Let’s start by admitting that we’re into some dangerous territory with this morning’s Bible reading.
I’ve heard a lot of people over the years tell me that they want their church to be just about religion. Don’t go mixing politics in. Politics should stay out of Sunday morning.
And I understand that feeling. You get bombarded with politics all week long, on the TV, on the radio, on the internet, in the paper. And especially in times like these we live in, where it’s all so contentious, where saying the wrong thing to the wrong person can turn neighbors and friends into bitter enemies – well, who needs that when you’re just trying to get an hour to stop and clear your head and pray.
I get it.
We Americans with our separation of church and state, we like that. So we’d rather keep politics out of church, thank you very much.
The only problem with that is the Bible.
Because the Bible pre-dates our separation of church and state by a few thousand years. So we have passages, like this morning’s passage, that talk about God – but they’re profoundly about politics, too.
In today’s reading, the elders of Israel, which is to say the people’s representatives, are gathered together in the capital, Ramah. We’re given a glimpse of the proceedings of ancient Israel’s Congress.
At this time in ancient Israel’s history, Israel was a federation. When they had followed Moses and Joshua to settle in the Promised Land, these people had been descended their ancestor Jacob’s 12 sons. Each of those 12 had become their own “tribe”, and that’s where we get what you may have heard of back in Sunday School, “the 12 tribes of Israel”.
When they settled the land, each tribe was assigned it’s own territory. There were actually maps drawn up. And you can read the detailed descriptions of those maps in the Bible’s book of Joshua, chapters 13–21. So, not unlike looking at a map of the 13 original American colonies with their boundary lines, there were actually 13 territories, because one of the tribes, Benjamin, was sub-divided into 2 half-tribes. Each of those 13 had its territorial boundaries, and its own autonomous government, just like we have state governments. Kind of amazing, when you stop to think about it.
And, just like in our own nation’s beginning, each of those independently governed 13 tribes sent it’s representatives – it’s elders – to a meeting where they all would decide together what direction they could agree upon for their life together as a single nation. So they, like us, lived in a Federal political structure.
How’s that for politics in the Bible?
So, the elders, the Congress of ancient Israel, are gathered in Ramah, with the prophet Samuel – because (and here’s where it’s not at all like our system), remember, there’s no separation of politics and religion. Samuel is the Prophet of God. All the tribes get their representatives, and God also gets a representative to Congress.
The elders are gathered with Samuel, and as the old song goes, “Times, they are a-changin’”. They are in the midst of uncertain times. And Samuel is getting old. Samuel’s wisdom and steady hand, they know, is not going to be around much longer. And, come to think of it, this Federal system we’ve had is a lot of work. It’s hard to get so many people in the room with so many diverse interests to agree on stuff. They’re tired of the political gridlock in Ramah. It’s so inefficient! This is no way to do things!
And when you look around the ancient world, nobody else, no other country has a Federal system of government. Nobody else, no other country in the ancient world, has representative governments. Look around. What do all the other nations of that time have for governments? Think about it. You all know! When you think back to times before the “Great American Experiment” of democracy – what did, with the sole exceptions of Athens, the Roman Republic, and the American Iroquois – what did every other nation have for a government up until about 250 years ago?
That’s right! They had KINGS and QUEENS!
So the ancient congress gets together and they say to Samuel: "Look, we can’t agree on anything any more. But the one thing we can agree on is that if we had a King, like everybody else, things would be a lot easier. And Kings would have great fancy military parades! Everyone loves parades! And Kings get things done! They’re so efficient!
“Forget about this democracy, this representative government,” they say. “We want government to run like a well-oiled machine, like a business with a CEO. We want a great leader. We want a King. Let’s just get ourselves a King to run things, and then we won’t need to bother coming here and trying to figure it out ourselves.”
Friends, there’s a reason why up until 250 years ago in all of history you could count on 1 hand the number of representative governments there had ever been on the face of the planet. There is a reason why, in spite of the best efforts of our modern attempts to spread democracy around the globe, there are still so many places it’s not able to take root. Representative government is hard!
Building and maintaining representative governments takes effort. It takes patience. It takes maturity. It takes great measures of self-sacrifice. It takes a willingness to listen intently with people who are of very different opinions to try, in good faith, and to keep at it, to find common ground.
It’s much easier to let someone else decide and to run the whole show. It’s much easier to ignore the hard issues, to throw up our hands and to tell ourselves it doesn’t matter what we think or do or vote – they’re just going to do what they want to anyway. And, let’s face it, people like easy better than hard. I know I do. I’d rather take easy, all else being equal.
All else being equal. Now, that’s the catch.
“Let’s take the easy way,” they say. “Everyone else is doing it,” they say.
And then Samuel speaks – now remember, Samuel is God’s representative, so that’s your clue where the God of the Bible stands on all of this.
Samuel says: "Alright. Obviously, you have me outvoted on this by a landslide. But don’t fool yourselves! All else is not equal when you take the easy way out. Here’s what you’re really asking for:
- He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots – which is to say, he will draft your children to die in wars you don’t support.
- He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. Which is to say, the resources that go toward war will far outstrip the resources toward all the other good thing you enjoy now.
- 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. In other words, if you think your taxes are high now, you won’t get to keep anything you make.
All things are not equal. All political systems are not equally good. All moral constructs for human society are not irrelevant.
The people then, and the people now, who live under the rule of despots pay a heavy price for the “ease” of not having to genuinely listen and find common ground with their neighbors who hold different opinions than they do. People then and people now, who throw up their hands and say, “it doesn’t matter” pay for it in the currency of fear and ignorance and futility.
That’s what Samuel, God’s representative to Congress, had to say about it that day so long ago.
Now you, like those representatives who were there that day, are free to disagree. Samuel was careful to confirm that everyone there was entitled to their own opinion, and everyone that day got their own vote. The freedom of your conscience in God’s eyes was and is inviolate.
But the burning question, for the future they threw away that day, and for the future that’s on the line for us today – the burning question is whether we’ll stop shouting at each other long enough to realize what an amazing and rare gift we have, how few in all the history of humanity have experienced the freedom we know. Whether we’ll recognize the sacrifices and hard work so many thousands have given to this project to bring us to where we are today. Whether we’ll value the freedom we’ve been given and care enough to deeply listen to those who disagree, looking for the common ground of our humanity.
I know, I know. We don’t want to hear about politics in church.
But if you can’t tell the truth in church, where can you tell it? If you can’t talk to your neighbor in the next pew, who can you talk with? If we can’t practice being a community with your brothers and sisters in Christ, where can there be community?
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” How can we be light if we look like everyone else? Samuel will speak to us, down through the ages representing God’s vote. Do the hard work. Or, take the easy way. But in the end, it’s up to you.