A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on June 16, 2013
1 Kings 21:1-21a
I meet each week with a group of clergy for a Bible study about the texts we’ll be preaching each week. After reading this one, someone asked, “is anyone actually preaching this text?”
I said I was and so did one other pastor at the table. The questioner asked “but why? Where is the good news?”
It is a fair question. I think he meant the question on the capital GOOD capital NEWS level—where is the gospel proclaimed in this text? But I think it is fair on the more basic level too. Where is the good in this story?
His question has been in the back of my mind all week.
How is this story good news?
We hear of evil King Ahab, looking out over a vineyard that belongs to his neighbor Naboth. He decides he NEEDS that vineyard, even though it is Naboth’s inheritance.
This isn’t just land Naboth purchased at an auction. It is his familial inheritance, handed down through the generations as instructed in the Holy Scripture. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites took the Promised Land seriously. It was much more than real estate. It was identity. Each family’s land was their piece of the promise.
King Ahab should have known that, of course, being the King of Israel and all.
But sometimes we get greedy and we want what we want. He offers to buy it from Naboth or to swap it for better land, other land, someone else’s land.
Naboth says, “thanks, but no.”
So Ahab, like all grown men, acts in a responsible manner and says, “I totally understand. Thanks for your consideration.”
Oh, wait. That’s not what he does.
He acts like a child who hasn’t taken a nap. He pouts. He pitches a fit. He refuses to eat. He won’t get out of bed.
And his wife Jezebel comes in to figure out what the tantrum is all about. “I wanted Naboth’s land but he wouldn’t share it with me”. Truly, Ahab was a 4 yr old who stayed up too late and ate too much sugar. This was Ahab’s no good, very bad day.
So Jezebel sets the plan in place to have Naboth killed so Ahab can then just take the land. And it works.
Until Elijah shows up and points out God’s displeasure with the whole thing and God’s very specific judgment on Ahab.
It is a tragic story without a happy ending. Naboth is dead. Ahab will be soon enough. Tragedy all around.
Where, indeed, is the good news here?
But I think we confuse the Good News with Happy News. We hope our life in faith will make everything better. We want Naboth to be rewarded for valuing his inheritance. We want our kings to be honorable and honest.
But scripture is full of stories of very imperfect people like Ahab, and very tragic people like Naboth. The Good News of Jesus Christ is the ultimate GOOD for humanity, but the stories of scripture are not always happy and honorable and just.
So maybe here is the good news for me today. Scripture resembles our lives. These are our stories. We know Naboths, people who have done the right thing and been killed for it. We also, sadly, know Ahabs, people who succeed and have all of the trappings of wealth, and yet live unprincipled lives of evil.
And the stories of our faith are told through scripture about people like Ahab and Naboth and Jezebel and Elijah—the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity.
Which makes me wonder why modern Christianity tends to focus so much on asking people to be perfect? We hold perfection up as some sort of ideal that is attainable. “If you live a life of faith….(fill in the blanks)….everything will be perfect and everyone will be happy.”
From purity and celibacy codes to shaming and shunning people who fail, there is an implied expectation of perfection that runs through much of American Christianity.
Perhaps now is a good time to make a confession to you.
I am not perfect.
But you already knew that.
I haven’t committed any Ahab level offenses, but I’ve made plenty of mistakes.
And it is only 10 am.
And I love Jesus. But I’m still not perfect. And no amount of loving Jesus will make me so.
A few years ago on Ellen DeGeneres’ TV show, a woman called to talk to Ellen and I want to play you a little clip from that:
(the important moment happens right around the 4th minute)
I love Jesus, but I drink a little.
Now that is a confession of faith. This woman is acknowledging that she loves Jesus, but she isn’t perfect. Maybe we should all incorporate this phrase.
I love Jesus, but I lost my job.
I love Jesus, but I have problems with debt.
I love Jesus, but I eat ice cream when I am on a diet. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
Whatever it is.
Because here’s the thing. None of you are perfect either. And we shouldn’t expect each other to be. And we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be.
