Systems and Salvation – or – Israel’s Mistake

Preached on Pentecost II (Proper 5), June 10, 2012 at St Alban’s in Albany, CA.  Click here for readings.

As much as I love to use my favorite TV shows as illustrations in my sermons, the reason I love to preach during Pentecost is that we usually have a readymade, juicy storyline in our Old Testament readings – one that spans over several months with a weekly installment – kind of like a TV series, actually.  I feel like after the first reading, instead of having the lector say “The Word of the Lord,” we should have them say, “Tune in next week!”

And this year is no different – we have the story of King David.  Or, more accurately, we have the story of how Israel moved from a tribal society to a monarchial nation-state.  How Israel chose a worldly king in order to defend themselves from a worldly threat.  I think some background is helpful here.

Before Israel was a nation, it was a group of tribes.  Archaeological evidence tells us that as Egypt lost control over the land of Palestine to the east, and the city-states in that region crumbled, the political and economic power balance started to shift.  The peasant farmers and herders left the city-states where they had been slaves and started to strike out on their own, creating a new life for themselves in the hills and countryside.  They were indigenous pioneers.  And within a few generations a scattering of settlements existed and these tribal people grew to understand themselves as the tribes of Israel.

Israel – a name given to Jacob after he wrestled with an angel.  A name that means “one who struggles with God.”

These people came to recognize a sort of national identity as Israel for two reasons.

1. They all had similar cultural values and social and economic structures.  This led to a need to band together to fight off external attack.  But this didn’t always go well, because as biblical stories tell us, not all the tribes always came to one another’s aid.
2. They all shared an allegiance to the god Yahweh.  Far from being a monotheistic culture that recognized one god over all, people at this time understood that different nations had different gods.  But this group of tribes, this Israel, came to understand themselves as a nation through their devotion to Yahweh, a warrior god who fought on their behalf.

Now, Samuel was one of Yahweh’s prophets, or judges.  These judges governed the growing nation of Israel on behalf of Yahweh, divining Yahweh’s wishes for his people.  However, has the population grew and as threats from nearby warring nations escalated, this nation of Israel began to perceive the need for a king and a militarized force.  The rising nations around them that had gathered power in the vaccum left by the crumbled city-states had already made this transition.

And Israel understood its independence, its way of life, as being in jeopardy unless and until they could counter fire with fire.  An earthly king to contend with other earthly kings.  A primitive “keeping up with the Joneses” or, more accurately and tragically, an ancient version of the nuclear arms race.

No longer could they rely on Yahweh to protect them.  They needed to put something in place that would unite them and defend their way of life.

Now, as 21th century, well-informed, post-scientific-revolution people… we get this.  There is no god-in-the-sky who’s going to fight the other gods-in-the-sky in some fantastical cosmic battle.  The practical solution here would be to do exactly what they did.  To create a unifying figurehead, an institution, if you will, that they all could support, who would protect them from the growing threat on their doorstep.  It’s very hard for us to argue with this reasoning.  Because we do things like this all the time.

So why, then, is today’s OT lesson a warning?  Why is Samuel giving the people of Israel a laundry list of sacrifices designed to dissuade them from their insistent clamoring for a king?  Why did Samuel think this was such a bad idea?

Samuel said:
[This king] will take your sons… he will take your daughters… he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… he will take… he will take… he will take…  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 “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”  (1 Samuel 8: 11-20)

It’s so easy to seek security in this world using worldly means.  To fight fire w fire.  It’s so easy to satisfy our own needs regardless of what we might destroy.  To live unconsciously and be more beholden to “the world” around us than we are to God.  It’s so easy to refuse God’s will in our lives.

I want to be clear.  When I talk about “the world” here, I’m not talking about this physical world – the earth and its wonder… the creatures of the world and their beauty… or the human race and our true beloved magnificence.  I have never been one to buy into the notion that there is anything inherently evil about this physical existence, or about the flesh of our bodies.

But as humans, we do have a tendency to forget.
When we seek to serve only our perceived needs…
When we stop taking the time to reflect on and pray about what is happening to us and around us…
When we listen too much to TV or radio pundits or refuse to listen to anyone who disagrees with us…
When we believe our perception to be absolute truth, even and especially when we are well-informed or educated…

We forget that things are often not what they seem, that we must look beyond what we see.  And when we forget, we stop listening for the Holy Spirit’s whisper among us.

