Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Naboth Option

Mountain Sunset
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
A recent sermon from our pastor, Cindy. The biblical passage read was from 1 Kings 21, the story of Naboth. As a reminder: Evil King Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab thought it would make a pleasant garden. So he told Naboth he wanted to buy it. But in Israel, one’s land was what one passed down to one’s children. It was their safety net, how they insured they could survive. So Naboth tells the king, No.

Ahab whines about being snubbed. Queen Jezebel says, “don’t worry, I’ll fix it,” and she ultimately kills off Naboth, so that Ahab can have the land.

Nice couple, the Ahabs…

I’ve heard more than one person point out that while BP is certainly responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf, that all of us are implicated to a point, all of us, that is, who use gas, or plastic, which is, of course, all of us. Of course, I don’t like to hear that. I’d rather just blame BP. I mean, really, it’s not my fault.

And yet, some of our fellow church members, years ago, were so aware of their connectedness to this earth, so concerned for how their consumption effects the earth’s dwindling resources that they went out and sold their second cars, began living in smaller circles, made drastic changes in their daily habits in order to consume less.
We are tempted to think it’s so big and complicated and impossible to change that “why bother?” But we know, not only that we are responsible, but that we can do something about it. We know that our consumption or lack thereof matters.

Well, back to the story of Naboth’s vineyard. I’m wondering, how many of you have heard this story before? Even if you haven’t, it is such a common story that I am thinking that it rang a bell somewhere in your head when you heard it read.

Because even if you haven’t heard it before, you’ve heard it before: The Staniford Field Airport wants to expand, and the City of Louisville is, of course, all for it. You can’t be a first class city with a teeny weeny airport, right? So they condemn a whole neighborhood, Highland Park, full of sweet little houses and white picket fences and webs of relationships and shared experiences and memories, but it’s alright, don’t worry, they say, as they offer the people money enough to move into a new house in a different neighborhood. You’ll be recompensed. As if money could buy webs of relationships and shared experiences and memories.

You’ve heard it before: Shelby Park, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, has one thing going for it, and that’s the park itself, with a swimming pool and a library. Both the pool and the library are always full of kids, low-income minority kids, mostly. But the city decides that they have to close some libraries, and they say that Shelby Park doesn’t produce enough business, quantified by the number of books that are being checked out. It doesn’t matter that the library is always full of kids, they’re not checking out enough books.

But don’t worry, they say, we will build you another library, and we’ll even put the name ‘Shelby Park’ in the title. Sure, it’s too far to walk to, it’s in a whole other neighborhood, but you can ride the bus, right, all you little kids? All these years later, they still call it the “Highland/Shelby Park Branch.” As if.

Well, a few years later, the Board of Education decides to take the park itself, to build a school there. But don’t worry, they say. We’ll let the neighborhood use the gym from time to time. This plan was foiled, by the way, by some good organizing of a broad diversity of neighbors, but even more by someone’s brilliant idea to tie the campaign to save the park into the fact that it is an Olmsted Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City. Hoity toity. Had it not been an Olmsted Park, it would now be a school instead. But don’t worry, they would have let the neighborhood kids use the gym. Once a week, once a month, a couple times of year, maybe.

A few more years go by, this time the city has its eye on the last gem that this impoverished little neighborhood holds, their swimming pool. We can’t afford so many swimming pools, they say, targeting, of course, the ones that are in low-income neighborhoods. Don’t worry, they say, after we tear down the pool, we’ll build you a splash park. Woo hoo. And they did, and it’s lovely, but you can’t swim in it.
You’ve heard the story before. Israel takes more and more land from the Palestinians, puts up walls separating the people from their places of work, from their vineyards, from their families.

After my trip there, I told you how the three adults in this one Palestinian family, who lives in Jerusalem, used to get to be able to get to work in ten minutes. Now it takes them, collectively, five hours. I told you how our Palestinian guide, Nabil, who had been with us for one week already, and was once we arrived in Jerusalem only thirty minutes away from his home, from his wife and two little daughters who lived in Bethlehem, could not go home to spend the night because he knew that he might not get back out, or that it might take so long to get through the checkpoints that he wouldn’t be back in time.

