1 Samuel 8:4-11
There is a story buried deep in the Old Testament that we don’t often hear, but it bears not only repeating, but has a lot of wisdom in its few short verses. It’s a story about Samuel, one who bridges the gap between a judge and a prophet. We know Samuel for a couple of stories, either when he is a child, bothering his mentor Eli when God tries speaking to him, or as the one who anoints David as King over a soon-to-be united Israel. These stories are important, and we will hear at least one of them in two weeks, but this story, today’s story is maybe more relevant than it has ever been.
Up-front, it is a story about the dangers of conformity, the temptation to shape ourselves not by what God calls us to be, but by the expectations of others around us. It is a cautionary tale, for both our individual lives, but also in our community life. It is, in many ways, a true pearl of wisdom, because we need to do some diving to find it.
So the story is one where Samuel is the principle actor. He is the last judge of Israel, special men and women whom God calls to a particular task and a particular time. Samuel was called to be a leader from an early age, and followed in Eli’s footsteps. He became the de facto leader of the scattered tribes of Israel as a respected judge, who made things right. Yet in his later years, his hope of passing on this legacy to his sons turned into a deep disappointment. Neither of them understood the nuances of what he did, and rather sought to profit from their position rather than guide.
The leaders knew this, deep down Samuel knew it too when they came to him, but then, their solution knocked the wind out of him.
“Give us a King so that we may be like other nations.”
Up until this point the scattered tribes on the highlands of the eastern Mediterranean were unique among the political landscape. They had no king, no royal dynasty. Even the tribal leaders themselves deferred to those known as “judges” like Samuel, who they understood as having a special calling to lead the people in a given time. They didn’t need to be related to each other, and it mattered not if they were male or female. It set them apart from the great Empires of Egypt or the various Mesopotamian city-states.
But here they were, the leaders of the tribes coming to Samuel.
Give us a King so we might be like other nations!
So Samuel goes and consults with God. He says, “God, I have led these people for many years, and now they want to have a King! What should I do?”
God’s response goes something like this:
“Well, warn them. Go tell them that having a king and being like other nations has its consequences.”
First, a king will tax you to death.
Second, power tends to corrupt, and so anyone anointed king will be tempted to abuse that power.
Third, he’s going to tax you to death.
So Samuel goes to the tribal leaders and tells them all of this in great detail. And their response is predictable:
“So what? Give us a king so we might be like other nations!”
Frustrated, Samuel goes back to God and says “Look, I tried, I told them everything you told me, and they still want a king!”
God’s response this time is surprising:
“Well, give them what they want. They’ve rejected me before, and maybe they need to have this to find out the real dangers of having a king.”
Samuel is stunned, so much so that he goes back to the tribal leaders without telling them what he learned, and tells them all to go home.
This is a critically important story, as this is the link as to why Samuel seeks out and anoints Saul as king, and why he then seeks out and anoints David. As positive as a figure as David is in Israel’s history, God’s caution through Samuel applied both Saul and David, and everyone who would come after him. There are consequences for giving up our uniqueness, in order to fit in.
Last week, when I traveled out to Nova Scotia as both study leave and to preside at my Aunt Patricia’s funeral, I was reminded that in the culture my grandmother grew up in, the point of church was more about keeping up appearances than growing in faith. My visit with my Aunt’s funeral last week reminded me that at one point the main conversation after Sunday worship was not about the minister’s message or the choir’s anthem, but what everybody wore. Church was about conformity, and fitting in, not mission.
Even today, when the church struggles with its place in the new society around us, there is this want and desire to grasp at anything and everything to be the magic wand that will fix everything. See if these might sound familiar:
“Give us a preacher who will light the crowds on fire every week, so that we may be like other churches!”
“Give us a worship band that will blow the lid off of the sanctuary every week, so that we may be like other churches!”
“Give us that young person, who will attract all the youth to our doors, so that we may be like other churches.”
The list goes on…
Whether at work, at home, at church this is a cautionary tale. Even though tribal Israel follows through and seeks out a king, it comes with a stern warning at the outset. Whether at work, at home, at play, at church, we should not be sinking our efforts into being like everyone else. Rather, we need to listen and discern what God is calling each of us to be, and to respond with the unique gifts that we already have, and to listen for those opportunities.
As some of you are already receiving the letter we sent out earlier this week, St. Matthew’s is in the early stages of something called a Collaborative Mission and Capital Planning Project, part of the first stage of which is to go out into the community to listen to organizations and groups around us. The idea is to listen to what others are already doing, to understand their mission and purpose, and to look for opportunities for ministry. After a community walkabout last week, a few of us have assignments of connecting with community groups. In my case, I had the opportunity to contact and visit the Salvation Army’s Barbara Mitchell Centre. As I was coming up the walk, there were three young women pulling wagons up to the door, each with a couple very young children in them. Once we got inside out of the rain, I recognized them as one of the kids waved to me. They were visiting the centre from Brenda’s House, and these were children that we already have a connection with. It shows that we already have connections with our community, and we need to be much more conscious about what they are and what more we can do together.
Samuel’s story reminds us what we have forgotten: that God calls all of us, in whatever community that we are part of to exercise the unique gifts that God has already equipped us with, in the place where we are already placed. We can absolutely learn from other people or other churches and communities in order to understand ourselves better, and better carry out our calling no matter where it might lead. God has each gifted us with a uniqueness, but the point is that we should embrace our uniqueness, and not be like everyone else.