Focal Scripture: 1 Kings 21:1-21a
Preacher: Rev. Shelli Latham
Date: July 10, 2017
A sermon following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille at the hands of police officers, and the death of 5 Dallas police officers at the hands of a mass shooter.
On Friday morning, I woke up, read the news and went back to bed. I had been up late Thursday night, my chest tapping out a heartsick rhythm and my lips set to quiver at a moment’s notice. Wednesday morning, I’d awakened to the news that Alton Sterling, a black man selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana had been shot and killed during a police call gone bad. I don’t know what goes through a police officer’s head when they think a potential perp might be dangerous, but with Mr. Sterling pinned to the ground, the graphic video footage sure makes it seem like the shooting was rash – another black man laid out too soon by those who have pledged their lives to serve and to protect. Alton Sterling: Say His Name.
The first time I remember hearing the chant to “Say Her Name”, not necessarily the first time the cry became a thing, just the first time I remember, was last July, as protesters cried out Sandra Bland’s name along Michigan Avenue, as hundreds of protesters lined a bridge over the Chicago River, urging those who believe Black lives matter to “say her name” – that she wouldn’t be an anonymous someone, who’s unlawful arrest was an act of violence before she committed suicide or died as a result of police brutality. Participants in that event carried a broader message – that the system was responsible for ending Sandra Bland’s life regardless of the specifics of her death. “Sandra Bland: Say Her Name,” the protestors chanted.
I said his name: Alton Sterling. I said it out loud in an empty room, testifying to the walls, claiming my complicity in his death, through my general lethargy to really shake the world from it’s patterns of violence and fear. I said it in my prayers along with the Psalmist’s cry, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13) How long will our world wait to really believe, live out, to make all lives matter? Because we might say they matter but the statistics of the world say otherwise.
That was Wednesday. Thursday, I was struggling with a bulletin title, second guessing why I’d chosen to preach this blasted series on 1 & 2 Kings and puttering around on Facebook, when the live feed of Philando Castille bleeding in the driver’s seat, after being stopped by a Minnesota police officer, popped up. Not again! “Not again,” I thought, as I longed to look away but couldn’t. “He was reaching for his ID. He told the officer he had a firearm and a permit to carry, and he shot him 4 times in the arm,” Castille’s girlfriend said into the camera. And he died, a gun trained on him and his girlfriend from the driver’s side window. He died and I watched. He died under the watch of those charged with protecting the community – protecting him. Philando Castille: Say His Name.
I said his name, my tongue thick in my mouth, my anger and sadness streaming tears down my cheeks, my mind reeling over how long this must have been happening before arrests and routine, broken taillight stops began being filmed. I said his name, and I listened as his community rallied to cry his name into the day, and long into the night, and the next day. A white man, in a navy striped polo, eyes turned to the pavement, held a sign, “Mr. Phil fed my children.” Joan Erdman, a cafeteria coworker explained to the gathering press that Mr. Castille was the kind of guy who memorized the names of the 500 children he served everyday. “He remembered their names. He remembered who couldn’t have milk. He knew what they could have to eat and what they couldn’t . . . This was a real guy. He made a real contribution. Yes, black lives matter. But this man mattered.” Philando Castille: Say His Name.
I said his name. I googled where to put my feet into action. I said a prayer, to cry into the night for a world where life isn’t so disposable. “How long O Lord?”
That was Thursday. On Friday I woke up, and as is my pattern, I checked the weather and struggled into my running clothes. 5 police officers in Dallas were dead – 5 men who had gathered to protect protestors and citizens during a Black Lives Matter rally, an even dozen police officers shot over the course of the night. I read the news. My stomach went sick . . . my body heavy with disbelief. I wanted to hide from a world where citizens, particularly black men die at the hands of those who for me were always the helpers, the good guys, the ones you went to if your were in trouble. I wanted to close my eyes to a world where turning a gun on any human being, much less someone who had chosen a life of precarious uncertainty to guard the well being of others seemed like decision to bring justice, close my eyes to a planet where violence was returned for violence, death for death. I went back to bed. I’m not 100% certain I am awake yet.
Even in my sleeping though, there is privilege – a lack of urgency for my own safety, for the safety of my family. I have the luxury to slumber though I am embarrassed by my escapism, my napping, my not being, no matter how much I want to be, fully awake.
I want to say the names of the murdered police officers, because they are people, with lives and value because God made them so. They are part of our human family, with people who loved them and laughed with them and depended upon them. And so I say their names too: Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson. I pray their names. I cry out to God, “How long, O Lord?” In the complexity of the human experience, it is entirely possible to believe our police should be held to the highest standard, to long for more for the black and brown members of our communities, and to be sickened and saddened by the disregard for life by a man with a gun and a hatred for people in uniform.
“How long, O Lord?” I imagine Elijah is thinking the same thing. “Seriously, how long, O Lord?” If you have been following along with our journey through 1 & 2 Kings, you will recognize that the calling of Elijah as the prophet for Israel and particularly Israel’s royal party is a really sucky job. Ahab and Jezebel have rejected God and turned to the idol Baal. Elijah has been sent again and again to talk sense into them, to bring their ways back to God’s ways, to show signs of our God’s power to bring life, rain, fire. Elijah has run for his life after getting on their bad side, and he finds himself once again called up from the trenches to track down Ahab and let him know his treachery has not gone unnoticed. When those in power use their power to bring pain, God sends in reinforcements for good.
