Sunday, June 7, 2015

Wanting the Will of God


What did you take from the first reading today, the one from 1 Samuel? What I got was: “The people get the government they deserve.”

Before King Saul, Israel was ruled by a group of judges. They were tribal and small scale. No palace, no temple, no king. Only the tabernacle—a fancy tent—to give a home to the Ark of the Covenant.

But they have seen enough of the world to know that the important nations have kings. And they want one. They tell Samuel, their prophet that they want a king. The Lord tells Samuel to warn the people what it will mean to them to have a king: they aren’t actually going to like it when the king takes their grain and their children to work for him and sends them into battle. They won’t actually like it when they are oppressed and exploited and realize they have given their autonomy over to someone who may or may not have their best interests at heart.

Have you ever seen a group of people who were determined to do something heed the warning of a lone voice? They never do. After Saul and David and Solomon, there is a long slide in Israelite and Judean kingship, with descriptions of “And King so-and-so did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” with dire consequences for the people as their nation is chopped up and conquered and sent into exile.

The people listen to Samuel’s description of what it will be like to have a king and respond, “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."

That is a spectacular verse. Here is the first thing is wrong with their plea: they want a king “so that we also may be like other nations.” Torah is dedicated to distinguishing the people of Israel from the other nations. It is to make them better than other nations. They are the chosen people of God, and they are the ones who have a covenant with God in which they promise to follow the Lord and obey his law, and the Lord promises to lead them into the Promised Land. And yet—as if they are 12 year old girls—the people want to be like everyone else. “Everyone else has a king, why can’t we?”

This is as true today as it was 3000 years ago: when we try to deny our own identity and be like everyone else, we can lose our faith. Our path as Christians is not to conform ourselves to the world, but to conform the world to the Gospel. Now we don’t go about that in the same way that some religious groups do—we don’t dress like the Amish or the Hasidim, who seem to have gotten stuck in the 19th Century; and we don’t reject God’s continuing revelation through learning and science and experience and reason, so we do not believe that our faith froze 2000 years ago and can never be changed. But it is sometimes a challenge to walk the path of asking “How is the Gospel relevant today?” without asking, “How can I make the Gospel sound like something that is popular today?” I have to believe that it is possible to be a Christian in the 21st Century and follow a faith that is both relevant and illuminating to my life as who I am—and allow that faith to challenge me not to give in to every trend and modernization. The Episcopal Church’s General Convention will be attempting to draw that line in a few weeks when they meet, and consider many issues and topics that some people might consider “trendy,” while others consider them a part of that continuing revelation. My father uses a phrase perhaps best understood by the 8:30 Rite I service about the Episcopal Church: he says we are “Trendier than thou.”

And here’s the second thing wrong with the Israelites statement: they want a king so that he “may govern us and go out before us and fight out battles.” If we expect anyone else to fight our battles for us, we are in trouble. Following the Lord is not easy, and it is not something that we can subcontract out to experts, whether they are kings or priests. I can’t read the Bible for you. I can’t pray in place of you. The people want the king to take the risks for them—but that’s not the king’s role. It is the role of the whole community—the ekklesia—the church to follow the law, to do the ministry of the Gospel.

The people get what they want. God gives them a king. Saul is a disappointment to everyone involved, including Saul, I think. It’s a rather sad story.

We are challenged as human beings to discern the difference between the frequent error of a group of people and the wisdom of a discerning and loving body. There is no simple statement that can be made such as “crowds are always wrong” because sometimes the crowd is not wrong. We fundamentally believe that it is in the church—which is a collective body of people—that God’s Word is heard and shared. We see in the world that sometimes it is a popular uprising that brings about justice, freedom, and truth. And we see the opposite, where peoples and nations and religions use the power of their numbers to inflict pain, suffering and oppression.

Another crowd in error gathers around Jesus today in the Gospel. Jesus’ family wants to hide him because they think he’s insane—a fair enough assessment. The Scribes think he’s possessed. Jesus is now the lone voice, and he has a much more oblique message than Samuel.

Here is a story that we hear with our 21st Century ears and think, “What on earth could this possibly mean for us?” Some weeks in the lectionary, I imagine that those of you who are playing close attention to the biblical readings periodically thing, “Gosh. I wonder what Jennifer is going to do with that!” and this may be one of those weeks. Beelzebub? Satan? “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?” What sounds like Jesus instructing us to abandon our biological families? What does any of that mean?

Satan is not particularly popular in the Episcopal Church, but he certainly dominates a big swath of evangelical Christianity. We are too modern to believe in demon possession a la “the Exorcist”. But we might do well to remember the reality of evil. At the baptism we did last week, when I was preparing the parents and godparents, I reminded them that we still have a small vestige of the ancient exorcism rite in our baptismal liturgy; it isn’t all positive affirmations of following Jesus—it’s also the explicit renunciation of evil, Satan, and everything that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.

And then Jesus tells this parable of the strong man, which at first sounds rather disjointed from what comes before. Reflexively, we assume that any time there is a householder or a strong person in a parable it is God, and a thief will most likely be Satan. But this parable is the opposite of that. The strong man of the parable isn’t Jesus, it’s Satan. Jesus is the thief. Jesus is saying in this parable that he has bound up incarnate evil and is plundering Satan’s house for every soul that has fallen pray to sin and death.

I don’t know what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, so I’m not sure that I can help you avoid it. Scholars disagree too—but the author of Mark probably intends something along the lines of conflating Jesus’ spirit—which is holy—with Satan or a demon. I’m less interested in the idea that there is one sin that is unforgivable—and that sin appears to be directed against the divine—than the line before it: “People will be forgiven for their sins and for whatever blasphemies they utter.” There appears to be universal forgiveness for sins other than the one unforgivable sin. Here we do not conform to the world, because the world does not believe in forgiveness. The world believes in punishment and shame and denial.

During the Every Member Canvass we did last fall, a word that came up over and over again from people in how they described Epiphany was “family.” I understand that to be a good thing. Many of us do not have our biological families nearby, and so Epiphany becomes part of that family-by-choice, rather like Jesus describes today. I never had biological brothers and sisters… but if Jesus asked me “who are your brothers and sisters?” I would look at you. At its best, family is where you belong, where you are loved, where you are safe, and where you celebrate and mourn and are supported and support others. Flip side: where there aren’t expectations and you can be locked into a single identity, and where there can be that sort of collective misunderstanding that is reinforced again and again that leads you to demand a king. But Jesus says something today about with whom to create these new families: “whoever does the will of God.” So it isn’t the will of the family that we are to follow, it is the divine will. Which means we will have to be humble and listen to the whole family—and probably those outside it—as we step forward on our path. Our call is not to do the will of the church, but the will of God.