The elders informed Samuel they would like a king to govern them. Yet the driving force behind this request was really a desire to be like other nations. Israel was a tribal confederacy, made up of twelve tribes, led by religious leaders whom God raises up to guide people-- such as Deborah and Samuel. This style of government was unlike their neighboring nations- Ammon, Moab, and the Philistines, who were governed by kings and lords. When the elders looked to the east and to the west, they saw nations with strong military might and clear leadership; when they looked within their own tribal confederacy, they saw Samuel, who seemed to be the last of the judges. In the eyes of the elders, it felt intolerable to live with such ambiguity about their future; how much better it would be to mimic the government of their neighboring nations. That desire to be like others can be so very strong.
To be clear, Samuel did not like this idea. He knew what was driving the elder’s request, and he recognized it was a problem. Samuel prayed to God. And God responded in a somewhat unexpected way. In essence, God says to Samuel: “Do what they ask. Samuel, this is not about you, or a reflection of your leadership. This is about the congregation of Israel. They have, once again, rejected me as their sovereign. This has been their pattern since I delivered them from Egypt. They repeatedly turn to other idols and away from our covenant.”
God advises Samuel to do what they ask, but to first warn the congregation and show them exactly what it means to be like other nations, with an earthly king to reign over them. Samuel returns to the elders, and he warns the congregation what their desire will bring them:
This congregation so longs to be like other nations, that they are willing to give up their freedom and the agency granted to them in their unique and liberating relationship with God, as outlined in their covenant. They believe that if they can simply be like other nations, all the ambiguity and uncertainty about their future will dissipate. The elders believe it will be worth the cost.
From where we stand today, we know that they are sacrificing everything to gain nothing. It feels so foolish, and desperately sad. At the same time, we know how strong that desire can be, to be like others, to want to take control of our lives so that the future feels less uncertain. The allure of such false promises can lead us to turn away from God, and not quite realize we’ve done so until much later.
Maybe it’s not so hard to imagine the elders hearing everything Samuel has to say, and still choosing to have a king. Maybe their desire is not exactly foolish. Their desire stems from fear and scarcity, instead of trust and hope in God.
In many ways, we are at a similar crossroad as the congregation in today’s passage. Like them, we have been through a great deal, as have all faith communities over the last fifteen months. Except the temptations and pulls are different. We are not longing to be like other nations, and appointing a king to make it happen. We are tempted by the false narrative that we can be what we once were, that we can somehow automatically go back to “normal” now that enough folks have shots in their arms. The desire that has the potential to hold us back from following Jesus and pursuing God’s dream is a desire to return to the way things were--whether that be the church of the 1950s, 1980s, 2000s, or even the church of January 2020.
Over these last fifteen months we have grown and we have changed-- as individuals and as a community. As the Rev. Stephanie Spellers writes in her latest book, The Church Cracked Open:
“God is breaking open this church and pouring us out- pouring out privilege, pouring out empire, pouring out racism and human arrogance- in order to remake us and use us to serve God’s dream for the whole world. We are the broken jar. It hurts and it sucks...and I think it is a gift.”
This breaking open may be positioning us to more fully engage in the work of God’s dream for this world, if we are willing to stick it out in the uncertainty, messiness, pain, and grief. Something glorious will grow if we dare stand in this fertile soil.
We are at an incredibly unique moment in time where it would be so easy to turn to God and say:
“Covid is winding down. Thanks for having our backs this past year, God, but we’ve got this under control now. We would like things to return to the familiar, and so, that is what we are going to do. Thanks again!”
Yet we know that is not the way of faith and love.
The way of faith and love is to always, always put God’s radical and extravagant dream of love before all else, and to stick to the mission God has called us into. Our own personal whims, whether they be that of the clergy or laity, need to be put aside. Modeling our church after what we believe we once were, or like other churches are, is taking our eyes off of God, and onto our human inclination to be in charge of our own future.
So how do we stay focused on the dream of God and our mission?
Through prayer. In a self-giving and self-emptying love of God and neighbor. In slowing down for sabbath moments or an entire day of sabbath, so that we might be more fully able to listen. Listen to God. Listen to our own inner voice. Listen to one another.
To that end, I want to invite us into two months of intentional prayer and reflection. To invite each of us to sit with, pray over, and reflect on a series of questions. You do not need to write them down; you will get an email with a Google Form listing these questions later today. You will have the month of June and July to sit with them, pray with them, and respond when you are ready. Then in August the clergy will compile the responses to see what themes emerge that God might be inviting us to pay particular attention to.
The hope is that this season will help prepare us...
...to be open to becoming who God is calling us to be
...to live as God is calling us to live
...to grow as God is calling us to grow
...and to go wherever God is calling us to go
All so we might help further God’s dream as we follow Jesus in the Way of Love.
The first set of questions is about our life as Saints James and Andrew:
The second set of questions is about your own journey. Over the last fifteen months:
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