Sunday, April 19, 2009

Naboth's Vineyard

1 Kings 21:15 “As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, "Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead."

I was out preaching this morning in one of the Bible Society’s partner churches, where I highlighted our willingness to address questions anybody might have about the Bible. A man came up to me during coffee hour saying that he wanted to take me up on that with a question that had bugged him for some time. “You know that story about the vineyard?” he asked. My mind raced through a whole pile of biblical vineyard stories. “The king gets the vineyard and I don’t understand why,” he continued. “And there’s something about dogs.”

We finally figured out that he was talking about the story in 1 Kings 21 where King Ahab and Queen Jezebel take the vineyard of one of their subjects named Naboth. First they offer to buy the vineyard, but Naboth would like to keep his vineyard and declines their offer. So they kill him and take it. The prophet Elijah finds out and brings the word of the Lord to Ahab and Jezebel, predicting their own demise will result in their dead bodies being left unburied so that wild dogs will eat them. A lovely lunch-time story.

The man asking the question was troubled that within the pages of Scripture was a story where an evil king took away both the life and the property of a good man. Even though Ahab and Jezebel bore the condemnation of God, as he saw it they still benefited from the vineyard and in some sense got away with it.

His question was two fold. On the one hand is the question asked by most of us at some time or another and that is captured best by Jeremiah when he says to God: “Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1) I’m not especially qualified to answer that question, since I often have it myself. But this man’s issue seemed to be more specifically that this was a story in the Bible, which to him meant that it was an example of how things should be. But the bad guy won, so how could it be in the Bible?

That’s actually a common misperception, so I thought I would address it. The Bible is not a picture of life the way it should be. The Bible is a picture of how life is and always has been. What makes it special is that it is the story of how God has worked and is working within the history of what is to try to teach us to make it what God intended it to be from the beginning. So the Bible tells us the stories not just of the good people, and not just of the people who are trying to be faithful but mess up. It tells us also of the jerks and the mean and vile people and shows us exactly how they harm the innocent. Then it brings along prophets like Elijah who speak for God in condemning the evil that has been done. Ultimately it brings the story of Jesus, who shows us how to live faithfully in a world where the wicked often do prosper.

In the story of Jesus we see what all the other stories have been for. They show us God at work within human history, teaching and rebuking, pulling and shaping, to try to mold a troubled world into something resembling the Kingdom of God.

In our world today things are no different. Kings steal the vineyards of their citizens. Bernie Madoffs steal your retirement. Wall Street steals your home and laughs all the way to the bank. The wicked too often prosper and the righteous too often get hit by a bus. And God continues to respond just as God always has—by calling on God’s people to fix it and raise up our children in a different way. Easter night Jesus appeared to his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit into them and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21) Empowered by God’s spirit, fixing the world so that the wicked no longer prosper is our job now.

The Bible is not all sweetness and light. It shows the world with all its flaws. It also teaches us what to do about it.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Good Friday Matters

Paula Peters
Luke 9:24 “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Yesterday I was at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. The speaker was Paula Peters (pictured here), the Marketing Director of Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum here in Plymouth that depicts the lives of the Plymouth colonists and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe after the landing of the Mayflower. Paula is a member of the Wampanoag Tribal Council.

Paula’s speech was notable because she is the first Wampanoag speaker in the Society’s history. There was actually one other time when a member of the tribe was invited. It was in 1970 that the Society invited Wamsutta Frank James as part of the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower's arrival.

His speech (which had to be submitted ahead of time) was so severely censored, however, that he refused to come and deliver the non-descript pabulum that was left over. You can read his intended speech here. So it took some time before the groups got together again--thirty-nine years to be exact. Paula’s speech was not censored nor asked for ahead of time, nor did she pull any punches in describing what white people remember on Thanksgiving as a day of mourning for her people.

While Paula was clear about the experience of Native peoples after the arrival of the Mayflower, she was also clear that she was not there to bring us guilt. She was bringing us the responsibility of creating a more hopeful future, a hope that was acted upon, in a small but important way, yesterday. She received a standing ovation from the 150 people there—people who have long resisted seeing their Mayflower ancestors as anything but saintly icons who stood for religious freedom and democracy. Paula’s husband, also a tribal member, wiped a tear from his eye.

On the drive home, I thought about what I had just experienced in light of Holy Week and the way I have experienced church across 50 years of Holy Weeks. What I have seen is that, at least in American Protestantism, we want all the glory and celebration of Palm Sunday and Easter. A lesser but still significant number want to do some reflection on Maundy Thursday. But the number of people who want to climb the hill of Calvary to a bloody execution drops off a cliff. Many communities do Good Friday services together ecumenically so that the small numbers are masked by bringing many churches together.

My interpretation of that phenomenon is that we are not fond of the message that in order to experience resurrection, we have to die first. Jesus set the stage in this passage in Luke (and others like it in the other gospels). We have to die in order to live. He’s not calling for martyrdom or saying that the way to salvation is through a literal suicide. I think he means things like what happened at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. In order to move into a more hopeful future, we have to kill off some of the cherished fictions of the past. As long as we held onto those whitewashed notions of our ancestors, we could not be reborn into a bright and truth-filled future.

And of course it’s not just the Mayflower descendants or the idealized notion of the first Thanksgiving. Each of us travels across the span of our lives collecting beliefs and assumptions that inform how we see the world. Some of them are accurate and good. But many turn out to be cherished fictions, designed to keep us from having to face certain unpleasant truths about ourselves and therefore do something about them. We cling to bad habits. In conflict we are righteous and those who oppose us are evil or, in cases of abuse, we believe that we are evil (or at least inept), and that our abuser is good. We all do it—and apparently they did it in Jesus’ day as well.

The message of Jesus, both in his teaching and in his example this week, describes a different way. There is no resurrection without death. If we are willing to kill off those bad habits and those cherished fictions, then and only then will we rise up to new life in Christ.

It is not just Easter; it is Holy Week. All of it. Whether in the public rituals of church or in the privacy of your spiritual prayer closet, follow the footsteps of Jesus this week. The steps up to the Place of the Skull are heavy, and it’s common to fall several times under the weight of such a cross. But keep going. The death of those old ways is necessary and ordained by God. Easter awaits—a life out from the shadows and into the truth. If the Mayflower descendants can do it, you can too!

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