June 6, 2021

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Be Careful What You Wish For

The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Feature picture: Samuel warning the people

But 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…”

The past week has been a time of commemorations, both bittersweet and just bitter. Bittersweet last Monday, as we celebrated Memorial Day, remembering with gratitude all those who gave the last full measure of devotion in the service of our country.  For some the grief and loss is generations distant; for others it is sharp and new. And today we remember the 77th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the beginning of the liberation of Europe and a crucial turning point in World War II. On both of these days we honor loved ones who served; faces and names remembered with pride and gratitude for all they did, even as many of us can’t even begin to know the challenges they faced.

In stark contrast, last week also held a bitter commemoration, as we remembered an event that many would prefer us never to know about—the Tulsa Race Massacre—the death a century ago of hundreds of Black Americans and the utter destruction of the entire Greenwood community over the course of two horrible days. This is remembrance that requires us to look in the mirror, not out of pride and gratitude but out of grief and shame.

It seems strange, and perhaps some even find it offensive, to connect these three commemorations—two patriotic and one historically tragic—almost in one breath. There is an uncomfortable tension between memories of bravery, duty and sacrifice for our nation and memories of racism, violence and injustice that confront us with the fact that our union is not a perfect one. But our country has always been both riven and interwoven with this tension, as we interrogate issues of power, duty, justice, freedom, and yes, God. And this tension is the context into which we bring our reading of 1st Samuel today.

But 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…”

 We. Want. A king.

In order to understand how the people of Israel got to this moment we need to go back to the Book of Judges. Judges follows a tragic trajectory after the death of Joshua, with the realization that the conquest of Canaan was incomplete; the land promised to the Israelites remained threatened by enemies on all sides. Israel cycled through a series of leaders—judges– of varying effectiveness and levels of success against incursions by outsiders. Israel’s relationship with God cycled as well; periods of faithfulness and peace inevitably lapsed into disloyalty and idol worship, which resulted in renewed threats and violence from enemies, followed by Israel’s cries to God for help, followed by God’s response and protection, followed by renewed peace under a new leader. Cry and response, cry and response, and so on. But the overall pattern wasn’t static; with each successive cry and response Israel descended further and further into chaos until, at the end of Judges, Israel was torn by civil war and horrendous trauma. (There is a reason we don’t usually read from Judges on Sunday mornings.)

Into this was born Samuel, the miraculous son of Elkanah and his heretofore-barren wife, Hannah.

“As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground…And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.”

 Samuel was greatly respected. But his sons were not. And this is where today’s story begins. The elders were concerned that Samuel’s two sons had violated torah by taking bribes. They had “turned aside after gain.” In the words of Walter Brueggemann, they had “struck at the foundational social commitment of Israel…the practice of justice for all, without privilege or preference.”

Evidently this was the final straw for the elders, who looked at the kingdoms around them and saw there a measure of stability and conformity that Israel lacked because of its unique covenantal relationship with God. They felt that a covenant relationship asked too much of them; naively thinking that a king would be less high-maintenance. They wished, “…that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

Be careful what you wish for.

Who are these elders of whom the storyteller speaks? Brueggemann tells us that they were the political old guard of Israel, possibly motivated by worry about a Philistine threat, or perhaps they had a vested financial interest in having a centralized form of government that could help protect their wealth. Regardless of motivation, it was sufficient to demand of Samuel a drastic change in the ruling structure of Israel. How drastic? It was an abandonment of the covenant relationship that was the foundation of their identity. What they were proposing, in effect, was a new ruling order based upon broken relationship.

A dismayed, rejected Samuel turned to God for help. We don’t know what he expected; perhaps he hoped that God would put the kibosh on this insane scheme, this violation of covenant and submission to peer pressure from Israel’s rivals. But God’s response was surprising. God granted the request of the elders, albeit with a stern warning. So Samuel spoke. He spoke for those who had no say in this decision, no presence in this conversation; he spoke for the voiceless who would pay the highest price:

 [A king] will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots…He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields…He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers…He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys…He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

 The word, “take” appears six times.

“…and you shall be his slaves.”

 This was the deepest wound of all. The people who long ago had cried out from slavery under Pharaoh to the God who heard their pleas for liberation and led them to the Land of Promise–these same people now chose to return, figuratively, to Egypt.

And God acknowledged their freedom to do it. But the cost would be high. God said that if the people chose a king and if they found themselves once again slaves to a callous and cruel leader, “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

And ultimately centuries later, as Israel fell to Babylon, Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple left in ruins and the people carried into exile, they would feel the resounding silence of God.

But the elders didn’t know what would happen in the future. They just wanted what they wanted.

This was an inflection point in the political life of Israel—a move from decentralized tribal judges to a central consolidated monarchy. The storyteller points us ultimately toward David—the great though flawed king who led Israel to pinnacles of glory, and at the same time sowed the seeds of her fracture. But that’s a story for another day.

Just to complicate matters, last week I heard a passage from Deuteronomy in which God speaks through Moses about, interestingly, choosing a king. Conditions were as follows: He shall not acquire many wives or horses, “…also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself…neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment…” In other words, Godly kingship was possible, but it required humility, fairness and faithfulness.

So. While the storyteller of Samuel had serious reservations about God’s approval of a king, the Deuteronomist discerned that it was theoretically possible to wield power in a way that aligned with divine will. Which should it be?

There is plenty to ponder here, with more questions than answers. Which is fine, because a life of faithfulness invites us to engage with challenging issues. What should people expect from their leaders? What should they fear? What should influence leaders’ decisions regarding power and vulnerability, war and peace, poverty and wealth, justice and equality? And when the lives of God’s beloved children, like the ones we remembered this week, are on the line, these questions have serious existential consequences.

An examination of civic authority in a religious context is not the same as a fundamentalist vision of theocracy or Christian Nationalism, whose authoritarian conformist vision is in polar opposition to a God who created us with free will and in God’s Trinitarian image of diversity in unity and unity in diversity. Rather, this is a call to church and community to interrogate issues of leadership and justice through the lens of a God powerful enough to liberate us, yet vulnerable enough to let us choose our fate. With God’s help, may we choose wisely.

Let us pray:

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.