King of Shreds and Patches

Proper 5 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen. He will take 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.

Two hundred thirty-nine years ago this Thursday, Thomas Jefferson sat down to begin working on a document that would come to be known as the Declaration of Independence. Every year on the Fourth of July, National Public Radio broadcasts a recitation of this whole Declaration. It is read by different people, each one reading just a line or two; sometimes it’s all the various announcers from the different NPR programs; one year it was read by a whole class of new American citizens. Most of us probably know the opening line, “When in the course of human events...” We are very likely also familiar with the opening of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and we will remember that among those rights are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Unfortunately, that’s about as much of the Declaration of Independence that most of us know. So on the Fourth of July I commend listening to NPR’s morning show for their annual reading of the whole declaration — it’s shorter than this sermon!

The reason I mention it in this sermon is due to what comes later in that Declaration. It is a list of all of the faults and failings of King George III — all of the things that the English monarch has done to upset and anger the American colonists. And it is quite a laundry list. Let me just mention a few of items, and I quote:

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies... He has combined with others ... to subject us to a jurisdiction ... unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country…

You get the idea. And I hope it also rings a bell of familiarity. For in our first reading today from the First Book of Samuel we heard a portion of a similar list, also concerning a king — but in this case predicting what he will do instead of protesting what he has done. And the irony is that while the American colonists were declaring independence from the domination of a monarch, the people of Israel are clamoring to obtain a king to rule over them in spite of all the terrible things that Samuel warns them that this king will do. So this passage of Scripture is a Declaration of Dependence!

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Or is it? Let’s look more closely. The people say they want to have a king so that they can be like the other nations. And in doing so they are submitting to a form of dependent government — one in which they will be virtual slaves; a king on whom they will depend, will protect them from foreign invaders, but in exchange, they seem to be willing to give up everything: a tenth of their crops, their sons for the army, and all of the rest.

But look more closely: what they really want is a change in the form of government they have had up to that point — which is dependence on God speaking through the prophet Samuel. So they are trying to declare independence from God, even as they accept dependence on a king; they are rejecting God, their true King for someone a little closer to home.

Their God had chosen them out of all the nations, brought them out of the land of slavery. But now they want to be slaves again — not to serve their God but to serve an earthly king, so they can be just like all of the other nations — not special, not chosen — just like everybody else; like other nations each with its human king with all his faults; and believe me, King Saul will have plenty of faults, as will nine out of ten of all the other kings of Israel and Judah to come. And we’ll be soon be hearing more about all of that.

Because today begins a new cycle of Sunday readings from the Hebrew Bible — new to us at St James, but also relatively new to the church as a whole, since the church adopted what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. In the readings for this liturgical year, we will be hearing readings from what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Writings” — the books of poetry and history. Last year we heard from the Law, and next year we will focus on the Prophets. “Law, Prophets, and Writings” are the three main divisions of The Old Testament. So this year, we hear from the writings; in particular, over the next ten or so weeks we will be hearing passages from what some people call “the Court History” — stories of the kings from Saul to Solomon.

Why do this? I’d say rather, why didn’t we do it sooner? I think we need to hear these parts of Scripture, because they get neglected, and because I believe they still speak to us, and they speak of things we need to hear. Because what the people of Israel did when they rejected God as their true king, choosing an earthly ruler instead, is something we are all tempted to do.

Not literally about choosing a king, but about other aspects of our lives. It’s not about forms of government — monarchy or democracy, or a republic for that matter — but in the ways in which all of us are liable to try to shirk our own responsibilities as citizens, not just of a nation but of God’s kingdom. It is so easy to say, let someone else do it; that’s not my responsibility; I don’t want to have to be the one to make decisions and get to work — and the work goes undone. This is a practical lesson for us as a church, as a congregation. I know of one parish upstate that had a large cardboard cutout made in the outline of a person — and he even has a name tag: his name is “Somebody.” When anyone would notice that there was a job that needed doing, they would say, “Somebody will do it.” And so they go up to Somebody and ask him to do it, and guess what? Somebody doesn’t do it. Nobody does it; and if Nobody does it, it doesn’t get done.

There are many tasks that we all, as members of and leaders in this congregation can take up to help this church grow and survive and prosper — and it needs all hands on deck. Otherwise this too will be a house divided against itself; and that house will not stand.

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It is also no good just thinking that having a priest or pastor will solve all the problems and do all that needs to be done. That’s a little bit like asking for a king, when God actually has given each and every one of us some gift, some talent, that we could put to use for the good of this place. Why, after all, does God give gifts of skill to all of his people, if not for the good of God’s kingdom, Each of us has gifts which we are not using because we think “Somebody” will do it — either the priest or the deacon, or some other member of the church.

There is plenty of work to do, and you all know the old saying, “Many hands make light work.” It’s true; those hands need to work, though, to get the work done. I mentioned last week about how we were all the adopted members of a family — the church — and how in every family there are chores to do. Well you know there are plenty of chores to keep this church open and worshiping and praising God; God, our true King. Look around you, as Jesus did when he looked around at those who sat with him, listening to him preach and teach, and say and believe what he said about those sitting around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers.” You, my sisters and brothers, you are the family that will make this church what it is. You are also the family that will make this church what it is to be. Do not think this task you can turn over to Somebody else to do it for us. Do not be like the people of Israel who rejected the gifts God gave them, who rejected God himself. Realize instead that we have been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and a with wealth of spiritual gifts: not just life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: but those important gifts: faith, hope, and above all, love. Let us put these things to work, my friends, with all the power God provides, and we will do great things.+