Give Us a King!

I Samuel 8:4-22
November 26, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

As many of you know, the only sport I follow is baseball (unless you count Four Square with the youth,) and over the years, I have collected a number of books about baseball. Here, for example, I have a book called Baseball: An Illustrated History. It is the companion book to Ken Burns documentary on the history of baseball since its first recorded games in the 1840’s when it was played by young prosperous gentlemen of the New York Knickerbockers in Manhattan. Here in my right hand is another book in my baseball collection: it is titled, The Official Rules of Baseball. I engage in the archaic practice of actually scoring games as I watch them and so when something weird goes on in a game that I don’t understand, I can pull out my rule book to figure out what happened and how to record it properly on my score sheet.

I want to talk for a little bit about these two books and as I do, I want you to try to figure out where I’m going with this, and for a bigger challenge, you could try to figure out how I am going to relate these two books to Israel’s desire for a King, because I am going somewhere with this, and I will relate it to the scripture reading eventually, but it may take me a while to get there so you might as well see if you can get there before me!

So back to the books. These two books that I have brought today for show and tell are very different. The Ken Burns book is fascinating reading even, I would suggest, if you are not a baseball fan because it tells the stories of the men — and briefly, the women — who have played baseball over the centuries, of their struggles and successes, of the game’s relationship to American culture, and of its intersection with the larger issues of society — race, labor issues, gambling, war and peace, and the rise of drugs in sports. When you read this book, you can see not only how baseball has changed over the years but also how baseball has changed the people who play it and even those who watch it. No one, for example, can deny the effect that watching Jackie Robinson play with the Brooklyn Dodgers had on the racial consciousness of Americans. In America, sports is often the lens through which we debate social issues and form our national identity — just look at the controversy over the NFL today and its relationship to matters of race equality — and so though this book says it’s a history of baseball, it’s just as much a history of who we are and who we have been as Americans. And when you read this book as a baseball fan, your own experience of the game is deepened through its stories of those who have played and watched the game over the centuries.

The other book, The Official Rules of Baseball, is on the other hand pretty dry reading and if you could manage to get through the whole thing without falling asleep, you might know how to play baseball but would you really know baseball? Jackie Robinson isn’t in this book. The ecstasy that enveloped the city of Boston when the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004 after an 86 year drought isn’t in this book. No one in this book says, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” and no one points to the upper decks right before hitting a home run to that very spot.

If you aren’t a baseball fan, those references may mean nothing to you, but the principle is the same in other sports as well: just because you know the rules doesn’t mean that you really understand the game; you won’t have known and experienced the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” 1 that makes up the life of a sports fan. And even for the non-sports minded, the same thing can be said of so many other areas of our lives. You can go to Wikipedia to learn that Blues music traditionally uses a minor Pentatonic scale played over a 12 bar chord progression but knowing the “rules” of Blues doesn’t mean that you know Blues music. The rules won’t tell you that early Blues musicians used their music to express the the racial discrimination they experienced as Blacks in the early 20th century. You won’t understand the effect that Blues has had on jazz and rock and American culture by knowing its rules. And reading Wikipedia will never express your own struggles and longings in the way that actually listening to Blues music will.

Just think of all of the experiences in your life that are crucial to your emotional, cultural, and spiritual formation which we could not have gotten by just knowing and following rules.

One of my favorite preaching stories is that of a young single minister who right out of seminary preached a sermon called, “10 rules for raising your children.” A few years later, he was married and became a father, and when his children were toddlers, he went back, revised the sermon, and preached it again but this time, he titled it, “10 suggestions for raising your children.” And later, when his kids became teenagers, he threw the sermon out.

Knowing the rules isn’t the same as living the experience. I would argue that if you want to understand the Christian faith and the God that we serve, you need to think of the Bible not as a rulebook but as the living expression of a faith experience that incorporates thousands of years of spiritual struggle and theological reflection. You need to read it like you would read a Ken Burns’ documentary.

In the Bible, we see what faith has meant to particular individuals in their particular unique circumstances and we see how faith has affected the outlook of people as they strive to live in community. In the Bible, we see faith as expressed through long held traditions, but we also see how faith has changed as the times have changed and how certain traditions became obsolete and made way for new ways of relating to one another and to God. We even see in the pages of the Bible debates that remain unresolved: is God a vengeful God who will punish those who ignore God’s will or is God a God of forgiveness who restrains anger and chooses to save even the worst sinner? Frankly, the Bible contains both ideas and it allows you to listen to the arguments on both sides. Like the American League and the National League disagreeing on whether the pitcher should bat, the Bible doesn’t insist on one seamless worldview but it lets us as readers sit in on the debate and decide for ourselves.

Now I understand that reading the Bible as a documentary of our faith rather than as a rule book for our faith is difficult because it means that the Bible is messy and sometimes contradictory. If you want to know whether a baseball player is allowed to catch a ball in his hat, you can look it up in a rule book and discover that, no, that’s not allowed. If you want to know, however, what the punishment is for a person who sins against you and you look it up in the Bible, you are going to find a range of possibilities including everything from the death penalty to complete absolution and forgiveness. Even many issues that we as faithful Christians thought were rock solid in their Biblical basis turn out to be based on the policy decisions of the later church. For example, does the Bible say that Jesus was born divine, “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made” or does it say that Jesus was adopted by God to be God’s son at Jesus’ baptism around the age of 30? Both views are in the Bible and it was not until 300 years later that the church hammered out a doctrine on the relationship between God and Jesus, an agreement we call the Nicene Creed.

