April 10, 2011
I Samuel 8:1-22 - LENT V
"When Kings Fail"
David A. Davis
Cathy and I were with some friends seeing the new play “Good People” in New York. As we left the theater, working our way out through the crowd to the sidewalk, we hadn’t even made it to the first intersection when the questions and comments started to fly between us. “Do you think he really was the father of her child?” “I can’t decide whether I liked his wife or couldn’t stand her!” “Had you ever heard the term “lace curtain” used in a derogatory way?” “How about those South Boston accents?” “I’m not sure there was a likeable character in the bunch?” “Did you hear the audience gasp when she blurted that out?” Then the light changed. It’s really not all that easy to be such accomplished critics right there on a crowded sidewalk in New York City. The level of audience engagement after the play; it’s not a bad measure, really. Maybe not a measure of quality but at least an indicator of whether or not the play was able to draw you in.
“So do you think Samuel ever told the people that God was giving in to their demand for a king? All the bible says is that Samuel sent them home.” “That list of all that the king will do—taking sons and taking daughters, appointing commanders, making implements of war, taking the best of the harvest , and a tenth of everything, do you think that’s a description of what inevitably will happen (the dark side) or is it a prescription of what a king is allowed to do?” “I’m not sure I blame the people. The sons of Samuel were clear disasters in judging, they took bribes and perverted justice, why blame the people for asking for a king.” “It’s not just that they wanted a king, it’s that they wanted to be “like other nations”. Did you notice that “Like other nations” was repeated more than once. They weren’t just asking for a king, it was a grass is always greener, keeping up with the neighbor, why can’t we be like them kind of thing.”
And the reaction to the narrative of scripture., the play read here among us, the reaction continues: “How about God responding to Samuel? I’m not sure whether it’s a pat on the back or kick in the pants. Clearly, Samuel’s sons were part of the problem and it could have been that Samuel was feeling sorry for himself when the Lord said “they have not rejected you, they have rejected me.” “Yes, but any reference to the Exodus always carries the day. The Lord told Samuel they’re just doing what they’ve been doing since they crossed the Red Sea, forsaking me and serving other gods.”
Others keep chiming in: “I’m not getting God’s giving in to their request, it’s not clear in what comes next in scripture that the kings of Israel; Saul, David, and Solomon, that things were a whole lot better. The divinely appointed kings were far from perfect.” “Yes, but later on in the Bible, God said to David, you want to make me a house, I’m going to build you a dynasty.” “Don’t you think it all comes back to “forsaking God, serving other gods.” Taking a king, and making the king god; worshipping the king instead of God. It always comes back to the 2nd Commandment.” “Did you notice how when the people refused to listen to Samuel, refused to listen to his voice, how they said they were determined to have a king not just so they could be like other nations but so the king could go and fight their battles. Maybe the request for a king is all about national security and military power?”
And because here at Nassau Church, this not so fictional, rapid fire, out on the sidewalk reaction to this reading from scripture would inevitably include a professor type, or someone who knows Hebrew, or someone who did their homework and read up on the play before going….someone is bound to say something like this: “Did you notice how the phrase “ways of the king” is repeated. Like the people crying out that they wanted to be “like other nations”. It is repeated, “the ways of the king”, it’s repeated. And in the Hebrew, the phrase “ways of the king” relates to the same word as justice. Not just ways of the king, but justice of the king. Right before our reading for today, Samuel is described as judging Israel off the days of his life. He judged Israel all over. Samuel administered justice there to Israel. His sons, they perverted justice. So the people ask for a king, and voice of the Lord paints a picture of “the ways of the king”, it is a picture of the king’s justice. The king’s justice or God’s justice.”
And here someone else says, “How you can read this chapter about kingship and not think of all that is happening right now in the world? Just the other day an article described how the president of the Ivory Coast fixed the last elections and surrounded himself with Christian leaders who proclaimed that God had put him in charge.” “You could just cut and paste these verses about “the ways of the king” and copy them into news article after news article about kings and tyrants and rulers around the world today.” “Yes, but the connotations of government empowered by God, or a ruler or a particular form of government divinely established, that blending of religion and nation, it is scary today, maybe more scary than ever.”
“The reading from scripture, it’s not just a warning about kings, or nations, or government; it’s a warning about power.” “Not just power, but justice.” “Not only justice, but the ways of the world. As if God was saying, my way or your way, you pick!”
I Samuel 8. And the light hasn’t even changed yet.
God’s as king. God’s way. Our way. So much to react to and chatter about here in the biblical account of the people’s request for a king. So many questions and thoughts and pushbacks and takeaways, because there’s a whole lot grey, a whole lot of room when it comes to trying to wrap your head and your heart around it. God’s way. Our way. You and I just sort of drawn right in precisely because it’s not all the easy in the text, and its not all that easy in life, It’s not all that simple. It’s not all that clear in the drama of scripture, let alone the real drama of our lives. Not all that easy to figure out, let alone to live.
