Proper 6 – Year C

Now that the 2016 Presidential primary season is almost to an end, and the presumptive candidates have emerged for each major party, the campaigning has taken a turn toward the general election. Truth be told, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won’t be aiming their messages at the majority of Americans. If the political pundits are to be believed, almost everybody in the country has already made up their mind who they’re going to vote for in November. There is, however, one narrow band of the voting public which both candidates desperately want to win over to their side come election day. So it should come as no surprise that both candidates trained their sights this week on that very select segment of the population. Whether it was Clinton speaking to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, or Trump headlining the Faith and Freedom Coalition summit, sponsored by the group Concerned Women for America… the intended audience was pretty much the same. However much most of us might think that the candidates will be out stumping for our votes, the only group that really matters this year is collec-tively known as “suburban women.” Can anyone say, “Hello, Orange County!”

That women should be the primary influencers of politics and social policy should come as no great surprise. Today’s scripture lessons give us not one, but two different stories from the Bible where two apparently strong and forceful men are at odds with those around them, flexing their respective muscles and trying to prove to their neighbors who’s really the biggest, baddest dog on the corner. As we are quick to discover in both stories, however, although the men are supposedly the main characters in the narratives, it is the women of the stories which create all of the energy and passion and drama which lie at the heart of each tale.

Let me begin by saying a few words about that curious, and frankly rather bizarre, episode from the 2nd Book of Kings which served as our first reading this morning. If you are used to your Bible stories being all warm and fuzzy, cast in sepia tones with lovable characters, with memorable quotes and happy endings, this is not the story for you.

Since we are at that point in our own life together here at St. Mary’s as we prepare to welcome a new priest, let me say that the two Books of Kings in the Old Testament are written like lots of parish profiles, which is to say that the whole history of the community is sometimes framed by the tenures of who happened to be in charge at the moment. And so parish histories are sometimes compiled around the notion that the only real important person in the church was the rector. And all of the stories of the church during that time are really stories just about what the rector did or didn’t do. The two Books of Kings (as their title suggests) describe the entire history of ancient Israel along those same lines, as though the only important stuff which happened in the history of the nation is embodied in the triumphs and failures, the acts of mercy and the acts of brutality, the rising and falling of whoever happened to be seated on the royal throne at the moment.

Today we get a brief glimpse into the person and character of one of those kings, a fellow named Ahab. For those of you who are keeping track (and I know that so many of you do), Ahab ruled ancient Israel for over 20 years, from 874 to 853 B.C., having inherited the throne from his father Omri, and passed it along upon his death to one of his sons named Ahaziah. Don’t you feel better for having learned that bit of history this morning?

Today we get a peek as to what kind of a king – and what kind of a person – Ahab really was. Apparently, right next door to the palace was a vineyard owned by a man named Naboth. Ahab had spent a good deal of time looking over the back fence at Naboth’s place, and decided that Naboth’s vineyard was the perfect location for the vegetable garden that Ahab wanted to plant. So Ahab made, what must have been to his mind, a generous offer to Naboth. He would buy Naboth’s vineyard for a fair price, or trade Naboth for some other vineyard property that Ahab already owned which wasn’t adjacent to the palace grounds. Never mind that that piece of property had been in Naboth’s family for generations, and that the ancient understanding in the Middle East was that a person’s family history was intimately and inexorably linked to the land upon which they lived. Ahab saw it. Ahab wanted it. And Ahab felt he was entitled to it.

It would have been bad enough had the story ended there. But now it is time for the catalyst to enter the equation. If Ahab was the kind of person who felt it was his right to get whatever he wanted, he paled in comparison to his wife, Queen Jezebel. In a reversal of traditional roles, it is Jezebel who pats Ahab on the hand, and says, “There there, dear. Now don’t you worry your pretty little head about old Naboth’s vineyard. I’ll see that you get it delivered to you all wrapped up in a bow.” And quicker than you can say Jack Robinson, Jezebel has Naboth brought up on some trump charges of treason and summarily executed (along with his sons, as we learn later). And now that there’s no rightful owner to the property – and no rightful heir either – well, gee, I guess the property reverts to the State, and poor old King Ahab can plant his vegetable garden after all.