Ahab wanted a vegetable garden at his Jezreel palace. He had 2 palaces and looking out on the land of Naboth, he noticed that his neighbor’s property seemed most perfect for planting tomatoes and a little row of snap peas, maybe some basil. He offered to buy the land – or trade him for some even better land. It was a fair swap, but Naboth explained that stretch of property with the perfect potential for Ahab’s green thumb had been in his family for generations. Levitical law (25:23) seems to prohibit permanent sale of inherited family property, so Naboth says, “No.”
This response sends Ahab back to the castle, where he wallows in sorrow – covers over his head, unable to eat. His wife asks what the problem is, and Ahab explains that he really, really, really wanted Naboth’s vineyard, and he offered him land and he offered him money and Naboth just said, “No, I won’t let you have my vineyard.” Ahab conveniently left out the ancestral inheritance part. Whoops. Jezebel, ever the loyal and conniving bride, says, “Do you now govern Israel? You’re the one with the power. Get up, have some dinner. Put a smile on your face. I’ll give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (v 7).
And she does. She concocts a plan to have two men falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and king, for which the punishment is death. She scratches out this plot on the king’s stationery, signs his name, and Naboth is stoned to death, the property of the “traitor” turned over to the king. Jezebel sends word to Ahab that he can start staking out his garden, and immediately he seizes the dead man’s property and makes it his own. It is a clear abuse of power, a lie cooked up by the royal haves that no members of the Israelite government or local community would ever dare to question, though they knew it was self-serving fiction.
No one said anything – that is until Elijah strolled back into town. The last we have seen of Elijah, he was taking some Sabbath time out in the wilderness – maybe resting, maybe hiding out. God has told him, he’ll be sent back in to confront the powers and principalities – that he will be part of the toppling of the evil rulers – and now Elijah is called back up. Elijah does speak up to the King . . . after exactly zero people questioned his supposed edict about Naboth, but God speaks up first. Our scripture says that, “the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down and meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also take 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” (v 19). Twice God murmurs Naboth’s name., first acknowledging the thievery of land, which only by injustice now belongs to the king. Second, God tells Elijah to go to the King, to look him in the eye and to say that “in the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” God names and calls the chosen prophet to name Naboth, to speak out loud the spilling of his blood and to raise his voice for justice. Naboth: Say His Name.
Our reading for this morning stops not too long after this. Elijah shows up, and King Ahab seems to be dreading and expecting his arrival all at once. Elijah consults the notecards God had given him and cries out for justice for the death of Naboth – predicting Ahab’s own destruction as the result of this act. And you know what happens? Ahab repents. Ahab fasts and mourns, and it isn’t that phony baloney stuff from earlier in the passage. He puts on sackcloth and humbles himself before God, and then you know what God does (at least for now – during this brief change of heart period of time for Ahab)? God lets Ahab live. God recognizes the regret and contrite heart and gives Ahab another chance. God sends Elijah to speak, and Elijah speaks, and change happens. Naboth: Say His Name.
Elijah is called to say Naboth’s name because Naboth mattered to God. Naboth’s life mattered to God, and his death mattered to God. Elijah is called to say Naboth’s name because naming has power. And in coming to terms with his part in death over privilege and property, Ahab is changed. I cannot pretend to understand what would make a police officer pull his or her weapon and fire it in to the flesh of a living, breathing person. I have the luxury of not knowing that because someone else does the hard, often thankless, frequently dangerous job of keeping me safe. I don’t know what goes through that officer’s head or heart, but when it happens that in our country blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than whites, something has got to be different.
As we read the scripture this morning, I invited you to picture where you saw yourself in this story? Are you a worker in Naboth’s vineyard who overhears Elijah’s words of warning, are you part of the crowd that witnesses Naboth’s trial? Are you Naboth or Jezebel or Ahab or Elijah? I think the tendency when we read scripture is to put ourselves into the shoes of the hero. Maybe that’s not who we are but who we think God is calling us to be. We come from a strong prophetic tradition. God calls unlikely people to raise their voices in scary, sometimes radical, hardly-ever-easy ways.
And when I read this passage, I gravitate towards Elijah. I like the rabble rouser characters, the bold ones who speak truth to power, who show up at city hall, who knock on their congressperson’s door, who carry cardboard signs, and cry out – part hope, part lament, “No justice no peace!” I want to be Elijah . . . I think God might be calling me to be like Elijah, all of us, at least a little. But the truth of the matter is that right this minute I’m no Elijah.
It does not escape me that Ahab plays no real part in Naboth’s death. He isn’t there. He didn’t plot it or plan it. But he did benefit from it. And he didn’t prevent it. Jezebel told Ahab, “Don’t worry baby. You’ll have that vineyard for your little garden in no time,” and Ahab did nothing to assure that his getting what he wanted did not come at the expense of Naboth, who was weaker and more vulnerable. Ahab had power, and he asked no questions. He had to know that something just wasn’t right, that no matter how he came to possess Naboth’s property it would be at Naboth’s expense.
