearts today, and yet our whole country is in the middle of grief over the worst mass shooting in our history.

We grieve with the families and loved ones of the people of Orlando, especially today for the fathers who have lost sons.

We grieve for the gay community that once again has been targeted for harm.

We grieve that after all this time, humans still practice scapegoating victims, as we have done since the days we wore animal skins and bones in our noses.

We grieve that religion, again, has been invoked as a justification for violence – even if, in this recent case, it was evidently invoked cynically, for publicity by a deeply disturbed man.

I grieve for the fact that it is so easy for just about anyone to get guns, especially guns that were designed for the battle field.

I grieve that there are people who believe conspiracy theories, like that the government wants to take away everyone’s guns, and on the basis of that baseless belief, will never consent to any sensible restraints.  I grieve over the number of people who have lost their lives as a result.

It was quite heartening, on the other hand, to see the news that Muslim leaders here in America publicly condemned the violence, saying that nothing in Islam could be used to justify it.

Religion and Violence

Now, thinking people may, at this point object, and say that Islam is inherently violent.  Is Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.20.20 PMnot ISIS a prime example, not to mention the Taliban and Al Qaeda?

But, as thinking people, we ask ourselves: is there any religion on the planet that has not been invoked to justify violence?  People who believe in violence will always find ways to use their religion to justify killing.  They always have; they always will, whether they are Jews, Christians, Muslims – even Buddhists!  If you are going to kill and risk being killed, it always helps to have God or the Gods or Karma or whatever backing you up.

As Christians whose faith grew up in soil of Judaism, we must confess the violence in our tradition.  What we are going to see today is that although there is violence in the heart of our tradition, there is more.

That “more” begins as a seed that grows into a beautiful flower.  There is a movement away from violence to an embrace of peace, which calls us to be people of peace.

The Elijah Story’s Seed

The texts for today from our wisdom tradition, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, will help us to see how this trajectory from violence to peace works.

First, we begin with terrible violence.  We read from the story of the prophet Elijah.  It began,

“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.”

King Ahab had told Queen Jezebel about the previous episode.  It was that famous story of the contest on Mt. Carmel.  All the 450 prophets of Baal were there.  They built alters to their god, and called for fire to come down from heaven and burn up their sacrifices.  Nothing happened.

Then, in the story, Elijah builds an alter to Yahweh, Israel’s God, places the sacrifice on it, and even douses it with gallons of water.  He prays for God to send fire from heaven to ignite the sacrifice, which God does.

All the people watching are instantly persuaded that Elijah’s God, Yahweh is the true God, so Elijah tells them all to grab their swords and slaughter all the prophets  of Baal so that none of them escapes alive.

This is what king Ahab told Queen Jezebel, a follower of Baal, about, which is why she promised to kill Elijah, which is why he ran away to the mountain, where our text begins.

So, our wisdom tradition, our scriptures, have divinely sanctioned violence, which no one can deny.  And this is only a single incident.  A couple of  years ago we all read the bible in 90 days .   Some of you were astounded by the frequency and brutality of the violence in its pages.

Let us admit that yes, these texts from the Iron Age reflect the values and ethics of those violent times.  Just like they reflected misogyny and patriarchal hierarchies, just like they reflected homophobia, just like they had blood taboos and many practices that we have left behind.

But even in the context of those rough times, there are seeds planted, that can, and do, grow in to a beautiful alternative.

The Prophet’s Vision of Peace

We see those early seeds planted, for example, in the vision of the prophets.  Elijah was Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.24.01 PMnot a writing prophet, but others left us a record.  Even from as distant as the eighth century before the time of Christ, we read of a vision of a future day when, as Micah said, when:

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;”

The prophet Isaiah held out the vision of the peaceable kingdom with these famous words:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa 11:6-9)

These visions of the peaceful future are the seeds, planted even in that violent soil of the Iron Age, that take centuries to germinate, but finally come to flower in the life and teachings of Jesus.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to be people of peace.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

We follow Jesus who did not allow his followers to use violence to protect him, even to protect him from certain death.  When the soldiers came with swords to arrest him and Peter tried to defend him Jesus said,

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  (Matthew 26:52)

Scholars of the historical Jesus have pointed out that the proof that Jesus’ movement was non-violent was that when Rome was convinced that he was a threat to their order, Jesus alone was killed, and not his disciples also.

