Monday, June 18, 2012

When Kings Fail Us

            The stories we hear today are not particularly strange, as far as Bible stories go.  One is about the anointing of David.  Though it has its strange features, it seems to be the kind of thing in which Bible writers specialize:  the last and the least and the least suspected gets to be the star of the show.  We have seen that elsewhere many times over.  Another story is the parable of Jesus about the seed growing secretly.  Probably few people remember this parable from one time they hear it to the next, because it is not particularly memorable.  No Good Samaritan, no Prodigal Son, no pearl of great price, just an ordinary farm story that does not appear to say much.  The other story is that of the mustard seed, which is hooked in many people’s minds to another saying of Jesus about how if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could do impossible things.  But the parable, as it stands, is at first glance mundane.  All of this is enough to draw from you a great big yawn.  So go ahead.  Yawn. 

            But something else is going on in the story from Samuel.  It is about the disappointing King Saul.  The Israelites had come to their leader, Samuel, who functioned as something of a prophet and priest and de facto potentate in the period of Israel’s history known as “the Judges,” when the tribes were held together in a loose confederation with no central government.  People grew weary of the weaknesses of tribal conflicts and political confusion.  They went to Samuel and petitioned him to establish a monarchy.  Samuel warned them of the dangers of what they were asking.  But he relented.  He wound up anointing Saul of the tribe of Benjamin to be the first of Israel’s kings.  Saul was a dreadful choice.   He was pious to the point of being stupid, as when he once called for a fast before a major battle when the troops needed all the strength they could muster for the fight.  He made politically unwise decisions.  We can infer from the stories that he experienced the onset of mental illness, or at least severe personality problems.  He had no models for kingship and was in way over his head.  Because he did not follow the details of the command to enact the herem or total annihilation of the Amalekites, Samuel assured him that Yahweh had utterly rejected him as king.  He became insanely jealous of David, who had entered into his court either as a musician or as a rustic military hero, depending on which story you follow.  Saul became increasingly paranoid, politically vulnerable, personally isolated, a totally tragic figure.  When he is killed in battle on Mount Gilboa, an eerie silence seems to fall over the story, which seems to have been moving towards some sort of denouement in which sadness and relief strangely mix. 

            But before all that has happened, there is today’s story.  After their abrupt parting and the resulting estrangement of Samuel and Saul, the old man still grieves the outcome of the once-promising monarch.  Perhaps it was because Samuel himself had played a part in that tragedy, at least one tradition being that from the outset Yahweh God had opposed the idea of a king.  What do we do when kings fail us?  That is the question raised by the story today.  We have, of course, no king; but we do have kings.  We have those in authority over us, whether appointed or anointed or elected.  You probably think that I am going to light into Kwame Brown or Harry Thomas, two members of the DC Council that have recently fallen from grace because of criminal activities.  I could do that, but I won’t.  I want to talk about another king.  I am specifically thinking about God. 

            What do we do when God appears to fail us?  For some people that is unthinkable, because God is always associated with the Good, the right, the just.  God never fails.  But for hosts of others, God is little short of a total failure.  Nature is cruel.  Human life is a mess.  Evil gets its way.  Systems are out of control.  God seems to have been neatly caught in a net cast by conservative, pious people, and poor God seems helpless to do anything about it.  Pitiful human beings are left to fend for themselves against tsunamis, earthquakes, famines and other disasters.  Where is God when we need God?  Certainly not everyone, but hosts of people are deserting God in droves, convinced that “he” is a sham, a farce, an empty shell of the very idea of a deity.  By and large the fans of God seem to be people who treat God as a piece of personal property, not unlike a GPS system.  Pull him out, plug him in, and he will take you to wherever you want to go.  If things in the universe go wrong, well, it is because God is justifiably and understandably mad at human beings for having Mardi Gras or Gay Pride parades or for being too politically liberal.  Religious leaders in this country have actually said all of those things in the last decade or so. 