After the badness went down, Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” Elijah answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord” (v 20). Ahab didn’t pull the trigger, but he wasn’t blameless either. His inaction is evil in the sight of the Lord.
Druid Hills Presbyterian Church is a glorious patchwork of people of all different shapes and sizes and walks of life. We have those who find themselves in Naboth-type predicaments – seeming to have no winning option in the midst of the pressures and poverty of the city. We have those who have never had to wonder how the checkbook will balance. We have gay and straight and ebony and ivory, and this likely means that we will find ourselves in different spots in this tale. So maybe you are Elijah, called to cry out: Alton Sterling, and Philando Castillo, and Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, and Michael Brown . . . their lives matter. Their deaths matter. And your life is/our lives are bound up in theirs.
Maybe you are Naboth, and you are waiting for someone to cry out before the stone gets thrown: this life, this vulnerable, targeted life matters. Maybe your voice is strong and steady or tired and wavering and you need some backup amplifying it. Because your voice has not been a voice given as much weight . . . as much mattering.
Maybe, like me, you reluctantly find yourself to be Ahab or one of the silent townspeople fearful of rocking the boat. Maybe when you peel away the layers of the story, you find your voice went silent when it could have said, “No,” or that you chose blissful ignorance to the gritty details.
In a multi-faceted community like this one privilege isn’t so much a yes or no as it is a matter of scale. Ahab in our tale was the epitome of privileged. He was male, and rich, and royal. This spring, in a class we held on what it means to be beloved community, we were taught that there are various categories of privilege. You might find yourself holding privilege in some categories but not others . . . Men have privilege that women do not. White people have privilege that those with brown and black skin do not. Straight people have privilege that non-straight people do not. People who identify with the gender of their birth hold a level of privilege. Those who have higher education and income, those without mental or physical handicaps, those who have a good collection of years but not too many years as to make them “really old” have privilege not available to their counterparts. Very few of us are the powerhouses of privilege that Ahab is, but most of us have some amount of privilege, and some of us have a lot.
What that privilege means for me, I am still struggling to fully know. But I am aware that I always knew I would go to college. My parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents went to college. College educated was who I would be because those who went before me laid a path that involved very little pulling up by the bootstraps for me. My name sounds like a “white girl’s name” or is at least racially non-descript. In a world where a “black-name” resume is 50% less likely to receive a response than a “white name” with the same credentials, I have not only floated above the fray, I have had easier access to employment.
Last night, I called the police. This doesn’t happen normally. It certainly doesn’t happen at 1 AM. I called the police, because all my life I have known them to be the good guys. (This one was a good woman.) I wasn’t worried that I should put my safety on the line and not call because of my immigration status or because the tables might be turned and I’d find myself in the back of a squad car. I had no life or community experience to suggest that would be the case.
When I held my nephew in my lap yesterday as he showed me his haircut, I didn’t have to wonder if 3 years old is too young for having “The Talk” about how because he is black people would think he was older than he really is, and that they will some day decide he is scary. I won’t have to teach him that when he is pulled over by the police, he must ask before he reaches for his license. He must ask the police for permission to get his insurance card and registration out of the glove box. He should not answer any questions and just do as he is told, because not asking has killed his brother and bruised his cousin. I trust that when my Graham gets pulled over he will know it’s because he was speeding not because the officers who see his dark skin are, frequently without their even knowing it, operating from a point of bias, which treats black lives as dangerous and suspicious. I know this because when I’m pulled over for not using my blinker; I have the privilege of knowing it’s just because of my blinker.
When we have privilege, we have power. And that means that like Ahab, we can use that power to prevent unnecessary pain and bloodshed. It also means that like Ahab, when we choose not to use our power to protect the vulnerable, we often benefit from keeping those with less privilege pinned in a lower category, and we are guilty by association. Ahab did nothing to stop the senseless death of Naboth, and his inaction is the problem. “Ahab, I have found you,” Elijah says, “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”
It has been a dark and terrible week. Too many people have died out of haste; too many guns have been fired too soon. When the world feels dark and heavy, it can be tempting to go back to sleep, to tune it out and just put our own feet one-in-front-of-the-other. But we can’t wake from a national nightmare by going back to sleep. Elijah is called to say, “Naboth matters. And you . . . with your power that maims, you will be held accountable.” Ahab is called to acknowledge his inaction and to change. Where do you find yourself in this story? What are you called to do? Who are you called to be?
And how, this week, this month, this year, until we don’t need to cry out, “Black Lives Matter,” don’t need to cry out the names of the dead to say they had a story, a life, they mattered to someone . . . mattered to God . . . how will you stay awake to press back against the darkness? Because if there’s one thing our story tells us, going back to sleep . . . isn’t an option. May we not be afraid to be woke to our own place in the story and to do the hard work of grieving, repentance and prophecy that will weave a new tale of mutual love and sacrifice and value before God and one another. May it be so. Amen.