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The God of Life and the Worship of Death

September 2, 2019

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part V
Psalm 82         1 Kings 21

This is the fifth and final sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I explored the ways the natural world challenges, comforts and grabs our attention so that we might be grabbed by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation. Preached on July 23, 2019. 

So friends, in the last five weeks we have covered a great deal of ground in our reading of scripture in worship, beginning with our reading of Proverbs 8 (Woman Wisdom Makes a World) and then the narratives and stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. I have called this sermon series “Word of God, Word of Earth” because we have been talking about the ways God comes to us in the natural world, to comfort us and challenge us, so that God can grab our attention and we might be made useful and responsible people in the world.[i]

WORD OF GOD, WORD OF EARTH

We began by talking about the ways in which God has made the world with Wisdom and that Wisdom became first personified as a woman and then incarnate in Jesus so that God’s ways might become enfleshed in each of us.[ii] We have looked at God’s display of God’s glory in the natural world; first in the elemental displays of earth, wind and fire and then in the ultimate whirlwind that takes the prophet Elijah to heaven. We have talked about sacred geography; about the storied land and the way land tells stories. And we have talked about soil and water, material sacraments of healing. We have seen in the Prophet Elijah, at his very worst, how God both comforted and challenged him and sent him back with mission and purpose for God’s people. We have seen how Elijah, passing on his prophetic spirit, both trained and nurtured – how the land both trained and nurtured – across generations, bringing Elijah into the story of God’s liberating purpose in the world. And we have seen how Elisha then ran with that prophetic spirit to heal those who were experiencing the trauma of conflict and war. Along the way we have seen how kings and rulers – even Israel’s kings and rulers – have circumscribed and limited power for good; how God empowers and inspires ordinary people with prophetic power and prophetic spirit – even us.

As we have passed this way, seeking to understand the paths of righteousness, Wisdoms Ways in the World, we have talked about the crisis in the way our nation is dealing with immigration; about children and the way they are being kept on our nation’s borders. We have spoken about the ceaseless drumbeat toward war that we are hearing. We celebrated the presence of God in black bodies and green spaces with a photo project. We have written letters to congress urging the passage of the Khanna-Goetz Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which I want to tell you passed on Friday to ensure that we cannot go to war without congressional approval. Thank you for the letters you wrote. We gathered two days ago, right up here in Tibbits Park with the “Lights for Liberty” gathering calling for the closing of the concentration camps on our nation’s borders.

In this long series of sermons we have encountered the God who has formed us in God’s image and respects that image in each of us. We have seen and experienced healing as a gift, and welcome as a grace.

In my sermon last week I spoke about the conflict between ‘God and the gods’ in the narratives of Elijah and Elisha, and I read to you some of the testimony that Ta-Nahesi Coates gave before congress when speaking about reparations for the practice of slavery on this continent. When Coates spoke in his testimony about “the god of bondage, lustful for flesh and begetting many heirs,” I understood this conflict between ‘God and the gods’ in scripture. There is, running from beginning to end in Hebrew scripture, a critique of idolatry that is not the critique of the names different people use when worshipping ‘God or the gods’ but a critique of the character of the ‘God or the gods’ that we worship.

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN GOD AND THE GODS

Our first reading this morning, Psalm 82, is a bombshell. It is unique in the Psalms; unlike any other. It imagines a heavenly court meeting in which the God of Israel has gathered all the gods together for judgment. The critique leveled by God – the God beyond God, the One God, the God of Israel, Yahweh – the critique leveled against the other gods is that they authorize injustice, and oppression, and inequity. Thus this Psalm pictures the twilight of the gods. After this there is only the God of Life and the worship of Death. The God of Life and the worship of Death; because Death is no god but is served under many names.

Listen for the word of God in Psalm 82.

[Read Psalm 82, Inclusive Version]

The Word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

It’s really a bombshell of a psalm, I think, because it leaves us also with a critique. What is it that we love when we say we love God? What is authorized or passes, what is permitted, in the name of the God/god we worship?