I told you, didn’t I, about the huge apartheid wall, keeping the Palestinians in, or out, keeping the Palestinians DOWN. Did I tell you about the story that the iman told us over supper one night about the old Palestinian man who lived in Jerusalem, and went off somewhere one day, and when he came home that night, his house had been torn down?

You’ve heard the story before. And it would be just another story, this story of Ahab and Naboth, except that in THIS story, we see something that gives us pause.

This is a story, you see, that does not just remind us how things are in this world. We don’t need to be reminded of how things are. For every story I just told you, you could tell me another one just like it. Right? Clarksdale Housing Projects, Central America…

But in this story we see something different. Because this story presents us with another possibility, with another option. This story presents us with the Naboth Option.

Naboth chooses to serve God no matter what the cost. He pledges his allegiance, not to the flag, not to the state, not to the empire, not to culture, not to the almighty dollar, but to God. So in simply hearing this story, our eyes are opened: we see that faithfulness is a possibility. Fidelity is a possibility. King Ahab assumes that everything is a purchasable commodity but Naboth refuses to be bought. Naboth operates as a free agent, bound only by the laws of God.

And even though he ends up dead, we know in our heart of hearts that we would rather be dead Naboth, who was able to live freely and according to his own conscience, who was able to stand up to the most powerful man in all the land, than live Ahab, who seems to have had no conscience, as evidenced by his inability to even stand up to his own wife. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been introduced to a life of abundance, to a life of self-giving love, to a life of connectedness and community, and while none of us are itching to die, we’re beginning to understand that the only life worth living is a free one.

And before I’ll be a slave I’ll lay down in my grave, says Naboth, in essence. I will obey the God who led us out of slavery, who introduced new ways of being and living in this world, who introduced new laws allowing for equitable distribution. I will be faithful to the traditions of my people, and to my yet unborn children who will someday care for this little vineyard. And before I’ll be a slave I’ll lay down in my grave…

And we are strengthened by his declaration, strengthened by his story, and we know what we, given the same option, would hope to choose. The Naboth Option. The LORD is MY shepherd, not the King, not the empire, not the culture, not my boss, not even my mother or my father, but the LORD…

Monday, June 07, 2010

Racy Bible Stories

Fowlers Toad
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
I missed the sermon a week ago, and it sounds like a good one. It was from our beloved Jay, proving once and for all that men CAN preach.

The biblical passage (Genesis 38) is a strange one, at least to modern ears. It involves "good" prostitution, seed spilling and justice for the oppressed. Preach on, Jay...

For those of you who, after hearing the passage and reading the title of my sermon, are concerned that it is going to be X-rated, rest assured that it will not be inappropriate, PG-13 at most.

I recently read the book How to Read Literature like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster. The chapter titles are very witty, and include When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare… and the following chapter, …Or the Bible. Other examples include It’s All Political, If She Comes up It’s Baptism, and He’s Blind for a Reason You Know.

The title of Chapter 16 is It’s All about Sex… and in this chapter Foster argues that before D.H. Lawrence, one could not write openly about sex and therefore sex was always hidden in the text whenever the author wanted to write about it, which he claims was often the case.

In the very next chapter, which is titled …Except for Sex, he argues that if the author actually writes about sex that it is really about something else entirely. I am inclined to agree with Foster’s argument and say that Genesis 38 is not really about sex.

If I were preaching a sermon from this text anywhere other than Jeff Street I would preach from Tamar’s perspective. I would talk about how Tamar, as a marginalized woman in a precarious situation, took matters into her own hands. I would expound upon her subversive acts and how her actions resulted in justice and renewed hope for her survival. But alas, I am preaching at Jeff Street, and I believe that we do a good job when it comes to being subversive, working for justice, and reaching out in love to those on the margins of society.

So, rather than preach from Tamar’s perspective, I am going to ask that we focus our attention today on Judah...

