Weekly Seeds: Unanticipated Vulnerability

Sunday, June 6, 2021
Second Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Unanticipated Vulnerability

Focus Prayer:
Unlike earthly kings, you, O Lord, are ever steadfast and faithful. You sent us your Son, Jesus the Christ, to rule over us, not as a tyrant, but as a gentle shepherd. Keep us united and strong in faith, that we may always know your presence in our lives, and, when you call us home, may we enter your heavenly kingdom where you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Focus Reading:
1 Samuel 8:4–11 (12–15) 16–20 (11:14–15)
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the LORD, 7 and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 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. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 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.”
19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
14 “Let’s go to Gilgal,” Samuel told the people, “and renew the monarchy there.” 15 So everyone went to Gilgal, and there at Gilgal they made Saul king in the LORD’s presence. They offered well-being sacrifices in the LORD’s presence, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration there.

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 8:4–11 (12–15) 16–20 (11:14–15)
Psalm 138
Old Testament & Psalm, Option II
Genesis 3:8–15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1
Mark 3:20–35

Focus Questions:
1. What do you look for in a leader?
2. What do you reject in a leader?
3. How do you process and respond to warnings and cautionary messages?
4. How can we avoid and discourage comparison?
5. How does the sovereignty of God manifest in the governance of your faith community?

By Cheryl Lindsay
You can see it coming. The child reaching toward the hot stove who you have to quickly divert before they get burned. The person who climbed over the fence at the zoo to fall into the space of an animal who only poses a danger to those who enter their territory. The family who does not seek shelter in the face of an oncoming tornado or hurricane and has to be rescued from the rubble.

There are times that we receive warning, when we have advance notice that certain actions or behaviors are not good for us and will lead to struggle, discomfort, or even calamity. There are times when we can predict less than favorable outcomes to the course we have doggedly pursued.

The most unforgettable moment for me from the movie Titanic is that moment when the captain of the ship, who had ignored cautions and warnings himself, turns toward the owner and says, “Well I do believe you will get your headlines, Mr. Ismay.” It’s both confession and accusation. They are facing a disaster that they could have avoided by listening and making decisions based on the anticipated danger. The two men served as accomplices reaching for fame for themselves while putting the lives of everyone on that ship in peril. Shocked that the moment they’d been warned against has arrived, they respond in the bitter acceptance of the captain or stunned denial of the owner who proclaims, “This ship cannot ship.” The architect Thomas Andrews counters, “She’s made of iron. I assure you she can.” He could see it coming.

In the life of the people of the covenant, the prophet has the role of being the one who can see it coming. Like Mr. Andrews, they can anticipate a future when their warnings are not heeded. These divine messengers speak for God in a given situation and to a particular people. Prophets are also charged to speak truth to power, often challenging human leaders who oppress and marginalize the people under their influence and governance.

Samuel ministered at a time when the prophet could also serve as judge. He provided mediated leadership for the children of the covenant. His tenure is reaching its conclusion, and he has decided to pass the leadership mantle unto his sons. The anticipated transition seems to prompt the pleas from the people:

First Samuel 7 shows that Samuel has succeeded in the way that counts for a judge. Under his leadership, the Philistines are defeated. He does this, however, not by military power, but by exercising his priestly office and offering a sacrifice. Now, once more, there is a problem of succession. Samuel is in the same situation as Eli. His sons are worthless, yet, despite this, he names them as his successors. At this, the people protest and ask for a king “like other nations” (8:4). Samuel takes his resentment at this to God, who agrees to the demand, but with a warning. The warning in 8:8–18 is Samuel’s, however, not God’s. (Hugh S. Pyper)

The irony is that Samuel benefited from a parent-child relationship with Eli, who passed his wisdom and vocation onto Samuel who fit the role more than his biological children. We might think that Samuel would have recognized the similarities and understood that his children were not fit to succeed his leadership. Samuel appears to be oblivious to their shortcomings and the anxiety that the people would have at being under their domain.

How often do we want something so much that the warning signs go unnoticed or ignored? The very thing that Samuel suggests the people are doing also manifests in his behavior. He resents their desire for a king which he rightly interprets as a repudiation of his succession plan, but the people weren’t wrong to do the latter even if their proposed solution is questionable. It’s an unanticipated vulnerability because the prophet functions from his point of unresolved pain. Notice that while the Holy One tries to console Samuel that the rejection is ultimately targeted at God, Samuel never acknowledges that. He obeys the command to tell the people how this king they ask for will rule, but he adds to the pronouncement and claims that after they suffer the consequences of poor leadership that God will not answer.

