6/17/18: Like Everybody Else, 1 Samuel 8:4-22
Like Everybody Else
Third in the series: Holy, Broken Hallelujah
First Lesson: 1 Samuel 8:1-9
Second Lesson: 1 Samuel 8:10-22
Rev. Scott Dickison
When we last saw Samuel he was a young boy, studying in the temple under the prophet-priest, Eli, when the voice of the Lord came to him vivid, and direct, giving him a message for his people: that though things looked bleak—they were under constant threat of their stronger rivals, the Philistines, and internally their leaders were corrupt and incompetent—though they seemed to be slipping, slipping off the edge of existence, God was still moving among them. Still capable of doing a new thing—and not just capable, but willing. Though it was dark outside, the lamp of God has not yet gone out—and, friends, it never does. But when we find him this morning, Samuel is now an old man. And from the looks of it, not much has changed.
Before, it was the sons of Eli, Samuel’s mentor, who were corrupt and incompetent. But now it’s Samuel’s sons who are cheating defrauding the people. The Philistines are still lurking, still plundering, still terrorizing the people. The young boy Samuel was thought to be the child of promise: his birth foretold and celebrated as the turning point for his people. But after all these years people must have begun to wonder: when will it get better? When will God redeem us like we were told God would?
And then these expectations and disappoints in God get directed to God’s messenger: when will Samuel live up to his birth? When will he lead us into this newness we were promised? Does Samuel still have it?
Did Samuel ever have it? Is it time for something new? Something like these other nations that seem to be advancing around us—something like the Philistine’s who are always breathing down our necks. Someone strong. Someone who’ll strike fear in the hearts of our enemies. Someone who will keep us safe. What we need is a king.
Now, we’ve been talking around this these past few weeks, but Israel as we find them here was unique in the region at that time in that they were not ruled by a king. Instead, from the time Joshua led the people into the promised land, to Saul’s coronation just a few chapters past ours today, they were guided by what the Bible calls “judges,” these charismatic leaders empowered by God to lead the people through times of crisis. There are twelve judges described in the Bible—one female among them, Deborah, you may remember. Israel, at that time, was a loose collection of tribes, spread out over the region, and these tribes each had their own local leadership of elders. But when situations arose that demanded a more centralized power structure, the judge would intervene, discerning God’s will, and lead the people through it.
It was different arrangement. It was quirky. As Brueggemann puts it, the relationship between Israel and their God is “peculiar.” But the way scripture remembers it, this peculiarity is by design. Where other nations worshipped Gods to be feared who they believed created them to be slaves, Israel proclaimed a God of steadfast love and tenderness who created them in love and goodness to be the image of this God on earth—partners in this great divine hope for the world. Where other nations thought themselves to be slaves to a God of war, and ordered their society accordingly, Israel proclaimed that their God had invited them into a covenant, so that they would live in shalom, in right relationship with each other, with God, and with creation—and they ordered their community accordingly. This covenant outlined rules that can only be described as peculiar, guiding them in how to live together in a community of love and forgiveness and compassion: a community committed to caring for the most vulnerable among them, the widow and the orphan, the stranger in their midst—care for the stranger in your midst, it said, because you were once a stranger in a strange land. Peculiar. They had peculiar laws like Sabbath that implored them to rest every seventh day, as a way of keeping rhythm and balance and priorities equity. A God that dictates rest? This mode of living was peculiar. And as scripture tells it, Israel never quite gets used to it.
They never quite settle into it, never quite embrace their peculiarity. We see this tension throughout the Bible of God setting ideals and the people pushing against them. Limiting them. At times, outright ignoring them. How much of the struggles of God’s people through the generations in scripture and beyond can be summed up by saying God offers us a way to live together in love and wholeness and creativity, but instead we’d rather be like everybody else.
And by the way, this tension isn’t restricted to the bible, we see it in the church. Jesus comes preaching a gospel of boundless forgiveness and compassion, throwing the doors wide open, whosoever would come, you, and you, and you—yes, yes yes. And then the early church, almost from the time they lower their eyes from watching Jesus ascend into heaven, begin wondering, Well, is that really what he meant?I heard Steve Shoemaker put it once: Jesus came and flung the doors of heaven wide open and ever since then the church has been trying to pull them back closed. Grace is peculiar, and we don’t like peculiar. We’d rather be like everyone else.
You’ve known it in your own life, this draw, this need to be like everybody else. Yes, we all claim to want to be different and special, but in most parts of our life, most of the time, we just want to be normal. I was talking with a church member recently and she was confessing to me that all her life, all she wanted was to fit in and she never felt like she did. Now her own children are grown and she sees they don’t really fit in either. And on the one hand she wants that for them. But on the other hand, it’s the things that keep them from fitting in that she loves most about them.
Aren’t our peculiarities the things that make us who we are?
I believe God calls us to be peculiar, both individually and as the people of God, as the church. Not only is the church to be a place where people’s peculiarities are accepted and celebrated—where we explore the gifts within them, but we’re to be peculiar in the same ways that are outlined in scripture, because these ways are still peculiar. It’s still peculiar to be committed to the common good and the compassionate care of vulnerable people. It’s different, it’s counter-cultural.
