I KIngs 21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?”
Elijah answered, “I have found you,
Because you have sold yourself
To do evil in the sight of the Lord ...”
Sermon by Burton Cooper
“I have found you,” says the prophet Elijah to Ahab the KIng. “I have found you.” It’s a dreadful thing to be found by a prophet, a dreadful thing to hear the voice of a prophet, whether that voice comes from another or whether it’s an inner voice whispered into our ear, for a prophetic voice finds us as we are, not as we appear to others or even ideally to ourselves, but as we are, uncovered, in all our irrational mixedness, inner conflicts, uncontrollable complexes; and that prophetic voice --- this is the dreadful part --- does not spare us from words of truth about ourselves, words that in earlier times we called words of judgment, even words of divine judgment, but in our modern, more liberal, enlightened time, when we have rightly and finally learned to tolerate, even respect, beliefs, life’s styles, different from our own, respect cultural mores different from our own, when we have, again, rightly, come to recognize the psychological dynamics behind our behavior, we seem, as a result of all this, to have lost the prophetic voice of judgment upon others as well as upon ourselves. Judgment, these days, has become uncool, smacking of judgmental, a real “no, no” in our therapeutic age. That profound theologian, Richard Niebuhr, saw this more than half a century ago when he described the modern church, let alone secular society, as having a God without wrath, bringing people without sin, into a Kingdom without judgment. He’s over-speaking, of course, as prophets are prone to do; and even if Niebuhr’s voice wasn’t heard fifty, sixty years ago, perhaps we can hear it today in our world so filled with resentment, hatred, divisiveness, violence but, more significantly, more desperately, where we have the technological means, nuclear, biological, chemical, to destroy life on earth as we have known it since the dawn of human consciousness. Today, more than ever, we need the voice of the prophet, the voice that finds us as we are, the voice that tells us as it told Ahab, you are selling yourself, you are doing evil. But even if that voice sounded amongst us, would we hear it, would we harken to it? There’s a scriptural text that tells us that we kill the prophets, silencing them. That, too, is a bit of an overstatement, but certainly we tend to ignore the prophets. A quick look at the Ahab story will tell us why.
Think about those words of Elijah to Ahab, “You have sold yourself to do evil.” There’s something doubly odd about them. For on the surface of things, Ahab hasn’t sold anything; if anything, he has taken something, he has taken possession of Naboth’s vineyard, something which he was able to do thanks to the conniving of his beloved wife Jezebel who arranged to have Naboth falsely accused of blasphemy and then publicly stoned to death. This story closely follows the earlier biblical story of another king, David, who arranges a battlefield death for Uriah, the husband of his pregnant mistress, Bathsheba, so that he, David, can take Bathsheba as yet another one of his many wives. David, too, is “found” by a prophet, Nathan, who lets David know, indirectly, through a parable, that he, David, has done evil in the sight of the Lord. Which brings us to the second oddity in these stories. Neither story gives any indication that Ahab and David are conscious of having done anything evil … until they hear the voice of the prophet. And the same holds true of this morning’s gospel story of Simon, the pharisee. Simon has invited Jesus to his table. During the meal, a woman, perhaps a prostitute, bursts into the home, bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, rubs them with ointment. Simon, a righteous man, seeing all this, believes he’s right to despise Jesus and the woman: the woman for being a sinner, Jesus for letting a sinner touch him. Jesus then tells Simon a parable so that Simon can come to understand that despite his high opinion of himself he has in fact, unknowing to himself, done evil in the sight of the Lord: because he has excluded the woman’s needs and welfare from his own concern, a sign that he loves too narrowly, a sign that he is an ungenerous spirit --- all of which are evil in the sight of the Lord.
