Before the fire that destroyed the chapel at Virginia Seminary, marble memorial plaques lined the walls. Sadly, the valiant firefighters were unable to save the Chapel or these plaques. Students sat in spots near plaques that resonated with them for one or another reason. I sat always near one dedicated to a long-dead theology professor whose name I have forgotten unfortunately, but not the inscription: “In deep gratitude for his compassionate leadership of a generation of young men in a bewildered age. 1914-1918”.
As Europe reeled from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand there was a rush for action to stabilize countries and governments; a rush, perhaps something of a panic, which would eventually involve 30 countries, including the US. We would lose 116,000 soldiers despite only being officially in the war for seven months.
The climate in seminaries in this country during that Great War was tense, to say the least. What is the role of the Church at such a time? When nationalism is on the rise worldwide, how can the Church’s voice of divine citizenship be heard with any credibility over all the flag waving? Not to mention whether taking 3 years out of life to study scripture is really the best use of one’s youth and strength when the world as you know it is dissembling. The loss of a world leader, the resulting power rush to fill the vacuum, and the destabilization of all of Europe can make scripture exegesis seem irrelevant and aggravating.
“A bewildered age” indeed.
The Ancient Near East in the tenth century BCE was sort of like that, a bewildered age. The seer and prophet who had led the people of God after the death of the high priest Eli was deeply respected, feared, and followed. Samuel had literally grown up in the Temple, delivered there as a young boy by his grateful mother as a thanksgiving to God. But now, Samuel is an old man and his sons, the apparent heirs to his authority, are not the men their father is. The people have panicked. All around them are countries that worship pagan gods by the dozens, who live by very different rules, and who are governed by a human king, not by a single God that no one has seen and who prohibits any image to exist for worshippers to exalt.
“Give us a king,” they demand, “so that we can be like the other nations. We no longer want a prophet or a high priest to mediate between us and God we cannot even see. We want a high king to mediate our relationships with each other in community and to ride the front chariot leading us when we go out to battle these other nations.”
Now is no time for us to offer sacrifices or to study the scriptures or to pray. If Samuel dies, we will surely fall prey to these other nations.
“This is nothing new,” God assures Samuel. “They’ve been this way ever since I rescued them from Egypt. Give them a king,” God conceded, “but tell them what it will be like to serve this king.” At first glance this sounds a little spiteful on God’s part. But on closer look it is both compassionate and ultimately very helpful.
The compassionate piece is that God wants the people forewarned about how this new form of leadership will work so that the relationship between them and the king they so desire will stand every chance for success.
The helpful piece requires a little more explanation about the way things had been. The way they had been was that God operated with the people on an infinite and eternal level, generous, gracious, and filled with loving kindness toward the people. In this covenant relationship, quantitative resources are not an issue. As the psalmist declares, “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” In a universe of infinite possibilities, the most important skill set for the people is a well-developed holy imagination along with a solid and unwavering faith in God.
But the king, God warns, will operate on a finite level—a very helpful thing to know—with an eye toward the scarcity of limited resources and an ear turned to personal greed and acquisition for the throne, not for the people. Fear and distrust will characterize this relationship because resources are scarce and when resources are scare, in a universe of finite possibilities, the most important skill set is thrift and hoarding, not to mention getting used to settling for less at every turn.
For spiritual adolescents who imagine that being a faithful Christian is too confining and that the liberal world view offers so many more possibilities for freedom of expression and ideas, this is the most important thing we can understand. That is, truly with God all things are possible. It is not so when we turn away from God.
The good news remains however that because God is God and we are not, all things can still work together for good, though the process may be unsightly and the outcome different from what we might have experienced. Yet, God is not about settling for less at every turn, but rather about abundance and fulfillment. This is the gospel of incarnation and the possibility of being fully human because of being fully filled with God.
Even the monarch, which the people so desired worked for the people for a while, except when it didn’t and eventually when it crumbled completely. That’s what happens with human institutions. They’re alright for what they are, but only a fool imagines that they are any substitution for faith in and reliance on God.
The composer of today’s psalm—perhaps, ironically King David—realized this truth: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; before all these other gods—gods of recognition and pride; gods of financial wealth; gods of stuff—before all these gods I will sing your praise. For when I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me; though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand shall save me. The LORD will make good his purpose for me; O LORD, your love endures forever; do not forsake me, the work of your hands.”
When we are panicked, it does seem bewildering or at the very least counter-intuitive to focus on God, to understand that by abiding in God, we can be stable while all the world around and even right beneath our feet is moving. Because, God is renewing our inner nature day by day.
So, can things work out alright if a person rejects God? In a very limited way that will not ultimately satisfy and which cannot last. The question for us today is where we want to spend our energy, which is a limited resource. Would we rather spend energy developing a holy imagination and a solid faith in God? Or would we rather spend our energy learning how to be fearful and stingy?
Because God wants us to want God, that choice will always be left to us. Nothing is predetermined about how we will choose. But our adoption into the family of God is guaranteed once we choose. Jesus said, “who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister.”
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Second Sunday after the Pentecost Year B
June 7, 2015