Ahab’s Shadow

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Luke 8:230-29

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Introduction

“I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”  

On this Father’s Day many of us think of our parents who rest now in greater light and on a farther shore.  You think today of your inheritance, your real, that is spiritual, that is familial, that is named inheritance.  What is yours?  What is that quintessential something, that no one else perhaps has to carry forward, that is yours, that you will not, cannot, should not, give away?  And what about our shared inheritance, as a globe, as a country, as a church?

“I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

With this terse refusal, Naboth lost his garden, his head, and, in fact, the very inheritance he hoped to protect.  For Ahab—though he sulked, and though he fasted, and though he moaned, and though he allowed Jezebel to take charge—King Ahab at last had his wish, his vineyard.  Just here, Ahab’s shadow begins to fall.

Israel nine centuries before Jesus went sliding down a slippery slope, pushed and pulled by the influence of increasingly poor leadership.  Poor leadership.  After David and Solomon, the nation’s fortuned declined steadily, under other, lesser kings.  Who remembers Jereboam? Or Nimri?  Or Omri?  Or, today, Omri’s son, Ahab?  BUSTH has a long history of excellent teaching in Hebrew Scripture:  Elmer Leslie, Harrell Beck, Kathe Darr.  They have remembered, and helped us to do so, too.  Old Samuel had told them years before:  You want a King?  You want a King.  Everybody else has one, so you want one, too.  All right, you will get your king, and with your king, a whole basket of lasting trouble.

Ahab is remembered in Scripture because, in hindsight, he symbolized the progressive disintegration of Israelite society.   The failings of the leader, somehow, uncannily, were seen in retrospect to represent a deeper and far wider malaise, in a society that year by year increasingly placed the poor at the mercy of the rich.  Ahab’s shadow, part of the lengthening shadow of predatory, mendacious leadership in ancient Israel, has had a long, long reach–right up to today’s newspaper.

Ahab shadow—what was his capricious craving all about?  

He desired, coveted, his poor neighbor’s little plot.  And, in a way, why not?  After all, he was the King!  Hey.  Rank has its privileges.  To the victor go the spoils.  What do you give a 500 pound gorilla? (ANYTHING HE WANTS!)  I mean—this was a personal matter.  It had nothing to do with public policy.  The nation was prosperous and safe, thanks to shrewd management and the alliance with Tyre and Sidon, sealed with Jezebel’s kiss.  This was a small matter.  Kings have stolen a whole lot more.

What did Ahab want with that little, secret, private pleasure?

What would provoke a King, like Ahab, so to desire a tiny vineyard, like Naboth’s?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Looking back at David

Perhaps…the stresses of public life caused Ahab to desire a little personal pleasure.  After all, he might have reasoned, even in the Camelot days of David, there was the matter of the beautiful blonde, Bathsheba.  Even in the halcyon glory days of an earlier generation, still there was a dark side, and Urriah the Hittite and Psalm 51.   If David could have Bathsheba, surely Ahab could desire a little vineyard, the inheritance of Naboth and his faith, and turn a little profit, plowing under the vines and planting a regular garden.  Like they do in Egypt, say.   Did Ahab desire to be like David?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Tired of the Trivia

Perhaps…the trappings of power and leadership changed Ahab.  As Roy Smyres used to say about episcopal leaders, “They hear every day what wonderful people they are and what a great job they are doing—and, amazingly, some of them—START TO BELIEVE IT!”  Visibility, power, position:  they corrupt.  Maybe it takes one to know one.  You get distant.  You don’t visit in the home as much, pace

J Wesley.  You become insulated.  You rise above.  You look down.  You forget what it takes.  Bishop Herbert Skeete, once a kindly and compassionate pastor in Harlem, came up here to lead in New England and then retired.  He referred in his 1996 valediction (July, U Mass, NEJurisdictional conference) to the vast majority of his little New England churches as  (I quote him exactly) “eurocentric havens of mediocrity”.  A little exhaustion, a little frustration?   My, my.  I guess you get bitter, hardened.  The hurts and gifts of the Lilliputians under you fade.  “L’eglise—C’est moi”.  Yes, General Superintendent.  Yes, King.  Those lay folks, clergy don’t need the encouragement of my example.  Naboth can get along without a vineyard.  The heck with his inheritance, the cultivated vineyard.  The heck with their history, of live free or die.  It doesn’t matter that much, really, now, does it?  Did Ahab get tired of the small stuff?