Did God say that? Or, was that a not-so-hidden dig that the wounded prophet charged at the people so that they would bleed too? Hurt people hurt people. Unresolved pain, bitterness, and resentment comes up and out at this moment. Samuel doesn’t want God’s consolation for himself…or for his people, he wants God’s harsh judgement and condemnation on the people. He wants them to feel–preemptively–rejected by God as he feels rejected by them. Grace is so much easier to receive for ourselves but harder to accept when it’s extended toward others.
Most of us look at this passage as a cautionary tale, and it is. But the people’s desire for a king is not the only thing worthy of warning. Samuel’s desire to, in effect, be a king also deserves a wary response. Judges and prophets did not assume family succession and transfer of authority or gifts. That’s a feature of the monarchy, and it would have been familiar to the people who wanted a human ruler like their neighboring nations. While their requests served as a rejection of God, it does so in a surprising way. Jonathan Walton contends that they were not suggesting that a human monarch supplant the sovereignty of God as secular nations weren’t prevalent during their time:

This interpretation might be possible, except that the request has a specific context: the elders want a king like the nations. While “secular” government is normative in the modem world, it is un- known to ancient Israel and her neighbors; all of the “nations” are fully theocratic.

They still wanted their God, but they were also asking for different leadership than Samuel planned. Their rejection of God results from not trusting God to determine the nature of their human leadership and to honor the covenant no matter who sits in a human position of authority. Ultimately, they don’t want a king like other kings…they want a God like other gods:

It is necessarily true that whatever Israel is “rejecting” must be something that orthodox Israel possesses that the nations do not. I would instead prefer an interpretation as follows: “Give us a king [who is] like [the kind that] the other nations [have, who will serve the same functions in the same manner as theirs]”. This interpretation sees a new dynamic in the way that Israel as a nation, via its leader, relates to its God. Specifically, it reflects a theology reminiscent of the ancient Near Eastern nations they wish to emulate. By asking for a king “like the nations”, they reflect their desire for a God “like the nations”; implicitly, instead of the God they have. It is this rejection of [God’s] identity that causes him to say, “they have rejected me”. (Jonathan Walton)

Their problem is not that they will be subjected to unethical leadership, it is that they do not believe that the God who initiates and renews the covenant will honor that abiding promise through this turn in their history.

God does not deny or ignore the cry of the people. In fact, God agrees to their request. Yes, that consent comes with a warning that they will not benefit from the new king’s leadership, but that message does not reject them. How often has the church supplied condemnation when God has granted acceptance? How often do we add a point to the divine message that arose from our feelings rather than holy prophecy?

Prophets are often called to identify personally with the response of the Holy One like Hosea who experienced the pain of infidelity in marriage akin to the unfaithful response of the people who continually broke their covenant with God. In some ways, Samuel resembles Moses, who after a lifetime of faithful ministry ends on a bitter note and responds to the willfulness of those under his guidance as a personal affront rather than as one representing their relationship with God.

We are called into relationship with God and with one another, and human beings will disappoint one another. We let one another down. We make mistakes, we don’t communicate clearly, and we can cause hurt and harm. Samuel assumed their rejection of his sons as leaders was a rejection of him and his leadership. It may have been the opposite, an attempt to maintain the legacy of his strong, capable, and compassionate governance.
Samuel doesn’t enter into his own weakness and examine his response to their request. As a result, he makes a pronouncement that only confirms what they fear. What if he had said all the same things about the coming king but ended with the assurance of God’s abiding presence and commitment to the covenant? He could have ended with an invitation and not a curse.

There have been so many groups of people, beloved by God, who have been cursed by those claiming to speak for God. Those words resonate in the spirits of those who hear them and those who hear about them. In a time, when divisiveness is glorified in our public discourse, are we not called to assure the world that there is a better way? Are we not also called to process our own hurt in constructive and fruitful ways so that when we speak…good news pours forth from our mouths?

It’s understandable that Samuel felt hurt, but there’s nothing prophetic about deliberately inflicting harm on others from that hurt. Samuel could have used his vulnerability to empathize with them, to process the uncertainty together, and to arrive at a place of trust in the God who consoles, who covenants, and who you can see coming.

For further reflection:
“The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility.” ― Paulo Coelho
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.
Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”
― Brené Brown
“What happens when people open their hearts?” “They get better.” ― Haruki Murakami

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gather ed communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.