I had the honor of preaching at Providence Presbyterian Church on June 10, 2018. The text is 1 Samuel 8:4-11, 11:14-15. Take a look & let me know!!! (I’ll post the audio link soon)
I have a little dog. Actually, I have two. And whenever I’m in the kitchen, the little dogs are super close by. My little dogs are also very insistent that they want to be eating whatever it is that I’m working on up there.
Now, one of the dogs, Stella, will eat anything and gladly. But Albus (yes, Albus Dumbledore – I like Harry Potter, a lot), often has moments of regret at his insistence when I finally give in. Last week he demanded that he wanted kale. And I told him I didn’t think he actually wanted kale. But he insisted. So he got a piece of kale.
And he did NOT like kale.
Stella, however, gladly picked up the kale and handled the situation. She’s useful that way.
Much like my little dog, I’ve had a lot of moments in my life when the phrase “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” has popped into my mind. And this reading from Samuel truly, truly exemplifies that idea.
We know how this story ends. We know that the Israelites get a king, Saul. Saul really looks the part. He’s an eldest son. Tall. A strong military leader. And handsome.
Saul also leaves a lot to be desired as a king and ends up going crazy at the end. Then there is David. Then Solomon. Both of whom have positive traits, but are also profoundly human and, especially Solomon, do a lot of harm. And then there is a series of kings in Israel that just aren’t good. For a long time. The Israelites end up in exile. Twice. And then the Romans show up.
Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
I, as a human and especially as a priest, spend a lot of time trying to understand people whose views aren’t the same as mine. And often, in order to do this, I have to go back in time, to learn the history of how we got to where we are.
And today, I would like to take a little time to explain a bit more about this Scripture. And then I would like to offer a story that helps me put a major issue of the day in better context.
But to start, the Israelites demanding a king.
At least, that’s what it seems like on paper. It seems like the Israelites just couldn’t wrap their mind around the idea that they should live by God’s law. It seems like the Israelites wanted a king to rule them, instead of God. The reading is set up in a way that suggests the Israelites were turning their back on God.
And maybe they were. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
But here is what I do know.
I know that kings at that time in history were often essentially military leaders. Invading other nations was a way of life – it kept the young men occupied and employed and provided a money stream into the kingdom.
Israel didn’t have a military leader. They were sitting ducks.
And their neighbors, the Philistines, knew it. They were threatening and preparing to invade. And in fact, they would attempt to invade, in just a few chapters.
So, the Israelites were scared because they wanted someone to protect them from the very real threat of an invasion, which would mean slaughtered men and male children, lost homes, lost fields, pillaging of their towns, enslavement of all, and rape of the women and girls.
That’s a real threat. I’d be scared too. Especially in a world where it was the job of the king to lead the army into battle. And especially in a place that didn’t have a king. I would like to believe that I would cling to the idea that all I need is God. But there are times in my life when, if I’m being truly honest, the fears of the world can get in the way of my relationship with God. And being afraid for my life, and for the lives of those I love the most, that would blind me a bit.
There’s one other thing going on as well that I’d like to point out.
And that is children.
Specifically, a father’s love blinding them to their duty to God.
Before Samuel, Eli was high priest. And Eli had several sons that he raised up in the family business, the priesthood, and they were given positions of importance and authority. And they absolutely violated their positions. They ran amuck. And did terrible things in God’s name. We know this because scripture tells us they did, and because God punishes Eli for not keeping his sons under control, and for letting his sons do terrible things in God’s name.
What this reading today leaves out are verses 1-3 of chapter 8. And verses 1-3 say that Samuel’s sons are doing the same thing. They are also priests, in positions of authority and importance, and they are doing terrible things in God’s name.
And so the Israelites are probably getting pretty tired of the highest authority on earth, the high priest, letting their sons do whatever they want. That would lead me to mistrust the church. As, to be clear, it has lead hundreds and thousands of modern people to mistrust the church because of how we as Christians in religious authority have protected priests, ministers, and pastors who have abused children and adults, and have used their religious authority to condemn women, people of color, LGBTQ identifying people, and anyone who doesn’t agree with their narrow view of Christianity.
But, back to this story, if I were an Israelite several thousand years ago, living under the constant fear of rape and murder by a neighboring army, and feeling as though I couldn’t trust the religious leaders, I’d probably have wanted a king too. Someone to protect me, and to reign in the religious elite.
When I read this story, I get where God is coming from. I do. I get that God is saying to Samuel this isn’t a rejection of you, it’s a rejection of me. Because at the base of this, there is a rejection of God that has lead to boundaries that others want to cross. There’s a rejection of God that means that some have enough, some have excess, and some are in need. There is a rejection of God, a rejection that results in an idea that God loves some and hates others – even though God made all in God’s image.
There has been a rejection of God. But that rejection of God is not what’s on the mind of most of the Israelites. Most of the Israelites are scared and fed up with things as they are. And so they are demanding change.
