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Church in the Park

Sermon - 7/08/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
Sladden Park, Eugene, Oregon

1 Kings 21:1-

To set some context, this is the story of Elijah, and we've been looking at Elijah the last few weeks.  We saw Elijah on Mt. Carmel with his contest against the prophets of Baal.  And Elijah on Mt. Horeb (also known as Mt. Sinai) when he heard God speaking in the silence.  At that time, Elijah was given a new commission to select a prophet that would follow him -- Elisha.  But that was not the end of his ministry.  In fact, probably the most significant part of his ministry was yet to come, and it is a story that we may not know quite as well as those other two.  So, here's the story:

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And 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.’ 3But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ 4Ahab 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.

5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ 6He 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.” ’ 7His 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.’

8 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. 9She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat 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.’ 11The 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, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The 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. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’

15 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.’ 16As 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.

17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go 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. 19You 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.’


Not exactly a children's story, is it?  I've got a question for you -- audience participation time.  I'd be tempted to ask "who do you see as Ahab in this story?".  But that might get political, and I hate doing that J.  So let me rephrase the question and ask you this:  "When do you see government acting like Ahab?".

I think the real issue is that it's not about individuals, it's not partisan politics.  It's about an attitude, it's about institutions and taking power from people.  So, give me some examples -- what stories:

  • American Indians -- taking land away from Native Americans
  • The actions of the Nazi's (doesn't need to be restricted to our government)
  • The imminent domain of the headwaters of the Amazon
  • Iraqi oil
  • The war that we're in right now
  • The occupation of the West Bank
  • The invasion of Lebanon
  • The insistence that native people's forget their own language, background, and culture, and act like white people
  • Pearl Harbor
  • Starving people everywhere, especially in America
  • Darfur, Rwanda
  • Churches that don't allow some people in their doors

What you're really saying to me, is that there are lots of Ahabs, not just one.  Ahab is alive and well.

Dominic Crossan has a wonderful phrase for this, he calls this the "normalcy of civilization".  This is just what civilization does, it's what governments do.  They take their power and use it against others.

I want to give you an example:  who knows how the Philippines was acquired by the United States government in 1898?  Spanish-American war is the common understanding.  It's not quite right.  It's close, but what happened in the Spanish-American war in the dispute over Cuba, after we won that war, the United States paid Spain $20 million dollars for the properties of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  It was the beginning of the United States as a global power.  And so we acquired the Philippines in that purchase.

There was only one problem -- during the Spanish-American civil war, the Philippines used that opportunity of the weakness of Spain to declare independence.  We purchased an independent country.  We had to basically go take it back.  This is a war that probably very few people know about -- the Philippine-American war.  The Marines were sent in -- 11,000 Marines -- to take possession of the Philippines.  It was a war that lasted for three years.  And even after we defeated the primary opponents, the insurgency against our forces continued for another 10 years after that.  Philippines was not granted independence until after World War II.  And then we had to liberate them from Japan.

Now, keep that in mind as I share a snippet of a debate that was held in the United States Senate in February of 1899 -- two months after our purchase, seven months before the invasion: 

Said Albert Beveridge (R-Indiana): "The Philippines are ours forever, and just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets.  We will not retreat from either ....We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustees under God, of the civilization of the world .... God has marked us as his chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world .... He has made us adept in government that we administer government among savage and senile peoples."

Responded George Hoar (R-Massachusetts): "I have listened, delighted, as have, I suppose, all the members of the Senate, to the eloquence of my honorable friend from Indiana .... Yet, Mr. President, as I heard his eloquent description of wealth and commerce and trade, I listened in vain for those words which the American people have been wont to take upon their lips in every crisis .... The words Right, Justice, Duty, Freedom were absent, my friend must permit me to say, from that eloquent speech."

United States Senate in February of 1899.

So, obviously the first viewpoint was the one that won the day, and the President was given the green light to send the troops to the Philippines.  Keep in mind the the Philippines is a country of 7,107 islands.  In effect, the sin of Ahab -- the confiscation of that land -- was multiplied by our government 7,107 times.

I cite that story for two reasons.  One, I didn't think anyone would come up with that as an example today.  Secondly, on this Sunday after July 4th, I think that story illustrates both the best and the worst of our tradition and culture as U.S. citizens.  A Senator who calls the people of another land 'savage and senile', and asserts that we have a divine right as God's chosen to take possession of foreign lands and remake them like us for the purpose of nothing more than accessing their markets, that is the absolute worst of our society.  One of our great sins.

But on the other hand, we also see in that same story a Senator who appeals to the truly great ideals of our nation, of Right, Justice, Duty, and Freedom.  And even if he did not win the day in 1899, such high ideals continue to inspire us and to motivate us to do better.  And I think that is, quite simply, the same story that we find throughout scripture. And particularly here, in the story of Elijah.  This constant struggle and tension between the normalcy of civilization and the vision of how it should be under God.  What Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

One more question:  who, then, if this is the normalcy of civilization, who are the voices of Elijah?  What would Elijah do (to use a popular phrase)?