Violent movements were suppressed, in the Roman empire, by slaughtering all the supporters.  Non-violent movements, like Jesus’ or like his predecessor John’s were put down by simply removing the leader.

Imitating God

We have been studying the the topic “What Was Jesus Thinking?” these past few Friday evenings.  We have seen that the ethical framework, the paradigm or the pattern for our morality is, and has been since the Hebrew Bible, the imitation of God.   We are to be as God is, to each other.

This brings up a difficult challenge – how do we know what God is like? In the ancient times, people conceived of God as a king, only greater than the greatest human king.   As king, God could, and did, use violence just as human kings did.  It was normal and accepted.

The way the biblical story goes, God manifested God’s presence in violent images: think of Moses on Mt. Sinai, a volcanic mountain, billowing black smoke, thundering and lightening, quaking, producing awe,  if not sheer panic.  (see Exod. 19)

Alternative Images of God

But even in those times, there are other, alternative images of God that, like the seeds of the prophet’s visions, take time to grow.Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 6.26.28 PM

We read in our text today about one of those seeds.  How does God become manifest to Elijah?  The story tells us that in his flight from angry queen Jezebel he goes to the same mountain on which Moses met God, Mt. Sinai, (in Kings they call it Mt. Horeb).

Elijah’s encounter with God begins with strong, violent images that echo Moses’ experience.  It says:

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;  and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;”

The odd and surprising element here is that God is not best known by any of these violent images.  The Lord is not in the wind that breaks the rocks, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire.  How will God be manifest to Elijah?

“and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence.”

Here we have an entirely new and different way of understanding the Divine.  God can be encountered as the sound of sheer silence.  Of course it is a mystery.  It is an oxymoron: silence makes no sound.  A paradox.

Mystics of many traditions, speak of dual consciousness which is the way most of us think.  But, they tell us, the contemplative is able to think beyond the binary, either-or categories of the dual consciousness.  Non-dual thinking is able to accept that paradox is  often a path to truth.  How do we listen for God?  We listen for sheer silence.

Silence is completely non-coercive.  God is non-coercive.  The God of sheer silence lures us and draws us, in every situation, toward the good, the beautiful, and the true: towards peace.

Jesus himself practiced contemplative, silent wordless prayer.  In other words, he meditated.  We read in Luke about his pattern of spiritual practice:

“he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

He would withdraw” it says, indicating his lifestyle, his regular practice.  Jesus encountered God in silence.  So we, as followers of Jesus, make space in our lives for silence.  And in that silence, without the ego voice in our heads, with all of its judgments, its anger, its dualistic preferences, we become people of peace.

The fruit of the practice of silent meditation is a life that is less dualistic; what does that Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 11.54.19 AMmean in daily life? We begin to think in far broader categories than binaries of friend or foe, good person or bad person, us or them.  We can begin to see that those old categories simply do not work any more.  They are wildly inadequate.

The contemplative mind does not have to have enemies to fight.  The fruit of the practice of silent meditation, in other words, is peace inside ourselves, and peacefulness and peacemaking with others.

So we can look at Muslims without either-or categories of friend or foe.  We can understand that the God who is known in sheer silence is a mystery far beyond our categories, even our religious ones.  We can open our hearts to the fact that there are millions of peaceful Muslims who hate violence, who reject ISIS, who simply want to raise their families in safety, just like us.

Let us be people, then, in whom those seeds grow and flourish.  People who regularly make space for silence, so that we can embrace the mystery of the God of sheer silence.  People who are at peace; people who make peace.

Naboth’s Vineyard

Naboth’s Vineyard

Sermon on 1 Kings 21:1-21a and Matthew 6:24-33 for Pentecost +4C, June 12, 2016

1 Kings 21:1-21a

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.29.22 PMthe palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “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.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inhritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.'” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you….”


