Proper 5 (10), Third Sunday after Pentecost
10 June 2018
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
There is one line I remember from my childhood that corresponds with today’s readings. I don’t even remember what the specific applications were.
It may have been about clothes I wanted, or food I wanted, or shows I wanted to watch (even though my family did not own a TV). And one argument I made in favour of my petition was this, “But my friends are allowed to, their parents don’t mind.”
The answer my mother gave without fail was, “But we are not other people.”
That was very true. We were vegetarian when being vegetarian was like being from Mars. We did not have a regular family physician but embraced alternative medicine and were always looking for the ‘right’ physician or dentist. And we went to church in a society were most people were nominally still members of the church but no one actually went to church.
That we were not other people was something I could not argue with. As it happened to be descriptive of our family it was also generally true, the bandwagon was never a persuasive option. And I may have used my mother’s line a few times myself, most parents probably do.
And yet, this is precisely the argument the elders of Israel make before Samuel: “appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
Israel was, of course, not like other nations. Israel was God’s chosen people, God’s elect. Israel was to be a light unto the nations and through Israel all nations should be blessed. How, one might ask, would other nations be blessed through Israel, if Israel was simply going to be like all other nations, if Israel became indistinguishable. Maybe it is just me but I hear Jesus speaking to the disciples, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10)
The historical situation was this: Israel was a conglomeration of the 12 tribes, descendants of the sons of Jacob. It was governed by so-called judges, charismatic leaders that would administer the affairs of the people. They were people who were, like Moses, to be close to God. Perhaps you remember Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Eli, Samuel, and others.
Today’s passage begins not with a request but with a complaint, similar to God’s complaint against Eli, Samuel’s mentor, that now Samuel’s sons did not walk in God’s ways and were not fit to carry forth the office: You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways.
The elders of Israel are concerned about the future yet ironically the very institution they seek, kingship, was one of the marks that set them apart from other nations. They may face the future with greater stability but the loss of identity appears to be the price.
I have a colleague who is part of Lutheran Church Canada who says that it’s going to get worse before it will get better. What he means by that is a general erosion of the institutions and norms we take for granted, as seen at the G7 summit in La Malbaie, Quebec.
But the point he makes is not simply one of cultural pessimism but an assertion of the ministry of the church: As societies continue to fragment, it is important for the church to be the church, to bear the light and life of Christ for the world. And for the church to be able to be a light unto the nations and to be a blessing unto the world, the church must remember who and whose it is. The church cannot seek to be like all others.
Yes, perhaps we can do without organ music, or buildings, or the structures we have today, but we must know who we are.
And this is the place where the reading from Samuel connects with the Gospel. A difficult reading in which Jesus trades barbs with the scribes, speaks of an unforgiveable sin, and ends by almost rejecting his mother, brothers, and sisters: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus does not reject his family but he redefines family as those who are in God. Consequently, the church is the new family, is our family, is the place where we belong. It is not a rejection of our biological family, but the water of our baptism is thicker than the blood of kinship.
This is the place where we remember who we are so that we can be a light onto the nations, the salt of the earth, a blessing to others. A community where we do not lord over each other but serve each other and give ourselves as Jesus gave himself for us.
Our reading from Samuel has a surprising ending. Even though the Lord instructs Samuel to spell out the consequences of their ill conceived desire, and even though the Lord says to Samuel that the people have not “rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them,” God still abides with God’s people. God continues to bless Israel, God blesses David and his house. Kingship was not God’s choice but God does not abandon his people.
That is also how the church works. We are not all the things God wants us to be, we are not even all the things we want ourselves or each other to be, but God remains faithful, blessing, leading, abiding.