1 Kings 21:1-24
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And 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.’ 3But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ 4Ahab 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.
5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ 6He 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.” ’ 7His 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.’
8 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. 9She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat 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.’ 11The 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, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The 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. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’
15 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.’ 16As 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.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go 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. 19You 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.’
20 Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; 22and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. 23Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.” 24Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.’
When I mentioned to my wife
that we were doing an epiphany worship series on sin,
she paused and then asked, “Why?”
“Well,” I did not say, “you were the one to suggest it.”
“Not for Epiphany,” I imagined her responding.
To return to the conversation we actually did have,
she said she associated sin more with a Lenten theme.
As we were brainstorming worship possibilities last summer though,
it was she who suggested the seven deadly sins—
which made me think of Gandhi’s seven deadly societal sins—
which brought me to our twist on those—which we’ll get to.
It was Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church,
who spoke many years ago now at Preachers’ Camp
of Epiphany as a season of gradually dialing up the light.
Does awareness of deadly sins, I wondered,
allow us to—help us—dial up the light?
So some initial thoughts on sin. Fun, huh?
To get some thoughts on sin out on the table,
I’m going to read you an excerpt from a play with which I’m playing.
I do use a form of rhyme scheme
to acknowledge up front the illusion of drama
in order within what is then acknowledged as artifice
to be as real as possible.
It only recently struck me,
that in all our conversations,
with all their important, theological implications,
we’ve never really talked about sin.
Interestingly true. You begin.
Okay. Well, in many if not most
sin is the crime;
judgment the verdict, the punishment,
the sentence, the time.
So in those traditional Christian
sin becomes the explanation
for the circumstances we hate.
Which feels like it should be
more up for debate:
sin as the motivation
for God’s retaliation
against what we did wrong
that we all along
have also called judgment.
Makes of God, whom we call forgiving,
someone who, in a weird way,
is grace outliving.
gives God the opportunity
to outlast who we claim God to be.
Ah the irony
in the teaching of the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
who said forgiving seventy times seven
was the way to heaven
unless you’re God apparently on judgment day
and you damn people to hell —
making of God an unsurpassed
I am that I am until I am not —
that’s an affirmation
with consequence fraught.
But. When it comes to tradition,
it probably comes
as no surprise to you
my lack of inhibition
to making an addition or two.
Alright, so first,
sin is supposed to be confessional
which makes it both harder
and more relevant —
which is often the elephant
in the room
given the frequency with which
sin is directed toward them
from which focus stem
all kinds of problematic issues —
all from such terrible misuses of sin —
which, secondly, in my view
is only partially what we do —
and also partially what we’re part of
that we condone
that then owns us —
and that is its own consequence —
a shallowness —
a disconnectedness —
Not divine retribution.
That’s an intentionally misleading
in the substitution
by the institution
for the goal
And sin . . .
like circumstance, I guess . . .
is supposed to represent
a thin place —
a means of grace,
not the weight
that determines our fate.
That almost sounds like you think sin
should be helpful —
for the self full
of a desire to grow.
Precisely. Befriend your sin,
and love you as a sinner.
Sports teaches us
that’s how you become a winner —
allowing what you’re not good at
to focus your workout —
inwardly in this case, on yourself,
not outwardly on anyone else,
and not in condemnation,
but in reflection
ever seeking illumination —
contemplation leading to the selection of change — or growth —
Sin is part of the conversation
but as a future-oriented way
not as a past explanation for it.
And in such a view,
sin is not to blame —
not meant to shame —
supposed to offer
for those in errancy —
a transparency to possibility
through responsibility —
the movement from culpability
But according to too many
sin becomes this catch-22,
and it’s a trap
I still fall into too —
in which sin is no longer what we do —
the choices we make,
the actions we take,
but some demonic power
that overtakes us
that we cannot resist
we necessarily fall short
of God’s expectations,
and sin becomes an inevitability
instead of a tendency to tame.
And so then,
in terms of us and them,
when we fall short,
it’s our faith we contort
sin to blame.
But when they fall short,
we excoriate them in shame,
and put them to blame.
And there’s the true demonic power
that in our own theology does lurk:
sin creating not just
the opportunity for
but the tendency to
excuse us and blame them.
I tell you though,
it’s hard to get traction
for a theological view of sin
without a faction
you can blame.
That’s too often how most
play the religious game.
Sin is supposed to be like
one of those fitness apps
into which your caloric intake
is added (honestly)
and the number of calories you burn
is not padded (dishonestly)
and the more honestly you see
and enter your information
the better you can plan
for your health reformation.
I’m not saying a focus
on individual morality
is not an important priority —
and challenging and necessary.
Just saying that’s not so much
that about which
the prophets of old
To make sin just a matter of morality
is to shrink it
to I need to do better
or more likely you need to do better
instead of thinking we are at fault here
and need to make changes
I wanted to talk about sin without being negative—
contextualize sin without having it be a downer—
certainly without being judgy—
considering sin as a signpost to greater grace and more light,
and within such a framework consider the seven deadly sins,
also known as the cardinal sins
or the capital vices (which I always thought were in DC!)
which are not ever listed together in the Bible.
They are actually traced back to a fourth-century monk
who made a list of eight in Greek,
revised and translated into Latin,
formalized by Pope Gregory I in 590 CE
after he combined a couple and added another to get seven.
They were incorporated into Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica
(though he used the term capital vices—
because he sees every other sin coming from these seven).
They were taken for granted by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales,
by Dante in the Divine Comedy,
and by Billy Graham, who did a study of them
through a series of sermons on the radio
that was turned into a book.
Gandhi’s list of seven social sins or societal sins
goes back to October of 1925,
when he published the list in his weekly newsletter.