Ahab’s Shadow: Accomplishment

Perhaps…the endless contention and intractable difference of leadership in a republic—in any institution really—“got to” Ahab.  After all, he was King!  Couldn’t he even organize and execute, on his own, the purchase of a vineyard? Some years ago thirty UM pastors from large churches gathered in Minneapolis.  We worshiped at Hennepin church.  Rod Wilmouth, the lead pastor there, preached a great sermon on the theme of faith that moves mountains.  His sermon title, though, was accidentally printed not as intended, “Faith that Can Move Mountains”, but, rather, as “Faith that Mountains Can Move”!   He said, “And I thought I was in charge here!”   As a public leader, sometimes, you can’t win.  You don’t succeed.  You fight city hall, tooth and nail—and you are the mayor!  Did he just want a sense of accomplishment?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Marital Dynamics

Perhaps…this all has to do, then and now, with family dysfunction.  Jezebel, an early enabler, acts out for her sulking mate his lust for the vineyard.  Isn’t that a picture?  I can imagine the political cartoons of the day—“Impeach the King–and her husband too!”  She orchestrates the media, the courts, the public opinion of the day, the powers that be.  So the nation becomes a messy place.  A place where it’s hard to tell who is telling the truth.  A place where the spoken public word is not always verifiable.  A place where innocent are found guilty.  A place where the apparatus of state is used for personal gain.  ‘Hard to imagine such a nation, isn’t it?  Or is it?

Jezebel is not really to blame here.  She just executes her husband’s, her King’s desire.  The shadow is his, not hers.

Be careful dear friend.  We become the servants, unwittingly, of those whom we most want to please.  It is important for Jezebel and for you to know whom we are trying to please in life.  We are slaves of that one.

Faith in Christ, the faith of Jesus Christ better said, is God’s gift and frees us, radically and truly frees us from all forms of enslavement to pleasing others.  Paradoxically, the faith of Jesus Christ does so by re-enslaving us—to Christ alone.  In Him.  See where you are—in the cosmic apocalypse of Christ.  See what time it is—the time when new creation supplants creation.  Hear the Gospel:  There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male or female.  There is no longer gay nor straight.  No one can serve two Masters.  The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of Christ.  You are His.

Who do you want to please? Did Ahab become caught up in unhealthy family systems?

Ahab’s Shadow: Convenience

None of these, finally, is the marrow, or the buried treasure of the Scripture today, nor the truth of our own time either.

In spite, or perhaps because of his military success and material surplus, Ahab desired…at depth…and this is the tragedy of his tale… a more convenient God.  Ahab desired a less inconvenient deity.  Ahab desired, through all these other lesser cravings, a more compliant Lord.  One more in the mold of the nations, more Jezebel and less Elijah.  And here the shadow truly lengthens and fully falls.

Ahab shadowy desire, apocalyptically revealed here as truth, in the manner detected and discerned by the wise through the ages, by W James, L Martyn and St Paul, in the odd moment, by apocalypse truth happens, his desire was for a less austere God, one less inclined to invade human space with haunting, troubling questions about life and death and meaning and love and…especially… JUSTICE.

A little Elijah goes a long way.  He walks into the King’s court and shouts, “One of us is cursed and I think it’s you!…Look…there…dogs will lick your blood.”  A little of that goes a long way.

Is this really– MORE ABOUT US THAN IT IS ABOUT HIM?

Ahab’s Shadow:  Our Own?

Israel remembered Ahab’s shadowy desire for a more convenient God, not out of reverence for Ahab, but because his desire somehow revealed the waxing national desire for a little lower heaven, a little lighter covenant, a little more convenient God.   As the distant mirror of the Scripture may teach us, we are so interested because we know this figure and this desire so well.

We, too, want a little more convenient deity.  One who will affirm our proclivities and ignore our cruelties

We know this Ahab well.  Always a little sideways to the truth…Politically able, morally twisted…at heart faithless…looking for more convenience than the “inheritance of the fathers” allows…at heart hoping for an easy chance, the lottery of life, something for nothing, a quick pleasure, a garden delight.

We get the leadership we deserve.

On the horizon today we hear and see demagoguery—America First, Birtherist, Misogynist, Racist, Xenophobic, Narcissistic (don’t you love all these Greek rooted words?) bigotry.  I sure did that well. ‘Low Energy’.  That was a one day kill.  Words are beautiful things.

Some express surprise, a sense of mistake, regarding the nomination in question.  Yet there is no surprise or mistake about the nomination in question.  80% of voters in one party—grand?, old?–agree with these three propositions:  Muslims should be banned.  A wall should be built along the Rio Grande.  Undocumented immigrants of all ages and stages should rounded up, arrested, jailed, and deported. (New York Review of Books, p 8-10, June, 2016) If you are in conversation with a member of such a party, chances are 4 out of 5 that you are in conversation with these views.  No surprise.  No mistake.  You see?  The shadow falls on us.

Over time, we get the leadership we deserve.

Today we pray for the Orlando dead.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so, as in gathering, and vigil, and silence, we have done all week.  First, and foremost,  we turn our spirits toward their loved ones and families and friends.  We return to the very themes preached exactly one year ago here, following Charleston, regarding gun violence.  Our BU SPH Dean Sandro Galea has furthered that argument, with strength, this very week.  

