A sermon offered on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 7, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are 1 Samuel 8:4-20;11:14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; and Mark 3:20-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
As I read the lessons for today, I had one of those weird little flashes of memory when some small bit of trivial knowledge you had forgotten you knew floats to the surface . . . . In this case it was something from my 9th Grade American History class. My American History teacher loved to fill us up with the minutiae of our country’s past and the one that came to mind is the debate over what to call the President of the United States: the Founders had to determine how the president was to be introduced. There were, apparently, some who favored “His Democratic Majesty, by the Grace of God, President of the United States.” Other senators recommended “His Elective Majesty” and John Adams recommended the title: “His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties.” All of this embarrassed George Washington who would have none of it; he wanted simply to be called “the President of the United States” and to be addressed as “Mr. President.” And thus it has been since then. The American president doesn’t even get “Your Excellency” as the presidents of other nations do.
The reason this came to mind, I think, is the story of the election or selection of Saul as first king of the Israelites, the first part of which we heard today from the First Book of Samuel. Let’s set the scene . . . .
This is the end of the period of the judges, which is a really poor translation of the Hebrew word shofet which describes what were essentially warlords. After the Hebrews had finished their trek across the desert of Egypt, after the first generation (whom God had forbidden to enter the Promised Land) had died, they settled the land which came to be called Israel and they become known as Israelites. But they were not a united nation in the sense we think of today. At best, they were a loose confederation of tribes with no sort of central administration. Whenever they were threatened from the outside, the leader of one tribe would be commissioned and anointed to lead their assembled troops. You know the names of some of these people: Gideon, Deborah (yes, there were female judges), Samson. They would lead the amassed warriors until the end of whatever crisis and then return to their life as a tribal leader.
Eventually, however, the people decided that this wasn’t a workable arrangement. So they come to the most recent of the judges, who was also a prophet, Samuel, and say to him (as we heard in the lesson), “Anoint us a king so that we can be like other nations.” Specifically, in our reading today, they say they want a king to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles;” in other words, they want someone to go to war for them.
Samuel is very upset by this; he considers this to be an affront not only to himself but to God! So he prays to God and asks what to do. God reassures him, “They aren’t rejecting you; they are rejecting me, which they have done many times in the past.” And God tells him to give them what they want, but tells Samuel to warn them of what will happen, what it means to have a king who goes to war. He does so. He tells them, “Look – a king will turn you into slaves. He will take your sons and turn them into soldiers; he will make your daughters [I love this]; he will take your horses and your flocks and the produce of your fields. You will not like it, but when you call out to God, God will not answer you.” I think that last warning may be a statement that whomever they choose (and they end up choosing Saul) will not be king “by the Grace of God.” This is fine with the people: “We want a king,” they say.
So off they all go to Gilgal and, although we aren’t given the details in today’s lesson, they choose Saul to be king . . . and we know how that works out – Saul is a terrible king and has to be replaced. Eventually God would send Samuel to anoint David and David would then be succeeded by Solomon and, after Solomon, the kingdom would split and both Israel in the north and Judah in the south would suffer a series of pretty bad monarchs. But even David and Solomon, back to whose rule the people of God have looked for millennia as a sort of “golden age,” were not that great: David was guilty of essentially murdering a soldier, Uriah, and committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba; Solomon had hundreds of wives and amassed great wealth at the expense of his people. None of them lived up to the ideal of kingship which God had pronounced through Moses at the very beginning of the Hebrews’ occupation of the Promised Land.
Interestingly, our Daily Office Lectionary this past week included (on Wednesday) that very description of kingship in a reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. As I was pondering today’s reading, I wondered if Samuel, or perhaps even God, had forgotten these words spoken to the Hebrews by Moses on the border of Canaan which he (as part of that disobedient original generation) was forbidden to enter. In his farewell discourse, speaking on God’s behalf, Moses had said:
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel. (Dt 17:14-20)
When I researched this apparent lapse in divine memory, I found one commentator who explained that the difference between what Moses says and what the Israelites did in demanding a king is the difference between peace and war. Moses’ ideal king was to be appointed when the land was “settled,” when the people were at peace; the ideal king was to look after the welfare of the people, not amassing wealth nor preparing for war. In the First Book of Samuel, the people demand a king to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles;” they want a king to go to war. This is a far cry from the ideal approved by God through Moses.
