The First Book of Samuel
All three readings facilitated this sermon, so take a minute to follow those links and read them. <3
We talk about family a lot, here at church. The family of God, the Bethlehem Lutheran family, our own families, etc. I really identify with this image because, boy, have I got a family. Every year on Christmas Eve, dozens of us gather to celebrate together—our tradition is 87 years old and we’ve never missed a year. The attendees are my mom’s dad’s family—four generations of Turpins under one Los Angelino roof. When someone brings a significant other to Turpin Christmas Eve, you know they’re in it for the long haul, because you don't subject just anybody to the hugs and the questions and the food and the drinks from every aunt, uncle, and cousin.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus asks, “Who are my brothers and sisters and mother?” We’ve got those relations down, but occasionally we have to ask, “Who are my cousins and who are their sisters and brothers and mothers?” Since we can hardly keep it all straight, we’ve abandoned modifiers like “half” and “step” and “second” and “once-removed.” Everyone’s a cousin or an aunt or an uncle. Those details are irrelevant to us. And I like to think that Jesus is making a similar claim, here. His biological mother and brothers are at the door, yet he looks around him, to a crowd of people not regarded as desirable family members—as usual—and proclaims that all are his mother, brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew—kindred, every one.
Jesus exemplifies here that families do not fit in boxes. Families are communities of love—blood relatives, certainly, but friends and neighbors. Family does not have to mean Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids, dog, picket fence. Family is step-moms and half-sisters and two dads and foster parents and single parents and great-uncles-twice-removed. Jesus’ family is always expanding, and therefore, so is ours.
This is all very lovely, until your family—your community of love—becomes dysfunctional. Communities of love are torn apart by abuse, divided by prejudice and fear. Communities of love cannot remain intact with these sins and evils among them. Jesus tells us in this Gospel story that a house divided against itself cannot stand; a kingdom divided cannot stand; a family divided cannot stand; a community divided cannot stand.
We in the United States are familiar with division. In this, a most divisive election year, party lines are clearer than ever (Maybe even among our own families?). In 1 Samuel, the Israelites are in a similar predicament. They’re in need of a new king, they say, and neither Samuel nor any of his sons are the men for the job. I admit that I am no Old Testament scholar—but I learn from a very good one, and he taught me that many of the greatest Old Testament stories are those of turning points. This story in 1 Samuel is one such turning point.
You’ll recall that the Israelites repeatedly fall in and out of favor with their God—and very often for how they choose to govern themselves. They’re always demanding this or that or that someone should or should not be their god or be their king. And they always forget that pesky part where God insists He serves as their heavenly king.
Jeanyne Slettom, a great process theologian, says about this God/empire dichotomy that, “Empire colonizes in the geographic sense, but also in the construction of our desires and the manipulation of our fears. Empire is finding ultimacy in anything that is not God. Empire is an external power that conquers us—by coercive or deceitfully seductive means. God, on the other hand, is a creative and persuasive power that saturates our being and emanates from within.”
Over and over, the Israelites fall victim to the allure of empire. Over and over, Americans fall victim to the allure of empire. Over and over, you and I fall victim to the allure of empire—within our communities, within our governments, within our denominations, within our businesses, within our families, within our own selves. We live in a world of choice and avoidance and distraction.
Here in the United States we are Republicans and we are Democrats and we are Independents and we are Libertarians and we are exhausted. “The system is broken,” we cry. And we’re all correct—the system is broken. In this nation, we hold tight to our two-party system. We just love that dualism—male/female, rich/poor, young/old, white/black, documented/undocumented, slave/free, heterosexual/homosexual, progressive/conservative, right/wrong, in/out.
And just as the crowds in the Gospel of Mark have demonized Jesus—literally declared him possessed by Satan—so our empire has demonized any of these we regard as “other.” We are, without a doubt, a kingdom divided. And while we perpetuate this cycle of institutional and systemic sexism, racism, classism, and all the other -isms under the sun, we have fallen victim to the allure of empire, once again.
In this nation, this community, among whom Jesus still walks and to whom God still speaks, what have we demanded be our kings and our gods? What have we put first? Things. We’ve put first things – money things, and power things, and we have put first our fear of people and our hate for people and our distrust of people and things that are not us and are not our money or our power or do not lead us immediately to more money or more power. Some of us have even demanded that our democratically-elected government be our kings and our gods. Some of us have expected our President to be the savior of this nation in its time of great economic hardship. Some have demonized our President as the catalyst for the fall of our American empire. And among all of these things we have not once remembered Christ, the king.
Christ, the king who eats and drinks with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors—the marginalized of his time. Christ, the king who recognizes these people and all people as his family. Christ, the king who rules not by condemnation and oppression and exclusion but by love and empowerment and inclusion. Christ, the king whose words were not welcome in his divided community. The words of a prophet do not come to a community who has everything together. Christ came to a broken world to a broken community of broken people. And by his words and by his life and by his death and resurrection he made them whole. God has made us whole and makes us whole and will make us whole.
So, “do not lose heart,” the Apostle Paul has written, which is lucky, because I was about to. This could be our turning point.
What happens to the dichotomy of God and empire when we look at the “outer” and “inner” natures Paul presents as our past selves—baggage aplenty—and our becoming selves—the “us” that can exist if our future relies not on the seductive power cycle of empire, but on the transformative power of God? What if rather than fall victim to the allure of empire, we allow ourselves to be lured by the power of God? With God, our inner nature is being renewed, day by day, moment by moment—renewed by the grace of God through Jesus, the Christ. So do not lose heart!
And as Paul has written, “we have believed and so we have spoken”—we as believers are called out of that belief, out of that grace so freely given to us, we are called out to proclaim the gospel of Jesus the Christ to the world. The Gospel of community of love. The gospel of family. The gospel of the creative and transformative power of God. The gospel of unity—not uniformity. The gospel of hope and love and freedom and life.
Do not lose heart in this weary world, my brothers and sisters. You are being renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit daily by your baptism into this, the family of Christ. This community of friends and neighbors. And finally, remember that Martin Luther tells us that we are simultaneously saint and sinner—constantly in the process of life and death, renewal and sustenance in this united kingdom of God.