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Sermon – “A Charge Against” – June 16, 2013

Sunday, June 16, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

A Charge Against

1 Kings 21: 1-21a; Psalm 5: 1-8; Luke 7: 36-8: 3

An English Christian in the late eighteenth century said, “I love the University of Salamanca; for when the Spaniards were in doubt as to the lawfulness of their conquering America, the University of Salamanca gave it as their opinion that it was not lawful.” Of course, Spanish wouldn’t be spoken in as much of the Western hemisphere as it is if the Spanish government had listened, so one may wonder why the government bothered to ask the religious ethics faculty to consider if a policy of conquest were legitimate.

Prior to the Iraq War, the United States embassy to the Vatican sponsored a talk by American Catholic theologian Michael Novak justifying the administration’s intended invasion. Responding to questions afterward, the papal university’s moral theologian was asked if he were convinced by the arguments offered. His answer was no, and he went on to say, “a lot of people came here tonight not accepting, standing very firmly with the US bishops and the British bishops and the Pope against the war… and if that’s the best, then it’snotveryconvincing,whatNovakhadtosay.” Again,moralargumentsagainstamilitary campaign to overthrow an opponent had no effect on policy, so one may wonder what the point of offering moral arguments in favor of invasion was. Doesn’t it at least seem as if theological scrutiny is beside the point when governments have decided on warfare?

You may be tempted to think that it is a scruple which we have from Christian culture, to try to make our violent deeds innocent by appealing to principles of justice, even when we subsequently proceed without the endorsement we wish. However, down through history persons in position of legitimate leadership– heads of state– have felt the need to explain their breaking an existing peace by putting their actions in terms of redressing wrongs, or following, in some sense, the lead of heaven. In the Old Testament story of the healing of Naaman, the king of Israel accuses the king of Syria of seeking a pretext for war. That means that the custom of justifying war by some rationalization obtained there and then. Kublai Khan reduced the Song dynasty in China once a treacherous act by a vassal voided an existing agreement, which shows that his state craft depended on validating reasons for going to war.

Every recent administration has had its own equivalent of resident theologians, now taking the form of lawyers, who lay the groundwork for policies which at least appear to violate established codes regarding recourse to violence. The use of drones to assassinate those identified as enemy combatants is the most recent controversy related to this.

Again, once you’ve decided to hunt and destroy individuals as a policy, it may seem to the hardheaded realist that there is something disingenuous or preposterous in bothering to rationalize the action with arguments. One might expect that a person with sufficient power and apparent impunity would be content to live by the motto, “might makes right.” That is not the case, however. Adolph Hitler, the last century’s most famous flouter of moral conduct with regard to foreigners, laid out excuses for all the annexations and invasions with which he began the Second World War.

Those who begin wars are not adequately ashamed to be bringing death and destruction to large numbers of noncombatants not to seek whatever benefit they imagine warfare will secure. They are, however, ashamed to attack their neighbor without some declaration that the neighbor deserves it. Even the worst people seem to recognize that power over other people relies on an apparent regard for law, on respect for broadly- defined human rights, and on the principle that one will not use violence to get what one wants unless one is forced to use violence by those who become its victims.

This results more from fear of other people than fear of God. If rulers really worried about God, whose witnessing of crimes cannot be prevented, whose sense of justice cannot be perverted, and whose intention cannot be distracted, they would do everything in their power to be righteous. Their real concern is about the possibility that political rivals would play on their moral lapses to take power, or that their subjects would be ripe for rebellion or anarchy if they came to believe that laws existed only for the benefit of the powerful.

This morning’s scriptures all are about the relationship of the powerful to the weak. In the story of Naboth, whose misfortune it is to have a vineyard coveted by the king and to refuse to sell it to him, we see the same principle of justification at work. King Ahaz is stymied by his inability to get the property he wants through legal channels, because he lacks the audacity of his wife. Jezebel has the man framed and found guilty, at which point the legal penalties serve to eliminate Naboth, opening the way for confiscation of the vineyard.

This is really a very clever plan to get the property. If Naboth had had it declared the state’s by eminent domain, it might have looked too much like his interest was in the vineyard. Power here works behind the scenes, and it finds cooperation from those expecting favor by compliance and fearing retribution from refusal. Something which everyone agrees is good, religious piety and political loyalty, are the sacred values Naboth is accused of violating, so his judicial murder focuses attention on his presumed wrongdoing. The transfer of property is given the appearance of an afterthought.

We should remember this story every time we are publicly urged to believe that someone poses a danger either to religion or patriotism. It may be so; but it is worth taking the time to ask, who will benefit once the accused is powerless, once whatever ability to stick up for himself or herself the accused has is gone? People are so angered by impiety and treachery that a levelheaded analysis of what’s going on behind the scenes, and what may be the intended outcome of the charges, is very difficult, but this example reminds us we should attempt it.

We need to be careful about dealing justice on behalf of God and country and our highest values because those are the loyalties which lend themselves to manipulation. They also make it difficult to tease out genuine concerns from invented indignation. When there is time for reflection, a reluctance to make hasty judgments will help keep us from being the wrongdoers.

That matters because wrongdoers exist. They convict themselves before God by a disregard for what is right. However they rationalize it, no matter how successfully they persuade others that they are doing what’s best, even when they talk themselves into thinking they are acting honorably, if they do wrong, they are wrong. As the psalm today cautions us, God will not deal lightly with those who do wrong

To the extent that the psalm is a warning, it may prevent a person from going astray. When it is too late, when the wrong already exists, it becomes a call for repentance.

Repentance means changing direction. “Let the thief no longer steal,” the apostle Paul writes to one of his churches, meaning that it is possible to put one’s wrongdoing behind one. A consciousness of the reality of right and wrong, which even invented excuses for evildoing betrays, is a gift of God to us. It allows us a chance to avoid guilt, or at least an opportunity to seek forgiveness and renewal.

This is behind what happens when Jesus is asked to dinner by the Pharisee Simon. A woman with what is notoriously a bad conscience–we know it’s public information because Simon knows about her–comes to Jesus weeping and washing his feet while he is at table. People reclined at table then, propped on an elbow on low benches, with their legs and feet off to the side, so this is less acrobatic than it sounds. It is no less scandalous, however, from Simon’s point of view. He wonders how Jesus can truly be godly and not conscious of the woman’s sins, which ignorance of her true nature he presumes is the reason Jesus permits this service being offered to him.

Jesus tells him the parable the point of which is that he who needs only a little forgiveness is forgiven little, and those who need a lot of forgiveness are forgiven greatly. Simon has failed in his hospitality, not significantwrongs, but real– and forgivable. This woman has failed more notably, but she, too is forgivable. The world is such that right and wrong matter, and we are such that we know they matter. However much we go against our own conscience, we are not without conscience, and our hope is that God bring us to the point to which this woman has been brought. The arrival of Jesus has opened her heart to a desire to be right with God, to be healed of the great distance she knows her actions have created between herself and holiness. Her tears and her homage Jesus accepts as marks of repentance, and he eases the way for her to continue in a better direction by declaring that she is no longer burdened with her past. He did know who she was, contrary to his host’s reaction, and he understood better than his host how it is that God gives people new life and new possibilities in the midst of patterns of failure, even in a world in which neighbors and others only know how to uphold what is right by being unforgiving.

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