Matthew 6:24-33

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?   Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be gScreen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.28.25 PMiven to you as well.

I told Pam this week that the story of Naboth’s vineyard was one of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Bible.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but still has truth in it.  Anyway, she was surprised, if not somewhat appalled.  It is a brutal, ugly, violent story.  What is there to like about it?

It is a murder story: Naboth does nothing wrong but he gets killed.  You have heard the sarcastic expression, “no good deed goes unpunished” and certainly that happens here.  Naboth is such a good person that he refuses to do what is wrong, and for that, he gets murdered.

It is a story of governmental corruption on the scale of “House of Cards.”  Naboth’s killers are the Queen and, at least as an accomplice, the King.  The king wants Naboth’s vineyard, but Naboth refuses to sell his ancestral property, or even to trade it away for better property, as the king offers.

Land as Gift
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At first, Ahab feels check-mated.  He knows enough of the Law of Moses, the Torah, to know that each tribe’s land was considered a gift of God.  It could never be sold in perpetuity.  The Torah says that even if you had to sell your land due to extreme poverty, the sale was not final.

There was this provision in the law called the Year of Jubilee in which, every 50 years, any land that was sold was returned to the original owner (Lev. 25).  This means that the word “sale” is a bit misleading.  It says in Torah that when you sell your land you are actually only leasing the number of harvests between the present and the next Jubilee year.  So the price would be decreased according to how many years of harvests were left.

The Jubilee year was the culmination of another policy.  Every seven years, all financial debts were forgiven.  Imagine cutting up your credit card bill and throwing it away every seven years.  After seven sets of these seven year debt forgivenesses, on the 50th year was the Jubilee in which any property that was sold was returned.

Now of course this economic arrangement was designed in a specific time and place, and who knows how it ever functioned.  But one thing is clear: the intention is that there could never develop a permanent poor class.

If a family had to become indebted because of drought conditions, or plagues of locusts destroyed an entire year’s harvest, and they had to borrow money from relatives, or even sell their land, the next generation could begin again.

So king Ahab knows these laws, and so he takes Naboth’s refusal to sell his land as final.  He goes home and pouts.  He lays on his bed facing the wall and refuses to eat.

By the way, this story is brutal and ugly, true, but it also has some humor in it.  The sulking scene is meant to belittle Ahab, and it does.  It makes him look weak and petty.  After all, the thing he wanted was merely a vegetable garden; hardly worth getting depressed about.
But that is one of the reasons I like this story: it shows in such graphic detail how corrupting power is: a king is depressed over cucumbers.   His sense of entitlement has been thwarted, so instead of happily living like a king, which he gets to do every day, he is miserable.  The age old answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is always the same: “A little bit more.”

The Queen of Evil

Enter queen Jezebel.  Now here, it has to be said, is some ancient misogyny.  The fem-fatal, the evil woman is the bad guy in the story.   With apologies for the fact that the bible does come from patriarchal and sexist times, we proceed.

This is a story by Jewish people, originally told to Jewish people who would have some Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.49.39 PMthoughts about Jezebel.  First, she is not an Israelite. She is a Phoenician.  This means that she did not grow up hearing Torah read.  She knows nothing about the idea that the land is a gift from God.  She has no concern for the idea of ancestral inheritance.

Neither does she feel particularly obligated by “Thou shalt not bear false witness” nor even “Thou shalt not kill.”  So she cooks up a plot.  Using the king’s official seal, and writing in his name — with his implicit approval?  we do not know; the story can be read either way — she gathers the people for a solemn event.

She gets two scoundrels to bear false witness against Naboth.  They are to accuse him of cursing God and the king.  They do it.  Naboth is then taken out and executed by stoning.

Upon his death, she informs Ahab in the most cold, brutal ways, saying,

“Naboth is not alive, but dead”

– so go take his vineyard and start growing you royal cucumbers.

The Goodness of Being Horrified

I like the story because everyone is horrified by it.  Everyone gets it, that a great wrong has been done.  A grave injustice has occurred.  There is no gray here.  It is stark.  A human life for a vegetable patch.

