June 6, 2021
1 Samuel 8:4-20
I’ve mentioned before that there are plenty of disagreements in scripture: contradictions and signs that the various biblical authors didn’t see things the same way. One of those areas of disagreement is the matter of Israel’s king and whether or not they should even have one. Some threads of scripture indicate that having a king of Israel is God’s holy will. Others say it is a terrible idea. In today’s passage it’s a terrible idea. God knows it. Samuel knows it, but the people don’t know it.
The people are weary of priests and judges and prophets like Samuel. They are unhappy with God’s answers and they look around at what neighboring nations are doing and they decide that they want the “majesty of a monarchy, the reliability of royalty, and the certainty of succession.” Give us a king, they say.
God tells them what a king will do. A king will take your sons for his military. He’ll take your daughters to serve his queen. He’ll take the first fruits of your crops. He’ll take your best plots of land. You’ll be slaves to your king, God says.
But, the people don’t see it that way. They see what everyone else has, and twice in this passage they say it, “We want to be like other nations.” And THAT, I think, is the real problem here. It’s not just that a king will exploit them. It’s that they are in some way ready to sacrifice their unique identity as the people of YHWH – as a people whose sovereign is God – as a people whose communal, social, ethical, and political identity is rooted in the discernment of a unique God liberation, justice, and love.
Now, some might argue that having a king doesn’t necessarily mean all of that, but in this passage you get the clear sense that a move toward a king is necessarily a move away from God and therefore away from what makes them uniquely them.
It’s kind of like the argument that I’ve heard many theologians suggest that the greatest hit to Christianity really began in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. That’s when the church first began losing its unique witness. That’s when the church got coopted by the ways and values of empire. It could only follow the ways of Christ and his cross when those ways didn’t clash with the ways of Caesar and his rule. What seemed like a good thing – official Roman sanction – was really a bad thing because instead of being the “new creation in Christ” that the Christians were supposed to be, they became just a different version of the old thing that was already there.
As I see it, this odd moment with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is a continuation of the same theme. When Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers” it’s not meant as a slight on Mary and his siblings. Rather, it is the confession and proclamation of a particular way of being community – and therefore of just “being” – in the world that is different than the status quo.
On Tuesday morning I read the most beautiful ordination paper I’ve ever read (and, sad to say, that includes my own.) I sit on the committee that oversees the ordination process for UCC candidates in our area. I was particularly interested in this young woman’s story because among the more profound experiences in her spiritual journey toward ordination was the camino, or pilgrimage walk, to Santiago de Compostela, a leg of which my family and I are scheduled to do when we finally take our sabbatical in 2022. But, while we’re just doing the last day’s walk, she did 33 days, over 500 miles across the length of Spain.
Just a few days into the walk she and all the other pilgrims who happened to embark when she did ascended a high hill on top of which is a metal cross. The practice when reaching the cross is to carry with you a stone and place it at the base along with whatever it is that you are carrying spiritually and emotionally. Often, pilgrims who undertake the journey have come from all around the world and they are carrying with them quite a bit. Laying down that stone so that Christ can take the weight of the burdens it represents is often an intense and powerful moment as it was for this candidate whose paper I was reading. She knelt down and poured her prayers out along with all her confusion and her pain, and in doing so she felt part of herself break and then found that in the breaking Christ was there to hold and heal her. The universal sign that the pilgrims make when they’ve finished their prayer is a nod of the head, which when she did it inspired her fellow travelers to come to her and embrace her. They held her, and lifted her, and hugged her and shared in her tears and in her peace, and they journeyed with her all the rest of the way to Santiago. Though strangers when they began, they all did this for one another and as they held one another’s stories they became a part of one another, sharers in the sacred thing that God is doing and therefore sharers in God together.
I bet that if you were to ask her at that moment who her mother and brothers were she would have told you that in some undeniable and unexpected way they were.
Do you remember Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. It’s this tiny little seed, which Jesus likens to the Kingdom of God because though it is so small, when planted, it grows into a great bush with many branches upon which the birds of the air come and nest. At our Boost on Wednesday night we heard the ineriguinging suggestion that the real bulk of the mustard bush is actually its root system. Those roots spread deep and wide throughout the soil beneath the bush. The Kingdom of God is like this massive network of roots and relationships between people that reach out and spread and grow and give life and love to all who seek it or become entwined with it. The suggestion was that if the bush were yanked from the ground it would leave a massive hole, which I see as a powerful reminder of the great and profound impact of true Christian community. And, I want to set the sense of that impact before us as a goal for our church and for our relationships.
I hope that as we emerge into a new future it isn’t for the sake of returning to the same old thing. I hope that we can become more and more the kind of people who strive to discern God’s ways above all others. I hope we can be the kind of people who see brothers and sisters near and far, and are ready to lay down our stones at Christ’s cross so that we might also be freed up to hold one another. I hope we can be the kind of people who can show empire, the status quo, the old systems that drain the world of its life a better way.
And, I don’t just hope. I really think we can, with the help of God, more fully live into this truth. I think we have a great opportunity here within and beyond our fellowship and, my friends, I hope you see it too.
 JoAnn A. Post, Christian Century, May 19, 2021, page 21