311 Third Avenue NE, Hickory NC, 28601 (828) 322-6058

Vineyards for Vegetable Gardens

  • Sermon Details
  • Pastor Name: Wil Posey
  • Date & Time: July 3, 2016
  • Location: First Church, Hickory, NC

For the last several weeks we’ve been telling stories form the Old Testament about the prophets Elisha and Elijah.  Some of these have been stories you knew, some maybe you didn’t.  Rummaging through the Old Testament like this makes me think about visiting my grandparent’s house.  Digging through the basement for hidden treasure and hearing old family stories about people I’d never heard of and whose faces are only remembered in black and white, sepia, and tintype photographs, along with the sacred memories of our family elders.  Making it so important to keep telling them because when we do, we realize we’re part of something much bigger than just ourselves.

Of course, rummaging through the family photo album means you discover people who are part of your history who you’d rather not claim.  You may, in fact, be someone’s crazy uncle or cousin, that people hesitate to claim…  Elijah and Elisha are on the family tree, but so is King Ahab.  Not all of our family history is neat and pretty.  Sometimes it’s weird.  Sometimes embarrassing.  Sometimes even convicting.

We’ve hit a couple of important highlights from Elijah and Ahab’s story, but:

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

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

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. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10 seat 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.” 11 The 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, 12 they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13 The 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. 14 Then 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.” 16 As 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: 18 Go 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. 19 You 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.”

20 Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, 21 I will bring disaster on you; …

27 When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. 28 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.”

1 Kings 21:1-21, 27-29, NRSV

From the people who brought you Scandal and Blacklist, we give you King Ahab and Jezebel, a diabolical duo who could make Raymond Reddington blush.  Between the two of them they break 7/10 commandments just in a couple of days.  Let’s review how it happened:

  • When it comes to the first two commandments about no other gods and no idols, that train left the station a long time ago for these two. Ahab sold his soul to the false-god, Baal, and traded the God of creation for a little gold idol you could put on your mantle place.
  • The 10th commandment gets broken the minute Ahab covets Naboth’s vineyard, or at least the property it’s on.
  • Ahab breaks the 3rd commandment by asking Naboth to profane the name of the Lord by selling his vineyard which God had given to his family.
  • When Ahab doesn’t get his way, Jezebel schemes to have a pair of low lifes to make false witness against Naboth. Ahab and Jezebel didn’t technically break the 9th commandment here, but if you follow the paper trail, it points straight at them.
  • Then the men of the city murder Naboth.
  • And then Ahab stole, and took what wasn’t his.

There is no ambiguity or mixed motives or complicating factors.  Ahab and Jezebel straight up sold their souls, the Bible says, to wickedness.  They had a man and most likely his family killed so they could plow under his ancestral inheritance and plant a few rows of cucumbers and melons.

With the main characters of Ahab, Jezebel, Naboth, and Elijah, we hope that we might be like Naboth and Elijah.  We don’t have much of a character sketch for Naboth except that he’s apparently the only man in Jezreel who has a spine because all the rest of the elders and nobles crumple under pressure from Jezebel.  They turn on their neighbor and uncritically do what the evil queen says.  Naboth on the other hand stands up to the king and says, No, even though it costs him his life.  That’s noble; it’s patriotic; it’s inspiring.

We want to be like Naboth, and we want to be like Elijah who speaks truth to power.  We want to be the kind of people who can see speak out for justice, call the rich and powerful to account when they take advantage of others, and not back down.

We want to be like Naboth and Elijah, and maybe we are.  I hope we are.  

But we also are like Ahab and Jezebel.  Nobody wants to be the bad guy.  Maybe we resent them so much and want to keep our distance because they show us what it would look like to act on the impulses we sometimes have.

Ahab’s domestic policy is apparently based on what Carolyn Brown calls the Toddler’s Law of Possession: I see it, I want it, it’s mine![i]  This may not be a huge deal when you do something like snag a bite of pound cake from someone else’s plate at dinner…unless you take it from my plate!  That’s an issue.  The Toddler’s Law of Possession is Little People Law that reigns supreme on the playground.  But there are some people who haven’t grown up, and they live their lives out of these playground politics.  Ahab sees something that isn’t his; he wants it; he kills for it and takes possession of it.  Taking what isn’t yours is stealing.

In Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, the main character’s father, Baba, says, “There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal a life… you steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness… there is no act more wretched than stealing.”

Breaking any of the 10 commandments can just about be summed up as stealing.  When you break the Sabbath, you rob yourself and others of this gift God has given the world.  When you take the Lord’s name in vain, you rob God of the honor due him.  When you commit adultery, you rob another person of part of their being, and their right to meaningful, holy relationship.  And here Jesus raises the bar for holiness and says whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.  Jesus was talking to men, but, women, I think it’s a word for everyone.  Because what’s the other phrase we use when we look at a person with lust?  We “steal a glance.”  When we steal a glance, we steal that person’s right not to be seen or treated as an object for our pleasure.  We steal their identity as another person’s child or spouse, and as a person made in God’s image.

I like what Baba says, “There is only one sin: theft.”  I think he may be right. 

I know that’s pretty heavy.  Naboth’s vineyard isn’t exactly the whimsical story you tell at family picnics.  It’s hard to laugh and toss a Frisbee while you’re talking about jealousy, treachery, and theft.  But Ahab’s story is still part of our story.  When the Bible was written God’s people kept this story, I think, so we would remember it, and tell it, and pray we don’t repeat it.  This story is part of our story as God’s people, and our personal stories because to varying degrees, we also operate under that toddler law of possession.  Maybe we don’t personally plot schemes as wicked as Jezebel and Ahab’s, but still we see what we want and we take it.  Sometimes we steal it.