TAKE THE SAVING WORD OF GOD

There is a story behind the song that we introduced this morning and that we will sing as a prayer for illumination throughout the summer and for months to come. In 1890, the United States government passed the Indian Allotment Act. It was an act designed to destroy the very idea of sacred land. To break up what existed at that point as Native American Reservations to the extent that the US government could do so; to break them up, to turn them into individual allotments so the land could be sold to families and could be turned into merchandise. Land could then be bought and sold. The very idea of sacred land, or tribal land, was attacked, and was intended to be destroyed, by the Indian Allotment Act.

The Kiowa in Oklahoma and Texas, when the Allotment Act went into effect, decided collectively that the very idea of chieftainship, or role of tribal chief, could not exist without the land. The two were inextricably connected. And so the Kiowa ended the role of tribal chief. Kicking Bird, Wooden Leg and Lone Wolf, among former chiefs, simply did not pass that role on to future generations. Some of those chiefs became pastors, became Christian leaders, and this song emerged in the churches of the Kiowa as a reminder that the authority behind any pastor was the handling of the Word of God, just as the authority behind any chief had been the Word of Earth, the care and preservation of the land. That is the story behind the song we are going to sing this summer as a prayer for illumination, a reminder that we come to scripture listening for the Word of God, we come to church in order to handle and be handled by the Word of God.[iii]

THE LAND AS GIFT AND PROMISE

Our scripture reading this morning, our last reading of the Elijah stories, is about a conflict in understanding of land. There are two understandings of land in our story of 1 Kings 21. There is the idea that is normative – it’s the main idea in scripture –that ‘all the earth belongs to God,’ ‘all the land belongs to God.’ The earth, the land, is given to us for security, and sustenance, and it is our protection. It is, as our translation has it, ancestral land, but I assure you that the terms sacred land and tribal land would not be wrong. However, there is a competing idea, prevalent in Israel at the time of Elijah and Elisha, and that is that the land belongs to the king, it belongs to the ruler, it belongs to the crown, and it can be taken, confiscated, grabbed at will. Ahab, a king in Israel, is conflicted about these ideas in our story: he desires a piece of land that belongs to a neighbor; it belongs to Naboth. Naboth, however, will not give it up; he says, “I cannot, God forbid, I cannot give you my ancestral land.” The king is justly rebuked. And he goes, he returns to his home, downcast.

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, who comes from another country and serves another (an other) god (than the God of Israel), a god who authorizes injustice, oppression, and theft by the elite, simply cannot understand why ‘King’ Ahab is downcast. Ahab, she believes, should simply take what ‘belongs’ to him, and Jezebel says to Ahab that he should simply take what ‘belongs’ to him.

And so Ahab does just that. Notice, though, that Ahab keeps his own personal hands clean: he lets others do the dirty deeds for him, which includes the murder of a neighbor and the theft of the land. Notice also the function of law, and courts, and the legal system that permits this injustice to take place. Listen for the word of God:

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; 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.” 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, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 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. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” 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.” 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.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 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. 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.”

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

A hard and difficult word.

We have spoken about this text before. The last time I preached on it I pointed out a number of things:

  • the importance of land and the conflicting interpretations of what land is in our bible;
  • this competition between the practices authorized by different gods, the taking or preservation of land, the exploitation or repair of the earth;
  • I pointed out that the land taken by Ahab was a vineyard, which means it was land that took years and generations to grow and work: vines take many years to cultivate and very, very, long growing seasons to bear fruit. Tearing a vineyard up for a vegetable garden represents permanent loss of the grape which makes ‘wine that gladdens the human heart,” according the Psalmist, for a short-sighted project of a single season’s harvest; and finally
  • we talked about the tactics that were used. The use of laws and courts and public spaces and public officials, as well as outright lies and the buying off of witnesses, in order to acquire the land.

The last time we talked about this text, though, I said we would save for ‘another time’ a conversation about repentance and repair. The story of Elijah v. Ahab ends, this story as we have read it ends with judgment. The king will die. The king hears that judgment three times from Elijah. The king will die and his reign will come to an end. Three times. And so, hearing this three times, the king ultimately decides that he will repent for anything/everything he has done wrong. He puts on sackcloth and ashes and he cries for mercy.

