Sunday, June 10, 2012

“You’ll Be Wrong”

1 Samuel 8: 1-11, 16-22, 11: 14-15
June 10, 2012
Ordinary Time
First United Church – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of providing pastoral care for the family of Morris Chitwood after he passed away unexpectedly. Morris was a longtime member of First United and his wife, Leona, is still a member here, though she is rarely able to attend. Morris was 88 years old and had lived in the Bloomington area nearly all of his life. I believe he only moved away briefly to serve in the Army during World War II.

The Chitwood family is one with deep roots in Bloomington. They have been in relationship with this community for well over a century. This isn’t something you find too often these days – especially in a town like Bloomington.

Every year we welcome new folks and we grieve as we say goodbye to those who are moving along to their next adventure. David and I have been here for seven years now, which practically makes us natives.

When I think about the possibility of leaving Bloomington someday I start to get a little misty-eyed. It’s not just that I love our town, it’s that I hate the idea of having to start all over again somewhere else. I value the relationships I’ve formed in this place and I grieve in advance when I think about leaving behind people that have become so dear to me.

Being in relationship over a long period of years is hard work! There are some folks – like our families – that we’re pretty much stuck with for a lifetime. Even if I haven’t talked to my cousin so-and-so in a decade, I know I could call her up and ask to spend the night at her house and it would just work, right? Because we’re family and that’s how family is. For better or for worse.

But friends? Co-workers? People from our book club? The people that we’ve spent hours with in meetings at church? That’s a different story.  

Sometimes the ties that bind these kinds of relationships aren’t strong enough to survive. Time and distance change us and we often find that the relationships don’t pick up right where we left them.

Some of our friendships come and go. We walk with people for only a short while. We are a part of just one or two snapshots of their life stories. We aren’t there for the duration.

Sometimes when I sit down with the Biblical texts for the week I have an exceedingly difficult time finding a bit of Gospel to share. The good news evades me.

This was one of those weeks. We lectionary preachers always get four texts to choose from. As I read, I found myself gravitating towards the story from First Samuel. And the same thing happened to me this week that always happens to me when I delve into a lection from the History books of the First Testament – I got sucked in.

There are so many people and places to remember in those stories that it often really takes me a while to get moving and grooving when I start to read them. I find myself thinking, “Wait, was Samuel a good leader? I think so, right? And I can’t remember, was Saul the one who met David when he was a boy? Just why did the people want a King, again?”

Even though I do this work for a living, I can’t ever remember all of it off the top of my head. I hope you’ll forgive me.

So what happened was I got sucked in to the world of 1 Samuel. I started by reading a few chapters before and a few chapters after today’s passage, but eventually I just sat down and read the whole book from start to finish. It’s a good book, by the way. Highly recommend it.

And once I had read it all, I found myself wrestling and wrestling to find the nugget of good news in today’s passage. Because, really, on the surface, it’s not a very cheery story.

Samuel has been a judge and prophet in Israel for a good long while. And he’s been an excellent leader. Wise, strong, faithful. And then, out of the blue, the elders of the people decide that they just don’t want him any more.

He hasn’t done anything wrong. They say it’s because he’s old, but, really, that’s just an excuse. The truth is, they just want to move on to something new. They’ve noticed that other nations have Kings. And they decide they want one, too. They want a King who will lead them in battle and protect them against their enemies. They want a King who will destroy other nations in times of war and help keep lead them into prosperity in times of peace.

So they bring Samuel in to the big board room and said, “It’s been a good run, old friend, but we’re done now. We have to let you go.”

Typically, leadership would have fallen to Samuel’s sons, but, again the elders have an excellent excuse – Samuel’s sons are not capable of leadership. They just aren’t cut out for it. So, they ask for a King, like the other nations have.

And here we get a glimpse of what a good leader Samuel is because before he even answers them, the text tells us that he prays to the Lord.

And God says, “Listen to them. They’re not rejecting you, anyway, they’re rejecting me. They’ve always been trying to get rid of me. Ever since we started this relationship, they’ve been telling me to take a hike and trying to find other gods to lead them. This King thing is no different. So, go ahead and listen to them – but I also recommend that you make certain to tell them just what a terrible idea this is.”

