Back to series

Sermon for July 15,2018

Texts: 1Kings 21:1-10,15/Luke 7:36-8:3

Title: “Expendable”

Two bedrock principles collided. The first principle was that a family inheritance was to be zealously guarded. The second principle was that a king possesses uncontestable authority.

      When bedrock principles collide stalemate is seldom the result, for any time bedrock principles are concerned we are tenacious. Little room is left for give and take.

      Naboth and king Ahab adhered to their principles, only one, Naboth, adhered more ardently than the other.  No, Naboth would not turn over his property to the king, even when the king offered him a superior piece of property as an inducement to close the deal.

      Faced with the fact that Naboth would not surrender his property, Ahab, surrendering his royal dignity, went into a pout. But why? You see, the prerogatives that came with his royal office had somehow failed to register with Ahab. Such was not the case with his wife, notorious Jezebel.

      Jezebel lives on as one of history’s more scheming and ruthless characters. Go to a good dictionary and you will find an entry like this one: Jezebel—the wicked woman who married Ahab, king of Israel.  Any woman regarded as wicked, shameless, licentious, etc.

If you want to defame a woman, and none of you would, call her a “Jezebel.”

      While Ahab yielded to Naboth’s refusal to surrender his property, Jezebel stepped in to remind the king of his royal prerogatives.  Why, after all, should Naboth’s refusal stand? Naboth was a nobody. Any rights he might think he had were subordinate to the king.

      Jezebel concocted a plan.  Where there is a will, sin will find a way. In this instance the way ran right over Naboth. 

We know the scenario.  A religious fast was called, Naboth sitting at the head of the table.  “Two scoundrels,” according to the text, were commissioned to slander Naboth, “He cursed God and king,” they shouted. On the testimony of the two “scoundrels” Naboth was taken out and stoned. 

      There is an object lesson here that all those who run afoul of people in power have had to learn.  If you want to save your neck, don’t stick it out by insisting on your rights or prerogatives.  Power trumps rights and prerogatives. Now there, my friends, is a principle that has stood the test of time.

      Where there is a will sin will find a way. Naboth’s body barely cold, Ahab happily went out to claim his vineyard.

      Naboth enters and exits the biblical story in a matter of ten verses, while the duo of Ahab and Jezebel would happily continue along the course their greedy ambitions and vanity set.

      Naboth, just another name, another face, swept to the margins as history rolls along. Score another victory for power. Naboth and his kind are expendable.

      Expendable.  A certain Pharisee hosted a dinner party to which Jesus was invited.  We can assume that he was wealthy, because the average person of that day lacked the resources to entertain guests in his home. It was just another dinner party until it was interrupted by a notorious woman of that city.

The host was ready to throw her out, but before he could act she stooped at Jesus’ feet “[and she] began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.”  The indignant host was outraged. He ordered his servant to throw her out.

      From the Pharisee’s point of this notorious sinner was in free fall to the depths of hell.  Let hell exact its vengeance on her lost soul.  She was a nobody, expendable, so far as the he was concerned.

      Even as the Pharisee’s servant grabbed the woman, Jesus stood up.  “Not so fast,” said the Lord.  Have you noticed how Jesus consistently aligned himself with the expendable nobodies. That expendable sinner the Pharisee viewed with such distaste, was not, as it would turn out, so expendable after all.

      You know, folks, people like Naboth and the notorious woman who showed up to wash Jesus’ feet, hear things in Jesus’ message that you and I often miss.  They hunger and thirst for liberation, for good news of any sort. They cherish any morsel of respect. Jesus made a career of preaching a message the vulnerable and lost long to hear.        

        I may be wrong, but I doubt that any of you experienced the plight of Naboth or the woman in our second lesson. No one has trampled on our rights. We don’t fear the curse of damnation. Our consciences may not be pure all the time, but they don’t condemn us. The prayers of confession we recite Sunday after Sunday rarely convict us, if anything we become indignant when one of those prayers offends us.

      So what about “declaration of pardon” that follows confession in our order of service?  What do words of assurance mean if we believe in our hearts that we have committed no sin warranting a pardon?

      Forgiveness only really registers for sinners, those who believe in their hearts that they are estranged from God, and thus believing regard themselves as expendable. If we are people who believe ourselves to be in good standing with the Lord who have rights that cannot be suspended at someone’s whim, expendable doesn’t register for us.

People living without the comfortable assurance you and I maintain about life hear things in Jesus’ message that you and I don’t hear, but not just on matters pertaining to personal rights or the status of their souls.  They hear Jesus talk about deliverance from oppression. They dare to dream that hope is not a forbidden topic.

      Naboth’s fate was not some isolated occurrence in the ancient world, and is not isolated today. The powerful continue to prey upon the weak. A magazine to which I subscribe dedicated a lengthy article to the plight of the Muslim Uighur people living in China. An ethnic and religious minority, the Uighur’s are kept under continual surveillance. They are a tolerated community, but just barely. The authorities crack down, and hard, if they suspect trouble from members of that community. Forget about due process. Guilt is assumed.

      Over one hundred thousand Rohingyas, another Muslim community, that made Myanmar their home for centuries have been driven from their lands by the authorities, forced out with little more than the clothes on their backs. They lack the means or the advocates to demand their rights. They are for all intents and purposes expendable. 