Tomorrow we’re coming up on our nation’s Independence Day.  Like a lot of you, I’ll be eating hotdogs and watching fireworks to the tune of John Philips Sousa, and hoping our dogs don’t bark ALL night long.  We’ll all remember and tell heroic stories of freedom and be thankful for this place we call home.  I think that’s good, and I’m glad we have a day for that.

There are a couple of other stories that I think we need to tell too, because who we are is more than just “amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties”.  For us, land grabs are a national pastime as popular as baseball.  To make room for European settlers and westward expansion or “Manifest Destiny,” that meant removing Native Americans.  In so many instances, just like Ahab and Jezebel, we killed and took possession, turning the land of someone else’s ancestral inheritance into homesteads.  Or another way to put it: taking a vineyard and turning it to a vegetable garden.

Chief JunaluskaFor us living in North Carolina, we remember one time we saw what we wanted and took it as the beginning of the “trail of tears.”  We forcibly removed Cherokee Indians from NC and marched them across hundreds of miles to the much less desirable Oklahoma territory.  One of the people on that trail was Chief Junaluska, for whom Lake Junaluska is named.  This statue stands outside the building where we have our Annual Conference each year. [ii]

Here’s another story that hits even closer to home: the Sand Creek Massacre.  Early in the morning on November 29, 1864 Col. John Chivington led a raid by around 675 soldiers on a Cheyenne and Arapaho village on the bank of the Big Sandy River in the Colorado territory.  The valley would have been dotted with teepees, most of the warriors were away from the village.  The women and kids had already started into the day’s chores.  Before the morning was over Col. Chivington and his soldiers had killed nearly 230 people, most of whom were women, children, and the elderly.  It was a massacre that for the day was shockingly unexceptional, making it, to us, all the more horrifying.

Here’s where it’s close to home: Col. Chivington was also a pastor in the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The governor of that territory, John Evans, was also a Methodist.  Both of the men defended the raid without regret, and there was no rebuke or discipline from the church.

Massacre at Sand Creek

A historian who has studied this part of our story describes how “The Methodist Episcopal Church ‘embraced the prevailing mind-set’ of westward expansion by white settlers and defended Evans and Chivington after the massacre.  The MEC became a reflection of society instead of a mirror for society.”  In other words, the MEC acted more like the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city and had him killed.  Like them, the Methodist Church contributed to the conditions that made the massacre possible.  To have been a mirror for society, like Elijah was to Ahab, would have meant holding up a mirror so society could see its sinfulness.

The historian goes on to say, “Where we are, what we have, the wealth, the influence, the power, the schools, the hospitals—it is all rooted in that sinful westward expansion across America.  The descendants of those original inhabitants of the land are [now, in 2016] among the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people in North America.” [iii]

It is easy to hear the story of the Sand Creek massacre and say, “That’s a terrible story, and I feel bad about it, but I didn’t have any part in it.”  That’s not how history works. We can’t choose to only identify with the heroes.  We have to recognize that we are a people with a past.  We have a national rap sheet as long as Lady Liberty’s arms.  We have a church rap sheet longer than that.

So what do you do?  Oddly enough, follow Ahab’s lead.  At the end of the story, after Elijah drops the hammer of justice on him, the story says Ahab repented.  Now, I’m skeptical of Ahab.  I don’t trust him.  I think he’s a liar.  I think God’s being naïve and getting set up to get burned.  But God, against my best advice, accepts his repentance.  God is unreasonably merciful to those who show the slightest will to repent.  And if I’m honest this drives me crazy.  Until I need God’s mercy.

Repent means more than just saying, “I’m sorry” and feeling guilty.  It means a change of life, turning aside from former ways in order to live a new way.  The Methodist Church has recognized its role in the Sand Creek massacre and is encouraging other churches to learn the history too.  The UMC gave $50K for a national monument, and is seeking meaningful ways to heal the old wounds that are still so fresh.

This is a place where I’m still learning, and what exactly healing looks like isn’t clear, but I believe rummaging around in our family history and honestly learning the story is good place to start.

I shared with you last week how important the Navajo Indian Reservation is to me in my journey into ministry—the people there, and the place.  The Navajo, like the Cherokee, and so many other native people have been displaced, harmed, and disenfranchised in so many ways.  There was one day, I was maybe a junior in high school at this time, when were at a family’s sheep camp.  After we’d finished, the family had spread out a feast of fry bread, lamb, store brand coke, and watermelon in the family’s living room.  We were in the middle of nowhere.  A trip to town would take an hour.  No running water.  And a family scratching out a living.  It dawned on me, as I was sitting on their sofa, looking at the family photos and newspaper clippings on the wall that I did not belong and had no right to be there.  Here I am a white, middle class man sitting in the living room of a family whose people’s history includes having their vineyard taken for a vegetable garden, and they welcomed me at the table.  I didn’t belong but there I was, and in that moment I understood communion.

Part of communion is accepting our part in the story of Israel, the good and the bad.  We bind ourselves to that story when we take a piece of bread and dip it in the cup.  We remember for our family’s saints and villians, God’s mercy is all the same.  At the slightest will of repentance, God stands ready to welcome us to the the table where we can remember and receive God’s grace, and learn a new way of living in love.







[i] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/06/year-c-proper-6-11th-sunday-in-ordinary.html

[ii] http://www.brethren.org/news/2015/noac/chief-junaluska-of-the-cherokees.html

[iii] http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/gc2016-spotlight-on-sand-creek-massacre

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