Sermon  June 7, 2015   “ Listening” by Rev. June Fothergill

1 Samuel 8: 1-22

Clearly things are in crisis in Israel. Things had been going well under the stable and just judgeship of Samuel.  Samuel had been given to God  by his mother Hannah and then called by God as a youngster and served God and the people of Israel all his life.  Yet, things are changing.  At the outset of chapter 8 we learn that Samuel has grown old and he has set his sons as judges over Israel.  The problem is that his sons are not doing like their father.  The Bible narrator says they “ turned aside after gain they took bribes and perverted justice.” ( vs.3)    With this as the backdrop the elders of the tribes come to Samuel for a meeting.  They are the old guard, like Samuel , they have been around a long time.   It’s not unexpected that they might talk to Samuel about the corruption of his sons. But what is unexpected is the solution they have decided upon.  Don’t just appoint for us better judges, but appoint for us a king to govern us.

A king!  Samuel is taken aback and displeased. Have they forgotten that their ancestors were oppressed by the kings of Egypt?   Have they forgotten how God had raised up leaders when they were needed, like himself?  That it was their relationship with God that was primary and made them a unique people?  A King!

Samuel left them and went to a place to pray to God!  Surely God would give him wisdom to answer them.   Surely God wouldn’t want the people to go down that road!  God was their king and no other.  This Samuel believed with all his heart.  Yet, God’s response was not what he expected or wanted.

“ Listen to them, “  God told him. “ It’s not about politics or social power, it’s not about you. It saddens me that  they are turning away from me, like they have throughout their history. “

Listen to them but also warn them about what a king will do to their lives and community. Let them make this decision with the consequences before them.  So Samuel gives them a run down of all the bad things a king will do.  He tells them that they are turning toward a system based upon taking, and taking and taking, rather than justice and sharing.  Oppressive centralized power rather than equals trusting in God.  They will be enslaved once again. It will not end well.

The elders do not listen to Samuel’s warnings; they still want to have a king.  One who will provide them with security and fight their battles for them. “ Listen to them” God tells Samuel, “ and set a king over them.”

This story illustrates how the people of Israel debated over the move to have a king, they wrestled with how their need for a more central and strong political leadership jived with their relationship with God and trust in God’s power in their lives.  They struggled with being different in a threatening world.  In this passage we see God understanding their need, yet being sad that they cannot trust  God more.  God is willing to let them make a change that will mean turning away from trusting God and  lead to difficult times ahead.   For, God is not an oppressive ruler. God respects the people, provides them with information and warnings through his prophet and then lets them make the decision.  God does not coerce us into following him or doing his will but  God longs for us to trust and walk in God’s ways of justice and peace.

I wonder about the debate.  Samuel and the elders hold opposite views.  God tells Samuel to listen to the elders and offers the elders more information about kingship.  I wonder, what would have happened if Samuel had really listened to the elder’s concerns about his sons and offered changes?  What if the elders had really listened to Samuel about God’s warning and looked for other solutions?  It seems to me that this is a story about listening, the times we don’t and the times we do.

God listened. God understood both the needs and the wandering.    We know from the story that God would not entirely abandon the people of Israel despite the folly of their attempt at monarchy.   God found King David and delighted in him. God continued to send them prophets who tried to hold the kings accountable and tell them God’s word.  God had given them the torah with another vision of what kingship could be in Deuteronomy 17.   When this book was found, the kings found ways to serve God and the people.  And when the kingdoms of Israel finally fell and the people sent into exile, God didn’t rescue them, but God did go with them.

Because God has made us able to make decisions, even decisions to turn away from God,  God’s love is always seeking us out, finding ways to warn us, to show us God’s possibilities in the midst of whatever mess we create when we go it on our own. The elders thought they had figured out a solution to their problems. They had turned away from really listening to God, but God never stopped listening to them.

So too in our lives.  We can do things that lead us to turn away from God and God’s ways of love and justice.  We can do it sometimes like the elders by deluding ourselves that this is the way of the world, and the only alternative.   Like the people of Israel we sometimes forget about God and making that relationship as the basis for our life decisions.  This can lead us to lives filled with taking and getting rather than sharing and giving. This can lead us to lives focused on security and safety rather than hospitality and ministry.  And we can find over time that our lives are empty, our community diminished, our hearts hardened.

But God never gave up on Israel, even after decline and exile, God continued to send word- words of warning and then words of grace and finally the Word made flesh- Christ among us.  Christ who was willing to die for us while we were still trapped in sin;  Willing to open the door of grace and forgiveness for anyone who would turn again and go through it.  Just as God is sad when Israel or you and I turn away, God rejoices and welcomes us when we turn back again.  God’s listening keeps the channels open.

And also, Samuel listened.  OH Samuel was sure that a king would lead to disaster. Yet, he trusted God.  He knew that God saw a larger picture than he did.  He listened to God and hearkened to the requests of the elders for a king.  He found them a king named Saul and the saga of Israel and their kingships began.  Samuel had a tough role to play:  a leader who tried to listen to both God and the people.  A leader that wanted to remind the people of the values of the tradition they were rejecting.   A leader on the brink of a new world, trying to keep the word of God’s way of justice and mercy alive.

Sometimes I think we in the church are rather like Samuel.  We have a tradition which we know has much value, which has given our lives meaning and our community purpose. Yet, we see that community threatened and the ways we have taken for granted disregarded.  More and more people are finding their spiritual lives not in our churches but in personal practices and belief systems.  More and more people are finding their service in non profits and community volunteer opportunities outside the church. More and more people have little idea what a church even is.  It used to be a generation ago that the church opened its doors, had good programs and people came.  That is not the case anymore.  Now we are challenged to go out into the world with our ministries of hospitality and love. Now we are being challenged to try to be church in a world of social media and smart phones and whatever will be next.  To connect with people where they are. Which means we have to keep moving and learning. Like Samuel, we’re not too sure of the direction things are going.  Could it be that  God is also saying to us- listen to the people?  Listen deeply with your heart to their needs, their ways of communicating, to where you can offer a word of comfort, of warning, of love?

As we come to the communion table today, we come like Samuel as ones who want to listen to God and are called to also listen to the people.  We come as ones like Israel, who sometimes wander off the path of God and are in need of God’s mercy.  We come amazed and trusting that we have a God who listens, who loves and who welcomes each of us.

 

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