They demand change back to what they understand. They are demanding a change back to a time that they probably weren’t alive for. Back to a time that had been made to sound better than it actually was. And they are looking at the kingdom’s next door. Kingdom’s with secure boundaries and strong military leaders. Kingdoms with more money because of those leaders and the wars they wage.
And the Israelites say “we want that. We want what they have. We want to make Israel great again. Like it was under Moses. And Joshua.”
Because the same thing just happened in our country. And is still happening.
Now, I want to be very careful not to pass judgment on those who support the President, nor on the President himself. Nor am I passing judgment on those who don’t support the President and what is happening under his administration. Nor is it my intent to encourage anyone who is not supportive of the President to become so.
All I want to do, right now, is share that sometimes having a backstory gives you a different view of people with different opinions. Knowing more about what’s going on, knowing more of the history, helps us to better understand those with different opinions.
And understanding is the first step to loving. And to love one another, that is what we are clearly called to do as people of God.
Please also understand that Scripture isn’t a history book. Scripture isn’t impartial. Scripture tells a story from a particular point of view and with a particular intent. This is why there are 4 Gospels, each telling the same story a little differently.
The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, are also telling a story from a particular point of view. It is the story of how the Israelites came to be in the position they were in, which many biblical scholars now think is the story of how the Israelites came to be exiled, again, from their land into Babylonia.
As we have discussed, sometimes there are parts of a story that are important to understand all of what is going on, but they don’t drive the narrative as the author envisions it. So those parts are left out. Like in this Samuel reading.
JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has said that she had thousands of pages of backstory on each character, on each plot twist, on each element of the story. While she knew those parts, she didn’t share all of them because those details weren’t important to the story she was writing.
Way back in the beginning, I promised to tell a story. And what I’m going to tell is a story that is often, if not always, left out of American History books. I am going to attempt to do so in a fair, balanced, and honest way. And my hope is that we will all leave here today with eyes opened in a new way to something we don’t often think about.
It is a common American belief that the American police system was based on the British system of policing. There are elements of truth, and similarities to this. But, the American and British systems were both rising up and developing at roughly the same time.
The American system of police started, primarily, with gangs of armed white men who patrolled plantations to keep slaves in, and to catch and punish slaves who escaped. In New England, there were slave patrols, and there were also a lot of patrols to catch and control Native Americans.
Everyone, all over the US, who owned slaves or property, were concerned about a slave revolt. And, they had reason to be concerned – because there were riots & uprisings – more than 200. Participation in slave patrols became mandatory for free white men – both rich and poor – but freed men were not invited to participate.
In Rhode Island (and other parts of the north), slavery was not fully abolished until 1840, but there was a law for gradual emancipation passed in 1789. More and more freed slaves and free blacks began living in communities together, particularly in urban areas. And further and further away from the white landowners who had once owned them, but not further away from wealthy whites living in the same urban areas.
The city of Providence was incorporated in 1832 after a race riot in an area known as Snow Town, which was not far from where we are today. A white sailor was shot in Providence in 1831, and without any justification to do so, an angry mob of armed white men stormed into Snow town, burning houses, wreaking havoc, beating and murdering people of color. The well armed (& all white) militia was called to end the riots.
The story that is told, and may well be true, again, I wasn’t there, is that Providence was incorporated to form a police force in order to prevent angry mobs like this again.
And maybe that is true, I’d like to believe that it is because I like to believe the best in people.
But, the other side is that the city was incorporated so that there could be a police force, to keep the black people, away from the wealthy white elites. Riots would be prevented by keeping the races separate.
For myself, I will tell you that I used to say I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand. I wished for a greater understanding, particularly how we got to where we are as a nation and world.
And I got it.
And my life has never been the same. I no longer see the world in the same way. I see layers, and systems, and I see through the words that seem good on the page, to the reality of why those words were said.
Even though I see the world differently, and I struggle to understand how so many claim to be Christian and yet are so cruel to everyone who doesn’t look and think like them, even though this is my reality now, I still work everyday to love everyone. Even those who disagree with me.
I don’t wish to love everyone, I don’t exactly want to love everyone, I am commanded by God to love everyone.
And so I will. At least, I’ll keep trying. My hope is that we all will.
Albus, my little dog, he still asks for whatever I’m making when I’m in the kitchen, even when it might be kale. And I still ask to have a better understanding of those with whom I disagree, even though it means I may have sympathy for someone who would rather I not exist. And that I will have to learn to love them, even if the realities of this world say that I should hate them, turn my back, and walk away.
And for me that’s really the moral of this Samuel story – ask to follow God, learn the difference between what God is saying and what the world is saying, love one another, and do not rely on the religious elite nor the culture you live in to tell you what to believe about God. Have your own relationship with God. And find for yourself that at the core of us all, is a piece of God, calling to each of us to love and respect everyone. Regardless of what anyone else says.