“When Worlds Collide”
1 Kings 21:1-21
Luke 7:36 – 8:3
Chilmark Community Church
September 11, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Naboth is a Vineyarder! He owns a lovely vineyard that has been handed down from generation to generation in his family. His world is one in which he is responsible for caring for his land. But even more important, he is responsible for passing it along, intact, to the next generation in his family. In Naboth’s world, stewardship of the land entrusted to him is a sacred act of covenant with God.
King Ahab’s world is full of political intrigue and suspicion, of political alliances that shift with the wind. He lives in a world of inter-tribal politics and he ends up marrying Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who worships a foreign god. Ahab is a pretty relaxed guy when it comes to pleasing his wife – – and like King Solomon before him, Ahab built altars and temples to the gods of his wife’s religion. In Ahab’s world, decisions are made based on political expediency to keep his world afloat.
As Ahab’s queen, Jezebel pretty much got her own way. Her world was colorful with the religion she brought to Ahab’s court. She was not the shy, retiring type and before long she installed hundreds of ba’al priestesses and prophets in the royal household – a the expense of the public treasury. No separation of church and state in Ahab’s court! Where Ahab was fairly tolerant, Jezebel was a fanatical evangelist for her Phoenician religion. As was inevitable, her world collided with the religious world of the prophets of Israel’s God. Jezebel’s heart’s desire was to destroy all those prophets. In her world, the ends justified the means. Jezebel tore down the altars of Israel’s God, killed off God’s prophets and drove any remaining faithful people underground.
The great prophet Elijah arrived on the scene and his world collided with the world of Jezebel – big time! Elijah’s world is filled with “zeal for the Lord!” The entire focus of his world is his job of speaking the word of God to Ahab – trying to get Israel back on track as God’s people.
In the story we just heard, worlds collide. The world of faithful covenant keeping, the world of haphazard attention to God’s claim on Israel’s loyalty, the world of religious fanaticism and greed, the world of the prophet who delivers God’s word.
It’s colorful reading! There aren’t too many good guys in the story. Greed and religious fanaticism rule the day. Naboth, an honest man who refuses to cooperate with the king’s desires ends up being sacrificed to the machinery of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s religious zeal.
The worlds of power and greed and fanaticism collide with the worlds of faithfulness and integrity and honor – – and then as now, it appears as though power and greed and fanaticism win the day. Naboth, an innocent man, dies and this part of the story ends with terrible threats of disaster and revenge. We might well ask what possible good is intended by the inclusion of this bloody and violent story in our scriptures?
But, other worlds collide in the scriptures too. Simon, the Pharisee’s world is one of loyal stewardship of the word of God. It is a thoughtful world where the primary goal of life is to pay attention to Torah – – to live as closely as possible a life that is faithful to the covenant between God and Israel. Simon’s life work was to keep asking questions of the sacred texts, to draw attention to the discrepancies between the Torah’s demands and the way the people of God lived their lives.
An anonymous woman, about whom we know virtually nothing, lives in an invisible world. Tradition would have us believe that she is a “woman of the streets” – a prostitute – an adulteress – – but the story says none of that. Her world is largely hidden from us – – as the world of women often was at the time of Jesus. At Simon’s dinner party her invisible world collided with the world of the Pharisee.
But the woman’s world also collided with the world of Jesus: a world dominated by compassion; a world fueled by lovingkindness and forgiveness; a world illuminated by Jesus’ heightened consciousness of the Holy One.
What happens when worlds collide?
Disaster, perhaps. Surely this was so in the collision of the worlds of Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth and Elijah. Greed, abuse of power and privilege, the brutal death of an innocent man, further threats of violence and revenge……..it sounds all too familiar and all too contemporary. This story is, perhaps, a metaphor, for the kinds of worlds that collided 15 years ago today when the World Trade Center towers fell.
But sometimes when worlds collide something different happens. Sometimes creation gives birth to something new out of anger and violent conflict. Sometimes energy is generated when conflicting values surface in the presence of understanding and compassion. Operative prejudices are challenged. There is a new spin on things. Simon the Pharisee had to re-examine his assumptions about a woman he didn’t really know. Party guests had to create space for the intruder. The status quo got shaken up. Even the woman had to expand her own self-understanding in response to the gracious attitude extended to her by Jesus. Sometimes, when worlds collide, something new is created.
More than a few years ago now, Armen and I went back to NJ to celebrate with my younger sister as she graduated from Essex County College in the city of Newark, NJ. We were deeply impressed by the scenario of that graduation. There were some 4000 people in attendance. We estimated that about 300 of that number were white. In a graduating class of 800, there were perhaps 85 white students. The class and the families celebrating with them were predominantly African American and Latin American students.