So Samuel goes back to the people and told them what God said. And he really laid into them about just how terrible their idea of a King was. He goes on and on about how a King will take advantage of them and treat them poorly and take their children in service and take their money in taxes and….worst of all: Samuel warns them that when they eventually get sick of their King, they’ll ask God for help and God will ignore them.

Now here’s something I love about the Bible: these people and these stories seem so distant from our daily lives, but, really, at the end of the day we can understand these people because it turns out that people haven’t changed all that much in the past few millennia.

This last part – the part about God abandoning the people – is Samuel’s little embellishment. God doesn’t tell him to say this part but he’s feeling pretty hurt and upset over the rejection – he’s taking it personally – and he adds this last bit to really scare them.

Sounds like something I’d do if I was feeling rejected and hurt.

But, no matter. They don’t listen to him. Even though he’s always led them well, they just don’t care this time around. They’re over it. They want a King. And they want him now.

And so Samuel talks to God about it. And God says – I imagine with a sigh – “Give them their King, then.” And Samuel says to the people, “Go home. Get out of here.”

And that’s the end of it – at least for a  few chapters. Chapters 9-11 are actually from a different source and we get a whole different take on how Saul becomes king. There’s no rejection trauma in this other version of the story.

Instead, Samuel happily discovers Saul after being directed to him by God. Samuel is pleased to anoint him King and everyone – Samuel and God included – seemed pretty excited about his rise to power. And then, at the end of chapter 11 we’re back to the cranky version of the story. Samuel finally crowns Saul at Gilgal but he doesn’t give up power quietly. Instead he gives a big long speech about how he’s been a great leader and how God has always been good to them. It’s a pretty serious guilt trip. And at the end of the speech in chapter 12 he says, essentially, “Don’t worry. You’re making a big mistake here but as long as you continue to trust God with all you heart, God will not leave you. You’ll be okay.”

So, having finished this whole great saga, I was sitting there, Bible in my hands, searching and searching for the good news.

And I just kept coming back to Samuel over and over again.

He’s not a perfect leader, certainly, but he just seems so real and he’s trying so hard in these stories. How painful to be rejected for no good reason. How awful to have to choose your successor when you’re convinced it’s a terrible idea. And he doesn’t stop there, either. He continues on in relationships with Saul and the people of Israel. He hardly seems retired to me. He shows up to chastise Saul; to warn the people; and to basically continue to be a prophet and judge for them. He just refuses to leave. Relationships come and go, but Samuel is in it for the long haul.

And that’s the good news, I think. Samuel refuses to leave.

Rejected by the people he has loved, he refuses to leave. Told by the God he serves that really, it’s okay – go ahead and hang up your hat, he refuses to leave. He doesn’t obey orders. The relationship means too much to him. He can’t quit.

Have you ever been loved by someone in that way? Have you ever messed up big time only to discover that your friend won’t let you stumble off aimlessly by yourself? Have you ever had a friend or a leader say, “Look, this isn’t going to end well,” let you make your choice, come back to say, “I told you so,” and then just stick around?

This is a good friend. This is a good leader. The one who just refuses to go.

And here’s where I think Samuel learned it: Samuel learned it from God.

Because even though Samuel gets a little pouty and threatens the people that God will completely leave and forsake them for their bad decision, he knows it’s not really true. And the people know it, too.

The people of Israel knew what the Apostle Paul would say hundreds of years later, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

God won’t quit. God won’t leave. In a world where relationships come and go, God is in it for the long haul.

And so, my friends, if you think you’ve never been loved by someone that way, I have to tell you that you’re wrong. Because you are loved that way each and every day by a Love that will not let you go.

The next time you’re certain you’ve messed up beyond all repair and there’s no one left to love you, you’ll be wrong.

The next time you’ve failed to listen to a good leader or a good friend and you’ve made the wrong choice and you think there’s no way to fix it, you’ll be wrong.

The next time you’re certain you’re too far gone, that you’re just too disgusting for anyone to care about, you’ll be wrong.

You’ll be wrong every single time. And that’s the Gospel truth.