It is then that the prophet Elijah enters the story, confronting Ahab as he visits his ill-gotten garden plot. And Elijah says to Ahab, “I know what you did. And even more importantly, God knows what you did.” And in colorful and graphic language, Elijah tells Ahab that just as Naboth died, so too will Ahab. And just as the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, in the same place will the dogs like up the blood of Ahab. And on that happy note, today’s first lesson comes to an end.

If that wasn’t enough to absorb for one week, now fast-forward nearly 900 years, to the early 1st century AD. Now we hear the story of Jesus being invited to a fancy dinner party at the home of one of the Pharisees. Unlike the story of Naboth’s vineyard, the memory of which has gotten lost in the mists of time for many of us, this story of Jesus at the Pharisee’s home is one of the most well-known stories in all of scriptures, with parallel accounts of it in Matthew, Mark, and John’s gospels as well.

Here, there is a different kind of power struggle going on. This influential Pharisee is hosting a lavish soiree, and Jesus is on the guest list. I’ve been to some pretty swanky social functions in my life… and I can imagine you may have as well… and I can only assume that the Pharisee’s party must have rivaled anything we might have attended. Part of the reason for the Pharisee’s invitation is to honor the dynamic new preacher in town. But clearly, another reason for the invitation (as indicated by the way the Pharisee fails to show hospitality to his guest of honor) is to put Jesus in his place, and make sure that he – and everybody else at the party – understands who really calls the shots in the neighborhood.

But in a scene reminiscent of that great 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn, the Pharisee’s festivities are suddenly interrupted as an unexpected guest crashes the party in a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” kind of awkward moment. It was one of “those” women – you know what I mean… the kind that everybody knew, but who never would have made the guest list. Her actions of bathing and anointing Jesus’ feet – and the resultant indignation of the host that such an abomination should occur under his roof – gave Jesus just the opening he needed to tell a little story about a creditor and two debtors; and about forgiveness; and about how the ability to love is connected not to how much you have, but to how much you have been forgiven. The Pharisee lived with an attitude of entitlement. He believed that his power was connected to what he had. Jesus pointed out to him that his love was connected to what he had been given. And then Jesus went on to say that, in God’s eyes, the “power of love” trumped “love of power” every time.

You may remember the big scam to hit the Disney properties a couple of years ago which caused quite a stir in the media. It seems as though there is a certain “class” of people who wanted to bring their families to Disneyland over in Anaheim, or to Disney World in Florida, but who didn’t really want to be bothered by standing in the long lines of people waiting to board the various rides and attractions that those theme parks are famous for. So they developed a scheme – and then shared their scheme with their friends and colleagues – for a way to beat the system. It seems as though – for a price – they would hire a person in a wheelchair, along with a second person to push the person in the wheelchair, to accompany them for a day in the Magic Kingdom. And since, of course, they were visiting the park with a disabled person, they would now get to park in front near the entrance using the handicapped parking spaces, and also get to cut to the front of the line for priority seating on all the rides. These schemers figured they were “entitled” to that privilege, simply because they had the financial means to rent the right assistance so that their kids can have a carefree day at the park.

I think that this morning’s lessons are a cautionary tale for the Christian Church today – and certainly for the Episcopal Church as well. You see, we have, by virtue of our place in American society as Episcopalians for the past 227 years, regularly found ourselves seated at the head tables of business, and government, and education, and civic leadership. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being seated up front. The problem comes when we start to believe that we are entitled to that seat, that we deserve it, that it is rightly ours simply by some divine fiat, that – like King Ahab and the Pharisee who hosted Jesus at a dinner party – we have become more enamored with the “love of power” than with the “power of love.”

What gives us our “power”, if you will – as the Christian Church today, as the Episcopal Church today, as St. Mary’s today – is not our wealth, and it’s not our standing in the community, and it’s not our wonderful liturgy, and it’s not the number of U.S. presidents who were members of our denomination. What gives us our power is the awareness that, like the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet this morning whose sins were many, we too have been forgiven. We too have been the recipients of God’s unfailing, unflagging grace. We too have been assured of the promise of new life. What gives us our power is not what we have accumulated, but what we have been given. What gives us our power is that we have been recipients of perhaps the six most important words in all the scriptures: “For God so loved the world.”

With that power of love as the wind in our sails, let us then go out into that world which God so loved, as the people God has called us and created us to be, bringing God’s message to all we meet. It is that love and forgiveness which brings us together today. It is that love and forgiveness which sends us forth. And it is that love and forgiveness which will change the life of the world. Amen.