EMPTY WORDS

But the king never does offer to restore the land. It never even occurs to him.

There is, here, a kind of repentance of the heart; but there is no reparation, there is no repair of the deed that was done.

I think of the destruction of native lands that was carried out by the Indian Allotment Act in 1890, the destruction of an entire way of life, that we will liturgically remember every time we approach God’s Wisdom/Word. This kind of destruction requires reparation.

We have, ever since the 300th Anniversary of this congregation, talked about the land on which this church is located; of the way it came into the possession of the first settlers. On the back of our bulletin we acknowledge that we worship on traditional land of the Weckquaesgeek band of the Wappinger Tribe of the Lenape People. We have talked about the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the legal doctrine that says, essentially: “finders, keepers,” “Those with might, have the right,” and “White, Christian, Supremacy.” The Doctrine of Discovery legitimized the settlement of this continent with the idea that any Christian who discovered land that was not already governed by a Christian sovereign could claim the land for their crown and either kill or enslave the indigenous population. Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has forcefully, publically, and officially repudiated this doctrine, and our congregation has twice submitted overtures to our General Assembly to advance our intention to understand our relationship to the land on which we worship and to understand wrongs that were done in our name, wrongs that were authorized in the name of the Christian God, to take sacred land from others.

You see, that ‘critique of the gods’ comes back home to us as we look at the actions authorized by our use of the word ‘God.’ Ponder that.

A GENEROUS GIFT

Your church council has asked me to talk about something that Pastor Sarah has brought up a number of times in prayer, and that we have celebrated here in worship. And that is the relationship between the Hudson River Presbytery, our congregation, and the Ramapough Lenaape, our nearest Native American neighbors. Our presbytery, the regional body that we are a part of, had an opportunity this past year to make an act of reparation, to do something right, to repair a relationship, with this community.

The Stony Point Presbyterian Church, which is near the Stony Point Center, as a congregation growing smaller by the years, had come to the place where they asked the Hudson River Presbytery to help them close their doors. Which they did a couple of years ago. When a Presbyterian church closes, our presbytery appoints what is called an Administrative Commission. Really, it is a church council run by the presbytery for the purpose of helping members of the congregation transfer their membership to other churches and ultimately determining the dispersal of real property. The Administrative Commission for the Stony Point Presbyterian Church heard from former members of the congregation that their hope was that what would happen with the property, the land and the church building and the existing manse, would be that it would serve in a way consistent with what had been the Christian values, the progressive Christian values, of the former congregation. The Administrative Commission, thinking carefully about the work that our presbytery has done to come to terms with the Doctrine of Discovery and its continuing legacy, determined to recommend to the presbytery that we give the land back to its original custodians. The commission considered the way in which numerous members of our presbytery were driven to Standing Rock in 2016 to show support for the Standing Rock Sioux in their resistance to a gas pipeline passing through their sacred land; it considered the relationship between Presbyterian churches, particularly churches in Rockland County, with their Native American neighbors, the Ramapough Lenaape tribe; and determined that it would best serve the mission of our presbytery, that it would honor the past of the Stony Point Presbyterian Church, and it would preserve the land for sacred use in a way that continued the use of the land for worship, if we were to make of it a reparative gift to the Ramapough.

Chief Dwayne Perry, in Mahwah, New York, working with the tribal leadership, had the idea of creating a non-profit organization called The Sweetwater Cultural Center. The Sweetwater Cultural Center is a nonprofit organization that was created this spring. It exists for the purpose of celebrating and preserving and teaching Native American cultures, not limited to the Ramapough Lenaape and not limited to native tribes of the New York area, a place where we and could come together to learn, to share, to sing, where we (non-natives) could be educated and where Native Americans could come together. It was a really beautiful gift.