      To us who do not find ourselves in such straits the Bible’s message of justice, freedom, and deliverance, cannot have the same impact as for those who read those passages in prison or see their land confiscated without compensation to make room for some high end commercial project.    

      It doesn’t take a very careful reading of scripture to realize that insofar as Jesus’ ministry was concerned the word “expendable” did not apply.  In fact, Jesus made himself expendable that we would not have to suffer the consequences to which sin subjects us. He died for the world. In Jesus’ eyes the person living on a ration of 800 calories or less a day in sub-Saharan Africa, the person dying of AIDS in Calcutta or Cleveland, or the person subjected to daily terror in China, is no more expendable than we who live in favored circumstances are.

      Becoming a disciple of Christ is a process of adopting his vision of the world, a vision of the world that challenges in many instances what we learn and adopt from other sources. What we are taught, and how we are taught, is a product of the families and the cultures in which we were raised. Our outlooks on the world, our values and our prejudices are homegrown.

      A book was published recently that underscored just how thorough our homegrown ways are implanted. “Hillybilly Elegy,” some of you know the book, is the memoir of a man who grew up in Appalachia. In the book the man reflects on the lessons he learned in that culture, and how what he learned shaped his world view. He describes the difficult process of sorting through that experience to define what he wants to hold on to from that world, and what he wants to leave behind.

      To be a follow of Christ is to engage in that sorting process, it is evaluate the lessons life has taught us in light of the world view Christ opens. If we take that process seriously—and after all, isn’t that what the Lord calls us to do— [If we take that process seriously] can we avoid taking account of welfare of our neighbor, particularly the marginalized neighbor?

      On that subject theologian Alvin Currier reminds us that Jesus “ took the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and pushed the definition of who is our neighbor out, out, and still further out, until it reached to the ends of the earth and included all of humanity—all of God’s children.” To do that, however, challenges us to overcome formidable barriers of race, class, and ethnicity that often undermine our neighborliness.  

Just one example. We have a neighbor who lives in close proximity to us, a neighbor who at a modest wage is doing work we are unprepared to do for ourselves.  He does our yard work, and works in our fields. She cleans our houses and looks after our children. Arguments are made that this neighbor does not belong here. Arguments are made that the neighbor places an unfair burden on our social services and our schools. Arguments are made that he is responsible for our rising crime rate.

This neighbor may not share our world view or conduct himself as a model citizen all the time. He may think, act, and speak differently than us, but in the eyes of God, if not our own, he is of no less worth than us. He is not expendable, and that also pertains to the billions living in the so-called third world whom are never likely to meet, many of whom are braving the treacherous seas to seek a new life in Europe.  

Jezebel didn’t see a person when she designed the plot that led to Naboth’s death. The Pharisee didn’t see a real person when he saw the woman kneeling at Jesus’ feet. So far as Jezebel was concerned Naboth didn’t exist. So far as the Pharisee was concerned the woman didn’t exist.

Fundamentally, the unwillingness, or inability, to acknowledge another human being as a neighbor is the root of virtually every human tragedy and injustice that afflicts the earth. If I, for whatever reason, can deny my neighbor’s essential humanity as Jezebel and the Pharisee did, I can disregard her. For all essential purposes I have made her expendable.

The essential humanity we share as children of God is not calculated on the basis of our country of origin, the color of our skin, our educational attainment, or on the basis of whether or not we have a green card to work here. We know this up here, but do our actions reflect that?

Each of us is a person of worth in God’s sight, a person to be treated with the dignity that that status confers, and no one, not a single one of us is expendable. Yet practically speaking we live in a world of expendables, a world where millions are deprived of the basic dignity, respect, and justice that you and I, the world’s favored, insist upon.

Jesus “ took the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and pushed the definition of who is our neighbor out, out, and still further out, until it reached to the ends of the earth and included all of humanity—all of God’s children.” The only remaining question is how far are we to go in adopting Jesus’ methods. AMEN.

      PRAYER   

      O Christ, our brother, grant us wisdom to see the world for what it is.  The good fortune we are privileged to enjoy as an affluent population shields us from the harsh realities so many of our brothers and sisters are forced to face. Suffering is so pervasive in our world that we have become numb to its impact, resolving that anything we might personally do to address it is futile. Yet you do not call us to trek to the ends of the earth to carry a message of hope, you call us to be beacons of hope locally by being hospitable to the stranger in our midst, by insisting that those whom we have elected to public office be advocates for those who have been marginalized and forgotten. 

      It has been said, O Lord, that “a different world cannot be created by indifferent people.” With the wisdom you yourself modeled, O Christ, grant us also courage to stand against the tide of indifference, to distance ourselves from value systems that raise personal comfort and ambition as our principle priorities.

      Holy Spirit, abide with those who are not here this day, who are enjoying their leisure elsewhere. Be with those, O Spirit, who have yet to enjoy the benefits of a change of scene. Renew our spirits to find new meaning and purpose in our daily tasks.                

      O Christ, you come to us as the Prince of Peace, condemning the brutality and killing which afflict the world as a persistent curse. Help us to do that which we, on our own, are incapable of doing.  Help us find new ways to promote peace and justice around the world, and let that work begin in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Gaza and the West Bank where conflict rage today.  May those who care about peace and justice win public support for peacemaking.

      O God, hear our prayers both spoken and unspoken. Confer strength to the weak, confidence to the wavering, and assurance of your presence to the lost.  In Christ’s name we boldly pray….