Sunday, June 10, 2018

“Earthly Tents and Everlasting Homes”

1 Samuel 8: 4-20
Sunday, June 10, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Earlier this week, I had a rather terrifying phone conversation. I was sitting in my car in Aggieville at 8:45 in the morning waiting to my yoga class to start, making phone calls to my legislators offices in D.C. I like to call them first thing in the morning to share my views so I can cross it off my list for the day. Also, it’s convenient to call them right before I go to yoga, because sometimes I need help calming down after I get off the phone.

So I was calling all of my legislators because I felt so helpless and enraged about stories of young children being separated from their parents at our borders. As best as I can understand from consulting numerous news outlets, we are attempting to discourage asylum seekers and other immigrants from coming to our country by threatening them with terror at their point of entry.

Parents with young children, beware. If you try to flee your own war-torn country to come here and you have a child with you, we will take that child from you, force you to buckle them into a car seat, refuse to let you say goodbye, make you watch as a stranger drives them off while they are sobbing uncontrollably, tell you you’ll probably be reunited with them later, and then put you both in separate detention facilities - most likely very far apart from each other. Your child may end up sleeping on the floor in a large cage in a warehouse-type situation while you struggle each day to figure out where they are and if they’re okay.

This is a parent’s worst nightmare. I can hardly read these stories without feeling my body being taken over by a total and complete rage. The type of rage that makes me want to throw things and scream expletives.

So I took some deep breaths before calling my legislators’ offices and stayed calm and collected while on the phone with their staffers. I did my best to convey my extreme dismay without raising my voice or crying. I began by asking them what their bosses were doing about these human rights violations at our borders. When I discovered none of them were doing anything, except maybe waiting around for some legislation that might be introduced later this month, I pressed further. “This is a humanitarian crisis,” I said calmly. “Isn’t there some way Congress can take emergency action to do something and keep these families intact?”

One of the staff members told me this: “Well, it’s really the President’s policy. He’s the only one who can change it.”

I said, “Are we living in an authoritarian regime now? Are you telling me we no longer have any checks and balances in our democracy? I was under the impression that Congress played an important role in governing our country. Is it just one man making all the decisions now for all of us in the United States?”

Friends, I confess. I may have used a very stern voice at this point. But I also promise you that before I got off the phone, I thanked this staff member for his time and told him that I knew none of this was his fault.

I sometimes have a hard time staying calm when I observe the way our government behaves. I often feel powerless, which seems strange since we are supposed to live in a democracy. I keep calling my representatives even though I usually feel like it makes no difference at all. And I’ll keep voting even though I have serious doubts about whether elections in our country are truly free and fair.

I carry a lot of anxiety about who we are as a nation and where we’re headed next. And I know I’m not alone. Anxiety about the political landscape is nothing new, of course. It’s just that I’ve been feeling it more acutely lately. So I’ve come up with coping mechanisms. I keep my legislators on speed dial. I nurture my most helpful spiritual practices like yoga - which helps me suspend judgment and stay present in the moment - and long walks, which gives me time to pause and enjoy the world around me.

I’ve been putting in extra effort to effect change within three feet of myself - smiling at strangers, looking around when I’m in public to see if anyone needs extra encouragement or a kind word. My husband would also tell you I’ve been coping by reading a lot about 20th century authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Russia, and Europe. The jury’s still out on whether or not that’s a helpful coping mechanism.

Reading today’s text from 1 Samuel felt a bit like a balm for my weary soul. The people of Israel are frustrated and fed up with their government. Samuel, who has been functioning as a priest, prophet, ruler for many years, is growing old. He’s attempting to pass the reins to his sons, but they don’t walk in the ways of their father. They are corrupt and the people of Israel aren’t having it.

So they come to Samuel and say, “Look. This whole thing with priests and prophets and judges has been fine for a while. But now we’re looking around and seeing the way other nations handle themselves. They all have kings. We want a king.”

