“Faith and Public Life”

June 7, 2015


I Samuel 8:4-21


For better or worse, the 2016 presidential campaign season is now in full swing. The number of declared candidates in both parties increases weekly. The “inevitable” candidates are finding that “inevitability” might not mean what they think it means. And while I haven’t been over to the Hamburg Inn in recent weeks, my guess is that the “Coffee Bean Caucus” will begin in earnest very soon.

Sometimes it seems like it’s always campaign season in Iowa and I note that it’s less than eight months until our real caucuses. So along with the rest of the nation, we’re thinking about politics.

Religion and politics.

Don’t argue about either, we are told.

They don’t mix, we are told.

They only bring out the extremists, we are told.

Maybe so.

But perhaps it’s something else altogether to reflect on faith and public life. The two are not isolated, one from the other, especially in the United States. In the United Church of Christ we live our faith in the public square. What we believe informs how we act.

So over the summer months, I want to use these sermons as occasions to reflect on faith and public life. You know me well enough to know that I’m not going to tell you how to vote—and I know you well enough not to try to do that anyway. But I want to use the scripture lessons to shed some light on what we believe and how we live.

And we find a great opportunity in the lectionary texts from the Hebrew Bible in the coming months. You know that the lectionary is a series of lessons from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures suggested to be read in worship on Sunday over a three year cycle. Some denominations require that those lessons be read. We don’t always follow the lectionary here—we’re Congregationalists, we don’t have to.

But in these first months after Pentecost this year, the readings from the Hebrew Bible come from First and Second Samuel and First Kings—three books that trace the rise and fall of the monarchy in ancient Israel. We will find that some weeks those readings tell us much about the life of faith; some weeks they will tell us much about public life.

And sometimes, such as this morning, they shed light on both faith and public life.

So let’s get started.

Listen to the elders of Israel as they come to Samuel.

For the most part, things have been going pretty well. Since the death of Eli, the priest whose rotten sons were abusing the power they had, Samuel has been a judge over Israel. And Samuel is known for his fairness toward the people and his faithfulness toward God.

As it turns out, however, Samuel's sons are really no better than the sons of Eli. They take bribes and pervert justice.

So the elders come to Samuel and say, “Look, you are old. Your sons are no good. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that this whole country is going to be in trouble as soon as you die. Who will take care of us?

“And,” they continue, “don't give us any of that ‘God will provide’ stuff.

“Instead, give us a king. Then we'll be safe and secure like the other nations.”

The elders think they are just looking out for themselves. And there's nothing wrong with that.

After all, how do people order public power and guard the public well-being in a community or a nation where the leadership tends to pervert power and well-being? We’ve been told that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; and we’ve seen that happen often enough to believe it.

The search for public well-being is an important function of government. We know how much people want safety and security. But we have seen again in our own recent national history the extremes to which we will go in pursuit of those goals. Yes, we’ve heard Benjamin Franklin’s opinion that those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security. Most people have not really listened, however.

A king seems to be a good idea to the elders. A king could keep people in line. A king could fight battles for the people.

Human beings will always want and need someone other than God as their ruler. And so we are called to responsibility in our public life. We cannot leave it to God alone to order our lives or seek our well-being.

A theocracy is not possible. We need to find other ways of ordering our common life. And, of course, we can’t use our modern, Western standards to judge ancient people. Constitutional democracy was unimagined—and unimaginable—at the time.

The problem is, in asking for a king, the people are still avoiding responsibility for themselves. It will be a king—not the people—who will rule. It will be a king—not the people—who will fight. Or at least that's how they see it.

But listen to the elders. They’re on the cutting edge. They’re ready to move in a new direction. They don’t want to be limited by the way things have been.

A king would be nice.

None of this sits well with Samuel.

He hears the request and runs off to God. Samuel is one of those people who are always ready to protect God. Listen to our own politicians. So many are quick to rise in the defense of God and God’s ways—at least as they understand them.

Samuel asks God: “Can you believe what they're asking for? A king! I won't hear of it.”

