The Scripture lessons for this Sunday may be read here.
The people Israel had been living in the Promised Land for many generations. Sometimes following God’s ways, sometimes not so much. Often at war, sometimes conquered. Not particularly powerful nor particularly wealthy, as nations go.
This story took place about three thousand years ago, a little over a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. The prophet Samuel had been ruling the people Israel for several decades. But he was growing old, and his sons were not of his caliber. So the leaders of the people came to him and said, Samuel, appoint a king for us. All the other nations around us have kings to rule and govern them. Courageous kings, at the head of armies; noble kings, dispensing justice from thrones; virile kings, surrounded by their lovely wives. We want what everybody else has. We want a king too.
Samuel didn’t take it well; but then God told him, “Samuel, cheer up! They’re not rejecting YOU. They’re rejecting ME. You, and the prophets and judges who went before you, have ruled in My name and served My will. Now my people want a human leader. So be it. Give them a king. But warn them. Show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So that’s what Samuel did. He said, “This is what your king will do, because this is what all kings do. He will take your sons to serve him as guards and warriors. He will use the wealth of the country to build up an army for the wars he will wage. He will take your daughters to work in his palace – as perfumers and cooks and bakers – if you’re lucky. He will seize the best of your land, your fields and vineyards and orchards, and give them away as gifts to his courtiers, his favorites. And of the land he leaves you, he will take one-tenth of the produce you grow, and one-tenth of the sheep and goats of your flocks, to feed his army and fill the table for his feasts. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, to work for HIM. And you will be no better than slaves to his power, ambition, and greed. And on the day when you finally see this clearly, you will cry out to God because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but God will not answer you that day.”
But the people did not listen. They said, “No! We are determined to have a king, so that we may be like other nations, with a king to govern us and fight our battles.” And so Samuel anointed the warrior Saul, whom God chose to be the first King of Israel.
The books of 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings – really all one long chronicle – are written with great nuance and skill. I love it when the summer of Year B rolls around and we begin to walk through this amazing piece of ancient literature once again. Like all great literature, these Biblical books tell a particular story that is also a universal human story, an always-and-everywhere story. And the always-and-everywhere element of this chapter, of Israel’s desire and Samuel’s warning, is the very human tendency to want what we want, even when people warn us of the cost.
We want what we want, even when we know the cost. We know about the destruction of our planet, but we still drive our cars and run our computers and, God help us, buy bottled water. We know about slave labor and child labor, but we still want our iPhones and our chocolate. We know about the underpaid, underprotected factory workers, but we still want cheap clothes and goods. We know about residential segregation, and the ways it perpetuates economic and racial stratification, but we still want to live around people who look like us, who’ll take care of their yards and drive appropriate cars, and we very much want to send our kids to a “nice” school. We know the costs. But we want. So we forget.
This is what my Facebook feed feels like sometimes: Yes, yes, slaves… Yes, yes, pesticides… Yes, yes, racism… Ooh! Cute cat video!… We want. We want our consumer goods, our comfortable lifestyle – nothing ostentatious, just, you know, nice – we want the best of everything for our children, of course – maybe we just want to be able to get through the day without feeling too terrible about ourselves. So we look away, we stop our ears, to avoid hearing the prophets who are tallying the costs of the way of the world.
There are many moments in Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, where the way of the world and the way of God are held up against each other. In tension, even at war. Many Christians hold that tension central to their way of being; they live day by day striving to follow God, knowing that puts them at odds with the ways of society, the ways of humanity.
Episcopalians – Anglicans – are not a tradition that tends to draw that line starkly. We were founded, back in the 16th century, as a national church. The religious order and the political and social order were not identical; but there was a LOT of overlap. Remember, the Queen is STILL the official head of the Church of England, our mother church. And we are the inheritors of that mindset in many ways, that mindset of establishment. We’ve never been an established church, in this country, nor even a particularly large church. But we have a history of being the church of the wealthy and the educated. I remember when I was in high school, one of our Social Studies books, for some reason, had a list of all the presidents of the United States with their religious affiliations. And the Episcopalians had the most, by far. It’s less true than it used to be, but for many generations the Episcopal Church was the church of the elites – to the point that upward mobility could mean abandoning the Methodist or Baptist church to “go Episcopalian.” That kind of strong identification with those at the top of the heap hardly encourages a church to point the finger at the injustices, consequences and costs of the status quo.
There are some really good things about Anglican and Episcopalian this-worldlyness. I’m not calling us to become the kind of Christians who view the present and material world with suspicion. One of the hallmarks of the Anglican and Episcopal way is an incarnational and quotidian spirituality – incarnational in that we see God present in this world, not only in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but in many ongoing and lifegiving ways; quotidian, a fancy word for everyday, in that we see the potential for holiness and service to God in ordinary life and even the most humble tasks. I love that aspect of our distinctive Christian way. But maybe we need to draw a cleaner, clearer line between assuming that God is present in this world, and assuming that this world, therefore, is the way God wants it to be.
There is a lot about the way of this world that is sick, and broken, and destructive. In our baptismal rite, we are asked to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God… What images flash before your eyes, if you reflect on that phrase? Waterfowl with oil-soaked wings? Children in refugee camps? So many examples. You’ll have your own list.
