Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sermon: Free to Choose…Poorly

Pentecost 3 Year B
1 Samuel 8:4-20
Free to Choose…Poorly

By Rich Gamble

To put this text into context we have to understand what a world shaking event the Exodus really was. A group of slaves in Egypt chose to have faith in a God who stood against the rulers of Egypt and their Gods. It sounds simple but it is a truly amazing event. The rulers of Egypt had great wealth and power. Their God’s had huge, beautiful and wealthy temples. The Hebrew God had a bunch of powerless slaves and mumbling prophet. The logic that guides civilization would dictate that the God’s of Pharaoh were far superior to the God of the Hebrews.

But the Hebrew people chose to believe that their God was ultimately the only true God. They put their lives on the line and abandoned their slavery and followed this God to freedom.

To believe in a God which stood in opposition to the logic of domination was to abandon not only slavery but the ideas that served as the foundation of civilization. Once they began to set up their alternative society, they had to rethink every aspect of their lives.

They wanted to make a society that honored their God who stood in opposition to practice of domination to consolidate wealth and power into the hands of a few, leaving many suffering in servitude and poverty.

They knew that whoever had access to dominating authority would eventually use that power to exploit others or leave it to someone who would. In other words no person could be trusted with the power of a king, power that could be treated like a personal possession. These escaped slaves knew that even the best of human beings could be corrupted, and eventually the corrupt would be in control.

In their minds government was a king. So what do you do if you cannot trust a human being in the role of a king? Their solution was to have their God serve as a king. In other words no one would have the authority of a king. There would be rules that help regulate the running of the community. There would be people who would help carry out the rules. And there would be provisions for emergency leaders for times of crisis. If there were an invasion, a “judge” would take on some of the functions of a commander in chief but when the crisis was over the judge would give up that power.

They also created rules which would not allow wealth to be concentrated in the hands of people who would use wealth, instead of military/political power to become a potentate. Wealth and political power were placed into the hands of the God who stood firmly on the side of the marginalized. It was a society with no permanent kings and no permanent slaves.

There was also no standing army, no great pieces of architecture, no one living lavish lives and no real capacity to live off of the spoils of conquest. 

Those generations who were closer to the memories of slavery were empowered to maintain this alternative realm of God’s rule but as time went by new generations were less bothered by the experiences of slavery in the past. They looked around and saw how the other nations, built on the foundation of domination, had powerful standing armies with latest in military technology. Those armies could invade other nations and steal the wealth of others. They saw the cities filled with impressive architecture and the lavish wealth of the elite of those foreign cities. The people of Israel saw these things and wanted them. They wanted all the shiny things that domination can bring a community and they overlooked the costs and started lobbying for a king.

This amazing reading today comes to us as the insight of the last Judge predicting what a king will do.This isn’t just a condemnation of kingly rule. It is a condemnation of domination. This is what domination does, it elevates a few and turns the rest into slaves of one form or another.

The people of Israel chose a king. The choice of a king did give the people impressive architecture and a standing army, and wealthy celebrities. The biblical history goes on to show how quickly the centralized power handed over to the king led to violence, injustice and eventually a return to oppression of being conquered people.

It is easy to sit back 30 centuries later and shake our heads at those people who wanted a king but in truth humanity keeps making the same poor choices. Through the use of an a amazing amount of propaganda many in America today have a great deal of mistrust in people who have too much political power but are quite willing to give nearly unlimited power to people with economic power. We are not so different from those people Samuel was talking to. Although we don’t speak about anyone being royalty in America, those with great wealth function as royalty. In the world of domination one form of power can be converted into another form. Politically powerful people can use the power to become wealthy. Wealthy people can use their wealth to obtain political power.

In Wisconsin this week, the recall election of the governor there showed the Republican Governor with a seven to one advantage in the amount of money spent for the election. Much of this money came from sources outside the state of Wisconsin. And in this country the ability of wealthy people to use their wealth to impact elections is now unlimited.

Given that the six heirs to the Wal-Mart empire command nearly 70 billion dollars in wealth and that equals the wealth of the 90 million poorest Americans, it is easy to see that what we have is a nation where a few people will be able to wield the power of royalty while the rest of us scramble for the crumbs that fall from their tables. And it is getting worse.

So wealthy people are using their wealth to convince the rest of us to vote for people and policies which will aid them in their ability to grow even wealthier as the rest of us grow poorer. Like those people in ancient Israel many of us are lured by the promise that we will be among the elite, and like the reality lined out by Samuel today, we will instead be among the enslaved. Perhaps not slavery in the historical sense, but a new form of slavery, to be treated like a disposable device rather than an embodiment of the divine image.

Rather than being depressing, I see this passage from Samuel to be a hopeful sign. In the past humanity has made poor choices, and from those choices disaster has grown but even in the midst of titanic calamity, a faithful community has carried on the work of offering the world an alternative.

We know the direction the current of domination is taking this nation and the world. We know that if we don’t turn against that current that increased disparity in wealth will continue, the increase of poverty will continue, violence from and against the poor and oppressed will continue to grow worse and the destruction to the planet will continue. So we can choose to keep our heads down, go with the flow and try to make the best out of an increasingly bad situation or we can plant our feet, turn against the current and start walking in a different direction.

In the reading today, Samuel seems to be the lone voice of opposition to domination but there had to be a whole community of people who worked to preserve Samuel’s words so that we could have them today. Just as we profit from Samuel’s stand all those many years ago, so too, future generations may profit from our willingness to stand against the current of greed and fear. Samuel calls us to understand the impact of our choices. Faithfulness to the God of compassion and justice, or slavery, the choice is set before us.

What we do here matters. Our role is much bigger than our size. There are too few people who hear and understand what Samuel, and Jesus were trying to teach us. What we do and what we leave undone matters.

Our faith is bigger than an election or a nation. Our faith is bigger than civilization itself. We proclaim the power of self-giving love to be the very foundation of ultimate reality, the very nature of the divine. So though we may be a small community we are linked to the eternal Spirit of God. There is no telling what impact our words and actions may have.

The long and the short of it is that we have been given a blessing, the insights of generations of people like Samuel. From the Spirit which led those people to speak out, we have received a call, to see where greed and fear leads and to live into the call to follow Jesus and be the Christ. In this struggle we are blessed in knowing that the work of Christ is bigger than our ability to make changes. That even if we fail, Christ hasn’t failed, that others will pick up where we have left off and even disaster can lead to new possibilities. We are not defined by the world around us but by the God who created and calls us. We are called to lifelong purposeful action and blessed in knowing that we are not alone. And that is good news.