The story ends with the prophet Elijah entering the scene.  Somehow he knows all about Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.52.27 PMit.  He pronounces a divine curse on Ahab and his descendants in the most graphic terms.

So this is a story about power, and the abuse of power.  Might does not make right.  Wealth and power do not justify anything.

I like this story because of how the reader is led to despise the very things that normally people hold up as enviable: wealth and power.  Nobody reading this story ends up respecting Ahab: he looks, at best pathetic if not complicit.  And no one has any positive feelings about Jezebel – what she does is despicable.  We all take the side of the poor, righteous victim, Naboth.

I like this story because of the way it leads us to affirm the goodness and rightness of Naboth’s values.  He knows that there are values beyond and above material values.  He could have gotten a better vineyard – that is what the king offered.  But he saw land as God’s gift, which meant more to him than the grapes he could grow on it.

Ahab and Jezebel see only material prosperity.  They live for what they can possess.  They even see human beings as means, not as ends in themselves, and they use them, corrupt them, deceive them and kill them, all in the quest to simply have more.  I love this story for how wrong this perspective is shown to be.


Ahab and Jezebel are consumers.  They think that their economic lives are their highest concern.  By contrast, Naboth believes God is his highest concern.Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 2.57.12 PM

We get called “consumers” all the time.  This is probably the only place in your life where that perspective is ever challenged.

We are not consumers, we are human beings.  Yes, we consume, daily, but that is not the defining fact about our lives, any more than the fact that we all sleep defines us as sleepers.

Jesus taught us to live by an entirely alternative set of values.  He said,

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

But it is that kind of thinking, that life does consist in the abundance of possessions, that  leads to ethical and moral disaster.

Abuse of People

Believing that the only, or the most important, questions are economic questions leads directly to the abuse of people.  That much is obvious.  Naboth was not the first person to suffer because someone else stood to benefit economically.

It is true that free markets operate by the principle of supply and demand, but as followers of Jesus, informed, as Jesus was, by the values of Torah, the market does not have the last word.

The market does not care if anyone goes to bed hungry tonight.  The market does not care if everyone sleeps indoors or on the streets.  The market does not care if you can afford health care or wether you have good schools to go to.  These are human concerns.

As humans, with dignity that comes from our belief that we are all made in the image of God, we have a higher calling to bring moral questions to the table, not just economic questions.

Abuse of the Earth

Believing that the most important questions are economic questions also leads directly to the abuse of our planet.  It will probably always be cheaper, in the short term, to pollute than to protect the planet.  It will probably always be cheaper, in the short term, to take risks than to be safe.  But cheaper does not make it right.

As humans who believe in a Creator God, we are responsible for our stewardship of the earth.  So we are willing to make lifestyle decisions, even if they cost us a bit more, to do no harm.  To leave behind only footprints.

A Beautiful Alternative Story

Well the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth is indeed an ugly one. It shines a bright light on just how ugly it can get, when people do not get it, that we are living in God’s world. Screen Shot 2016-06-11 at 3.04.10 PM

The alternative, however is beautiful.   The alternative is Jesus’ vision of life lived in God’s world.  Instead of the ugliness of envy and intrigue, Jesus invites us into the beauty of pure trust.

“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

A life of trust is a beautiful life that takes time to see God in creation.  Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field.  Consider that life is a precious gift of immeasurable value, far beyond the value of the stuff that money can buy.

So do not seek economic values first, but rather, as Jesus says,

“strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Striving for the kingdom entails striving for justice, which puts us on the side of the Naboths of this world.  A life of trust in God is very personal, but not only personal.  It is also public.  We are called to come along side the oppressed Naboths of this world and, like Elijah, to speak truth to power.  Whether it is political power, or corporate power, or the power of vested interests, our calling is to stand for justice; for fairness.

We actually need the Naboths of this world.  They teach us, as he did, what is most important.  They embody the opposite of the life of Ahab; the life of envy.  The opposite of envy is contentment; answering the question, “How much is enough?” with the belief that “enough is enough.”  That is how the story of life can be a beautiful one.  That is what it means to trust.