Jesus loved the world so much. He saw the potential for holiness and grace in everyday life and ordinary people. And at the same time, he was outspoken about the ways in which the status quo of his time and place corrupted and destroyed God’s creatures. That’s why he got called crazy.
In today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to find him and bring him home, for his own protection, because everyone is saying that he’s out of his mind. He’s out of his mind because he’s saying that the old holy prophecies of healing and hope for God’s people can still come true. He’s out of his mind because he acts like sin can be healed, forgiven, released, instead of worn as a shabby shameful garment for a lifetime. He’s out of his mind because he says that God’s ultimate desire for humanity is that we should live and grow and flourish, not that we should follow a bunch of nitpicky little rules.
Michael Curry is the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina. He was my bishop while I was seeking ordination, and he ordained me to the priesthood in 2009. He’s also currently one of the candidates for Presiding Bishop, and he’s one of the best-known preachers in our church. He preached on this Gospel a few years ago, and talked about our calling to follow Jesus and become “crazy Christians.” He said,
We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord. Crazy enough to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it…. We need some crazy Christians. Sane, sanitized Christianity is killing us. That may have worked once upon a time, but it won’t carry the Gospel anymore…. [We need some Christians] crazy enough to believe, as Dr. King often said, that though “the moral arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice.” …. We need some Christians crazy enough to believe that children don’t have to go to bed hungry; that the world doesn’t have to be the way it often seems to be; that there is a way to lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside; that as the slaves used to sing, “There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom,” because… we are all equally children of God, and meant to be treated as such.
Bishop Curry’s words remind me of a line from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which is coming along in next week’s lectionary: “If we have been unreasonable, it is for God; if we have been reasonable, it is for you.” Paul’s talking about holding that space of being just sane enough to get people to listen, and just crazy enough to dare to speak and live God’s radical truth.
Unreasonable for God’s sake. Crazy Christians. It makes a great slogan, and a pretty good sermon. But how do we do it? How do we claim that craziness? How do we find the patience and strength and courage to believe in, and work for, a future in which our simple everyday pleasures – good food, rewarding work, rest, play, time with those we love – are not bound in complicated and far-reaching ways to human or environmental degradation, exploitation, waste or suffering? How do we become strong enough to count the costs, and, sometimes, to re-calibrate our wants? How do we get strong enough to be that kind of crazy?
One thing is certain: we’ve got to do it together. By doing this: coming together for worship, sharing prayer and song, food and conversation, receiving Scripture and reflecting on it together. In the words of Kyle Oliver, a priest and educator who thinks a lot about these questions, “We Episcopalians are a ragtag bunch united primarily by our firm conviction that praying together forms us into the people God is calling us to be.”
Walter Brueggeman, the great Old Testament scholar and writer, has a keen sense of how the ways of the world differ from the ways of God; and he, too, says that it’s the gathered life of the community of faith that makes us able to step back from the first, and step into the second. (Here’s a summary of the Brueggeman talk I’m citing here.) He talks about inculturation, nurture, formation, discipleship. He says that all our ministries, all the things we do together as a faith community – preaching, liturgy, education, social action, administration, stewardship, ministries of food and fellowship and hospitality – they are all instruments and tools for the nurture of God’s people into that alternative worldview. Into the ways of God, that are often unreasonable or flat-out crazy by the standards of the world.
And I love this: Brueggeman says, of course we’re ambivalent about that. We’re not sure we want to detach from the status quo, to opt out and turn our back on everything normal and taken-for-granted. Do you really want to become that person on Facebook who’s always ranting about bottled water? We like a lot of the normal stuff. We like malls and Smartphones and exotic vegetables. We’re likely to spend a lot of time trying to straddle the ways of the world and the ways of God, betwixt and between, back and forth, neither one nor the other.
But, says Brueggeman, there’s good news even in our uncertainty, our double-mindedness: “The good news is that our ambivalence as we stand [between worlds], is precisely the [space] for the work of God’s Spirit…. It is in our ambivalence that the Spirit in us can be stirred and we can be opened to new possibilities… Surely one of the crucial tasks of ministry is to name the deep ambiguity that besets us, and to [reframe that ambiguity as a space of] waiting for God’s newness among us. This work is not to put people in crisis. The work is to name the crisis that people are already in… Ministry is for truth telling about the shape we are in. And that truth telling makes us free.”
Over the past few weeks I’ve had the blessing of talking with many of you, through a series of focus groups, about how your church and your faith shape and support your daily life in the world. And a lot of you have said, in one way or another, that belonging to a church, and to this church, is what helps you not to be too overwhelmed or discouraged by the ways of this world. Not to lose heart, to use Paul’s language, when faced with the powers that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. You’ve said that coming to church helps you reset and release hatred, bitterness, fear. That it helps you see the big picture, remember that long arc of justice. That it reminds you that you’re not alone; that you’ve got companions in the work, the struggle, the ambivalence. That it simply reminds you that goodness exists – and sometimes that’s enough.
That’s my prayer for this place, this community, this faith-village with its elders and youngsters, its worker-bees, bards and sages. My prayer is that our shared life, in all its aspects, will shape and bless and empower us as followers of Jesus, who, like him, love the world so much; who, like him, see the potential for holiness and grace in everyday life and ordinary people. And who, like him, are empowered to speak and act to challenge and change the ways in which the status quo harms God’s creatures, and name, together, the bold, strange, hopeful, crazy truth that things could be otherwise.