In Jesus we see the full flowering of an image of God.
And we see a picture of how to live the godly life.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the sinner woman is living the godly life
by her loving, appreciative welcome
while the pure but judgmental Pharisee is not.
Her very sinfulness has opened her heart to deeper godliness.
But to understand this way of seeing God and godly living,
we need to look back at how we came to view the divine nature this way.
This image of God unfolded over centuries.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a key turning point
in that ongoing discovery.
The story of King Ahab’s land grab is a bigger deal
than it appears on the surface.
It’s about how we understand God.
And it shows us the difference between the godly relationships
we learn in the church and the power dynamics of the world.
Israel’s first image of God was as a powerful destructive force.
God was like a volcano, an earthquake, or a desert storm.
Later they saw God as a powerful creative force.
God said “frog.”
The universe jumped into existence and said ‘Ribbit, hallelujah.”
God was creative, but still a dominating power.
That dominator God was represented on earth by kings,
who might be good or bad – but they were always god-like
in that they were dominating powers.
They took what they wanted – like David taking Bathsheba from Uriah;
or Ahab taking the vineyard from Naboth.
But when the prophets saw the kings exerting that kind of dominance,
it didn’t look godly to them.
They brought messages from God
– like Nathan calling David to account;
and Elijah doing the same with Ahab –
saying this isn’t right.
And that made them rethink God’s very nature.
God wasn’t about domination.
God was about righteousness – right relationships.
In fact, righteousness was actually
the core of God’s identity and they called that
“the righteousness of God.”
They said: God isn’t a powerful creator or destroyer
dominating us by force.
The source, the destiny, the foundation, the purpose,
and the meaning of everything is a network of love,
appreciation, delight, forgiveness, and compassion.
That image of God changed our basic metaphor of the divine nature.
We stopped calling God a super powerful individual.
Instead, we called God the Trinity – a symbol of relationship.
Our central religious ritual ceased to be a sacrifice
to appease or propitiate a super power in the sky.
Our central religious ritual became Holy Communion
– an act of unity with God achieved
precisely through unity with each other.
This leads to how we go about being the Church.
First, the Church is a school in which
we learn the fine art of human relationship.
We grow in godliness here by perfecting our people skills.
Second, the Church is a sign and a symbol of God in the world.
We exemplify godliness by the way we treat each other.
The Church is perfectly set up for practicing healthy relationship.
About 10% of church life is written in stone to give us a structure
like a Constitution of fixed principles.
Those things are rooted in theology, tradition, and deep archetypal psychology;
so we do them – period – whether they please us or not.
But the other 90% of church life is up to us to work out.
There are no fixed rules and frankly
what we do often isn’t that important.
What we do isn’t nearly as important as how we treat each other
in the process of doing it.
It’s like a family vacation.
Where we go isn’t as important as how we act in the car on the way.
So as we work out how to do church,
we practice relationship and the world watches.
“They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Or will they?
A new priest in one of our congregations recently told some folks in town,
“I’m the new priest at St. Swithens.”
The locals replied: “Are they still fighting?”
It reminded me of back when I was a parish priest.
We were remodeling our worship space,
and someone suggested we didn’t really need an altar rail.
That produced a heated backlash.
People began organizing, lobbying, and politicking full bore.
One Sunday between services we were sitting
in rocking chairs on the porch drinking coffee.
A visitor walked up, but we were so busy arguing
over the altar rail, nobody spoke to him.
He listened to us go at each other for about 15 minutes,
then walked off, got in his car, and drove away.
I don’t know his name.
I don’t know what he needed that day.
I don’t know what grace he was seeking from the people of God.
We were too busy fighting over the altar rail.
Altar rails are optional; a child of God is indispensible.
Whether we shine the Christ light into the world is crucial.
Whether we cultivate right relationships determines
the state of our souls when we stand before the throne.
These things are not trivial.
How we go about being Church is both our catechism and out witness.
We are here to practice Elijah-style righteousness
in a world that operates by Ahab-style
power politics and manipulation,
a world where business, social, and even family
dynamics are driven by ego assertion.
If we want to learn “righteousness” which means right relationship,
if we want to learn how to appreciate people
and form life-giving personal bonds,
if we want to learn the skills we need at home, work, and in the community, where are we going to look today?
It won’t be a reality TV show or a talk show.
It won’t be an action movie.
It won’t be from our political leaders
who think compromise is a 4-letter word.
Civic society is self-destructing and civil discourse
is a dead language.
Look to world and you see the way of Ahab.
But if we church folks believe in the Triune God,
if we believe that the source, destiny, foundation, purpose,
and meaning of everything
is a network of love, appreciation, delight, forgiveness,
– if we aren’t faking the Holy Communion,
– if we truly believe that we connect with God
by connecting with each other
and that our relationship with God
is as good as our relationship with each other – no better, no worse –
then this is where we learn and practice the art of relationship.
Thomas Merton said, “The saints are saints not by virtue of their own sanctity,
but by virtue of their capacity to appreciate the sanctity of others.”
We are here to learn how to appreciate each other’s sanctity.
That’s why our clergy are learning
the relational skills of community organizing, circles of trust,
asset based community development,
and new ways of group decision-making like World Café.
It turns out Roberts Rules of Order are not in the Bible after all.
Our clergy are learning these skills so they can spread them
If we have learned anything from the big church controversies
of the past 30 years, it’s that when the Church imitates the world,
when we do business on the Ahab style of power politics,
no one wins.
But when we withhold judgment long enough to practice curiosity,
when we value people over project,
when we cultivate the moral imagination
to see someone else’s point of view,
then we see the sacred in another human face;
then God is glorified and our world becomes a kinder home.