A Paradigm of Compassion

A Paradigm of Compassion

Sermon on 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17 for  Pentecost +3C, June 5, 2016

1 Kings 17:17-24

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.  She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”  But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.  He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”  Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”  The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.  Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.”  So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Luke 7:11-17

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.   As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.   When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”   The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”  This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

We just heard two very similar stories, one from the Hebrew Bible, the other from the Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 1.38.49 PMJesus tradition as given uniquely in Luke.

The story is universal: what grief is deeper than the grief of a parent at the loss of a child?  Especially the mother who carried the baby in her body, who gave birth, and who nurtured her or him through infancy.   Our hearts go out to parents even when their children are dangerously ill and at risk.   I do not belong to “the fraternity of parents who have lost children,” as one member of that group describes it, but the thought makes me shudder.

Elijah and the Widow’s Son

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah is called a “man of God.”  He speaks for God.  He speaks truth to power.  He has confronted the king, Ahab, and will confront him again, at the risk of his life.

So, in this scene he has, at God’s instruction, fled the country in self-imposed exile, during a severe famine.  He has come to the home of a widow in Zarephath, in the Phoenician area of Sidon.  You may recall the story of the miraculous supply of grain and oil that never runs out until the famine ends.  This is the following story.

The widow is a type-character in the Hebrew bible.  Widows were probably plentiful.  Accidents, disease, war, and even crime left women who had lost their husbands in great danger and vulnerability.  The term “widow” became shorthand for people in need and at risk.  Jesus would call these kinds of people “the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine.”

The God Paradigm

Before Jesus came and taught us to understand God in an entirely new and alternative way, people believed that the good things in life came as rewards for their good behavior, and the bad things in life came as punishments from God for their sins.   This is exactly what the widow in this story believes.

“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

Even Elijah the prophet attributes the death of this poor child to God as its direct cause:

“O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”

I think that this kind of belief is probably necessary as a stage of development in our understanding of God.  Remember that before this age of Monotheism, most people thought that their lives were plagued by lots of gods and demigods.  Every drop of rain, every lamb that was born, every locust swarm threatening your grain , every death in battle was the direct result of pleasing or displeasing one of these divine forces.

So, it is an advance in understanding to eliminate all those demonic causes and think instead of one God as the creator of all and the cause of everything.  But thinking that way does leave you with a God who does some pretty cruel things, none the least of which would be causing the death of children.  We can feel Elijah’s agony as he accuses God of bringing clearly undeserved “calamity” on the widow.

This God, the cause of everything, is not petty or thin-skinned.  God can take an angry accusation without the ego needs of self-justification nor of punishing reaction.   God simply answers Elijah’s prayers, and restores the child to life.

Jesus and the Widow’s SonScreen Shot 2016-06-04 at 1.50.09 PM

In a clearly parallel way, Luke tells his story of the widow who lost her son, with clear echoes of the Elijah story ringing in the background.  There are also echoes of a well-known story of Apollonius, a Pythagorean philosopher, teacher and reputed wonder-worker of the first century Roman world that Luke was likely familiar with.

Luke actually intensifies our compassion for the grieving widow as they carry the open coffin of her son by letting us know he was her only son.  Now this widow is without any protection, without a male bread-winner, truly at the mercy of any opportunist or brute.

Jesus’ response is compassion.  He looks and sees it all – not just the grief from the loss, but the whole situation, including the future that awaits “one of the least of these” – a widow with no surviving sons, in a culture and society with no safety nets.

Disregarding the prohibition against touching the dead, or even a grave, Jesus reaches out to touch the bier (Numb. 19).  He speaks words of comfort to the widow, saying,

“Do not weep.”

Then he says,

“Young man, I say to you, rise!”

Why Tell These Kinds of Stories?

I do not belong to the fraternity of parents who have lost children, but I cannot imagine how stories of miraculous resuscitations must sound to them – and I know some you are among them.  How do these stories strike you?