But we do.
We point out the mistakes of those around us willingly. We may be more quiet about our own mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still judge ourselves for them.
I know people who won’t come to church because they don’t feel good enough, deserving enough, perfect enough, to be in church.
I also know people who won’t come to church because they have noticed the church isn’t perfect. “We left church because everyone was messed up”, I heard once.
Both illustrations show how the myth of perfection has ruined those people’s ability to approach God.
To both groups of people I want to say, “you’re right. We’re not perfect here. There’s plenty of room for you too. And let me tell you about the ancestors in our faith. Of Ahab and Jezebel. Of David and Bathsheba. Of Paul, who used to kill Christians before he became one. Come find your story in the divine one.”
As some of you know, I started taking a dance class about 3 months ago. And I love it. But it is the most dad gum frustrating thing I’ve ever done. Because the teacher does a move. And then I try to do the move. And there is no resemblance between the two. I want to be perfect at it RIGHT NOW. And I’m not. But if I practice I’ll get better. So I’m thankful for the women in my class who encourage me. I don’t know anything about these women other than their first names and that they, too, like to dance. But when I am getting really frustrated, one of them will smile and say something to make me laugh, and I let it go and get back to practice.
I’ve experienced that with you as well. There are times when someone will come in to my office and lovingly point out a mistake, or will make a kind suggestion on how to move forward with something when I seem stuck. And I’ve seen you lovingly correct each other too. When one person is considering a potentially disastrous plan, you clearly say, “I love you. I want to support you. But you can’t go murdering Naboth to get his vineyard.” You correct each other. You support each other. You forgive each other.
And I realized that was what was sorely missing in the Bible story this morning. Ahab surrounded himself with people who would always agree with him, even when he was horribly in the wrong.
Ahab needed a church. He needed you. He needed people to say, “You can’t have that vineyard. That’s his family’s land. Let’s call a realtor tomorrow to find you another property.”
Church wouldn’t have made Ahab into a perfect person, but it could have helped him be accountable.
A good community of faith could have called him to his better nature, reminding him, “you know, you’re already the king and have lots of vineyards. Maybe you don’t need another. Maybe you need to share what you have.”
But to be that for each other, to correct each other in love and not in judgment, you have to know each other. You have to trust each other. You have to love each other. You have to accept each other and be willing to be accepted, for who you are, as you are.
Yesterday, many of you were at the PRIDE Festival in Boise. We started on the steps of the capitol and made our way to Ann Morrison park where we passed out a lot of water bottles. A lot. We also asked people to share their stories with us. Many people wrote on a sheet we had in the booth. And some of us offered apology to people who had been hurt by the church.
It is a very humbling experience to ask someone, “Have you been hurt by the church? Can I apologize to you for that hurt?”
In doing so, we acknowledge the church, in a broad sense, has not been loving and welcoming. There are still places where people experience pain and hate instead of hearing about God’s love and mercy.
And so, to apologize to people, whether their pain and hurt happened here in this building or happened on the other side of the country, we acknowledge that church isn’t perfect. We acknowledge there is pain and brokenness and hurt and harm. Yesterday, one woman said to one of our volunteers when asked if she could apologize, “there’s not a person who hasn’t been hurt by religion.”
But there is also life and joy and grace and family in church.
And that is the good news. Naboth may not have prevailed against Ahab, but we’re still telling his story. We still remember someone who stood up for what was important. We still seek to be like Naboth.
There’s some good news.
Every time someone makes a principled stand, we remember Naboth. This week a little girl set up a lemonade stand across the street from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS. When she heard about their message of hate, she decided to counter that message with a message of hope and decided to raise money for peace and love.
There’s the good news.
Friends, this is the place where we can be our true selves. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Just as Scripture records the stories of our ancestors in faith, so too can we share those stories from our own lives here. Whoever we are, and whatever we’ve done, we belong here, together.
Yes, we’ll still make mistakes and hurt each other. But we’ll also have each other to make it through it all, and that seems like good news to me.
May it be so.