We are living through a particularly poignant season where we do well to ponder our Christian faith with new urgency. And though the biblical text may seem archaic and outdated, it does not get old. We are predictable as humans; we keep replaying and reliving the story, over and over again; the text is history and future-telling all at once. That is the reason we need to know our history. That is the reason we need to keep telling these stories. That is the reason this text has survived.
Let’s look at the text for today. You remember Samuel? A few months ago the lectionary gave us the story of the wee lad Samuel, living with Eli the priest in the temple. It is a complicated time for young Samuel, living at the temple with his mentor Eli and Eli’s two corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas. When Samuel hears a voice in the night, it takes a few tries but he eventually realizes it is God calling him. It soon becomes clear, that instead of Hophni and Phineas, who would traditionally inherit the role of religious leader from their father, young Samuel is to take over for Eli.
(Let me just say that I and II Samuel are a wonderful read – fast-paced and fantastical. It is definitely worthy of a Netflix season or two. Check out the whole story.)
We enter the story today in I Samuel 8. Samuel, the priest and prophet, has been running the show for many years. Things are about to change. I invite you to be part of the story as we tell it. _____ will be Samuel, ______ will be God and you all will be the people. I will give you your lines like we do in the streets, using mic-check. I will say a line and you repeat it back.
Samuel – When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him,
(mic-check) “You are old
and your sons
do not follow in your ways;
appoint for us,
a king to govern us,
like other nations.”
Samuel But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel,
God– “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
Samuel So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. Samuel said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:
he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots;
and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties,
and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest,
and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.
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, and put them to his work.
He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said,
We are determined
to have a king over us,
so we may be like other nations,
and our king may govern us
and go out before us
and fight our battles.”
Samuel – When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord.
God– The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”
Samuel – Samuel then said to the people of Israel, “Each of you return home.”
So. It seems that Samuel is now in a position similar to that of his mentor Eli. Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah have not turned out much better than Hophni and Phineas. They are greedy money grubbers, receiving bribes and perverting justice. What is Samuel to do? Where is God’s voice in the night now?
God and the people saw the corruption in Eli’s sons. Now the people see the corruption in Samuel’s family and they want something new. No more of this passing the priestly mantle from father to son. They want something new – but familiar, like what other countries have. (As the child of a pastor, who was the child of a pastor, I read this with a certain amount of humility.)
Samuel may know how corrupt his sons are but he tells the people that a king will be even worse. A king will steal from the people to enrich himself and his cronies. A king will lead them to war. A king will enslave them all over again.
Samuel is very specific about the dangers of kingship but you heard us. We want to be like the other nations. We want a real king, with real power, to take us forward. Samuel’s warnings about slavery, war and poverty – that inevitably arise from kingship with unchecked power – are no deterrent to the strong yearnings of the people. It is reminiscent of that time in the desert when the people of Israel are finally free, yet they whine: “Life was so much better under the pharaoh, at least in Egypt we had meat to eat.” How could they forget – again?
Even when the people demand a king, even when God gives the okay, moving from a priest/prophet model to a monarchy is not something that happens overnight, at least when Samuel is involved. Did you hear the anti-climactic way the story ended today? God says, “Ok, give them a king.” Samuel does not relay God’s message – “Better call Saul.” Instead Samuel just says, “You all just go home now.”
The people want a king, we want a king; we want someone who can take care of the problems for us. We want someone who will give us confidence, who will tell us they know the right thing to do, who will help us believe they will make everything all right. Each generation searches for the one who will save us, if only from ourselves.
In response to this never-ending quest for strong leaders, the biblical text gives us an unusual cast of characters. To stand up to the pharaoh and lead thousands out of slavery in Egypt, God uses a man with a speech impediment who can only function alongside his brother and sister, a faltering trinity. When the people demand Samuel give them a king, Samuel is directed to the tall and handsome Saul, whose mental illness makes him very unpredictable.
Generations later, the people are enslaved once again, this time by the Roman Empire. Who comes to show the way to freedom but a baby born to a single mother, who grows up to wander the countryside, trailed by misfits and preaching peace in parables – and then is executed by those same Romans.
We just want a king, like the other nations have. Can’t God just give us someone who will be powerful and make us feel powerful by association?
This does not seem to be the way of the God of Abraham and Sarah; Jacob, Rachel and Leah. This does not seem to be the way of the God of Moses, Aaron and Miriam; Samuel, Saul and David.
Instead we are given very human, very flawed leaders. And they are made in the image of God! This God, this I AM that Moses met in a flame that does not consume, the I AM will not be pinned down or controlled. This I AM does not take away problems in an instant. But I AM does go before the people in the night as a pillar of fire.
The mystery of I AM is that the power is… presence. I AM cannot be controlled – neither can it be destroyed like a king. I AM simply accompanies us on the unpredictable journey of life. Priests and prophets will fail. Kings will fail. God the I AM is always with us.
In this time of people calling for a king who will save us from all that is deemed different and dangerous, it is important to remember that the mysterious I AM is still with us. And WE ARE created in the image of God. Being created in the image of I AM means that, like I AM, we show up, we are a presence. We do not leave people alone.
If I am learning anything in the work I am doing with folks who are being pushed and pulled, detained and deported, by the immigration system it is that they feel unseen. Justice seems very far away. The king is remote and does not see them. But I AM sees. We, who remember that we are created in the image of I AM, we see. DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network sees. And we stand together, so no one is alone. And there is real power in that.
It is easy to fall into despair. It feels impossible to muster enough outrage day after day for the injustices: children taken from their parents at the border and locked in cages, water still poisoned in Detroit, healthcare unavailable to people who are sick. Even the earth rages with volcanoes and floods. It is like Samuel warned – the king takes money and gives it to his courtiers, preparations are made for war. Kingship is not all we had hoped or been promised.
So we keep telling the stories even as we keep reliving the stories. And we remind ourselves that I AM goes before us; Emmanuel – God with us, walks along side. And made in the image of I AM, WE ARE with those who need presence. It does not make all the injustice go away but it is a step toward bringing the reign of God, toward building the kin-dom of God, where all are valued, where peace is the way and the mysterious I AM burns bright.
May it be so.