Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
July 3, 2022
Good morning, and a happy Independence Day weekend to you all. I know that for many of us there’s little to be happy about as a nation this weekend. For me to get the most out of this holiday, I remind myself that the entire basis of this weekend is writing a letter to people with supreme power, who no one elected, airing your grievances and lodging protest against them, and declaring their authority bunk, followed by popping off fireworks to give those unelected “supreme” authorities what for with a bang. Please make use of this grandest of American traditions as you see fit.
In all seriousness, we as people are always concerned and attuned to what we perceive as authority. Whether it’s out of deference, defiance, or just wanting to know the lay of the land, we are compelled, it seems, to seek something higher or larger than ourselves. This can be a good instinct on one hand, as it can lead to safety in various forms. On the other hand, we’ve seen how it can be become detrimental, or downright dangerous, as we’ve witnessed in the January 6th Insurrection hearings. We find this same human draw to power throughout our scriptures, particularly in a cyclical nature in the Hebrew Bible. From Cain’s murder of Abel to the Tower of Babel, Moses’ conflict with Pharoah through to the infamous kings of Israel and Judah, scripture is marked by a human pursuit of power in the face of the Creator and the created. It rarely ends well for the leader who is consumed by their power, even less so for those who they are supposed to serve and protect.
This cycle begins most clearly in the book of Judges, which translated literally from Hebrew means “chieftains”, which follows Moses’ death and Joshua’s leading the people into the Promised Land. Once they are in and settled, there is no governance structure for the 12 tribes. Instead, when problems arise, God calls up individual chieftains to protect the people. The array of chieftains is very diverse, women, not just men, are called be leaders by God, for God’s people. There is great diversity within God’s choices, standing in stark contrast to the empires and would be world conquerors of the nations around Israel. Prophets and chieftains rise up to the challenge, defending the people from onslaughts of all types.
But in the book of the prophet Samuel, that begins to change. Either through complacency or covetousness, the people of Israel begin to complain to the prophet that they wish to have a king like the other nations around them. Samuel tells them, and then God reiterates, that this won’t bring the security they desire, and indeed they will lose much of what they love, family and farms, in order to support the king’s whims. “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 plough 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.’”
And as expected, kings Saul, David, Solomon, and the rest all succumb to their own character flaws, exposing a small nation beloved of God to external forces who’ve no interest in anything but conquest and subjugation of the defeated. Where we pick up today in the book of Kings, originally one book but split into two by Christians later, is very much a part of that cycle. What’s most interesting about this story, the cleansing of Naaman the warrior of Aram, an enemy of Israel, is that the powerful rely on the unnamed and powerless to access what they need. It is a stolen and enslaved girl who lets her masters know about the Prophet Elisha and his God given powers. The unnamed and powerless servants who accompany Naaman are the ones who urge him to do as Elisha has instructed, which does heal Naaman. Consistently, in this story and others, the subversive nature of scripture holds up the lowly and meek as more connected to divine power than those who would assume control. Meanwhile, kings and warriors see only the loss of power, or show a refusal to follow any way but theirs, but it doesn’t work the way that they think.
It is interdependence, not independence, that ultimately brings God’s work alive in this world. To quote our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.” Sometimes, those contending to be the most powerful forget that everyone is carrying their burden as well. As I mentioned, the character flaws of even Israel’s greatest leaders bring cataclysm not just upon their crown and thrown, but the entire nation that serves them. Paul’s message that “all must carry their own load” is not a message of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, it’s a reminder to leaders that they will bear the burdens of their actions, even if others carry out their orders. In fact, interdependence calls on all of us to be accountable for our actions, rather than looking to leaders as all powerful, or thinking hat we can point to the good works of others as proof of our own righteousness. It simply doesn’t work that way. Paul goes on to say: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
Of course, this exposes us to hurt and pain. Opening ourselves to real interdependence is not a move for the weak, because so much pain can come from loving people. Any family member, especially a parent, understands this dynamic. Those we love most can and do hurt us most. In a religious movement where the leader says to “love your enemies”, there is a lot of room for us to be hurt by those who we try to love, even as they may hate us. That is a difficult, and seemingly impossible proposition. Imagine really loving those who have stripped you of your rights, let alone the movement that brought them to power, or those who threaten the fabric of our republic. And yet, we are told by a criminal hung from a cross that this is the way, to lay our lives down as servants. You can’t get more on message than Jesus saying on the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
And, as Jesus points out so poignantly from his wretched view in that moment, often the most powerful are least able to imagine the impact of their actions. Be it ego mania or a lack of moral grounding, the desire to control ironically leads to a dearth of it. We see this over and over in history, the more someone tries to take, the less cautious they become. To quote Margaret Atwood: “Stupidity is the same as evil if you judge by the results.”
Yet God has a different mission for us that isn’t about control at all, but about mutual empowerment and interdependence I’ll close quoting, Jesus, who “said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”’”
Indeed, the kingdom of God has come near, and we are the living proof of that. Hopefully we can live as a community of joyful interdependence. Maybe the Spirit will allow us to cast out demons and heal people, and do more astounding things than we can ask or imagine. Perhaps others will be inspired to serve each other too.