We live in a world in which high ranking government officials—even those in charge of upholding our laws—cite scripture to support policies that separate immigrant children from their parents while they’re all being held in detention centers. Children over here, adults over here, for as long as it takes for us to sort things out. And in case you think I’m being partisan, I’m struggling with what it means for me to be in the same camp as Franklin Graham on this one.
Romans 13 was the passage, you may have heard. One of the most misquoted and misunderstood passage in the Bible, where Paul encourages folks to submit to authority—a passage that those in power often use to suggest not following the law, no matter how unjust it may be,is unChristian. Never mind that Jesus was executed as a criminal of the state, and Paul likely was, too. My goodness, do we need some peculiar thinking in this time! Thinking and living that’s not hell-bent on being partisan—on either side—but heaven-bent to do what’s right, let alone what’s biblical. It’s too dangerous right now for us to be content to be like everybody else.
Julie and I, along with others from our church, spent this past week with some peculiar people. It was the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, or CBF, our primary missions and identity partner. It was a very good week spent in Dallas, which happened to be the host city for another meeting of Baptists, which was, as you might imagine, the source of endless jokes.
In the religious landscape of our country, CBF is peculiar. Suzii Paynter, the current executive coordinator who was with us back in February—peculiar in being a female head of a major religious group, let alone a baptist one—likes to say CBF is a denomi-network. We’re not a denomination, in the traditional sense, with a firm hierarchical structure, discipline, and so forth. CBF is a strictly voluntary organization. To claim to be with CBF all you have to do is…claim to be with CBF. But we’re more than simply a network of people and churches committed to a common way of doing church and living out the gospel. We share a history and a heritage. We’re peculiar. And this peculiar structure, and history—we’re only 25 years old—and “culture,” for lack of a better word, allows us to live out the gospel in some pretty peculiar ways.
One of the most unique ministries of CBF, and the one we’re best known for outside our little bubble is Together for Hope, an initiative that turns 20 next year, in which CBF committed to being a longterm presence in the 20 poorest counties in the country, all of which were rural. Too many missions efforts are “here today and gone tomorrow,” but CBF committed itself to being there, investing, becoming a part of these communities for the long haul. Now, as they wrap up that 20 year goal, they’re setting a new goal of committing to the 301 poorest counties in the country, most of which are concentrated in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Cotton Belt, and the border between Texas and Mexico along the Rio Grande River. And guess what, several of them are in Georgia. You’ll be happy to know Jody Long, the new executive coordinator for CBF of Georgia (whom some of you know!) has already met with Jason Coker, who leads Together for Hope, and hear more about our state and our church can be involved, hopefully for the long-haul. Peculiar.
Some of you may know Jason Coker from his work in the Mississippi Delta with Delta Hands for Hope, a non-profit he started in his native town of Shaw, Mississippi that our youth partnered with for their mission trip just a couple years ago. Jason tells a story about one of the first projects Delta Hands for Hope engaged in that had them painting the back of an old pharmacy downtown that had been covered with graffiti. He had a bunch of youth out there painting, black and white— Delta Hands for Hope always seeks to partner youth coming from the outside to help with local youth who are involved in their community-building initiative. They were painting when an older white gentleman drove up in a big pickup truck, called Jason over, looked at him and said, You know they’re just gonna graffiti right over that.Jason looked at the man, mustering all the kindness he could and said, Well we’ve got more paint than they do.
Now, those of you who know CBF know that we’ve not always been very comfortable living into our peculiarity. We were founded out of woundedness and much still remains. At times we define ourselves too much by what we’re not than by what we are. CBF recently released new policies on sexuality that many in our congregation and around the fellowship felt missed the mark—we’ve got things to work on, without question. But like most people and like the church, we’re at our best when we embrace our peculiarity before God—the peculiar, unique ways God continues to move among us.
Ruth Perkins Lee, the Director of Church Engagement for CBF and the person responsible for coordinating the General Assembly, told a few of us about her encounter with the hotel staff when they arrived early in the week to get things going. The hotel rep said they remembered CBF from three years ago when we were at their hotel there in Dallas. They said we were great to work with, so friendly and gracious. Then they said something that caught her off guard. They said, We don’t think of you all like a religious conference; you’re more like a family reunion.
We often think of ourselves as peculiar here at First Baptist, and I believe we are. Lord knows we’ve got plenty of people telling us we are. I think most of the time we claim that, and I’m glad we do, even when it’s hard. And it’s not always easy to see the benefit these days of being a part of a denomi-network, and I understand that. There’s a lot we can do on our own. But there’s also a lot that we can’t. But more than that, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there are others out there who are peculiar in the same ways we are peculiar. Other people who are trying not to be like everybody else for the same reasons. And it’s good to be together, to learn from each other, to remind us that not being like everyone else, embracing our peculiarity as the people of God, doesn’t mean we have to do it alone. Amen.
Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel, Interpretation series, 62