Old Testament:1 Samuel (8:4-20, 11:14-15)
All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 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.” Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.
The Response: Psalm 138
1 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.
2 I will bow down toward your holy temple
and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness;
3 For you have glorified your Name *
and your word above all things.
4 When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me.
5 All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
6 They will sing of the ways of the Lord, *
that great is the glory of the Lord.
7 Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
8 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.
9 The Lord will make good his purpose for me; *
O Lord, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.
The Epistle: 2 Corinthians (4:13-5:1)
Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
The Gospel: Mark (3:20-35)
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
This time of year, we seem to be surrounded by national holidays. Just a few weeks ago, we observed Memorial Day. This week, we mark Flag Day: a secondary holiday, but, for almost 70 years, an official one nonetheless. Three weeks later, will come the celebration of Independence Day.
During all of them, we hear proclamations and speeches about the precious gift of freedom and about the struggle to preserve freedom. That’s the theory, of course; but the reality is never quite so simple. In fact, history is filled with repeated attempts to escape freedom and the responsibilities that it imposes.
A case in point comes in today’s first reading. The very existence of ancient Israel was attributed by the people to God’s great work of freedom: the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt. For generations, those tribes who claimed that event as their own had struggled to live in freedom, with God alone as their king, their ultimate ruler. That belief imposed on them the responsibility of figuring out how to live faithfully and responsibly in that relationship. They prided themselves in the assertion of the Torah that they were not like other nations: that God had made them different, that God had chosen them for a special place and special role in the world.
But now they felt threatened. They were fearful. And suddenly, they seemed ready to abandon not only their unique role among the peoples of the world, but the freedom and responsibility that came with it as well – all to feel somehow safe. And so they came to the great leader of their time, the priest and prophet Samuel. And they insisted that Samuel appoint for them a king so that they could be “just like every other nation” – exactly the opposite of what God had called them to be.
Samuel must have been crushed. He knew full well that God had never created them to be like every other nation, but to be a living example of a different way of being and living in the world. And in our reading, God basically tells Samuel, “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. They aren’t really rejecting you. They are rejecting me as king over them. Go ahead and give them the king that they want. But first, spell out for them clearly what a king will do.”
And Samuel lists for them the actions that come with having a king ruling over them. Six times, he repeats the statement, “he will take,” because that is what unlimited rulers do; they take. But, in true biblical fashion, Samuel saves the most powerful statement for the seventh and last declaration: “and when that happens, you will be his slaves.” His slaves. There is the most dreaded word of all. While living in the Promised Land, they would essentially be in the same position that they were in Egypt: they would be somebody’s slaves. All for the illusion of safety. All out of fear.
That scenario has been repeated over and over again throughout history. When people feel threatened, when they see their familiar ways of thinking and living changing, when they find themselves living with increased uncertainties, they are much more likely to surrender their freedoms and to look for someone to tell them what to do. They are much more likely to cling to simplistic explanations of the problems and challenges of life. They fall prey to those who are willing to distort the truth, to demonize others, and to feed upon their fears in order to gain power for themselves.
In a recent book (Fascism: A Warning), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright documents the way that that scenario has played out over the last century and a half in countries around the world, with devastating consequences. Demagogues have fed people with lies and have played upon their fears in order to convince them to forego freedom and some of their most cherished values for the sake of alleged security and supposed certainty. “Give us a king so that we can be like other nations.”
But, as was the case with ancient Israel at the time of Samuel, that decision to flee freedom and its accompanying responsibility reaches beyond political and military considerations. It reaches also to people’s deepest values and to matters that depend upon their faith and on the way they practice their religion. It raises the same question that confronted the people in today’s first reading: who is the real authority, the real king, in life? Will people live in the challenging freedom of the children of God, or will they choose to let someone else tell them what to think and what to do, thereby trying to escape responsibility for their own decisions?
Some churches today and in every age, claim to provide that simplistic certainty. Their message is clear-cut and absolute. And many people choose that path. That is a perennial temptation. The early Christians in Galatia, for example, seem to have done that, which led St. Paul in exasperation to plead with them (Galatians 5:1), “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Living in freedom, living in the complexity of this world, is not an easy thing to do. It requires that we continue to learn so that we can make informed decisions. It requires that we continue to think, to struggle to separate the truth from distortions and outright lies, and to consider the pros and cons of our own and of others’ points of view. Ultimately, it requires that we continue to take responsibility for our actions.
Unlike some denominations and some approaches to being a church, our particular religious tradition is one that traditionally cherishes that freedom and accepts the responsibilities that necessarily go with it. Ours in an approach that is much more difficult than trying to reduce a complex world to a simplistic collection of biblical quotes taken out of context or deciding that we are going to allow someone else to do our thinking for us.
Yet it is an approach that I think Samuel would approve; for it rejects the notion that the real truth in life lies anywhere except in God alone. It accepts our God-given charge of making responsible decisions in life. And it commits us to a lifetime journey of seeking to learn and to walk in the ways of God.