I'm curious -- who do you hear out there in the public who raises that kind of voice, who speaks truth to power?

  • Dennis Kucinich
  • Al Gore
  • Marcus Borg
  • Peter DeFazio
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Jim Wallis
  • Dan!
  • The Darfur coalitions
  • The Quakers
  • Hamas (now we're getting radical)
  • The Federation of Natives (in Alaska)

There are lots of examples, if we look around, and of course it gets a little touchy sometimes, especially when it gets partisan.  But to consider seriously that the voice of Elijah is alive and present in our world today in various forms, and to look for those, identify them, find them.

I have a suggestion for this one too, and again, it's one that nobody has named.  It gets out there a little bit on the edge:  Lee Iacocca.  

I may have surprised you, unless you've been reading some recent books.  He, of course, was known for engineering the bailout of Chrysler 25 years ago.  And was chosen by President Ronald Reagan to lead the renovation on the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.  He was given that task of raising that money -- $100 million or something -- to renovate both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which is especially appropriate because Iacocca's parents came through Ellis Island.  So it was a very personal task for him.



In that process, he told a very powerful story of the immigrants (also very appropriate for today's discussion), and why it is so important for us and the world to have this symbol.  And he wrote in Newsweek in 1986, and I was so moved by it that I clipped it out -- he said:


"Liberty brings some obligations.  I know we only have it today because somebody fought for it, nourished it, protected it, and then passed it on to us.  That's a debt we owe.  It's an obligation we owe to our own kids. An obligation to pass this incredible gift onto them.  That's how civilization works -- whatever debt you owe to those who came before you, you pay to those who follow you.  Liberty is the most precious possession we'll ever have.  We have to preach it and practice it and live it and nourish it.  And maybe, if we can get our act together, we can begin to export it".  


Those are wonderful words, makes us all feel good and get all excited -- "yeah, yeah, that's great!".

Well, listen to what Iacocca is now preaching, 20 years later.  Just released a new book "Where Have All The Leaders Gone?".  Iacocca takes on the leaders of our country like a true Elijah, and he holds nothing back.  From his colleagues in Detroit to folks on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C.  Here's what he says in the introduction to that book:

"Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening?  Where is our outrage?  We should be screaming bloody murder!  We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff.  We've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind.  We can't even clean up after a hurricane, much less build a hybrid car.  You might think I'm getting senile [he's 82 years old], that I've gone off my rocker.  Maybe I have.  But someone has to speak up.  

I hardly recognize this country anymore.  The most famous business leaders are not the innovators, but the guys in handcuffs.  Congress responds with a tax cut for the wealthy 'Thanks, but I don't need it'.  The press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions.  That's not the promise of America that my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for.  

I've had enough, how about you?  And don't tell me it's all the fault of right-wing Republicans or liberal Democrats.  That's an intellectually lazy argument.  And it's part of the reason we're in this stew.  We're not just a nation of factions, we're a people.  We share common principles and ideals, and we rise and fall together.  So I have news for the gang in Congress -- we didn't elect you to sit on your derrières [keep in mind I'm cleaning the language up J].  What is everyone so afraid of?  That some bobble head on Fox News will call them a name?  Give me a break.  Why don't you guys show a spine for a change.

I'm not trying to be the voice of gloom and doom.  I'm trying to light a fire.  I'm speaking out because I have hope.  I believe in America.  In my lifetime, I've had the privilege of living through some of America's greatest moments.  I've also experienced some of our worst crises -- the great Depression, World War II, Korean War, Kennedy assassination, Vietnam war, the 70s oil crises, the struggles of recent years culminating in September 11th.

If I have learned one thing, it's this:  you don't get anywhere by standing on the sidelines waiting for somebody else to take action.  Whether it's building a better car or building a better future for our children, we all have a role to play.  That's the challenge I'm raising -- it's a call to action for people who, like me, believe in America". 

And I believe that for us as Christian people, we have even a higher calling than that.  It's not about believing in America, it's about believing in the Kingdom of God and the gospel message that we have been given and to see that implemented in our time in this place.  Not just here in this country, but around the world.  That is our task.

When I began this mini-series on Elijah I said that Elijah was very important for the development of the prophetic tradition.  And it wasn't the story of the contest on Mt. Carmel (with those prophets of Baal), or the story of the still, small voice on Mt. Horeb, but rather what happened down in the cities when Elijah dared to challenge the leaders and to hold them accountable for their actions.  And to measure them against the vision of our God as revealed in the Mosaic tradition.

So it is that Elijah begins the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power.  Challenging the normalcy of civilization with the justice of God.  A tradition which, a century later, would then burst forth with incredible power in the orations of prophets like Amos and Hosea and Micah and Isaiah.  

And then note, please, biblical people, when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, who appears with him?  Moses -- the giver of the law, and the prophet Elijah.  There could not be a clearer message in the gospels of where Jesus stands in this tradition of speaking truth to power for the justice of God.

The question that remains:  what about us?


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