Sermon: Maturing as church
Thirty years ago King Ahab – in this case, the Moderator of the United Church of Canada and the majority of commissioners to the 31st General Council left the halls of Laurentian University in Sudbury where they were meeting. They walked through the rain towards a tipi erected nearby. Almost 200 First Nations’ leaders and people were gathered there around a sacred fire. They were waiting to see how the General Council of the United Church would respond to their request a year earlier for an apology for the ways they had suffered over many generations at the power of the Church, because of the way the Church had understood and acted out their calling from God.
Arriving at the sacred fire, the Moderator spoke these words on behalf of General Council and the whole of the United Church:
Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.
We did not hear when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality.
We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.
We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred and we are not what we are meant by God to be.
We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.
The Apology did not and does not fix everything. It doesn’t make everything right. It doesn’t absolve of guilt. But neither does it entrench guilt, nor require perpetual self-flagellation.
What it does is open the door to a new future, by inviting new relationship, dialogue, learning and spiritual growth. And that seems to be happening.
The United Church and First Nations people have been in dialogue about all kinds of things over the past thirty years, as equal partners in conversation. The Church shared in, and supported the Truth and Reconciliation Project. The people of the First Nations have a place at the table, and the Church has learned that there is a table to sit at with others – instead of a throne from which to dominate others, or an altar on which to sacrifice the best part of both ourselves and others.
Sitting at the table we’ve learned things like humility and confession of sin, truth and reconciliation, and restorative rather than retributive justice. We’ve learned from the First Nations to express deeper respect and responsibility for the well-being of creation, and in 1996 added to our Creed the line “to live with respect in Creation” which was not there when it was adopted in 1968. In 2012 we changed our official Crest to include the four colours of the First Nations medicine wheel, emblematic of the wholeness of life and of healing; and, along with the Latin words “Ut Omnes Unum Sint” – “that all may be one,” the Mohawk words “Akwe Nia’Tetewa:Neren” – “all my relations” – a traditional way of ending Mohawk prayers by remembering the web of relationships we live in – human and natural, and that we forget or violate at our peril.
The apology and the shared journey that it opened up, have helped us mature as a church and to understand and live out in deeper ways than we did before, the good will, grace and blessing of God for all of Earth and all its people.
One can only wish the same might have been said of King Ahab – the first King Ahab whose story is told in I Kings.
Ahab – as bad a king as he turns out to be, started as good as any. He was king by God’s good will over a kingdom God gave to the people for their well-being and for the blessing of all the world. But Ahab does not understand or remember that this kingdom is a blessing only if in particular ways it is willing to be different from other kingdoms.
Perhaps this was due in part to Ahab’s father who came to the throne of a disorganized and depressed kingdom, and who over his reign built things up by making alliances with rich merchant cities outside Israel, building comparable cities within Israel, and nurturing in Israel the cult of fertility that other kingdoms practiced. In other words, his way of serving God and saving God’s kingdom was to make it more and more like other kingdoms.
And so it is with Ahab. He too builds cities, makes alliances, enlarges his property, and imprints his sign on everything and everyone under him, to be a king like other kings with a kingdom like other kingdoms.
Not surprising that all through the story Ahab is restless, obsessed and depressed in one way or another, and oppressive, unjust, self-centred and immoral. Because when you live by others’ expectations, and measure your worth by external stuff, the demand never stops.
What Ahab really wants, though – more than he understands, is what Naboth has. It’s the vineyard, because it’s a good piece of land right next to Ahab’s winter palace and Ahab can’t imagine not having it.
And it’s also what the vineyard represents and speaks of. The vineyard is in the land of Jezreel, and Jezreel means “God plants.” The people of Israel at their best understand land as a gift of God for the blessing of all the peoples of Earth. It’s not something you own, or buy or sell; nor can you give it away, because it’s not yours to give. Rather, it’s an “ancestral inheritance,” as Naboth says of his vineyard – something God has given to his family long, long ago for their use and their place in the goodness of the world, and it is not anything he can ever rightfully give away or let go of.
And I wonder if this moment – the moment when Naboth stands up to Ahab and out of the depth of his faith and his anguish at what he’s been asked, says to the king, “No! You cannot take from me, and I cannot give away what God has entrusted to me. This is my and my family’s inheritance from God, alongside and within your kingdom, our part of the blessing of God for all the world” – I wonder if this is the critical moment in Ahab’s story, the moment that reveals his heart and determines his fate?
At that moment, the story says, Ahab chooses to do just what he is practiced at doing. He goes home and sulks, because he cannot imagine not being in charge. He continues to obsess about what he will do to prove himself a king. He grows depressed. He never lets go of the need to dominate.
I wonder, though, if he ever – even just for an hour, a minute, or a second, ever thought
· of apologizing to Naboth for asking such a thing of him,
· of coming down from his place of familiar power and putting to one side his need to prove himself by being in control,
· and of asking Naboth to maybe join him on a journey of learning once again the way of really living in, and really living out God’s blessing of all the world – to do it together, as equal people of God.
And if he did – if he felt that kind of nudge and urging of God, I wonder what stopped him and made him unwilling to be God’s king and to serve God’s kingdom in a new and different way?