Maybe you remember the song from Sesame Street: "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…" People have such a tendency to want to conform, to be like those who are most popular, or to have what others have, or what the media wants urges us to get. "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," the old saying goes. Our OT story shows us that these tendencies are far from new.
God had set Judges to rule over the Israeli tribes – to guide them spiritually, socially, and politically. And for centuries, the judges seemed to be sufficient. But here in I Samuel, the elderly Samuel tried to take things into his own hands by setting his sons as judges. God called Samson, Deborah, Joshua, and Samuel and other judges. But Samuel chose his sons, and it was a bad choice. Perhaps because they did not feel a sense of call, for they used the office for their own gain, and they corrupted the role. And the clans of Israel protested. They looked at the nations around them, and saw them in somewhat orderly fashion led by kings, and so they asked for, demanded, a king over the nation of Israel. God had called Israel to be a nation different than the other nations, to be God’s light to the other nations, showing them how to live as faithful followers of the one true Lord. God set down rules (Leviticus) to help the Israelite tribes figure out how to live differently, and to live true to God alone, rather than to other gods. The venture was probably not fully successful at any point in Israel’s history. Yet God persevered.
But the Isaelites were concerned. They had met a foe they could not keep at bay. The Philistines were highly organized, highly trained, and had weapons made of iron. They moved in and divided the tribes, and took away their metal for weapons. The Israelites were loosely organized, never trained for battle. They just took up arms and went to meet the enemy. Therefore the people felt a need to meet this threat at a higher level, and, looking around them, saw a king as one who could organize and train an army to defeat the Philistines.
It is highly likely, as in modern times, or any time, that those demanding this change, this need for a king, were in a very vocal minority. The neediest, the least, were largely unheard then, even as they are now. The elders, the ones with the power and the loudest voices, cried out as if they represented all. Samuel truly tried to represent all the people, but he was overruled. Those advocating foresaw a king as one who could triumph over enemies, establish a strong military program, and give the nation security and prestige. Samuel alone seemed to recognize this as a powerful seduction leading the people away from God.
So Samuel prayed to God, expecting God to stop this nonsensical and unfaithful thinking. He must have been open-mouthed astonished when God told him to listen to the people and give them what they wanted. They were not rejecting Samuel, God said, they were rejecting God. Surely God could have refused this request, Samuel thought! Yet God told Samuel to warn the people of the consequences of having a king, but to allow it because that is what they wanted.
This relenting seems an early sign to us that God allows free will. It reminds me of a parent, who warns the teenager before he or she goes out what might happen if drinking is going on at the party, and if the teenage partakes. Yet the parent does not stop the child from going, and when the child calls to be picked up rather than driving home, the parent goes, relieved that the child called rather than drove drunk. God may not always like what we do or say, but God loves us always, and wants what is best for us.
The disturbing thing is that it is so hard for us to hear and to discern what God wants for us, as opposed to what the world offers. This story is not the first time the people of Israel rejected God, nor would it be the last, but it shows in a big way how humans tend to choose human power in place of God’s power. Their fear of the enemy, their hunger for security and peace, drove them away from, instead of towards, God. For they only saw the answer to their needs in the people of other nations around them. They did not see God’s promises as sufficient. So God gave them a king, one who started out well. But Saul too was corrupted by power, driven crazy, perhaps, by responsibilities, and he failed miserably. Throughout the era of the kings, the Bible tells us that one "did what was right in the sight of the Lord," and another "did what was evil in the sight of God." The institution of monarchy was a human concept, and one rife with possibilities for corruption.
Indeed, when Pilate brought before Jesus the accusation that he was acting as a king of the Jews, at a time when Rome ruled supreme and Israel was not allowed to have a king, Jesus’ answer was, "My kingdom is not from this world." And yet Pilate heard this as a political answer and said: "So you are a king." We hear what we want to hear, often not what God is telling us. Discernment is a hard thing to find.
The world continues to seduce us away from church, away from faith, away from God. You have surely heard the recent statistics about the downward path of faithful Christians in the United States. "Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion" read a Washington Post headline on May 12, 2015. The world has so much to offer that seems more attractive than sitting on church on Sunday morning, or going to Bible study on Monday morning or Wednesday evening.
Tom Ehrich, who is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest, wrote a widely noted response on May 19, entitled "5 Ways Churches Inflicted Pain on Themselves." It starts like this:
"Let’s be clear: The much-heralded ‘decline of Christianity in America’ isn’t about God losing faith in humankind. It isn’t about losing our moral compass thanks to whatever you happen to loathe. It isn’t about fickle millennials. It isn’t about zigging trendy or zagging traditional."
Ehrich offers up 5 ways that we have caused the issues ourselves. These are about the church at large and may or may not fully apply to Westminster. One, he says, is that "we stopped trying," that churches were once bold but now no longer speak out about important issues ("like racism, corporate thievery, obsession with money and sex") because we fear these will offend people and drive them away from church. Two, he says, "we stopped giving." We give to other agencies that do good thing, but have "starved our churches of resources." Three, he says "we turned inward". Americans used to sit on front porches and wave and talk to neighbors passing by. But now we have decks and pools in the backyard and do not interact with neighbors. The same, he says, is true of churches, as we welcome one another to church but not the stranger.
Fourth, he says that "we fixated on Sunday morning," expecting Sunday worship alone to do the trick in making faithful people. Yet it requires so much more to grasp faith – we need to take part in mission work, Bible studies, fellowship groups, even personal, daily practices of spirituality. Fifth, Ehrich says that "we trashed our reputation." Churches have become known as "judgmental, angry, self-serving, smug, boring, and old. As far as people outside can tell, we live to fight, we think too highly of ourselves, and we are moral scolds. Who needs that?" Of course, no one needs or wants that. The reputation of the whole church suffers when the church acts and appears this way.
But back to Ehrich’s introduction, he sums it up as we find these words:
"In fact, I would argue that Christianity isn’t in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. Denominations are in trouble. Religious institutions like seminaries are in trouble. Professional church leaders are in trouble.
But churches can’t hold God hostage. God will do what God will do. Whether our churches stay open for business, God will keep on loving all that God has made. Loss of an institution won’t deter God."
Yes, we need to look at where we are going as the church, the people of God. Where have we been? The problems we experience are as old as the Bible itself. We follow the ways of the world, we drift away from God. Yet God persists. With this passage from I Samuel, we could also talk about the whole church and state issue, where the two could work together, and where they ought to be separated. But for today, perhaps it is enough to think about our priorities, as individual Christians and as an institution. Whom will we follow? Will we do the hard work it takes to discern what God desires for us? Or will we follow the ways of the world, as most around us do? "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things does not belong…"
Once again, we are invited to step out of the ways of the world as we come to the table and partake in what those new to the church might see as a very strange ritual. In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, we are reminded that God loves us enough to come into the world and to feel what it means to be human, that God loves us enough to suffer and die, rather than to bend to the violent ways of the world, and, of course, to rise for us in Christ Jesus. From today’s study, and from the sacrifices of Christ, may we remember also that God loves us enough to give us free choice, to rejoice when we rejoice, to weep when we weep, and at times to weep at the choices we make or the things that befall us. But always, always, God remains faithful and loves us with a love so deep we cannot even truly name it. Maybe, just maybe, it is worth the work it takes to discern God’s will in order to not just do things like all the other nations, all the other people around us. May God guide us, may Christ save us, may the Holy Spirit fill us with love always, as we strive towards kindness, justice, and peace, for ourselves and for our world, God’s world. Amen.