            “But,” you protest, “we believe in God and we don’t think any of those things.  God is alive and well in my life.”  Furthermore, you may think that there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between all these fulminations about God and the Saul story.  But there is a connection.  And that is that Samuel and the Israelites and Saul himself operated on the assumption that God was active in the story.  First God chose Saul.  Then God rejected Saul.  God even admits to being sorry for ever making Saul king.  That is a very different kind of God than the one who is supposed to know everything and manage everything flawlessly.  The truth of the matter is that it is Samuel and the rest of the people who have had a major change of heart about Saul.  Whatever God might have thought about it all, they were sorry, Samuel leading the pack.  And that connects with us.  For in our disappointments at the way things go, we imagine that God is just as disappointed as we. 

            Now this may seem to be a major switch, but turn and have a look at the first of those two little parables that comprise the gospel lesson today.  “The kingdom of God,” says Jesus, “is as if someone should scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”  Now what is strange about that?  What?  Nothing!  It is an apt description of exactly what happens all the time.  We plant a garden, we leave it alone, seeds sprout and grow and we do not know how.  Of course, we can tell in a few sentences precisely how seeds germinate:  how water, temperature, oxygen, light and darkness trigger the growth of the plant embryo contained in the seed.   But we are clueless as to why there should be germination of seeds and equally unable to state what this thing called life actually is or why it should exist.  So the Kingdom of God is like nature.  It just is.  Processes are in place culminating in a harvest.  Notice that Jesus says nothing here about any symbolism of the harvest, nor does he make any comparisons between the growth process and the progress of the human soul.  He simply says that the Kingdom of God is like the scattering of seed that sprout, live, and produce. 

            How might that parable help to understand something like the collapse of the kingship of Saul?  Could it be that we have in both the seed sprouting and the monarchy tottering certain processes in which something bigger than the eye can see or the mind adequately imagine is involved?  Could it be that something divine (the Old Testament calls it Yahweh; we would more likely say “God” or maybe more specifically “The Holy Spirit”) was involved in the selection of Saul, and also involved in the failure of Saul, and also involved in the death of Saul, and involved in everything about Saul from beginning to end?   In just the same way, is it not possible that we can leave the pages of the biology textbook which accurately and adequately describes all that happens in seed germination, and imagine that something divine is present in the creation of the seed, in the patterning of the plant embryo, in the accidents of germination or empty seeds with no chance of germinating, in the conditions for growth or death, in the development of the plant, of the final harvest?  Could this not as well be the way of the universe:  a divine Spirit moving through the density of the mass that exploded in the Big Bang, and has been present at every black hole and the birth of every planet and the death of every star and the creation of oceans and  seashores and marshes and reptiles and wrens ever since?  Is there a crime committed by a two-bit officeholder in which God is not involved, or a lie told by a politician at which the Truth of the universe is not insulted, if not ashamed?  Is there a tear falling on the cheek of a mother ape that does not have the molecules of God in it, or the crunch of a foot on a cockroach that the Creator does not feel? 

            Is your God big enough to be responsible for the evil in this world, or is your God limited to presiding over only the good?  Is it unthinkable that God would be responsible for the failures of kings and Congresses at least in the sense that God created the flawed and twisted human beings that, scrapping to survive in an untamed sea of evolution, sometimes create havoc with the very systems that promise light and life? 

            Maybe this sounds like no big deal to you, and perhaps it isn’t.  But  I think that, quite possibly, the great frontier for Christian—perhaps all human—thinking is to begin to see on a much more significant scale than ever that God is not a tribal deity around for the birthday blessings and the get-well wishes and the partisan prayers and religious rallies, but rather a Presence alive in every cell of our bodies, in every atom in the whole universe, a Truth so hot and so powerful that it is impossible to imagine that God would look on us as a human would, but would rather see to the heart of things and people.   When we begin living in an awareness of so magnificent a Presence, perhaps the old world and its littleness will have passed away, and we will indeed ourselves be a new creation in Christ.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012