Why do we read these old stories every week?

June 10, 2018 — Proper 5, Year B, RCL

By Jan Adams

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.

If you ever want to goose the urgency of your prayers for God’s help, I’ve got a suggestion for you: be fool enough to volunteer to preach. Performance anxiety can do wonders to remind a person of her dependence on God’s help.

Unlike my Erudite Partner, Rebecca — and many others in this congregation — I don’t have an academic credential that somehow qualifies me to stand up here. Many, many years ago I attended grad school and was on my way to acquiring the professional degree that would qualify me to study and teach history. But I came to feel that I had a different vocation. My apparent calling was to live consciously within history, and to participate in making more justice within contemporary history. So much for academia … But I have never stopped eagerly learning from history.

One of the aspects of Episcopal practice that brings me here week after week is our routine exposure to the ancient texts of old stories of people trying to comprehend how God/Godself is alive within history. I’m not saying, as our fundamentalist cousins do, that the Bible is The Last Word. Rather, I think we are challenged by these readings to extract meaning for our lives today from the lives of people wrestling, as we are, with how God is right there with them.

So let’s think about today’s readings. I’m going to start with the Gospel. In this passage from Mark (the story is also told by Luke and Matthew), Jesus tells the religious leaders who come to accuse him of being an evil magician that they are full of it. He asks them: how can he, Jesus, be doing the work of the Devil by using the Devil’s tools? That would not work. He points out “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

If you had been in the United States in the 1850’s and 1860’s, this text would have had a striking resonance; it would have seemed invigorating or frightening depending on your politics. Jesus’ admonition that a divided house or kingdom must fall might have haunted your nightmares much as Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency does to many of us today. When Abraham Lincoln was merely a Senate candidate in Illinois several years before he was elected President, he seized on Jesus’ parable to describe the country’s existential conflict, quoting: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and continuing “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

Lincoln’s assertion was not universally popular. His confidant and law partner warned him not to issue this bold warning of national division. Americans who feared violent conflict wanted him to dial his bold words back. But he persisted, explaining: “The proposition is indisputably true … and I will deliver it as written. I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language, as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.”

He lost that Senate campaign, but his bold words brought him to national attention, which led to election to the Presidency two years later, and made him the leader of the country’s great war to preserve its unproven democracy and to free African-descended slaves. Lincoln was a complex human, as we all are, but he stood his ground.

In his boldness — his willingness to speak dangerous truths — he was only following the example set by Jesus in the Gospel passage. We’ve heard these tales so many times, it is easy to miss their power. But here in this story, Jesus is defying the religious and civil authorities of his time, the scholars, the authorized clerical persons, and even his own family. That’s radical. Jesus was neither polite, nor moderate, nor tame.

So what to make of the passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians?

Unlike a lot of feminists, I’m fond of Paul. I like to say that Paul was one of history’s greatest community organizers– that’s my professional tribe, you may know. There he was, running all over the Roman Empire in the first century of the Common Era, leaving little Jesus communities in his wake and trying to keep all these unformed, spirit-filled little groups on track. It was tough and not always successful work. How were people supposed to live in the new reality which was God as Jesus coming in the flesh among humanity — and then being crucified and risen from the dead? Nobody quite knew — just like we don’t know much of the time, by the way.

In today’s passage he reminds the Corinthians: “… we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen …” I can live in that dictum of Paul’s; I have no choice but to do so, everyday.

But what about today’s passage from the Old Testament book of Samuel? First and Second Samuel are among the Biblical books that are called the Histories. For the ancient Hebrew people, and for us as their descendants, these are the story of God’s lively engagement, of God’s very actual presence, in their history and their struggles. In these books, God is not remote; God is right there with them.

Last week we heard about how the boy Samuel heard God calling to him while he slept and how Eli– the priest and Judge of the Israelites to whom he was apprenticed– told him to listen up! We didn’t read what God told Samuel: God said Eli’s family was going to fall into corruption and the Israelites would suffer catastrophic defeat by enemies. All that came to pass. The warlike Philistines stole the Holy Ark of the Covenant and then gave it back when they found it had bad mojo. They could not hurry fast enough to send it back! (Really, this is one of the many humorous bits in the old stories.) Eventually Samuel led the Israelites to victory over their enemies — and then we get to the bit we read today.

Now that they’ve won their war, thanks to the God who has promised them greatness in Covenant with them, now the Israelites want to be like everyone else. They hope they can ease up now — they hope they can lie back and relax and let a ruler to take care of their troubles, that they won’t have to work so hard to maintain their community. They want a king. Samuel tells them kings are a bad deal — kings are corrupt, they steal the people’s wealth, they will make war. The story goes on: … the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

God is not pleased. God has been very good to this troublesome people. God has just showed them, that God is there for them. They reject God; they dare not trust that God cares for them and is with them. No — they have to a human king.

Now in that place and time, having a king to rule the people was the normal thing. But God expected these Israelites to know that they had God in time of trouble, that was the promise to Abraham and also their experience. God wanted them to rest in the confidence that they could rule themselves, with God’s help. God expects them to live as responsible adults, not to whine like sulky children. They have been given the gift and the promise of God’s good justice — their task is to get about the business of living God’s justice in peace and community with one another. They are not supposed to hunt for some fancy ruler whose magnificence will impress the other peoples.

How very human of those ancient Israelites! We humans, we the people, too often default to hoping someone else will do it, whatever “it” our particular moment demands. We often allow ourselves to sink into unjustified fear. We can be ungenerous and spiteful. We don’t get it. As citizens and residents of this quasi-democratic country, we have less excuse than many people do for not seeking to embody God’s injunction to live like grown ups and do without greedy, unaccountable kings.

Or so I think. This passage from Samuel was the first bit of the Bible I thought of on that awful night of November 8, 2016 when we the people elected Donald Trump. (Well, after “save us from the time of trial” — oops, we didn’t get that.) We have chosen, again, as humans do, to act as something less than I trust God wants us to be. We, collectively, have chosen to be enamored of shallow hopes and bright shiny objects. Our calling is something else: it is to care for ourselves, and for our neighbors, and preserve this incomplete democracy of ours from the havoc that human hands have made and are making.

As followers of Jesus, we have to believe that God is with us, beside us, (and of course, with everyone who disagrees with us too.) Fortunately, this little church gives us a weekly practice to remind us. Like Samuel’s ancient Israelites, like Paul’s difficult little churches, like Jesus’ confused hearers, every week we come here to affirm that we too are people of the promise. May we find strength to blunder on, seeking to do justice and love compassion, and giving thanks to the God within whom all humanity lives and moves and has its being.

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