I am sorry to be piling all these biblical stories upon you --- I’m sure I too much love talking about biblical stories, making you suffer from my weakness every time I preach --- but these three stories are all telling us something crucial, and that crucial thing is not information about David, Ahab and Simon, nor is it how kings abuse their monarchial power nor how upright religious people can become self-righteous prigs, though all that is true enough. No, the crucial thing scripture is telling us, precisely because it is scripture, and scripture always addresses itself to our lives, to our hearts, to our conscience, (what scripture is telling us) is that unknowingly, as Elijah says, unknowingly, we sell ourselves, unknowingly we do evil. And if we say to ourselves, how can we sell ourselves, how can we not know when we are doing evil, that’s like asking how could Saint Paul not know that he was doing evil in countenancing both slavery and the societal subordination of women; or how could Luther not have known that he was doing evil in his anti-semitic diatribes; or how could Washington and Jefferson not know they were doing evil in writing slavery into the constitution and restricting voting rights to men; or how could Lincoln, of all people, not have known he was doing evil in even thinking of blacks as perhaps inferior to whites; or, to bring it closer to home, how could so many of us, including myself, have thought, in our younger days, of homosexuality as pathological, as worthy of moral condemnation, or how did we not know for so long that it was evil to countenance the subordination of women in so may spheres of life, including the church, let alone to countenance the subordination and ghettoizing of blacks. When we do evil, knowingly or unknowingly, are we not selling ourselves, diminishing our selves?
How do we not know that we are doing evil when we do evil? It blows my mind that great deep thinkers, great spirits, poets, philosophers, good people, could be racists, anti-semites, sexists, you name it. And yet the answer to how this could be lies close at hand, as close as an expression that HIllary Clinton is fond of using: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Meaning, we are social creatures; we do not have our life, our physical and psychological well being, our language, our thoughts, without others, without the particular others in the particular village, the particular community, in which we find ourselves when we come to consciousness. Before we have even come to thought, we have received ideas from our community, our “village;” we are “village-minded,” so that those received ideas seem normative to us, even if they are a great mix, depending upon the history of our community, its sociology, its psychology. In a way we can think of our life’s events as a dialogue with those received ideas which we both embody and also find ourselves struggling with, find ourselves encountering new possibilities, possibilities perhaps that were unheard of, unthought of, in our old village. And we are given the time of our life to be brought towards ourself. So it is with David, Ahab, Simon. They have to be brought towards themselves. David and Ahab are just doing what kings are prone to do, abusing their great power in order to achieve some personally desired end. They are caught up in a kind of moral non-thought, doing in their minds what kings with unchecked powers will do, just as we would say about Simon’s despising of a prostitute, that’s what a conventionally minded, village-minded, pharisee would do. But scripture does not give us these stories to tell us how kings and pharisees sell themselves by being too caught up in their little bubble of a world; it gives us these stories to tell us good news. It speaks of a prophetic voice, a voice other than the convictions, unchallenged assumptions, of a David, an Ahab, a Simon, a voice of judgment, where judgment means not some kind of final condemnation but of disclosure of ourselves as we are so that David, Ahab, Simon, so that we, can make a turn from our old self and brought towards … what?… what shall we call it, a fuller self, a more real self, a deeper self, an authentic self? Dare I say a saved self, a judged, forgiven, growing self, a living soul under a merciful, creative God? How can we say that? How can we believe that?
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I have said often enough that the best name we have for God, the best way we can think about God is as Being, the power of Being, the ground of Being. Scripture calls the voice of the prophet, the word of God, meaning that when we hear that voice calling us to justice towards others, towards mercy, towards love, towards caring and concern for others, we are hearing the very ground of Being welling up in our midst, we are hearing Being giving itself to us, hearing Being calling us towards fullness of being, we are hearing revelation, the disclosure of ourselves to ourselves. In that disclosure we discover that we are beings that matter, matter to God, matter to each other, so that we are fullest beings when we are caring beings. And can we not also say, with grateful hearts, that in that disclosure, in the power of Being welling up in us, lies our hope for a more glorious, caring world, now and forever.
Thanks be to God for this great mercy. Thanks be to Christ whose spirit is God’s spirit. Amen.