The way of God or not. The pathway of righteousness or not; or as the psalmist would say, the way of the wicked. It’s not all that clear when it comes to kingship; how God worked in and through and over and against human institutions. God making Godself known in and through and inspite of and despite human ways. As God’s kingdom draws near here among us, as God promises for the Spirit to move, to breath, to intercede, to hover over your life and mine, as God in the very fullness of time, sent for God’s son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that we might receive adoption as children. The same Son of God, who was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him, the One who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and full of truth.
“Listen to their voice and set a king over them” God told Samuel. This whole God’s way or your way thing….it is just not that easy, precisely because God told Samuel to set a king over them, precisely because God so loved the world, precisely because of God with us. Emmanuel. If God chose to send Jesus among us, if God opts to work in and through humankind, if you and I are the body of Christ here and now, then it is not all that easy to figure it out, or to live it out, because it is all so darn mushed together. God. Jesus. Spirit. Your life. My life. The kingdom of God. The kingdom of this world. No, it is never going to get any easier when it comes to trying to figure out the way of God in your life, in our life together, in the world; as long as God continues to choose to work with the likes of us; as long as God has still calls servants like us.
In his recent book entitled God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America, historian E. Brooks Holifield traces three or four threads or themes present in the life of the clergy in every generation in America. One of those ever present realities for clergy, the author describes as “a paradox at the heart of Christianity.’ The gospel is at the same time world denying and world affirming. God above or beyond culture, institutions, our way. God revealed in and through culture, history, you, and me. God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, he points out. So clergy embody what Holifield labels as the gospel’s “irreducibly paradoxical relation to American culture….Priests and ministers called to serve within the culture and yet offend it repeatedly.” Irreducibly paradoxical. That means it’s not easy. Proclaiming the gospel in the world in which we live. In our tradition that gave birth to the priesthood of all believers, you, each of you, living out your faith, you have the privilege of joining me in the paradox…living in our world and offending it repeatedly. God’s way. Our way. Let’s pick.
Have you ever had a coach or a teacher or driving instructor who helped you to know the right way by showing you the wrong way to do something? Have you ever gone about the process of picking a color or paint but eliminating the ones you clearly didn’t like? Have you ever tried to describe something complicated by telling someone what it isn’t? Helping someone understand a word by giving its opposite, its antonym. As difficult as this whole God’s way, our way conversation is, when you look around at the world, at your own life, at life all around us, when you look around, there are those moments, those times, those instance, those relationships, those realities, when you find yourself saying, “no” this isn’t it. When it comes it God, the kingdom, abundant life, resurrection hope, the promise of God here and now. No, this isn’t it.
A week or so ago, a report was released on the compensation of Hedge fund directors. 25 people made 22 billion dollars. Just after I read that story, I then clicked on another that quoted statistics on poverty in America. Poverty has reached the highest rate in 15 years. 44 million people. 1 in 7 people. 1 in 5 children. That’s a poverty line defined as $11,000 for a single person. $22,000 for a family of four. The real poverty line, how much it really takes to live, is 3 times that. So how many millions more are really suffering. 25 people/22 billion dollars. 44/64/104 million people barely making it? No. No. This isn’t it.
God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this earth. The call to walk in the light and the lure of walking in darkness. The justice of God and the ways of the king. God announcing that its my way or your way, you pick. It isn’t all that easy. But nothing is made clearer by just elevating the religious rhetoric in the public square. It doesn’t get any easier just because leaders invoke the name of God. With your own piety you just can’t settle for living in the world but not being of it. It doesn’t get any simpler if you just cling to doctrine, patting yourself on the back for being right, while those around you are hungry or cold, or lost, or lonely, or oppressed, or abused, or bullied, or invisible. And you can’t make the whole challenge of life in the world go away by announcing that religion and politics don’t mix, that your prayer closet is for God and the voting booth is about your own best interest, or what goes on in church, stays in church, or wishing that the preacher would just stick to the gospel and leave life “out there” out of it.
Maybe it won’t get easier, but it will get a whole lot more holy when justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, it will get a whole lot more sacred when you love your neighbor as yourself, it will get a whole lot more divine when the wolf and the lamb start to lie down together, and when there is no more hurt or destruction on God’s holy mountain, when we learn war no more, when swords are made into plowshares.
It will never get easier, but every day begins with you and me choosing to live for nothing else, no one else, other than God. You and me choosing to worship nothing else, no one else, other than the God we know in Christ Jesus. Each day, you and me serving nothing other, no one other than God. Servants in the kingdom of God. Now.
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