Sunday, June 24, 2012

Talking Back to the King

1 Kings 21
Ordinary 12
June 24, 2012
William G. Carter

It’s a story about the Big Guy taking advantage of the Little Guy. That is how the Bible speaks of injustice – it tells a story.

Once upon a time, Naboth had a family vineyard. For generations, the Naboth family grew grapes, stomped on them, and made wine. It was perfectly adequate wine from a modestly productive vineyard.

Then one day the king spotted the field and said, “I want that.” Naboth said, “You can’t have it.”

The king said, “But I’m the king.” Naboth said, “But the vineyard belongs to my family.” So the king went back inside the palace, sulked around for a while, and whimpered about how he couldn’t get what he wanted.

The king’s name was Ahab. The queen’s name was Jezebel. She quickly grew disgusted with her husband’s whimpering. “Look here,” she said. “You’re the king. Grow up! The king gets to do whatever he wants. If you want that vineyard, go take the vineyard.”

Ahab lifted his pillow and looked pitifully at her. She said, “Never mind. I will get that vineyard for you.” And we heard how she did it: a couple of thugs were employed to make false accusations. There were trumped up charges, the hurling of stones, and pretty soon, Ahab got his vineyard.

Did you know this story was in the Bible? I didn’t know it was here until I was well into my twenties. We never heard this story in Sunday School. It never got included in the Vacation Bible School curriculum of my youth. I dare say this might be the first time in one hundred years when somebody ever talked about this story in this pulpit. Don’t know for sure, but that’s a safe bet . . .

. . . Even though every one of us knows what this story is about: the Big Guy takes advantage of the Little Guy. The king and queen get their way at the expense of one of their subjects. We’ve all seen this, in a hundred different ways. The big box store with acres of discounted stuff drives out the family-run corner hardware store. The mass-market disco star outsells the neighborhood folk singer. The Empire uses the Death Star to destroy Princess Leia’s home planet.

Pick your simile – it could be Bain Capital or the National Health Plan. It could be Coach Sandusky or Father Ferrara – wherever the Big Guy destroys the Little Guy. That’s the story of Naboth’s vineyard.

And I am very curious that more American Christians don’t know that Bible story. Why do you suppose that is?

I think it’s because of the way the story continues. God sees the devious maneuvers of Queen Jezebel and her hapless husband. God looks down – or God looks around – and God refuses to let that injustice stand. With specific description, God speaks a Word to his appointed mouthpiece, the prophet Elijah, and God says, “This shall not stand. Ahab is toast. Jezebel shall be thrown to the dogs.” (I once had a nasty cat who we called Jezebel. Because she would not keep her claws in, we threatened to throw her to the dogs.)

This is what God says to the whimpering, greedy king and his nasty wife, the queen. God talks back to injustice, and stirs up Elijah to make the announcement.

Did you ever wonder why we have rarely heard this story in church? There are cultural reasons, historical reasons. A hundred years ago, the story would have been inconceivable in America. The church and the government were on the same page. This was mostly a Protestant country and the church was its chaplain. The Christianity of 1912 had no need of any prophets, or so most people thought.

A few of us were talking the other day, and one of the old-timers remembered how this congregation used to own a house across the street. An assistant minister lived there, as I recall. He was moving on and the elders said, “Let’s sell the house.” And then somebody else said, “Well, be sure that you don’t sell the house to a Catholic.” Can you imagine that people used to talk that way? Can some of you remember when they did talk that way?

Some years back, I took the confirmation class to Manhattan. We went down to a soup kitchen near Wall Street and served breakfast to the down-and-outers who dropped by. Our suburban kids got an eye-full An earful, too. From there, we wandered up a few blocks to the 9-11 site and posed for pictures. Then we took the subway to mid-town and took a look inside Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. It’s right near the Diamond District, across the street from the place where Donald Trump gets his haircut.

As we walked into that glorious sanctuary full of glistening wood, one of my friends who went as an advisor said, “Wow! Remember when the Presbyterians ruled the world?” Truth be told, we never did, but there was an age of grandeur. Glistening wood and grandeur. Nobody felt the need for a Presbyterian prophet talking back to the king when everything was going well.

Meanwhile, last year’s statistics were just released: our Presbyterian denomination had a net loss of 64,000 members last year. The majority of the people lost simply drifted away.[1] A good bit of them may have drifted because church and religion don’t help them feel quite so successful any more.