But it actually goes farther back to March of that year
when it was preached at Westminster Abbey
by Frederick Lewis Donaldson, an Anglican priest.
The first of Gandhi’s societal sins we consider is wealth without work.
Maybe you, like I, think of criminals,
whose goal is to take advantage of the work and wealth of others.
I do also think of those born rich,
and I know it’s not their fault,
and some of them, I’m sure, are admirable people,
and some of whom are spoiled rotten
by having had wealth handed to them and never having had to work.
I think of those who exploit the work of others
and how much that is a part of the economic system that seems to be.
King Ahab of Samaria in our Scripture reading this morning
fits all of those categories.
So thinking of wealth without work
and thinking of the seven traditional sins,
sloth is the traditional sin that I picked
to go with Gandhi’s wealth without work.
Sloth is the only one of the seven sins
Dante does not describe as a perversion or corruption
of a good gift of God.
Sloth is traditionally associated with laziness.
According to Merriam-Webster
the primary definition of sloth is a disinclination to action or labor.
Synonyms include indolence, idleness, inertia, shiftlessness.
Derived in part from the Latin, acedia, meaning without care,
sloth is also a not caring—a whatever kind of attitude—
It’s also a being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis—
by to do lists bigger than can be accomplished in a day, or week or month—
by news cycles that never stop.
It is a restlessness.
And it is also a caring more about the good than the better
and more about the better than the best.
So we have the traditional sin, sloth.
We have Gandhi (or Douglas’) sin of wealth without work.
Then there’s our twist
I suggest that sin is not just wealth without work,
but also the inversion of work without wealth.
Notice that Gandhi and the traditional sin
are more a matter of what we might call morality—
focused on the individual
vs/ the inversion that seems more systemic—
more a matter of justice.
and as easy as it is to match Gandhi’s sin
with several of the classic seven deadly sins,
(I chose sloth. You can make a case for greed),
the inversion is harder to match up
which is why in the sermon title there is a question mark there.
Work without wealth.
The bias toward personal morality is deep seated
in both Scripture and tradition,
and too often gives systemic sin an out—
a get out of jail free card.
Within the rhetoric of politics
some blame the poor for not working hard.
I’m sure there are some that don’t.
There are plenty who work harder than most people I know—
and just can’t catch a break:
work work work with no wealth.
There’s the sin.
Talking points identify either a positive or negative extreme
and then pretend the truth
does not include what is typically the majority in the middle.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in The Sunday Review of The New York Times in an excerpt from their book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.
It is a terrifying read, but it is not despairing.
“Americans bought into a misconceived “personal responsibility” narrative that blamed people for being poor. It’s true, of course, that personal responsibility matters: People we spoke to often acknowledged engaging in self-destructive behaviors. But when you can predict wretched outcomes based on the ZIP code where a child is born, the problem is not bad choices the infant is making. If we’re going to obsess about personal responsibility, let’s also have a conversation about social responsibility.
We Americans are locked in political combat and focused on President Trump, but there is a cancer gnawing ta the nation that predates Trump and is larger than him. Suicides are at their highest rate since World War II; one child in seven is living with a parent suffering from substance abuse; a baby is born every 15 minutes after prenatal exposure to opioids .…
We have deep structural problems that have been a half century in the making, under both political parties, and that are often transmitted from generation to generation. Only in America has life expectancy now fallen three years in a row, for the first time in a century, because of ‘deaths of despair.’
The stock market is near record highs, but working class Americans (often defined as those without college degrees) continue to struggle. If you’re only a high school graduate, or worse, a dropout, work no longer pays. If the federal minimum wage in 1968 had kept up with inflation and productivity, it would be $22 an hour. Instead, it’s $7.25.
‘I’m a capitalist, and even I think capitalism is broken,’ says Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedgefund”
It’s a bit tricky preaching the prophets because we are not a theocracy.
We look at the prophetic writings of a theocracy as our sacred texts
and appropriately say the prophets focused on national sins—
what I might call systemic sins—societal sins.
It was the country’s responsibility, they said—the prophets—
to guard against economic injustice:
against exploitation of the poor.
It is the country’s responsibility
to care for the widows and the orphans
and the aliens and the refugees.
In our non-theocracy,
amidst our own traditional value of the separation of church and state,
what are we to do with such explicitly political prophecy—
such explicitly worded speaking truth to political power?
We have too many politicians who want to claim God and the Bible
without knowing what they’re about—
certainly without living into it.
And while we have too many church leaders and people
who also don’t seem to know much of what the Bible’s about,
there are also entirely too many
who do know but don’t seem to care.
I invite you today and throughout this worship series
to consider yourself honestly—
to consider your sins—
not to weigh yourself down,
not to get lost in guilt and shame,
not to hear anyone blaming you,
but to consider sin as a signpost.
Here’s where such behavior—
here are where such priorities lead.
They lead to being this kind of a person.
They lead to this kind of a culture.
Is that anything I want anything to do with?
Because there are other signposts pointing in other directions.
To look at the larger picture,
there’s a whole lot of sloth—
an unwillingness to engage in the work
of making us better.
In ancient Israel you could not separate
the call of the people to live into the image of God
and the call for God’s people as a country to live into the image of God.
We do ourselves and we do our country no favors
when we too easily dismiss that challenge.
I have not read Kristof and WuDunn’s book.
I commend to you this article.
It’s hard, but again it’s not despairing.
They say we can change.
We can make different choices.
But if we don’t intentionally do that—
if we’re slothful …
do you like where we’re headed?
There are good options.
There are signposts pointing to hope and health
and transformation and possibility.
Those are the ones to choose
May it be so.