June 6, 2021
There was once a meeting a long time ago, around the beginning of our country, that was almost entirely unique in all of history. It took place in 1783 in New York, when the country still operated under the Articles of Confederation. Now, if you’ve forgotten your American History, the Articles of Confederation was our first constitution, and was almost purposely designed to hamstring a central government. It made it so there was still back pay to soldiers who served in the war because states could legally refuse to pay any taxes. There was a lot of instability, and to a certain group of army officers, it looked like something needed to be done before the whole country spiraled into chaos. Something like a military coup.
Well, George Washington heard of it and he went to the meeting to get the officers to back down. Washington, honestly, was probably the guy they would have picked to be the dictator to guide the country to stability, so he hoped his words would carry weight. He promised to do everything he could to steer congress toward safety and stability, but it was the very end of his speech to this group that changed everything. He pulled out a letter that he planned to read, and, realizing he couldn’t quite make out the words on the page, fumbled for his glasses. And then he apologized: “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind.” The line was moving enough that the coup plot ended that night.
The desire to find one stabilizing center when things start going sideways is as old as human history, as we heard this morning from 1 Samuel. See, up to that point, Israel had been a tribal confederation, only brought together by the occasional Judge—a person appointed by God when the Israelites were under attack or needed liberating from an invading and occupying enemy. They had worked well, with Deborah beating back the Canaanites, and Gideon throwing the Midianites back into the desert, and Samson pulling down the walls on his Philistine captors. But while judges worked for the ad hoc stuff, many in Israel thought the system just wasn’t reliable enough, or stable enough.
So they went to Samuel, the last of the judges. They explained how they wanted a king, like other nations. A king would be easy to point to when things got rough—he could be called on to come defend them, bringing an army to protect all of Israel from whoever attacked them. And a kingship would be stable, because unlike the judges, the Israelites would know who the next authority figure was after the king was gone. Other nations around them had kings, so the Israelites figured it was the best option for them to do the same.
Samuel didn’t like it one bit. But, as we heard, God told him that even though the elders were wrong, and asking for a king was a rejection of God’s direct rule in their lives, God would work with it. But Samuel needed to tell them just what they were getting into. Kings, even more than priests or judges, could become monstrously corrupted. Where Samuel’s sons corrupted justice by accepting bribes, a king would draft whole populations into forced military service. A king would tax away their wealth for his own personal gain. A king would turn this free population into a nation of slaves.
But the thing that really sticks out is what the elders said twice about why they wanted a king. “We want to be like other nations.” It’s such an important part of their argument to Samuel, and really reinforces God’s evaluation that they were rejecting God and not just Samuel. To be the same as other nations was to reject the whole purpose of God setting the Israelites apart as God’s own people. They were supposed to be different. So much of the Law is about how the Israelites would be different to show the world how good God is. But I think we can all understand the desire to fit in, to not stand out.
From the time we were preteens if not earlier, we’ve all had that peer pressure on us. It’s not comfortable when you realize you’re the only person in the room who’s acting different, or looks different, or speaks different. No one likes to not fit in, so the desire to be like others is almost a glue that holds society together. Wanting to be different, really different, is most often seen not as a celebration of the unique ways we are called to inhabit the world, but as a threat to the way things are. Think of how we’ve reacted to everything from long-haired guys in the 60s, to black-clad goths in high school, to genderfluid teens today. It’s why Jesus just about got taken away to be institutionalized by his family as he preached in Galilee.
He had been preaching, teaching, and healing people into the way of the kingdom of God when word made its way to Jerusalem. The leaders up there came down to Galilee, specifically intent on turning everyone away from Jesus’s teachings that made people act so differently. Jesus welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes into the kingdom. He preached against the strict reading of Sabbath rest. He even touched lepers! If the world went the way of Jesus, then who knows what would happen? Society would collapse. The wrong people might start making decisions. People would think stepping out of line was nothing to worry about. So they made this outlandish claim that Jesus must be casting out demons with the power of Satan!
Which Jesus pointed out is completely preposterous, of course. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Satan wouldn’t be fighting against himself for rulership in the world. But the Jerusalem rulers had the same thing in mind that the elders had before Samuel: we want to be like others. Jesus taught a way of being, caring for others without thought for reward, building up a family that wasn’t connected by blood but instead were bound by a common purpose, sharing the good news of salvation with people who were supposed to be on the outside of society, and this way of being was just too different.
As Christians, we are called to be different. We are called to stand out. We are supposed to shine like a light in the darkness—“let your light so shine before others.” By acting differently, people will notice the ways that we extend grace when the rest of the world exacts revenge. By acting differently, people will notice how we care deeply for others when the rest of the world shields itself with “not my problem.” By acting differently, people will notice how we evict the demons of hate, and bigotry, and condescension, and lovelessness when the rest of the world repackages them as essential features of humanity.
The thing is, we need to hear the Israelite elders’ foolish demand for a king so they could be “like other nations.” We need to hear it because we are supposed to be different; we are supposed to be not like the others. Let’s embrace the opportunity God gives us to stand out. Let’s be Christ’s sisters and brothers and mother by doing the will of God, sharing grace and love, caring for other people as if they were our own family, rejecting the ease of lovelessness, because we are children of God.
May we all look like crazy people the same way Jesus did—because of our love. May we not be intimidated by the pressure to not be different, or the threat of being called crazy. May the love, grace, and wholeness that God wants to share through us be what makes us different from the others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.