Yet, as a Chapel in the Methodist tradition, we also have a particular reckoning, now.  United Methodism has been part and parcel of a part of our shadowed culture that has fomented and augmented dehumanization of gay people, bigotry against sexual minorities.  Only two active northeastern bishops (Johnson, Devadhar) put their name this May to a shared letter rejecting in no uncertain terms this abject denominational failure.  Silent, silent were the vast majority of active general superintendents.  Now the chickens have come home to roost.  It’s time.  The time for discussion is over, washed away in the blood of Orlando.  Local churches in Charge Conferences need to stop funding that supports bigotry, as, in one possible example,  in three general funds:  world service, the episcopal fund, and Africa University.  Annual Conferences need to go ahead and ordain and deploy gay people, as many are doing, the silence of their bishops not withstanding—seven now across the country, including the actions taken in New England this week.  Bigotry (largely of southern US and Africa Methodists) is, from this day forward, globally, generationally, and grittily rejected.  Orlando is to Methodism and the Gay issue what Kent State was to America and the war in Vietnam, an apocalyptic moment when those who may still have thought otherwise, people of sound mind and heart, now turn.  It’s time.  What the sad incompetence of the General Church, the General Conference, and the silent General Superintendents has ignored, look! by apocalypse!, the local churches and annual conferences now address.  We at Marsh Chapel adamantly and vigorously marry gay people and employ and deploy gay clergy.  Where we can support others to do so, we shall.

One northeastern bishop this week callously sent out a letter about Orlando without even mentioning the targeting of the gay population.  A minister in his conference wrote him the following:

I was shocked that no mention was made in your statement about the key issue the country

and our church are wrestling with: the oppression of gays. As long as our denomination and its leaders

not only continue the oppression of gays, but ignore their pain in the midst of being slaughtered….

we will have truly made ourselves irrelevant in the healing of the world in this day and time.

With a heavy heart…

No, we want a little lower heaven, a little lighter covenant, a little less inconvenient God.

Israel saw in hindsight that Ahab’s shadow had become their own—the easier worship of a less inconvenient God.

It isn’t about Ahab, it’s about Israel.  It isn’t about others, it’s about us.

Elijah, Are You with Us?

Elijah, in the end, speaks.   Elijah never dies.  His voice is active, coming in forms we least expect, and sitting in empty chairs left vacant by faithful hearts.  Elijah—rumpled and tousled.  Elijah—skeptical of concentrated power.  Elijah—with a passion for compassion.  Elijah—concerned for the left—out.  His voice irrupts now and then.   So we are right to leave a chair, some space, vacant for him.

I have not heard his voice in a while, but he does not die.

Almost forty years ago this spring, on at least one evening, you heard him full of compassion.  This spring has overtones from 1968, all the way to the California primary.

On June 5, 1968, at 8am our phone rang, at breakfast.  My dad had gone to Chicago for a denominational meeting.  Breakfast with three younger siblings at age 13 is not exactly heaven on earth.  ‘It’s for you’ my sister said.  Now that is a first, a phone call, for me, at breakfast.  My father said:  You probably don’t know this yet, but your favorite, your hero, Robert Kennedy was shot last night in California, and probably will die today or tomorrow.  I know how much he meant to you, and I am sorry for our loss.  It is tragic, but we will get through this.  As a pastor he always had a knack for showing up where he was least expected and most needed, least expected and most needed.  Wouldn’t every minister want to be so remembered?

Two months earlier, on April 4, Robert Kennedy was on his way to accept victory in the Indiana primary, five painful years after his brother’s death and just weeks before his own assassination, a few hours after the killing of Martin Luther King.  Galatians 6:14 speaks of a triple crucifixion.  One redeeming feature of our own hurt is that it helps us proffer compassion to others who hurt.  

Elijah keeps heaven high and the covenant heavy and God, God.  ELIJAH!  We wait for your voice today!

Kennedy spoke to an inner city rally of black and Polish voters.  They had not heard the news, which he gave.  There is a generation deep moan that barks from the crowd.  I hear it still.  He stands, rumpled shirt and tousled hair before a single microphone, note-less and alone.  What courage to stand there that night, and then, Elijiah-like, to speak:

*I have some very sad news for you…

*In this difficult time it is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are, and what direction we want to move in…

*Do we want bitterness, hatred, a desire for revenge, greater polarization of black and white?…

*Or, with ML King, do we seek understanding, comprehension, to replace violence and the stain of violence with compassion?…

*For those tonight who feel hatred and mistrust, I can also feel in my own heart that same kind of feeling.  I had a member of my family killed…

*But we have to make an effort in this country to understand, to get beyond this time…

*Aeschylus wrote:  “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our despair and against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

*What we need in this country is not division, hatred, violence, and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion and justice…

*We need to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Conclusion

We still need to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

We still need to see thing as the never were and say, “Why not?”

We still need to see wrong and try to right it, see suffering and try to heal it, see war and try to end it.

Perhaps Elijah will take his place, fill his chair, and lift his voice again in our time, and shine some light through Ahab’s shadow?

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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