Weekly Preaching: June 10, 2018

June 4th, 2018

Great texts this week! I’ll linger a while over 1 Samuel 8, which is a theologically rich, timely story. I heard William Barber use it shortly after the 2016 election to call the nation to account (read/watch here) in a powerful, unforgettable sermon. I’ll spend some time on the epistle before turning to Jesus’ baffling but wonderful thoughts about “binding the strong man.”

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To speak of Saul as Israel’s first king is a bit much; there was hardly any institution at all — it was more of a startup. No capital, no army, no bureaucrats. Saul himself was big and strong, and his dad was rich. He had even a frenzied experience of the Spirit (1 Sam 10:12).

But how he becomes king is, theologically, a nightmare. The preacher could choose to walk people through the text slowly, with little aside comments:

“All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old’” (a frank but unflattering opening remark), “‘and your sons do not follow in your ways’” (similarly frank and unflattering). 

“Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us” (they had tried this years earlier with Gideon, who wisely refused) “like other nations” (which was the one thing Israel was not supposed to be). “But the thing displeased Samuel” (another understatement — but why? Perhaps he was displeased that they were so frank and unflattering as to reject his sons. What does his desperate lunge to install his greedy sons tell us about his heart? Was he clinging to hopes they would turn out all right after all? Did he seek some validation through them? Was he, in old age, shortsighted regarding what was required in such tough times? How did the author of 1 Samuel get this peek into Samuel’s sentimental confusion? And how did he know Samuel’s displeasure was shared by God, who if anything felt more jilted than did Samuel?). 

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘They have rejected me from being king over them’” (1 Sam 8:7). Francesca Aran Murphy's insight intrigues (in her Brazos commentary on 1 Samuel): God does not appear much in the story going forward. Has God withdrawn? Does it seem to wayward people God has withdrawn?

Mind you, all of us would do as they did. To say We need no government or army, God is our King would be a deeply pious riff, but the Midianites and Philistines wielded real swords and clubs. Dealing with them spontaneously, haphazardly, armed with nothing but a prayer made no sense. And the world was changing. The Bronze Age was yielding to the technologically superior Iron Age. Nomadic, tribal culture was yielding to urbanization and more centralized power all over the world. Israel was under siege, and would likely be squashed within a generation. The Bible’s radical vision of life with God never seems to mesh well with the demands of real societies trying to adjust and survive. The Prussian chancellor Bismarck famously said “You can’t run a government based on the Sermon on the Mount.” Leadership can’t merely close its eyes and fold its hands in prayer. In a frightening, rapidly changing world, leadership has to get its hands dirty in harsh realities. So what’s up with God’s resistance to their eagerness for reasonable leadership?

Their sensible demand for Samuel to give them a king took a stunning turn, though, when the Lord, nursing feelings of rejection, told Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (1 Sam 8:7). What they were asking was a bolt away from God toward independence, a surrender of their status as God’s chosen, special, elect people. But instead of tossing down a few thunderbolts, God let them have what they wanted. Paul wrote in a similar vein in Romans 1: “God gave them up.” When people insist on their will instead of God’s, God “gives them up.” God lets them have their way.

And yet the resilience of God’s love wouldn’t let God just abandon them to their own devices. After telling Samuel to let them have their king, God simply added, “only you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Sam 8:9). Pastors warn, as did the prophets — although warnings are rarely welcomed. What was Samuel’s tone when he warned? Snarling and bellowing? Or more plaintive, grievous, tender pleading? Love warns gingerly, lovingly.

A laundry list of troubles (all of which did eventually unfold in the sad narrative to come) was rattled off: “This king will press your sons into vain military quests, and your daughters into domestic service; he will tax you and confiscate the fruits of your labors.” But the people only hardened their hearts, shouting “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that he may go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). The key word here is “our.” Their agenda, not the Lord’s. We may wonder how many of the Bible’s “holy wars” were really very human wars with God’s name pasted on the outside.

In March, I was present for a scintillating lecture by 85-year-old Walter Brueggemann in which he articulated how history has been a history of economies of "extraction," the wealthy extracting from the poor. Egypt obviously did this, but then so did Solomon, by taxation, seizing property, and for nefarious purposes (war, oppression, etc.). It is haunting to realize this is what we have in the U.S., and how so many in our churches benefit from it — and yet how unholy it is. Brueggemann suggests that the Bible envisions a very different economy: one of neighborliness, where we don't seize all we can, where we might resist gentrification, where we lift up the needy and perhaps have less ourselves. Samuel's warning resonates across the centuries, to us.

God lets them have what they want. The name Saul means “asked for.” The rich irony of this! The people ask for a king and after dire warnings, God gives them literally what they asked for: Saul, the asked-for one. Poor Saul. He is inserted into the middle of a fractured relationship between Israel and the Lord. He is immensely gifted, tall, strong, smart, and zealous. Maybe too zealous. We almost sense that he tries too hard. Leaders do, especially in sick systems.

Saul had his faults, but the preacher might ask if he simply was the one God wanted for that moment, as if it suited God to put a weak one on the throne in order to drive the hidden plot of God’s story. Much has been written about Saul as a tragic figure. The plot of his story is kin to those Greek dramas in which the main character (like Oedipus), no matter what he actually does, is fated to a destiny not of his own choosing. The moment in time is what is flawed; the people seeking a king are flawed, not just Saul. David Gunn suggests that Saul is “vulnerable as an object-lesson,” which the Lord wanted to teach a wayward people; he is “kingship’s scapegoat.”

"Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us about Powerful Leadership" (Abingdon Press, 2017). Order here: http://bit.ly/2rYxHac

And then, shock of all shocks, miracle of all miracles, God winds up salvaging the very kingship God didn’t want the people to have, one which emerged out of idolatrous and rebellious motives, by establishing his own son, Jesus, on Israel’s throne forever. God is, once again, more amazing than our wildest imaginings. My new book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, explores the Saul story in more depth, with connections to leadership today.

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Our epistle lesson, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 explains itself and should be read slowly, lingering over words and phrases, even in the sermon. Preaching at Oxford during the dark days of World War II, C.S. Lewis picked up on “The Weight of Glory” and spent what must have been fifteen startling, wonderful minutes preaching on that phrase — one of the truly great sermons in Christian history. Read it in preparation to preach, or just to expand your soul.

Henri Nouwen similarly went deep on the notion of momentary affliction preparing us for a weight of glory. In Our Greatest Gift, his thoughtful book about dying, he tells a story about fraternal twins talking with one another in the womb. The story begins: 

“The sister said to the brother, ‘I believe there is life after birth.’ Her brother protested vehemently, ‘No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing to do but cling to cord that feeds us.’ The little girl insisted, ‘There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light, where there is freedom to move.’ 

The sister continues to try and and convince her brother of what is to come, to no avail. If you’ve never used it, the story works on Sunday morning but is especially powerful at funerals.

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And then there's our Gospel text, Mark 3:20-35. Verse 20 feels a bit abrupt, so if we back up we’ll recall that Jesus had just called disciples, and then “he went home” — presumably to Nazareth, since his mother and siblings appear straightaway. How odd: it’s so jammed, “they could not even eat.” A deep hunger underwrites the confusion and tension to follow. Jesus’ own family, out of great affection and also from the misunderstandings loved ones often have when their beloved goes out on a limb for God, restrains him, fearing he is mentally disturbed. In this way, they join ranks with Jesus’ critics in the following verse, who interpret his startling feats as demon possession.

Opening with the family and then closing this pericope with them again, forms a neat “sandwich” or inclusio. Jesus has siblings, posing a quandary for Catholics adhering to Mary’s perpetual virginity; Martin Luther clung to this belief as well. I love to ponder the role these siblings play, including James, who knows Jesus well, who got dissed in this very scene, and yet who became a great believer and leader in the early Church. What greater evidence could there be that Jesus really was whom the Gospel writers claimed he was?

We also see how Jesus relativizes and then radicalizes “family,” one of those sneaky, curious idolatries in our society. Do Mary and her children get ushered to the front? No. Jesus embraces everyone standing there as his family. In God, we are a new kind of family. Christianity is a process of re-familying. We may be from strong families, but God’s call can disrupt that as the ultimate priority and place us in a weird family with very different people. We may be from dysfunctional, painful families, and God then gifts us with the family we always wished we’d had. Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality project presses us to delve into our family lunacies and then into the church to discover people who then become our new home. 

My friend Bishop Claude Alexander and I recently preached together on domestic violence and found ourselves speaking to men about how to treat women. Claude said “You may have grown up in a family where kindness and generosity and verbal encouragement didn’t happen. But you’re in a new family now, the family of God, where love is the thing.” Lovely.

It’s fascinating; Jesus’ critics didn’t say he was boring or ineffective. They fully recognized amazing events were mysteriously unfolding — perhaps being terribly mixed up, but perhaps also reticent to acknowledge that this might really be the God they had gotten under good control for so long, they saw the devil’s hand. The alias for Satan they use, Beelzebul, means “lord of the house.” When Jesus turns their argument on its ear, his implication is well-articulated by Joel Marcus: “Before Jesus appeared on the scene, Satan was the head of the household of this world, an identification perhaps already implied by the epithet ‘Beelzebul’ = ‘lord of the abode.’”

Jesus’ rhetoric here is brilliant, as Joel Marcus explains: “Jesus compares his own actions to those of a transgressive character, in this case a thief who breaks into a strong man’s house, ties him up, and steals his goods.” That’s our Jesus indeed!

Binding the Strong Man is the title of Ched Myers’s remarkable and powerful ruminations on Mark’s Gospel. According to Myers, Mark was written “to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about their world and themselves.” It is “a manifesto for radical discipleship.” Indeed, “Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myths. From the very first line, Mark’s strategy is subversive.” Myers complains about much of what we often hear nowadays — “bourgeois hermeneutics trivializing apocalyptic narrative” (Ouch!). Jesus, according to Mark, who is sneaky strong, intends to overthrow the apparent strong man (the establishment) to liberate the strong one’s prey. “Imperial hermeneutics, ever on the side of law and order, will of course find this interpretation offensive, shocking.”

Of course, as Marcus reminds us, when Jesus is spoken of as insane and is alienated from his own family, we should recall that Mark’s first readers, and all early Christians, were thought to be out of their minds, and many were grievously abandoned by their kinfolk. This phenomenon likely goes on in our day as well.

This text provides us with that worrisome idea that there is one unforgivable sin. John Bunyan (Grace Abounding) shared with a friend his worry he has committed this sin, and his friend answered he thought he might have as well. Pastors counsel fretting souls by suggesting that, if you are genuinely worried about having committed this sin, you probably have not done so. Mark’s context indicates this sin would be “a total, malignant opposition to Jesus that twists all the evidence of his life-giving power into evidence that he is demonically possessed." And so, as Marcus continues, “Those guilty of such blasphemy would not be overly concerned about having committed it.” I’d turn this and ask, "Why worry so much over Did I commit that one that’s unforgivable? What then about the mass of quite forgivable sins I’ve committed — and have been forgiven?"

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