That’s my hunch. Faith and success don’t always go hand in hand. Just ask Robert Schuller about that’s working out for him these days. Anyone remember the Crystal Cathedral?

But oh, back in the 1950’s, we Presbyterians were on top of the world! Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president. Word leaked out that he had never been baptized, and it became a minor campaign issue. So ten days after his inauguration, Ike went down the street to National Presbyterian Church and got himself baptized. And the Presbyterians rejoiced! The President was one of us. The churches were full. The Baby Boom created Sunday School buildings. Post-war optimism was high. The Protestant church and the American state were humming along in the same direction.

And then what happened? The Cold War with its spectre of nuclear war. The Viet Nam war and the attempt to stifle worldwide communism. The Civil Rights movement and its struggle for racial equality. And for the first time ever, in 1960, the United States elected a president who was Roman Catholic. Fifty years ago, halfway through our congregation’s history, there were changes going on, changes which the Presbyterians have never quite recovered from.

I don’t know if you ever thought about any of this, particularly if you are over fifty years old, but it’s a different world for the American church than it once was. When my father was a child, his country went to war against the Germans and the Japanese. For his generation, it was very clearly a battle between good and evil, Roosevelt versus Hitler, freedom versus totalitarian oppression. That conflict was clearly defined.

By contrast, when I was a little child, we sat in a school hallway and covered our heads in “duck and cover” drills, just in case a weapon of mass destruction that we invented would ever be used against us. I listened to confusing news reports from Southeast Asia and worried that the war would go on until I was old enough to be drafted. We saw a president shot. We saw his brother shot. We watched a Civil Rights hero gunned down in Memphis.

After that, President Johnson lied to us about Viet Nam. President Nixon lied to us about everything, and was paranoid enough to record himself doing it. This last week was the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal. We were reminded yet again of burglary, theft, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. Just like Jezebel and Ahab.

There are gaps between three generations in American culture. There is the gap between those who remember when the government appeared to act honorably and those who can’t ever remember such a thing. And there is the gap between those who remember being taught about an American dream even though they didn’t always see it and the younger adults today who can’t even imagine that there is an American dream.

That circles back to the story of Naboth and his vineyard, of God and Elijah against Ahab and Jezebel. In a corrupt world, it’s always the Big Guy plundering the Little Guy. That’s why God raises up the prophet, to declare the fundamental fairness of loving the neighbor as much as oneself. This is the biblical definition of justice – to love the neighbor, to look out for the weak, to act as the brother’s keeper and the sister’s guardian. When that does not happen, God speaks up. God talks back to Ahab and Jezebel, and indicates that the future will not be on their side.

One hundred years ago, our church did not have a Mission and Justice committee. We did not send anybody to Haiti. Perhaps we collected some money and passed it along, so that the good white Presbyterians could feel good about sharing some of their blessings with those less fortunate. Never had to get close enough to see their global neighbors, but they could pass along some of the left-overs, and pray that the few fervent missionaries would get the funds where they needed to go.

I’d like to suggest it’s a different world. Or maybe it’s not a different world. Maybe this is the same old corrupt world when people try to get ahead at the expense of their neighbors. Ever hear the new beatitudes of selfish people? “Blessed are the aggressive, for they shall be fulfilled.” “Blessed are the manipulative, for they shall get their way.”

Or is it, really, “Blessed are those who have too much food, for they shall suffer from obesity, hypertension, and worry, while the orphans of Port-au-Prince wither in the streets.”

Do you think God is happy with the injustice of this world? Does God sanction it when the rulers of the earth lord their power over others, or does the Lord Jesus Christ invite us to serve one another? In the words of the Psalm we sang, can the high and mighty hear how God laughs at their silly pretense? Justice means to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

Here’s the thing: a hundred years ago, American Protestants stuck to themselves. These concerns weren’t always on the radar. But I think now they are. We don’t have to be a church that pays no attention to the needy and says, “Live and let live.” We don’t have to hide up here on the hill while immigrants in the valley lack basic resources. We don’t have to pretend that everybody else lives as well as we do. Even if we don’t think we live so well, there are a lot of people within our reach who could not even dream of living as well as us.

The call of faith is to live as neighbors. To love one another as neighbors. To do the hard work of taking one another seriously. To serve, and never to plunder.

Though God is mostly invisible, God is watching to see what we do with our lives. God is watching to see if we can see one another.

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