The season of Easter recently ended and I was originally to preach during Easter but our latest flood postponed my preaching this sermon until today. It is during Easter that we talk about and think upon resurrection and rebirth, and rightly so. But I believe that God has always been in the business of rebirth and I hope to show how the Old Testament story of Judah and Tamar is a wonderful example of rebirth and new life.

In the first verses of this passage we learn that Judah marries a Canaanite, Shua’s daughter, and they have three sons; Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er is old enough, Judah arranges a marriage for him to a woman named Tamar. We are informed that Er is wicked and God takes his life before he and Tamar can produce children. Judah then tells his second son Onan to “go into your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law.”

This levirate marriage, as it is called, requires that the brother of a deceased man who has died without producing children is to marry his brother’s widow. The firstborn of the marriage is to be the dead brother’s child and heir and thereby would continue the brother’s line and name.

Securing an heir and continuing the brother’s line and name was not the only purpose of the levirate marriage. As Susan Niditch writes, “The law must have also saved young childless widows from economic deprivation and from a sort of social wilderness, no longer under her father, but having no husband or son to secure her place in the patriarchal clan.”

Throughout the Old Testament we find God commanding the Hebrew people to help and care for the stranger, the other, the ones who have no power to care for themselves. This is one of the laws that God has in place to ensure that care is given to the widow. This is one of God’s laws that help to ensure justice.

Onan takes Tamar as his wife but has no desire to share his inheritance with what would be his dead brother’s son, so when he has sex with her he practices the primitive birth control coitus interruptus, thereby formally fulfilling his duty but ensuring that Tamar does not become pregnant.

This displeases God and so God also takes Onan’s life. I want to take a minute to address the instances in this passage that state that God took both Er’s and Onan’s lives. We understand God to be one who is life giving rather than one of death. It is important to understand that the narrator is not trying to teach us about the nature of God, but rather about human responsibility.

Since God’s hand was seen in nearly everything by the original audience, they would have easily accepted this reasoning for the deaths of Er and Onan. An example of this is when you hear someone respond to a tragedy by saying that “It’s just God’s will,” which for the record, I believe is bad theology. What is important here is to understand that the statements of God taking these two lives are not commentary about God, and to draw any conclusions about death as God’s will would be a mistake. Rather, these statements should be understood as elements of the story that help to illustrate the importance of doing God’s will, which always includes justice.

Now, back to Judah…his next move should have been to give Tamar to Shelah. But having lost two sons already, perhaps he is wondering if Tamar is the problem. So, rather than risk the life of his third son, he sends Tamar back to her father’s house and tells her that when Shelah is old enough to marry he will send for her. We know, from our knowledge of the ending of the story, that Judah has no intention of keeping his word. Tamar is Judah’s responsibility and he acts irresponsibly.

By sending Tamar back to her father’s house, Judah has practically sealed her fate. She now has no inheritance rights and is not free to remarry, as she is technically engaged to Shelah. Her future welfare is in jeopardy.

We are not told how long Tamar has been back at her father’s house when we learn that Judah’s wife has died and the required time of mourning has passed. Whatever the length of time, it has been long enough for Shelah to grow old enough to be married. Tamar realizes that Judah is not going to allow her to marry Shelah, so she does the only thing she knows to do; she outwits her father-in-law.

She takes off her widow’s clothing, disguises herself, and sits at the gate or entrance of Enaim where she knows Judah will pass on his way to shear his sheep. As planned Judah sees her and comes to her and asks to have sex with her. She asks him what he will pay her and he replies that he will send her a kid (goat).

She must have been laughing to herself, knowing that she was going to have his kid, but not a goat. (The pun is there even in the Hebrew and actually there are many other word plays in this narrative). She demands collateral, and anxious to fulfill his desires, Judah agrees to give her his “signet, cord, and staff.” The signet and cord were his seal or signature and his staff would have been individualized. These were items of identification, his driver’s license and credit card, so to speak. The next time someone asks you for two forms of ID, think Tamar and Judah.