Because God’s Holy Spirit is moving and dancing in and through all of creation all of the time.  This force is constantly creating in order to sustain life.  When we believe that we must preserve and we make decisions based on the need to hang on to something, especially that which gives us power or comfort or security, we react by creating systems to keep things in place, to keep things in check so that we can maintain the status quo.

THIS is “the world” that I refer to.

This is “the world” that we can unconsciously become beholden to.  This is the mistake that Israel made and this is the object lesson of today’s Gospel.

And that lesson is that we believe so deeply in the systems of this world and their power to save us and save that which we cherish, that we forget.  And we lose belief in the work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin…”  An unforgiveable sin?  Did he mean that when we make the mistake of buying into these systems, we are never to be forgiven?  Or did he mean that the systems themselves cannot be redeemed?

We claim that God is a Trinity, that God is 3 in 1.  We believe that God is father/mother/creator AND that God is Son/Daughter, Christ and redeemer in our midst AND that God is Holy Spirit, breath of the world, sustainer of life.  All are happening at the same time.  Julie gave us a beautiful description of the Trinity last week that we would do well to recall at this point.

This Trinity reminds us that God is and is about community – that the good of one and of community are always in balance with one another.  And this Trinity is forever calling us into that which is always just beyond our grasp, that which is the mystery of God.  And just when we think we’ve got a handle on it, is when we really have to pay attention because we’re likely missing a significant piece

Now, we create systems to order community.  We have governments and agencies, economics and politics, boundaries and nations, religions and societies.  Even our Western notion of family is a human institution because other cultures demonstrate varied and different understandings of family.  This is good, in a way, because it demonstrates that we recognize the importance of community and of taking responsibility for working with God as the Body of Christ in this world.

But we are also in danger of forgetting that this system we’ve created, this institution, is not the work of the Holy Spirit.  The institution is just that – a human system.  And we can entrench ourselves in this system and call it our salvation.  It’s so easy to confuse God’s will with our own.  It’s so easy to conflate safety and tribal protection with God’s salvation.

And we lose track of how to listen to the Holy Spirit the minute we believe that the system itself is what must be protected, that the institution is a manifestation of God.
This is when we lose our understanding of community and become the nation of Israel.
This is when we lose our longing to explore the mystery and become beholden to “the world.”

Mark’s Gospel today demonstrates that Jesus knew the danger of the institution, even at its most intimate level – that of the family.  He shows us that sometimes even a desire to save our family from the forces of the world can be – not always – but can be a step in the wrong direction.

And this is not to say that I believe God is all about chaos and breaking apart the things that we cherish.  What I’m saying, is that we often think that salvation is about fitting in with the world and the systems and structures we create.  And we forget that salvation is something wholly different, that the Holy Spirit pays no attention to the bounds of our human institutions – even that which we call “church.”

Samuel’s description of life under a king sounds a lot like the conditions of slavery.  Yet the nation of Israel was so intent on protecting what it had come to cherish, that it accepted even these conditions and said, “Give us a king that can fight our battles.”

And Jesus, as always, teaches us the way of love.  He says, (and I’m paraphrasing like crazy here)
“Things are not what they seem.  You must look beyond what you take to be real.  Don’t surrender your longing for the mystery of God and utter blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by buying into the threats of these systems of control.  Salvation is not found in institutional safety.  The mystery, the Love of God, is found in community, in actively loving one another, in discerning a loving response to the fearful systems of the world instead of succumbing to their tyranny.  Salvation is found not in fighting fire with fire, in pitting king against king.  But rather, salvation is found by meeting fear with love.”

Salvation is found by meeting fear with love.
Jesus teaches us this over and over and over again in the Gospels.  He never claimed king.  That was a title put upon him by people who needed him to be an earthly military hero.  And he countered it with… “It is you who call me king” when being interviewed by Pilate.

Now, we’ll never really know what would have happened to the tribes of Israel if they hadn’t called a king to rule over them.  And, to be honest, I have no idea what would have been a better solution for them.

What I do know… is that nations rise and fall.  Leaders come and go.  Institutions form and split off and sometimes fall apart.  There is no perfect human system.

What I do know… is that our identity as the beloved creatures of God is not bound to human systems and institutions and definitions.  We are bound to God and we are bound to one another through God alone.

And what I do know… is that God is, always has been, and always will be.  And that Jesus, who is the author of my salvation, teaches me to meet fear with love… over and over and over again.

About Michelle Meech

I want to unfold. I do not want to remain folded up anywhere, because wherever I am still folded, I am untrue. -Rainer Maria Rilke
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