To draw all the rest of us into this problem, let me ask it this way: why does it help to tell the story of a miracle like this when children die?  We can count on one hand the number of children given their lives back in the bible stories, and even less in our own personal experience.  So why tell such stories?

God, and the Death of ChildrenScreen Shot 2016-06-04 at 2.11.37 PM

I believe that there are powerful truths being taught here that we all need.  First, in the Jesus story, there is no discussion at all of sin, punishment, or retribution.  Why did that boy die?  No one even hazards a guess.  His death was not a punishment, and his resuscitation is not a reward.  It just does not work like that.

God does not cause the death of children, or any other calamity.  Rather, God is there with us when we go through our lives, with compassion, grieving with us, suffering with us; this is why we tell stories of incarnation in which God walks the earth in human sandals: this is the kind of God we trust in; the kind that knows what death smells like, and who looks with compassion on all who grieve.

Death is part of life.  This is also what this story confronts us with.  As we put ourselves in the story, in our imaginations, we know that this young man will not live forever.  There will be a second procession for him, as there will be for all of us.  Life is transient.  Life is a gift, but life in this world is not a permanent gift.  In this good world created and blessed by God, each of us takes our place for one generation at most.

This is not a morbid thought, but rather, because it is the truth, it sets us free.  Facing death, we are free to ask, how should we then live?  What will have been our legacy?  How doe we want to be remembered?

Open Eyed Compassion

I believe this is why we tell stories like this: our calling is to be followers of Jesus.  This is how we are called to live, to be people of compassion, as Jesus was.

That means we have our eyes open to seeing, without turning away, the realities of our world.  And seeing, we respond with compassion.  We go to where there is grief or sorrow, as Jesus did, with compassion.  Compassion for people who are suffering becomes part of our personal lives – we all have people around us who need us to be the hands and feet, the eyes and heart of Jesus for them.

Compassion, as Jesus calls us to practice, is part of our public lives as well.  We become people who know how to organize compassion into practical ways to touch people in need.  This is what the Christian Service Center and the Presbyterian Children’s Home and what Habitat for Humanity is all about: open-eyed, organized compassionate touching of “the least of these,” with love.

The Politics of Compassion

As followers of Jesus, we practice the politics of compassion.  We recognize that every Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 2.15.26 PMbudget is a moral document.  Every policy has moral implications.

So what does it mean to have open eyes that look with compassion?  It means that when we look at issues like immigration, we take a long look.  On the surface level, it means that when we think about the desperate plights of unaccompanied children, children in the States without parents, to us, they are “the least of these.”

We do not refer to them as a “burden” as some of our elected officials have recently done here in Alabama.  They are children.  They are here.  As Christians who are called to have compassion on widows who have lost children, we are also called to have compassion on children who have no parents around to care for them.

Looking Deeper

But that is the surface level.  We are called to have eyes that stay open long enough to look more deeply.  Why are these children here?  What are the conditions back home that would motivate parents to risk sending their children on such a dangerous journey?   With eyes open to the horrific levels of violence in Latin America, we begin to understand that simply sending children back may not be an adequate response.

With open eyes we begin to ask questions about how things got this way.  We see and acknowledge that the seemingly unquenchable appetite for drugs in this country is the source of the fortunes that drug gangs fight and kill for.

With eyes open we see that peasant poverty that drives people to the drug trade is often the consequence of being forced off ancestral land by unscrupulous developers and international food producers.  From bananas to coffee, compassion compels us to ask question about fair trade issues.   Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 1.51.03 PM

Compassion moves us to be on the side of bringing life, instead of deadly poverty, violence and hopelessness.    Compassion inspires us to be true followers of Jesus in both our personal and our public lives.

Yes, these are complex questions, and it is truly easy to create unintended consequences by trying to do good.  So we have eyes open to this risk as well, praying for guidance and wisdom to find realistic and lasting solutions.

But we never give up.  We never disengage.  We never simply use the language of being burdened by the suffering of “the least of these” because we have been given a higher calling.  We are called to follow the Jesus paradigm of compassion.  We trust in the God who does not cause suffering, but who calls us to be the means of God’s compassionate response.