Samuel responds with a mini-lecture about the pitfalls inherent in monarchical government. “Kings are pretty much good for this:” he says, “Taking your sons and daughters. Getting them killed in wars and using them in grotesque ways. Taking your property - mostly your best stuff. Making you into slaves. That’s what kings are good for.”

“Great!” respond the people. “Sign us up!”

I imagine Samuel heaving a deep and heavy sigh as he retires to his study to have a little talk with Yahweh. “God, what am I supposed to do?” he wonders aloud. “They won’t listen to me.”

God tells Samuel, “Give them what they’ve asked for. Give them a king.”

The entire history of Israel’s leadership in the Bible goes like this….leaders come and leaders go. They go by different names - priests, prophets, judges, kings. Some of them do okay for a while but, in the end, nothing works for long. The people do what humans do best - mess up. They ignore God. They worship idols. They kill each other. Things fall apart. So they find a new leader or even a new form of government. And maybe it works….for a time. But never for long.

This story from 1 Samuel feels like a bit of a comfort to me, swimming in all my own anxieties about the state of the world in 2018, for two reasons. First, it reminds us that God cares about politics. God cares about the ways we govern ourselves. God knows that the ways we humans choose to organize ourselves, the rules we make and enforce, and the ways we decide to come together and get things done mattes deeply. God never says “follow this six-point plan and you’ll have a perfect government” (now that would be nice!) and God certainly isn’t partisan. God allegiance lies only with God, not with any earthly ruler or political group.

But God cares deeply about the way we humans govern ourselves and our political systems. We are told again and again in our sacred texts that we are to be active and involved in the world around us. We are made for living in community with one another - to bear one another’s burdens share each other’s joys. And people never live in community for long without rules - both formal and informal. Rules for being together turn into culture and are solidified into systems of government. God cares deeply about these systems that govern us.

The second thing I am reminded of by this story is this: our governments do not rule us completely. God is our ruler. God is the one constant force that is present whether kingdoms rise or fall, democracies live or die, regimes flourish or crumble. To say that God cares about governments and God cares about politics is never to attempt make the Holy into a puppet of earthly powers.

As we ponder the world around us, we are to read the actions of governments through the lens of God, not the other way around. Our decisions about how to relate to one another must be ultimately anchored in our understanding of how God calls us to act, not party affiliation or allegiance to any charismatic leader.

Please note: looking at the world through God-lenses isn’t as simple as reading the Bible. The Bible is one very important way that we come to understand the Holy but the Bible is not actually God. Decisions about how to act have to be made within the context of a trusted community that is rooted deeply in it’s relationship with God. The community must be sustained by rich spiritual practices like worship, prayer, sharing sacred stories and art, and serving the world together. When a faith community - whether it’s a small family or a formal congregation - is strong in its foundations, people within that community will be able to prayerfully make decisions together and speak hard truths to one another in love.

This is a lot more work than opening up the Bible as if it were a Magic 8 ball and hoping it will tell us what to do. But if we stay faithful to one another and take seriously our responsibility to seek God together, we can ponder what’s going on in the world through God’s eyes. And when we start to veer off course - when, for example, Christians start to do things like claim God wants them to discriminate against gay people, then the community can say, “You know what? I don’t think that’s right. Let’s ponder this more together. Let’s remember that the whole scope of the Bible tends toward love. Let’s see how God is present in people of every sexual orientation. Let’s choose love over fear.”

This story from 1 Samuel reminds us that God cares deeply about the ways we choose to govern ourselves. God is always standing nearby, beckoning us to choose love, encouraging us to walk in the ways of justice and peace. When earthly powers vie for our allegiance and demand that we bow down to human-made idols, God whispers into our hearts that our only true North Star is the Holy One whose name is Love.

Kings come and go. Nations rise and fall. Humans get it right for a time and then get it, oh, so wrong. With the psalmist, we cry out to God from the depths of our anxieties.

And with Paul we remember that though the earthly tents we inhabit may be destroyed, we are always at home in God, abiding in that Holy house that was not made my human hands, but exists now and then and forever and ever. Amen.

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