In the 60s and 70s the city of Newark was the scene of prolonged and violent racial conflict and protest. A once vibrant city became the locale of civil strife reflected in every major city across the country to some extent. I recall driving south on the Garden State Parkway to visit Armen’s mother and seeing the exits to Newark cordoned off by National Guardsmen in order to contain the violence and conflict. The world of white privilege and the world of the oppression and poverty of urban African Americans had collided. For a time the results were chaotic and ugly. But then, gradually, the landscape and geography of the city of Newark changed. High end department stores that had serviced predominantly white, middle class suburbanites closed and were replaced by companies that were more in touch with the needs of the community. Populations shifted dramatically as white folks left the city and were replaced by people of Hispanic background. A Black mayor was elected. The police force shifted from being predominantly white to predominantly Black.
Essex County College was founded to serve the community by providing accessible, affordable college education for the city of Newark and the immediately surrounding communities.
All of that history was in the collective memory of the people who celebrated the Class of 2004. Worlds had collided in the 60s and 70s – and this particular graduation day some 30 odd years later was a joyful day all around. Have all the inequities been addressed? No. Has poverty been erased? No. Has the sin of racism been expunged? No. But what emerged out of the terrible collision of worlds in those years was a determination on the part of many of the folks who lived through it to build something better out of the agony and the suffering of Newark – – and Essex County College was born.
The possibility of something creative being birthed out of colliding worlds is an idea that intrigues me. Maybe this is why the bloody stories are there in our scriptures. But sometimes we have to read an awfully long way before we come to the truth that the power of God is working even in the worst of it. So often, the rise and fall of the truth seems to rest on the loyalty and faithfulness of one frail person.
In today’s story, that person is Elijah – a strange man who appears and disappears and re-appears in the narratives of the 1st and 2nd Books of Kings. His discouragement and sense of failure surface time and time again – -and yet his faithfulness as the worlds of his time are colliding is a faithfulness that in the larger picture contributes to the survival of the tribes who eventually become the Jewish people. Where would we be today if Elijah had simply disappeared back into the wilderness?
Worlds are colliding all the time. Certainly war represents the collision of multiple worlds. Religion and politics are worlds that collide ever more frequently. We are witnessing now the collision of the world that is shaped by our collective need for safety with the world of our personal and civil rights and the right to privacy. The world of political expediency and the world of moral outrage collide in the headlines on a daily basis.
One thing is for sure: when there is a collision, every thing is jostled and things have to loosen up. Collisions sometimes create space where there was none before. And in that space, the Holy One gets a chance to move – -to create something that did not exist before.
Sometimes, a lot of confusion and anxiety and discomfort is the only thing we know for a long time. As with the Elijah stories, we have to read and experience an awful lot before we get to the good news that eventually arises out of the story. And even then, other collisions are taking place that continue the shaping process. It is extremely uncomfortable to live with colliding worlds.
The collision of the worlds of Simon the Pharisee and the uninvited guest and Jesus creates a new possibility. Simon didn’t like it one bit that a strange woman from off the street crashed his party. But because Simon was a reasonable person, he did pause and listen to Jesus when Jesus said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon listened to Jesus’ parable of forgiveness. Simon witnessed the interaction between Jesus and the woman. The three way interaction becomes a metaphor for what is needed when worlds collide. At the beginning, Simon wasn’t paying attention to Jesus. it was as simple as that. As respectful, and respectable, and intelligent and faithful as he was, he wasn’t paying attention to Jesus. The woman, however, whatever her world was like outside of Simon’s house, never took her attention away from Jesus from the time she crashed the party.
So – therein lies the secret when worlds collide – -whatever those worlds may be: the presence of Jesus calls for our undivided attention – – a single-mindedness – a centeredness in which we become likeminded with him. We have heard so frequently from Paul’s words encouraging us to “have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul writes about residing in a kind of “Christ consciousness” so that we can say it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
We can’t escape the collision of the many worlds in which we live. Even in a relatively small community like the Vineyard, the world of unimaginable wealth collides with the world of inadequate housing. The world of abundance of food and possessions collides with the world of hunger and lack. The world of those who belong collides with the world of the outsider. The world of private and personal comfort collides with the world of public need. The world of invisible suffering collides with the world of the status quo.
It is easy to forget that we are called to live vibrantly at the point of impact where worlds collide. It is easy to forget where our worlds collide with the world of Jesus. It is easy to forget that we are called to pay attention. The dinner party is so comfortable. But worlds will continue to collide and life is in constant flux. The one thing we can depend on is that Jesus stands in our midst and says “People….I have something to say to you.” In the midst of the noise and confusion and uncertainty as we live at the point of impact – – at the heart of colliding worlds – – Jesus simply calls us to listen. May we receive the grace to slow down and be quiet enough to hear the wisdom and the challenge that the Christ will speak to us as worlds collide.