June 6, 2021
The Power and the Glory
Think of a favorite TV show, something you look forward to each week or whenever a new season drops. Think about how you feel when that new material arrives and how you anticipate getting back into that world with familiar characters, whether you love them or hate them, and with new adventures ahead.
That’s kind of how I feel every three years when we arrive here, after Trinity Sunday, and find ourselves at the beginning of the story arc of Samuel, Saul, and David. This saga has all the features of a great story: battles, treachery, politics, mental illness, romance, conspiracy, rape, murder, illicit love, dysfunctional families, and more. For the next ten weeks we will hear the highlights of this epic tale, starting today with the prophet Samuel, who has ruled Israel as God’s deputy, facing a mob of community leaders who demand a king.
The Bible tells the story of the kings of Israel in four books: 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. 1 Samuel begins with the origins of Samuel himself, the miracle child of Hannah, who was thought to be barren, and her husband Elkanah. You might recall that Hannah sings a song of triumph that is a forerunner of the later Magnificat of Mary, praising God for raising up those who have been oppressed and casting down the mighty. This song sets the tone for the life of Samuel.
We read the story of the call of the boy Samuel back before Lent. He grew up to be a great prophet and judge over all Israel, administering justice, keeping the peace, and leading the people through challenging times of conflict with their neighbors the Philistines. Now Samuel is an old man. He has handed over legislative power to his sons, but they are not cut from the same cloth. They are corrupt and entitled. In the face of this power vacuum, coupled with the threat from the Philistines, the elders of Israel, fed up with the status quo, look at the nations that surround them. Those nations have kings, warrior leaders who do heroic deeds, who lead their armies to victory.
The people of God are tired of being separate and different; they want to be like other nations. They value military might, worldly power, glamor and glory. They lobby Samuel to institute a monarchy. You might guess that God will not be pleased by this desire. In fact, God says to Samuel that the people have rejected their God, once again turning away from the covenant, as they have done time and again. Samuel tries to dissuade the elders: he reminds them of the dark side of being ruled by a king: a king will demand taxes and forced labor; a king will impose military conscription and take away your freedom. A king will centralize power and wealth. They are much better off being ruled by the God who loves them and who brought them to the promised land.
When they stand firm Samuel reluctantly assents; under God’s guidance he finds and anoints Saul as king; later, when a heroic military leader is called for, Saul steps into that role and Samuel crowns him publicly, ensuring that the king is king only under God’s authority.
Saul is an unlikely choice, and the story of his call is, frankly, weird. Our reading today skips over it, but here’s a summary. Samuel goes out into the countryside of Israel to find the candidate whom God has already identified. He meets Saul, whose father has sent him out to round up some stray donkeys. Samuel recognizes Saul as The Chosen One and invites him to stay with him. The next day he secretly anoints Saul as king and sends him home to his donkeys. Subsequently, at a gathering of all the tribes, Saul, already called and anointed by God, is chosen by lot and acknowledged as king; but he doesn’t earn the respect and acclamation of the people until he has demonstrated military skill and leadership. Only then does Samuel crown him at Gilgal, at the end of the passage we heard today.
In some ways the calling of Saul echoes our own Anglican understanding of call. A call is valid when it is experienced by the person concerned, AND recognized by the community, AND validated by the religious authority. Saul is God’s anointed, but as we will learn in the weeks ahead, he fails to fulfill his promise; and indeed, as the history of the Kings unfolds, we will see exactly the kind of corruption that Samuel warned the people about. Because human beings have a hard time embracing God’s notion of power.
I’m talking about the power that liberates, that gives itself away, that lifts up those who are humble, that gives people who are powerless in the world the strength and resilience to keep going. It’s a power that is celebrated throughout Scripture, sometimes in subtle ways. Samuel’s mother Hannah was bullied, and humiliated by her inability to bear a child, but when God blessed her with a son she sang a revolutionary song that has come down to us through the ages. Samuel was just a child when he received the word of God, a word that castigated powerful men. Saul was lifted out of obscurity, describing himself as “only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel,” and his family as “the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin.” And in future weeks we will hear about David, the youngest brother and shepherd boy armed only with a slingshot.
Scripture tells us over and over that God has a special care for the lowly, those without voice or vote in the world, women, children, youngest sons, shepherds, peasants in an occupied country, minority populations, despised professions. When it comes to the Gospels, Jesus hangs out with all the wrong people. The Holy Spirit dwells with those who are without power in the world. And in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus taps into divine power to heal, to drive out unclean spirits, to calm the waves, the religious authorities and his own family completely misinterpret the source of his power. They cannot conceive of a power that isn’t violent and self-serving.
And yet, as the story of Jesus unfolds, we learn that true leadership relies on the power of God, not on human notions of power. True leadership sometimes means submitting to power, as Jesus submitted on the Cross. Human beings are still not very good at recognizing divine power, let alone embracing it. We are still drawn to the heroic and glamorous, the loud and impressive, over the still small voice that calms our storms and heals our souls. As Christian Gillette told us on Pentecost Sunday, that power is offered to us as followers of Jesus. We can claim the power of the Holy Spirit and live into it, courageously, joyfully, celebrating our freedom from the corrupt and destructive power that seeks to own us, the power of fear and death.
As we walk through these next ten weeks with Samuel, Saul, David, and a host of supporting characters, let’s pay attention to how power is used and misused, and let’s look for ways to nurture the spiritual power that Jesus gave us, reaching out into the world to fulfill our calling as God’s anointed and beloved children, embracing, like Jesus, the motherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, and sheer personhood of every single one of our neighbors.