As human beings who prefer certainty over ambiguity, this can be very disturbing. Maybe you are someone who is feeling very uncomfortable right now hearing your minister tell you that the Bible is not consistent in its doctrinal positions. Most of the time that I have made that claim, people have responded by quoting scriptures to me that support their belief and so to be clear, I’m NOT saying that the Bible doesn’t support our traditional Christian understandings; what I am saying is that the Bible also contains other ways of thinking about God and Christ that the later church decided were not relevant or helpful or as true to their experience as the ones they included in the creeds. Those other ways of thinking were rejected by the church but they remain in our Bible as other possible avenues to faith.

If this is true, then, why are so many Christians insistent that the Bible is consistent? Why do we insist on making the Bible into a rulebook instead of accepting it as the history and expression of a living changing multi-layered faith? It’s probably because as human beings, we so hunger for certainty that we look to a single authority to show us the right path forward.

In 2009, Scientific American described this need for certainty as a craving. It said that that our brains crave certainty in the same way that we crave food, sex, and other basic rewards. When you are your brain goes to Defcon 1, worried that if you if you take the wrong step or make the wrong choice, you might end up in danger. When you feel, however, that the future is safe and that you are certain you are on the right path, your brain relaxes and is flooded with the calming effects of dopamine. 2

All of this is to say that when we try to turn the Bible into a rulebook, we are listening to our brains and not to God. We are listening to our fear, not to the living voice of the Spirit. And the consequences of trying to pin the Bible — and therefore our faith and our God — down to one way of thinking, one way of believing, one way of interpreting, and one way of living, will be the loss of our freedom to know our God in the fullness of the faith experience.

And so finally, we have arrived at the scripture reading. (Did you get here before me?)

In I Samuel, the Israelite people tell the prophet Samuel that they are tired of living without a single authority and a single rulebook that will give them the certainty they crave. For about 200 years, they have been living as a loose tribal confederacy, joined by their heritage as the people of Israel, but inhabiting different geographic regions, with independent leaders for each tribe, and even worshipping at their own sacred sites. After a couple of hundred years, things have gotten diverse and sometimes confusing. No one person is in charge of the whole operation so when they encounter a new challenge, there is never an agreed way forward. Everything has to be debated with some of the tribes wanting to go one way and others another way, and it is tiring and distressing and most of all, spilling over with uncertainty. The brains of those ancient Israelites were really no different from ours — their brains were distressed by ambiguity, so they finally cried out to God, “Give us a King. Give us one person to rule over us and tell us what to do. Give us our dopamine fix.”

And God, through Samuel, warned them about the dangers of seeking certainty.

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you,” Samuel says. “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 plow 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 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.”

When we choose to listen to the fear of our own brains and turn the Bible into a rulebook that permits only one way to God in order to satisfy our craving for certainty, we risk losing our freedom in faith. We become slaves to our fear, and instead of drawing closer to God, we move farther away from the God whom we seek because the living God is not trapped in the pages of a book that was closed thousands of years ago but continues to move in a multitude of new ways and a diversity of changing experiences. The living God is not subject to one interpretation of the biblical witness but is found in the multitude of experiences and debates of those who have searched to know God for thousands of years. The Bible deepens our faith by showing us the struggles and joys of so many like ourselves who are trying to understand what it means to be in relationship with a God who is so far beyond us that we can only catch glimpses of that holy presence. The Bible is the place we go not to find the one right answer to all of our questions but to learn from the questions themselves and see our faces reflected in the people who have sought like us, to live a life of deep faith with the most holy God.

I told you at the beginning of this sermon that it might take me a while to get to where I was going and I hope that maybe you got there before I did, but what I didn’t tell you was why I felt it was necessary for us to take this journey today.

Last week, I took the youth on an overnight so that they could attend a Muslim Prayer service, a Jewish Sabbath worship, and a Trappist Vesper service. On the way home in the van, we were talking about the weekend, and one of them expressed doubts about Christianity because of a particular Christian teaching that they had problems accepting. I said, “Actually, I don’t accept that belief either. The Bible has several approaches to that issue and this is what I believe.”

This youth looked at me in surprise and said, “I didn’t know you were allowed to not believe that.”

When we choose to treat the Bible as a rule book and insist that there is only one way, we exclude the variety of paths to God and cause people to lose faith. We find it hard to understand how to relate to other faiths. We leave ourselves without comfort or faith when we ourselves change. Moreover, we risk alienation our own children whose curiosity and openness will inevitably lead them to moments of spiritual exploration. God was disappointed that the Israelites chose to allow their fear of uncertainty to rule them instead of living with a God who may choose to move in new ways among us. As Jesus warned Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” God’s Spirit is not entombed in rules on a printed page, no matter how sacred that page may be, but was and is at work in the diverse experiences, arguments, and debates of God’s people.

May we have the courage to choose to, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “seek God where God may be found,” not in rule books but in the testimonies, the struggles and insight of real people whose messy sometimes confusing faith journeys form the dynamic history that is our Bible.

Footnotes:

  1.  Jim McKay, ABC Wide World of Sports.  https://www.shmoop.com/quotes/the-thrill-of-victory-and-the-agony-of-defeat.html
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-work/200910/hunger-certainty