After receiving his two forms of ID she has sex with Judah and conceives. She then proceeds to put back on her widow’s clothing and heads back to her father’s house. Judah sends his friend Hirah back to Enaim with a kid (goat) to pay the prostitute. The townspeople tell Hirah that he is mistaken, that there has been no prostitute in Enaim.

When Hirah comes back still in possession of the kid, Judah states that he has upheld his end of the deal, that he has kept his promise. He tells Hirah not say anything else, lest he become a laughing stock. Little does Judah know that Enaim is not Vegas and that what happens in Enaim does not necessarily stay in Enaim. I would also point out that Judah considers it important that he has kept his promise in paying the prostitute but seems to have no concern that he has no intention of keeping his promise to his daughter-in-law.

Once Tamar starts to show, word gets back to Judah that his daughter-in-law is pregnant. When he learns this he is outraged. Tamar, being engaged to Shelah, is prohibited by law to marry or have sex with anyone else. It is obvious that she is guilty of adultery, which is punishable by death. Judah immediately calls for her to be brought out and burned to death, despite the fact that the usual means of death for adultery was stoning and that burning was saved for severe cases that included adultery by daughters of priests.

Judah was so angry and his indignation was so strong that he pronounced her sentence without giving her a trial or even a chance to speak.

As Tamar is being brought out to be burned to death, she plays her trump card. She sends word to Judah that whoever owns these things is the father of my baby, and she pulls out his signet, cord, and staff. When Judah recognizes these things as his own, he immediately states that Tamar is more righteous than he is because he refused to give her to Shelah as he promised and as was his duty.

The story ends with a joyous resolution to Tamar’s crisis; she gives birth to twins. Their birth is an unusual one in which the baby who initially reaches his hand out, withdraws it and his brother actually comes out first. They are then given the significant names Perez, which means breakout or bursting forth and Zerah, which means rising sun or a dawning.

So what is it that we have to learn from Judah? Before answering this question it is important to note that the narrator places no moral judgment upon Judah for his having sex with a supposed prostitute which was in actuality his daughter-in-law.

The narrator makes it clear that what Judah has done wrong is to not keep his promise and fulfill his duty of giving Tamar to his youngest son Shelah. Judah’s daughter-in-law is his responsibility and by not acting responsibly he places both Tamar and the community in jeopardy. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, Judah’s sin is of looking after private interest at the expense of the community...

But all this changes after Tamar exposes Judah as the culprit and he admits his guilt in not giving her to Shelah. His confession leads to change. In verse 24 he is condemning Tamar to death, employing conventional understanding of morality and righteousness. In verse 25 he is presented with evidence of his guilt. And then in verse 26 he declares that Tamar is more righteous than he is; which employs a new and radical understanding of righteousness. At least a new understanding for him, but I would dare not say new to God...

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that we at Jeff Street, both individually and collectively, do a good job caring for the marginalized and working for justice, and doing these things through acts of subversion when need be. But if we are completely honest, we would have to admit that sometimes we find ourselves in Judah’s sandals, and are guilty of looking after our own interests at the expense of others.

Maybe we keep quiet when we hear another person being demeaned because of their color, or sexual orientation, or religion, or size, or any other reason, because we are afraid of what others may think about us. Maybe we degrade someone else because they do not act kindly or justly; failing to see them as the child of God that they are. Finding it much easier to criticize and put down someone rather than to pray and work towards a change in their lives.

Maybe we, like Judah, do the right thing the first time, and maybe even the second and third times, but then at some point out of fear or unwillingness to take another risk fail to do the right thing again. Be sure that God’s love for us is NEVER dependent upon our doing the right thing, but often another person’s well-being is.

So let us continue to follow Tamar’s example of bravery, subversion, and demanding justice for ourselves and others. But if we find ourselves to be like Judah and jeopardize the well-being of others, either by what we do or by what we fail to do, may we freely admit when we are wrong and may it serve as an impetus for change in our lives, as it was for Judah.