To which God responds: “Listen. Listen to the voice of the people and all that they say to you.”

One of the jobs of a leader is to listen—even when what is said isn’t what you want to hear. A leader doesn’t have to anxiously respond to every report. But good leaders listen.

Samuel is told that protecting God isn’t his job.

His job is to listen.

His job is also to warn the people.

Warn them because what they want is going to be dangerous.

Warn them because novelty alone is not a reason to pursue something.

Warn them because a leader is often called on to speak the unwelcome word.

“Don't take it personally,” God says. “The people aren’t rejecting you. They’re rejecting me. And it’s nothing new. They rejected me when I brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Life didn’t get better right away so they thought other gods might be more helpful.”

The history of God and humankind is a history of rejection: The Hebrew people looking for other options when the Red Sea stopped them and Pharaoh’s chariots were coming close, when food and water were scarce in the desert; disciples running from Jesus when it became clear that “God with us” meant God suffering and dying as we do; our own seeking options other than loving kindness, seeking justice, and walking humbly with God.

Here’s the amazing thing: the rejected God is a God who still accepts us.

The rejected God still cares for the people.

The rejected God tells the prophet not to condemn the people but to warn them. “Show them the ways of the king,” God says.

God does not argue, does not rage, does not retaliate. When we turn against God, God still turns toward us.

Warn the people about the ways of the king.

The people are asking for a king because all the other nations have one.

We can imagine Samuel responding like the parent whose teenager says “Everybody's doing it.”

“If the Assyrians were jumping off a bridge, would you do that?”

Samuel warns. These will be the ways of the king you want. In three words: “He will take.” He will take your sons and daughters, the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, one-tenth of your grain, your cattle, your flocks. Samuel says, “If you think my sons are bad, wait ‘til you see your king.”

Samuel sounds like a small-government libertarian or a member of the Tea Party.

The king will take.

And you shall be his slaves. Is this what you want? A people set free by God are heading straight into slavery because of their desire to be like everyone else.

God is willing to let the people choose. And then they must live with their choice.

Out of a love for our created freedom, God is willing to let us choose. And we, too, must live with those choices.

There is a certain wistfulness and deep sadness here. Something precious is being forfeited and the people don't even seem to notice.

Samuel was told to listen to the people and then to speak. But it seems as if none of the elders heard a word.

That's all very nice, the people respond to Samuel's warning. Now would you please give us a king? One who will go before us and fight our battles.

They are ready to give up their freedom. They are ready to do one of the most paralyzing things anyone can do—let someone else do it.

Too often, when people seek the common good their focus is on taking responsibility for others; or the focus is on trying to make other people act responsibly. We often fail to simply take responsibility for ourselves, for our faith, for our actions, our commitments—and then live responsibly toward others.

A nation cannot follow God. A nation cannot be led by God.

But individuals can be responsible before God as they live their public lives.

Even though Samuel is still opposed to the idea, let alone the reality, of a king, God says: “Go ahead.” Listen to their voice. The people desire this. It’s their choice. They have been warned. Now set a king over them.

I should tell you that we’ve really only heard part of the story this morning—as is often the case when we read portions of the Bible. Reading other parts of First Samuel we get the sense that a king is a good idea, indeed, that it is God’s idea. Scripture holds many views at the same time, so we need to be careful about making any of them absolute.

Samuel will eventually give the people a king. But for now, like so many who know better than God, Samuel recommends a different course. He tells the people: Return home.

Is it possible to trust this strange God who offers freedom instead of bondage?

In a church like ours, with a tradition that affirms the right of individual conscience before God, we must continue to seek and use the freedom we have.

We learn in our congregation that in our personal lives and our public lives we are set free to test limits, to move in directions not defined by the past. We can question old ways and try new paths, seeking the good in ways that are limited only by our love for God and our love for one another.

Living as free men and women before God there might be times when we seem unfaithful, when others will stand ready to condemn. There might be times when we will fail miserably. But God will not cut us off.

We can trust in that love as we continue to live public lives as people of faith.