Who do you claim as “King”?

June 10th, 2012, Rev. Cyndi Banks
The Second Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 5—Year B
I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15);  Psalm 138;  II Corinthians 4:13-5:1;  Mark 3:20-35

We have a lesson this morning in communal anxiety. Context is important here.

So, God has delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt. They have done their wilderness trek and found their way into the promised land that God had prepared for them. Two traditions then diverge. In one, they conquer this new land fast and furiously, mowing down any who would stand in their way, a la the book of Joshua. This is known as the conquest tradition. This is the kind of history that you tell when you want to impress people.  In the other tradition, the people of God took over the land in a much slower fashion. It’s not so much that the people of God conquered the land as they assimilated into it. There is much more nuance here, some sense that there were actually people who possessed that land before they did. This is story as it unfolds in the book of Judges. This is the story you tell when you are being honest.

And in this part of Israel’s history, all these various tribes that had come up out of Egypt are trying to figure out how to live together as a people. The book of Judges shows us kind of a loose organization, more of a confederation of tribes. The important thing here is that there is no central point of authority, no overarching structure, no leader at the top of the pyramid. When inspiration was needed, God would inspire someone who would rise up from among the people and point a way forward or offer a critique that was needed. These were the judges. They could be a man or a woman. They had a prophetic edge to be sure, mostly because God showed them what needed to be spoken, and they weren’t afraid to speak it. Some of these names you know: Gideon, Deborah, Samson, Eli, and Samuel.

The point is that when inspiration was needed, God inspired somebody, and the people got the direction they needed.

But alas, in anxious times, this calls for more trust than most human beings can muster. And so as these little tribes kept living together in this loose organization, they saw that the nations around them went about things in a different way. The nations around them were strong and mighty. They had armies, and they had kings. So, the people of God decided that they wanted a king. “Those people have a king; we want a king!”

So, the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. “You’re getting old, Samuel, and your sons aren’t following your path (as is the case with most of our adult children); appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” “We want a king, we want a king. They have a king; we want a king!” Can you chant that for me?

This did not make Samuel happy, and he prayed about it. Such a diffuse authority may have been chaotic, maybe a little unpredictable, certainly not controllable, but it was open to the movement of God. You never knew where the inspiration would come from, but you could trust that when it was needed, God would inspire someone to step up and give voice to the vision. But getting a king, oh, that was one giant step toward institutionalization. One more layer of bureaucracy mediating the holy. And that was going to bring a load of trouble. Samuel felt like this was a slap in the face. Maybe to him, mostly to God. For Samuel, to ask for a king indicated a lack of faith and revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant to be in relationship with God, of what it meant to trust God.

Samuel takes his prayer to the LORD. And you know what the LORD said in reply, “Listen to them in all that they say to you; for they haven’t rejected you Samuel, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” But this wasn’t anything new to God. “They’ve been forsaking me and serving other gods since the day I brought them up out of Egypt. So, listen to their voice, but warn them, show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So, Samuel went back to the people. “Okay folks, here’s the deal. You want a king; you need to know exactly what that means. Full disclosure here. I’m going to read you the fine print. These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he (no room for a “she” here), he will take your sons and appoint them to chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; he will appoint commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties (sons will be dedicated to the army because whoever heard of a king without an army); and some of those sons will plow his ground and reap his harvest (operative word here is “his” because the king owns it all) and some will make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots (because kings have a way of wanting to increase their kingdom and most people don’t give over that land willingly, which means going to war). This king will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers (because everything is in service to the king—individual agency is out the window). Then he will take the best of your fields and of your vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers (“courtiers” are all those folks who make up the royal court—otherwise known as “the bureaucracy”—once you have a king, you have a lot of these folks). This king 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, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. Do you get the directional flow here? It’s taking what is yours and making it his. Culminating in the fact that you will be his slave, not just that your slaves will be his slaves, but you will be his slave.

Any allusions to our day and time coming to mind?

Back to the story. We have come so far from the freedom of the Exodus. Our desire to consolidate authority, our desire to be like the other nations, our desire to have somebody assigned to take care of us has landed us right back in the slavery we had been delivered from. And when that reality dawns on us, when we realize where our desires have taken us, Samuel, the prophet Samuel knows that we will cry out. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves.” And Samuel prophesies, “…but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

So, Samuel lays all this out before the people. Now then, if you heard that litany that he laid out, what would you do? You are the elders of Israel, what would you do? You have a choice to make, “Do I continue to live with this messy, diffuse authority that calls for a whole lot of trust on my part, or do I plow forward determined to get that king?” What do you do? What do you think they did?

The text tells us: “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 may also be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

And here is where we know that God honors our choices, that free-will is for real. God honors our choices even when God knows it’s a really bad idea. The people want a king, a king they shall have, and “they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal.”

Why is this so important? It is so important because we see this played out all the time in our lives and in our institutions. This has to do with power and authority and where it rests and how it works. You are made in the image of God. Richard Hooker thought that our very minds mirrored the mind of God—that we had wisdom and will, just like God—albeit they don’t always work in sync quite as well as they do in God, but nevertheless, our being mirrors God’s Being.

You have power, you have an inner authority, an inner nature, as Paul calls it this morning, and it’s being renewed daily. The Holy Spirit dwells inside of you and prays in sighs too deep for words. You do have an inner guidance. And yet, when we get anxious, when we feel like chaos is threatening to overwhelm us, we tend to grab for anything that will help us feel secure again.

So, we look for an authority outside of ourselves; we don’t trust the wisdom we have, and we discount the power that rests in our hands. We look to leaders and we look to experts and we look to those who “ought to know”—they come in all kinds of guises, they may have a lot of letters behind their name, or in front of their name, they may be ordained and wear robes or they might be elected in the public realm, they may even be inanimate—opinion polls or the latest trends on the cover of a magazine—it doesn’t matter what name they go by, what the trappings are, they are kings. And little by little, we give our souls away, we give away our lives, we give away our resources, we give away our sons and our daughters; little by little, we give over our minds, our hearts, our spirits, and our bodies to serving these kings, and we enter a kind of slavery. One piece at a time, we give our God-given authority, our God-given wisdom, our God-given power over to the kings, and we are the less for it.

Don’t make the choice our forebears did. When you are anxious, when you are scared, don’t look out there for some humanmade construction to calm the sea, even a holy construction like the church. The church is not immune to the ways of the king, and to the extent it functions that way, it will disappoint you. To the extent the church functions like the body of Christ, honoring all the members equally, even, especially, the inferior ones, as Paul says, to the extent the church functions like the body of Christ, it can help us remember, it can help us reclaim the authority and power and wisdom that God has instilled in each and every one of us. When the seas get rough, we can trust that God will inspire us, individually and collectively; we can trust that God will give us the wisdom we need to find our way forward; it may well up in you, or in you, or in you, or in me, but it will rise up. Remember, the disciples got really stressed out when they were out in in the middle of the sea and the storm blew up; Jesus did not. The chaos will not overwhelm us. We can trust that we will have what we need to move forward, or maybe just to stand still.

What would change inside of you, what would change in your life, if you really claimed this power and authority and wisdom that God has given you? I am not saying we should demolish all the institutions in our society, but I do think if we claimed the authority that is ours to claim, then we would hold those institutions much more loosely, and they would be greater conduits of life.

Today comes as a timely, cautionary tale, we need to be on guard against those who would proclaim themselves king, and we need to be on guard against our desire to make them so. There is much at stake, namely, the extent to which we will participate in the enslavement of our souls, and at what price, and the extent to which we will live in the freedom for which God has made us. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 10, 2012