“When we decided to walk this Christian path, we decided to take on ourselves all the hostility that this world unleashes on those who are different. This is our job. This world is longing for a different kind of Christianity once again – for a church with the courage to speak and act – not just in the face of the injustices we see… but also the very deep ones that go unseen, the ways we have already become too much like the others, to cozy with the costs of our own status quo….
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations”
May I speak to you in the name of the One who was and is and will be forever. Amen.
In this last sermon, for now, at St. Mark’s I want to reassure you that I am – at long last – fully, completely, 100%, moved-in to Washington, DC. My apartment and my office are each mostly unpacked. Mostly ready for the new life we will begin here.
One of the blessings of moving is the chance to sift through the accumulated stuff of life – objects both sacred and mundane – that mark our journey on this earth.
Like many in my generation, I have moved a lot – 13 different addresses in the 15 years since I left college. And with each move, I shed more things. I arrive in each home with fewer photos, fewer books, fewer sweaters that don’t quite fit anymore.
But some things I keep. Some things make the cut every time.
One of them is a large Readers’ Digest Book of Birds – an avian encylopedia full of drawings and information about hundreds of species, from the hummingbird to the ostrich. It was my favorite book as a child – I would page through it for hours, captivated by the splendor of creation in all its diverse beauty.
For more than two decades, that book that sat on the far right side of the bottom shelf of my grandmother’s living room bookcase. Now, it sits in the same place, on mine.
One other thing that always makes the cut is a plastic bin of journals. Six or seven of these diaries, different shapes and sizes, from different times of my life. From about sixth grade through the end of college, I would regularly pour my deepest thoughts and struggles onto the page.
My journals were the place where I would pray. Where I would share with Jesus my hopes and fears, my sadness and my joy. And it was the place where I would ask and beg and plead for the desires of my heart.
Although I keep them, I never open the journals anymore. I’m not sure I want to plunge into the details of my life back then. Maybe someday I will.
But I know what is in them. I know what I wrote, and said and prayed for. And there is one prayer – which I scratched into those pages with the full force of my pen and my soul, over and over and over again:
God – please make me normal. Please make me more like everyone else.
That desire to be like all the others runs deep in us. Conformity, ease, simplicity – freedom from ridicule and struggle – the ability to have success, achievement, friendship, family, and even fun … in exactly the way we’re ‘supposed to.’
This is the problem we have today in our text from first Samuel.
Samuel, if you remember, was the wise judge and leader of the people of Israel, as they settled-in to life in the promised land.
If you read all of First Samuel (which you should do), you will see a jedi-like figure who circuit-rides his way across the land, mopping-up problems from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to Ramah. After the pesky Phillistines took the ark of the covenant (and Israel managed to get it back), Samuel convinced the people to “get with the program” of life in the promised land– to put away all their supplementary deities (Baals and Ashtoreths, we’re tolf), and focus on the one God.
And for twenty years or so, life was good.
But when Samuel got older, and tried to appoint his sons as the next generation of judges and leaders, the people were not impressed. Joel and Abijah, sons of Samuel, did not take after their father. They were crooks & scoundrels – and the elders of the people would have them.
So what should Israel do? They looked around and said – now’s our chance.
Everyone else has a king, let’s get one, too. We want a king who will fight our battles for us – who will be our great defender – our superhero, our Lord – and when we have a king, we will be like all the other nations.
There is just one not-so-small problem.
Israel was never supposed to be like all the other nations. In fact that is the one thing they were definitely not-supposed-to-be. The whole of the Law and the prophets speak of a covenant with God whereby the people of Israel would represent a different way of life in this world … a light to the nations, the beginning of salvation, God’s chosen people.
And just in case that foundational commitment was not sufficient to persuade the people of Israel that they had very poor decision-making skills, Samuel lays out all the reasons why having a king is a very bad idea:
He will take your sons into his army.
He will take your daughters into service in his palace.
He will take the best portion of your crops and vineyards, and one tenth of all the rest.
He will take your servants, and your cattle, and he will take you.
You will be slaves again – just like you were in Egypt
You will call out to God again for freedom.
But this time God will not answer.
Do you still want a king? Do you still want to be like all the others?
Yes, they told Samuel. Yes, we do.
Though they knew it would lead to their destruction (a destruction which would not be so far off), though they knew it all – still they wanted to be like all the others.
And the people of Israel are not entirely clueless. They had their reasons, of course – our king will fight for us, they thought – and they were willing to sacrifice all the rest….
What are we willing to sacrifice – to be like all the rest?
And where do we draw the line?
I have a hunch that even Jesus was asking that question in today’s Gospel from Mark. He had been making his rounds – teaching and preaching, healing and casting out demons, and calling a team of disciples to be his companions on the way.
