Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile

Second Sunday after Pentecost

June 6, 2021

Psalm 138

Of David.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down towards your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures for ever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.

1 Samuel 8.1-20

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.  The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba.  Yet his sons did not follow in his ways but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’  But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’  Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.  Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

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.’

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’

May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.

In some ways this is like the classic dialogue of a child and parent.  ‘All my friends are allowed to do it…’ ‘But if all your friends wanted to jump off a roof, would you jump off a roof?’

‘No’, say the Israelites, ‘but we want to have a king.’  And they get one.  To tell the story briefly, Samuel finds King Saul, who begins well but develops extreme mental illness and is every bit as bad as Samuel had predicted.  Even though Samuel has warned them that God will not listen to them once they make this bad decision, they cry out and God does listen.  God sees their situation and works with it.  As promised in the Psalm that Tom read, God’s love is steadfast, and God’s purpose for the people will be fulfilled.  So, by this time very old, Samuel is dispatched again and finds and anoints the shepherd boy David, who turns out to be the greatest King they ever have.

This theme of making bad mistakes, even when warned, is probably familiar to all of us.  Perhaps you made a false start in a career, or chose the wrong place to live, or left a good job, or became involved with a person who turned out to be abusive.  Or just not the right person.  The worst of it is when you see all the warning signs and somehow go ahead and derail anyway.  Some things are more or less easy to fix, while other things are almost impossible.

Most of us also live with the legacy of bad choices that others have made before us.  At present, our whole understanding of history is being rewritten by the realities of genocide and racism which are emerging piecemeal from the historical record.  We are beginning to learn that much of the prosperity of North America is based not on cleverness and thrift and daring, but on stolen resources of land and water, minerals and forests, and on the unpaid labour of enslaved people.  Much of what we value and appreciate about our life in Canada has been bought at the expense of suppressing certain groups based on race or culture, of denying and crushing the realities of gender and sexual orientation diversity, of silencing the voices of women.  Again and again systemic discrimination and the self-interest of the powerful have worked together to the detriment of those who are excluded.  And, actually, to the detriment of everyone.  This is not a matter of adding new facts to history, but of allowing the new facts to challenge and reinterpret the old facts.  Challenge the old framework.  This week in Canada the discovery of 215 little skeletons has given another seismic shake to our picture of a wholesome church and a healthy nation.

To some extent you could say our choices are a function of the systems we live in.  A racist system will produce racist decisions, same with a sexist or homophobic or elitist system.  The deep unconsciousness of privilege is well known.  Yet at the same time each one of us makes our own choices, and ultimately some of those choices will move the system.  Today as we celebrate the beginning of Pride Month and join others in grief and prayer for reconciliation with the indigenous people of this land, we re-commit ourselves to a path of consciousness and repair.

What we see in our story of ancient Israel is not a complete re-do, but an improvement.  When it becomes clear that the desire for a king was misguided, they change kings (and for the record, this kingship thing for the Israelites goes sideways again and again in the centuries that follow).  But for now, their bad choice is made livable, repaired.  It turns out that God does not abandon them but can work with whatever situation they get themselves into.

This ongoing work of redemption is part of the nature of God.  It’s a defining characteristic.  What the Bible calls the steadfast love of God will be present with us.  Will work with us.  We know that in our own lives and in our collective life as church or nation, improvements are gradual.  Our triumphs are marred with setbacks and new challenges.  But if we are open to correction, the grace of God will not fail.  God’s purpose for us will be fulfilled, and for this we give God thanks.  Amen.

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