Wednesday, September 9, 2015

1st Samuel, the End

This summer Living Word Lutheran Church read together the first book of Samuel in the Hebrew Testament. Since we did not complete that series in worship, I offer a few thoughts to “wrap it up”—although it is part 1 of 2, so it isn’t actually over! Keep reading!

A complaint I often hear about the Hebrew Testament is that it is so violent, and the violence is often attributed to/blamed on God. Yes, there is a lot of blood in 1 Samuel. I think the stumbling block is not the content of the stories as much as our expectation of them. If we expect the Bible to be “guidance and advice on how to live our lives” in 2015 so that we “get to heaven” (ugh! That’s another blog post!), then all the violence seems very unnecessary and doesn’t help us understand our world. But the Bible isn’t about our world—it’s about a long ago and far away world, and how God interacted with it. From that we have a clue about how God interacts with us, including expectations, so it’s still valuable. All that to say, I think the violence is included because it is what God’s people knew in that world. They were attacking and being attacked from many directions. Having a king, like other nations had, was part of the attempt to alleviate the violence by having an organized military and a united kingdom under the leadership of one person, chosen by God for the job. But life was very violent. Because we live in middle-class white America, we have trouble understanding the pervasiveness of this violence; other cultures live similarly every day.

So, David is going to be king, which we know, but Saul, the current king, does not. Again we see that David is unwilling to harm the Lord’s anointed king, even though he knows that favor has been withdrawn from Saul. Saul does not know that David has been anointed, and has no such scruples for not harming him. Saul stalks David repeatedly; David twice has the opportunity to kill Saul, but refuses, instead taking something (a corner of his cloak, his sword and water jug) as proof that he had been so close.

This does not mean David is anti-violence. In chapter 25 he is quick to seek vengeance on Nabal (whose name means “fool”) for an insult. In later chapters, he joins forces with the Philistines against the Israelites and slaughters villages whole so there are no survivors left to tell his tales. He seems to play one side against the other to win friends and protection, as if he has to guarantee election to be king.

The book ends with Saul being fatally wounded by the Philistines and falling on his own sword to end his agony (a slightly different end to Saul begins the next book, 2 Samuel). Still, he is respected enough as king that his beheaded body is retrieved and buried.

So what are we to learn from this story? David is regarded as “faithful” because, despite his violence, he honors the statutes of the Lord, which Saul had forsaken. Saul repents several times, and promises not to harm David, but then pursues him once again. David seems loyal only to God and to himself, making agreements with Saul, Jonathan, and the Philistines on various occasions. He is concerned about being forced to worship other gods when Saul places him in exile by continuously hunting him; he does not want to die unfaithful.

I think this is a story about David, and how he came to be king. God is part of the story, instrumental in David’s success and Saul’s downfall. It is part of the memory of Israel, and helps us to understand the progression of faithfulness. Just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s “good” or redemptive, and it doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be like this. We are supposed to love David (maybe less in the next book!) as the greatest king Israel ever knew, and the prototype, perhaps, for the Messiah (which is why the folks in the New Testament stories are so surprised and disappointed at Jesus’ almost exclusive non-violence).

One thing I think we can learn is that the violence, while real and certainly part of the larger culture of the time, didn’t work. We see, looking at a long arc of this history, that even God’s kings will kill each other to get what they want. We are still surrounded by violence—probably more people get killed in our state every day than were killed in these episodes. We are immune to the violence around us—in the news, in video games, in TV and the movies—because it’s “out there” somewhere (if we’re lucky). The people of Israel could not escape violence, as we see it everywhere in these stories, and these are supposedly their best stories that shaped their identity. We too cannot escape violence; how do we respond to threat, terrorism, violence in our own time and place? Will the memory of our stories seem as shocking to those who read them in the future as these stories seem to us? Will we have any heroes? Will God be part of the story?  

Friday, June 19, 2015

Kyrie eleison

In peace, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For the peace from above, and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord.
 Lord, have mercy.
For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of God,
and for the unity of all,
 let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
For this holy house, and for all who offer here their worship and praise,
 let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.
Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord. Amen.

Since I was old enough to sing I have sung these words, almost every Sunday, for almost 50 years. Today they do not comfort, they make me ill at ease. Today we need the whole of this prayer, in a very real way.           
Two days ago, on June 17, 2015, a group of faithful people gathered for prayer and Bible study were intentionally, violently gunned down—Black pray-ers murdered by a white terrorist; all Americans. I write this on “Juneteenth”, a holiday celebrating freedom of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865—30 months after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation nationally.
I am filled with grief—for the families of the victims, for the community that lives with this horror, for this “gaping wound” (as Jon Stewart noted) that is bleeding us all dry. I am filled with shame—that we are not clever enough to learn from past mistakes, that we are in such deep denial that valuing some lives over others is actually a problem (spiritual, mental, social, psychological, and physical), that the stark difference in the way people are treated by those in authority seems to be acceptable, that silence is the largest response.
So today I write, and honestly am a bit surprised I can even put a sentence together. But I know I cannot *only* write my opinion. In order for the peace from above, for which I pray each week, to settle into our reality, I must also act. My opinion must be also conviction, something I believe to be fundamentally true out of which I make choices. And my sentences must have fewer “I”s in them and more “we”, though I don’t like to tell people what to do. Structural racism is a sickness of the whole; it is the sin of the community that suffers from it, not the bad collective luck of certain individuals. WE have to care more. WE have to know our neighbors, and even when we don’t, WE have to understand that community means being in this together, for better or for worse. WE have to put feet on our faith—if our moral conviction comes from the call of God to love and serve neighbor, and to honor ALL creation, and to BE the image of God for others, and to see the face of Christ in those around us, then I, and we, cannot only write. There are conversations to have, and relationships to develop, and congressional letters to write, and picket signs to design, and protests to march, and votes to be cast. And yes, prayers to be prayed; but prayer cannot remain in the silence of our hearts. If prayer does not move us to action, then we are not listening to God’s reply to our prayers.
I have more opinions, of course—about who has access to guns, and what it means to be church, and why some crimes are framed and treated so differently from others even when they are similar in intent and result, and how our self-centeredness leads us to vote the way we do, which provides gaps in accountability, which makes domestic terrorism a “fluke” and not a problem. But I think we need to put a lot of our politics aside so we can have an honest engagement with the issue(s). Yes, it’s political, and yes, I think religion and politics absolutely mix and shape one another—but we have to listen first, to God, to one another, and to the community.
 I don’t know what my “next step” will be, probably tears. But I am convinced there must be a next step. If I pray the kyrie, I commit to making it real, to doing something for the peace of God, for unity, for the peace of the world, for the people I know and the millions who are beloved by God whom I will never meet.
Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.  Indeed.