But just three chapters into this Gospel, Jesus is already stirring up trouble. He has been healing on the sabbath, hanging out with the untouchables, bumping up against the carefully-crafted norms designed – by this time – both to preserve the spirit of God’s chosen people AND to avoid bringing on the full wrath of Roman military occupation.
Jesus was getting just a bit carried away. Pushing just a bit too far. Speaking just a bit too honestly. Acting just a bit too boldly. Stretching the bounds of who is welcome just a bit beyond everyone’s comfort zone.
And here today Jesus is back home, with his family – his parents, and brothers and sisters, and they wonder if he has gone out of his mind. What were you thinking, Jesus?! I can almost hear his mother say. Why did you have to do that?! Can’t you be a bit more careful.
The scribes and religious authorities had heard about Jesus, too. Heard how he was rocking the boat and they were concerned – concerned enough to march their way down from Jerusalem to unleash accusations, start rumors, and defame the character of this Jesus … who thinks he speaks in the name of God. Not so – he is possessed by a demon, they said… and not just any demon – Beelzebul, the most demonic demon of all.
I hope Jesus was tempted to give it a rest. To turn it down a notch. To be more careful. To make his mother happy. I hope he struggled with that decision – whether to be like all the rest, or whether to stay true to the disruptively different path that that the Spirit had set him on.
We face these same choices – every day – as we live our lives.
What are we willing to sacrifice – to be like all the rest?
And where do we draw the line?
Jesus drew the line clearly – he would not be shaken from the deep commitments of his faith, from the mission God had given him to do. It would cost him much, it would cost his life, and along the way it would cost ridicule, and scorn, and hate, and abandonment … spit and tears and agony. In his drive to be faithful, Jesus would upset the delicate balance of his society – he would risk making things worse, even for his own people.
If you were watching the news this week, you may have heard the story of Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim scholar, interfaith leader, and chaplain at Northwestern University.
On a flight from Chicago to DC, she – a Muslim woman, wearing a hijab – a person of faith declaring her different-ness – she found herself the target of anti-Muslim discrimination … which seems to be taking this country by storm.
A dispute began when the flight attendant would not give her an unopened can of soda but did give an uponed can of beer to the passenger beside her. It escalated into an accusation that she, because she is Muslim – would use it as a weapon, and then other passengers piled on vulgarity and hateful words when she tried to stand up for herself. Shut the f up, one said.
Ironically Tahera was on her to speak to the Board of Kids4Peace (the interfaith organization that I lead) right here at St. Mark’s church, downstairs in the Elders’ room. She was here to speak about the struggles of American Muslims, and how we as an interfaith organization, can do our part.
The most painful part of Tahera’s story – to me – is that no one on the plane said a word. Besides the few speaking hate and fear, everyone else remained silent. As she wept, and tried to stand her ground – no one stood up for her. No one.
Last weekend, a member of another interfaith organization was speaking in a church that shall remain nameless, and he asked this congregation of progressive, open-minded Christians, what would you have done – if you were on Tahera’s plane?
Raise your hand if you would have said something, he asked this congregation – if you would have challenged the hateful speech, if you would even offered a kleenex to wipe her tears. Raise your hand if you would have done anything.
Almost no one did. Why? Because of fear, I’m sure – fear that they would have found themselves targeted, too. That they would be the object of hatred, ridicule and scorn – right along with Tahera. Why do that to yourself? Why disturb the peace?
Why? Because that is exactly where Jesus stands, and where we who claim to follow him must stand, too. When we decided to walk this Christian path, we decided to take on ourselves all the hostility that this world unleashes on those who are different. This is our job.
If had asked that question here at St. Mark’s – “what would you have done on Tahera’s plane ” – I hope that every hand would have been in the air – with some idea, some way to resist, and challenge, and transform a painful moment into a bit of grace.
I hope your answers would have be different – because you, St. Mark’s specialize in being different. You have been the church of the open communion since before I was born.
You have been bold – you have found your voice as a place that does not want to be like all the others, who will stand faithful, hold your ground, and stick together through it all.
So what’s next, St. Mark’s?
How will you speak a prophetic word in this generation – while giving voice to ever more diversity within the congregation?
This world is longing for a different kind of Christianity once again – for a church with the courage to speak and act – not just in the face of the injustices we see… but also the very deep ones that go unseen, the ways we have already become too much like the others, to cozy with the costs of our own status quo.
God never answered my prayer to be normal. Israel got its king, but it turned out just as badly as Samuel said.
So what is next for you St. Mark’s? Will you be like all the others? Or something more?
Do you have the wisdom and the courage to be different, once again?