This reparative gift was voted on at a presbytery meeting this past spring and your pastors brought that news back and celebrated it in prayer here. The Presbytery gave the land of the Stony Point Presbyterian Church, its building and manse, to the Sweetwater Cultural Center. The organization has a governing board made up of a majority of native persons, but also preserves seats on the board for representatives of the presbytery, which means that this gift also launched a new mission partnership between our presbytery and Presbyterian congregations and the Ramapough Lenaape.

I spoke at the presbytery meeting urging the taking of this action.

Rev. Noelle Damico spoke.

Rev. Sarah Henkel spoke, with passion, on the floor about this.

When the Administrative Commission recommended this action, they opened by reading the story of Zacchaeus the Tax collector. It’s really an interesting story for us to pair with the story of Elijah speaking on behalf of Naboth before Ahab, because Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8)

The presentation to the presbytery began with these words:

In the past few years, Presbyterians, encouraged in no small part by leaders from this Presbytery, have begun to examine our role in the long and painful history of colonialism in this country. As Zacchaeus did, we have started our own reckoning. And as our denomination has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, the idea that the land upon which we gather today is ours by virtue of its discovery by European forebears, we have also begun a process of repentance, of naming the wrongs we as a church have committed against indigenous peoples and acknowledging the profit we have gained from these wrongs.

Yet if we as a church stand convicted of this sin, we are reminded that conviction is never the last word. We are always offered the choice of something greater. John Calvin taught us that the highest use of [God’s] law is not to convict us, but rather to guide us into righteousness.

If this sounds like grandiose language for a proposal about the dispersal of church property, I beg your forgiveness, but I’d also like you to hang with me for a minute, because it is finally a theological claim that we are advancing, a theological truth that we are attempting to articulate.[iv]

This represents how we as a body of Christ both enact repentance and celebrate the earth.

The gift of land to the Ramapough Lenaape is one of the most exciting things I have been a part of in this presbytery because it was not an act of words … it was an act that cost. The gift of property; the gift of, of, of possibility for this new ministry is so deeply to be imitated. And I hope you can see how it brings together work we have talked about and conversations we have had and studied together over the last number of years.

This gift is not without controversy. There are certainly those who thought it would be a better idea to sell off the property and pocket the money and use it for other purposes. And there are a lot of noble purposes that could be proposed. But I just want you to know that it was a decision that took a spirit, a prophetic spirit, like that of Elijah and Elisha, to pull off.

We (as a congregation) are going to launch a partnership with the Sweetwater Culture Centre this fall. And your church council wants me to offer you an opportunity to make a direct gift to Sweetwater Culture Center. During worship today, as we take our offering this morning, there will be an offering plate that will remain on the table up here, and I would invite you make a token gift to the Sweetwater Cultural Center.

There are some congregations in our Presbytery that have decided … have questioned the wisdom of this decision … and are withholding money that is used to share in our presbytery’s mission. I think that will work itself out. With a lot of prayer and a lot of pastoral work. But in the meantime our church council has increased our giving to the mission of the presbytery by 5% because we are proud of this decision and what says about who we are as Presbyterians. And they wanted me to give to you an opportunity to make a gift to the SCC for their work this coming fall. If you are like me, you don’t come to worship with cash in you pocket. And so if you would like to make a gift, but cannot today, feel free to write on one of the pink prayer slips the amount you pledge to give.

This is a powerful work we are a part of.

Friend our second hymn this morning is #413, a prayer about the church at work and mission in the world. “All Who Love and Serve Your City.”

 

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it. The entire series can be found at https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2019/07/06/word-of-god-word-of-earth-series/

[ii] See The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner, edited by Rosemary Carbine and Hilda Koster. (Fortress Press, 2015).

[iii] “Take the Saving Word of God” (Dawk’yah towgyah thawy báht-awm), Hymn 454 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal. This story is told in Carl P. Daw, Glory to God: A Companion. (WJK, 2016).

[iv] These are the words of Elder Rob Trawick, before the Hudson River Presbytery. His words, in their entirety, were inspired and will become part of the historical record of PC(USA) response to God’s call to justice, peace, and reconciliation.

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