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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

The Slippery Slope of Entitlement

I Kings 21: 1-7

The Slippery Slope of Entitlement

Sunday January 8, 2017

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Church Harwich Port

This morning our sermon theme is Justice. Justice is one of the most important themes in the Bible – Old and New Testament. Most of us are aware of the ways that Jesus stood for justice – the way that he told us to love our neighbor as ourselves- and then stretched the understanding of neighbor, so that it included people who did not just live next door, but who lived in the other sections of town, and the other side of the tracks. He told us our neighbors were those who scared us, and those we considered to be our enemies. Neighbors were those who lived at the margins of society and those who did not look like us and never would. Jesus was clear about justice.

But Jesus didn’t invent justice. He grew up as a Jew and the stories he read as a child which we now find in our Old Testament were gems of literature that often wrestled with justice. They were commentaries on the challenges of living with power, and using it wisely. They told about the rights of the poor and the way society must uphold them.  One of the best examples of these stories is the one we read today in I Kings. It raises all kinds of questions about how we treat one another, and why it matters.

  King Ahab was the King of Israel. Now the country had been divided into two sections in those days 850 years before Jesus lived, but Ahab ruled over the north which included not only the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth but also all the territory we think of today as Lebanon and Syria. Ahab was a good military strategist and political force to be reckoned with. He is mentioned in secular histories of the Middle east as well as the Bible.

            But here we see in I Kings that Ahab had grown used to having power and to pursing his goals no matter how they impinged on others. He was used to getting what he wanted. That happens to people with power. Though Ahab owned lots of land, his palace looked out on a pleasant vineyard belonging to a simple man named Naboth. This land had been in Naboth’s family for generations. He loved the land because to him it was more than a vineyard; it connected him to his family so for him was priceless. That did not stop Ahab and he saw the vineyard so close to his palace and wanted it for an herb garden. Ahab assumed that since he was king he could get it but he wanted to be fair so he offered to buy the land. Ahab was stunned, shocked, really when Naboth did not agree immediately and consider it an honor to sell his land to the king. When Naboth explained that for him the property was priceless, the king took to his bed.

King Ahab went into his room to sulk. When a king sulks, the palace gets upset. The Queen was frustrated and thought Ahab’s weakness was a problem for everyone so she “fixed” the problem. The Queen hired people to bring false accusations against Naboth as a set-up – she found people to make a false accusation against him and engineered his trial and execution. With Naboth out of the way Ahab took the land by eminent domain. Slam dunk. Problem solved. What is the Bible saying? And what does it mean for us today?

In the first place the Bible says, power comes with responsibility.  King Ahab had enormous power. As king, he had the ability to settle disputes, issues judgements, initiate programs, mount wars and shape history. He held the lives of his people in his hands. The Bible says that along with that power came a sacred trust. He had been given this power for the public good, not to use for personal gain. That kind of power is always a huge responsibility.

The Bible demonstrates that it is a slippery slope when you forget that power over others is a sacred trust. It comes from God, and God is watching. God is holding us accountable.

The story demonstrates how easy it is for foolish decisions to multiply and gain momentum and fall one after another like dominos.  Ahab wants something he does not need. He never questions his greed. Ahab tries to get it from Naboth- when Naboth has valid reasons to hold onto his land Ahab does not stop there. He sulks. Make no mistake. Ahab is not a victim here. He is the king who is manipulating his wife. That is a refusal to accept responsibility. When she berates him, he enjoys the attention and encourages her to abuse their power. What a coward. Then when she sets up this man to be hanged, Ahab sees what is going on and never stops it. When it is done, he steals the land.

The Bible says when you start down a slippery slope you will feel the pull of momentum but you also have many opportunities to stop and say no, to stop and regain your integrity.

When you read a story like this it is easy to see that a king has power but most of us don’t really feel like we have power, certainly not that kind of power. The story is told about an extreme situation to offer a lesson. But the truth is…We all have power –power in our relationships, power among our friends, power from our education, from our skin color, from our class or ethnic origin, power as citizens of the richest country on earth.  I saw a story last night from Nova Scotia about people who used their power for good.

In response to the shooting at a mosque in Quebec 150 people of every age and race, but mostly white people in Nova Scotia gathered Saturday in the crisp breeze to hold hands and form a human chain around their mosque while the people inside gathered to pray. With power comes responsibility.

In the second place, truth matters. The Bible contains many views, many ideas and many editors, but it was never intended to shy away from hard truth. Now this is a story of public soul-searching. It was written 250 years after it happened. After Ahab ruled other rulers followed and things went badly for Israel. Other kings abused their power, and foreign invaders took the land, and it was lost. The historians who wrote about the history of Israel pointed back to examples of where things had gone wrong. They pointed not to strategic or military failures but to moral failures. They looked hard and refused to sugar-coat this history. They examined these early examples of corruption and held them up as a warning to us all. The Bible is so vitally important today because it strives to tell the truth.

            The Jews have always said that you cannot shy away from the looking at the truth. In the end the truth will save you. As hard as that may be the lies you prefer to tell yourself will be much worse. The Bible says that lies corrupt a society. Ahab told lies to himself and his court – to create a rationale for his greed. But the Bible says God was not buying it.

Truth is on our national agenda today. There has been a lot of talk today about what constitutes the truth. We even hear that some people have alternative facts or fake news. That is a slippery slope.  The Bible says that you may fool one another. Rulers may fool themselves. Truth comes out in the end. Secrets come to light. People figure things out. But God is not fooled. God is not amused.

Finally, The Bible says you and I should speak up when we see things are not right. In our story the prophet Elijah went to the king and told him he had done wrong. Elijah was a prophet and a brave man, but he was not born with supernatural powers. He grew in stature because he found the courage to speak up.

            For the last several days I have been attending a conference in Washington DC on Spirituality and Politics sponsored by Union Seminary in NYC and Marianne Williamson, a popular spiritual writer. They brought together ministers and rabbis, Muslim and Buddhist thinkers, media leaders, and some political leaders to talk about the issues of our day and how to encourage citizens to be involved in government.

            Many people believe that the fourth check in our system of checks and balances is the media, but I wonder if it isn’t much more basic than that. I believe it is ordinary people, who do the right thing. When they see bullying in public they double down and pledge to eradicate. When they see public lack of hospitality they decide to reach out to everyone they know from every race and religion and sexual orientation and befriend them. When they don’t agree with the government they write letters to the newspapers, and organize in their communities and churches to create the society they want.

            I don’t have the answers here, but I do know that the Bible has a lot to tell us about power and how to use it justly and fairly. I believe we have a lot to learn, and to share as people of faith.  

Posted: Sunday January 8, 2017