Let that sit for a moment and let’s turn to the Gospel lesson taken from the third chapter of Mark. We are early in Jesus’ career, but a lot has already happened. He has been baptized and spent forty days in the desert discerning his mission. He has called the Twelve who are his inner circle and, together with them, he has walked through the countryside visiting villages, preaching his good news, healing the sick, and casting out demons. His reputation has grown and now he has come to his home town. The crowds are huge and they press in so tightly that he and his friends can’t even eat.
The situation is made more chaotic when Jesus’ family, Mary and his brothers James and Joses and Jude and Simon and Jesus’ sisters (whose names we are never told), show up to “restrain” him because they’ve decided his nuts! They’ve heard what he’s up to and they think he’s gone crazy. And not only are they there, some of the religious authorities from Jerusalem have come and they are saying that Jesus is evil! He’s in league with Beelzebul, either because he’s been possessed or, worse, because he’s intentionally working for the Devil.
Here is Jesus doing good works, healing people, feeding people, casting out demons, modeling a new kind of kingship, and his family says he’s a lunatic and the scribes say he’s Satan. He declares both assertions to be blasphemy, but he says that these blasphemies can be forgiven, there is only one unforgiveable sin: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Now what is blasphemy? If I were to ask, you’d probably say something like “cursing God” or “speaking ill of God,” and in one sense you would be correct. Muslims might say that drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is a blasphemy and many believe that putting a crucifix in a container of urine, as artist Andres Serrano did several years ago, is a blasphemy. But none of those answers is technically, theologically correct. Blasphemy, as theologian Craig Uffman has written in a paper prepared for the up-coming General Convention, “is claiming God’s union with us in our doing that which is false, such as murdering, stealing, or any of the other ways we choose the opposite of the good.”
Blasphemy is when we claim that in what we are doing, in whatever incomplete, incorrect, sinful, false, inadequate thing we are doing, God is cooperating, that our will is God’s will. The most egregious contemporary example I can think of is the Nazi regime in World War II Germany, which claimed that in their oppression and annihilation of the Jews “Gott mit uns” (“God is with us”). Wehrmacht soldiers wore this slogan on their belt buckles. But God was not with them; God is not in, with, or supportive of any corrupt, false, oppressive, violent, or degrading act of sinful human beings. To claim otherwise is blasphemy, blasphemy against the Spirit of God, the unforgiveable sin.
Now, let’s go back to the Israelites demanding a king . . . I believe that this is why their experiment with kingship worked out so badly, worked out exactly as God warned them through Samuel, again and again as they anointed kings not as administrators of peace (according to the ideal set forth in Deuteronomy) but as warlords to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Those kings might have claimed, as European monarchs later would claim, that they served at the election of and “by the Grace of God.” God’s ideal, however, was very different.
I think that’s why that little tidbit of American history came to mind as I considered this lesson. I believe our Founding Fathers, particularly George Washington, were very wise in eschewing titles of nobility for anyone, but especially such titles and forms of address for our president. We certainly pray that God’s grace will sustain and guide our national leaders, but our leaders serve by the election and selection of the people; they cannot claim to serve “by the Grace of God” and if they do so, they blaspheme! I think that in every election in which I have voted (and I have voted in every election since becoming eligible to do so) there has been at least one candidate who has hinted (and some have said outright) that “God told me to run.” That makes me very uncomfortable because that is the very core of the sin of blasphemy, claiming God’s union with us in what we do, claiming that our will is God’s will. I think that in the acceptance speech of every politician who has successfully run for office during my adulthood there has been some sort of claim (hinted at if not stated outright) that God was responsible for their victory. That makes me very uncomfortable because that is the very core of the sin of blasphemy, claiming God’s union with us in what we do, claiming that our will is God’s will. We’ve had at least one president who claimed that God told him to take our country into war! That makes me very uncomfortable because that is the very core of the sin of blasphemy, claiming God’s union with us in what we do, claiming that our will is God’s will.
Look again at our opening collect this week, the prayer that began our worship today:
O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
We can certainly seek God’s inspiration and strive to follow God’s merciful guidance. In doing so, we are brothers and sisters of Jesus who said in today’s Gospel lesson, “Who ever does the will of God is my mother and my brother.” But we have to admit that, like the ancient kings of Israel, we are always going to fall short of the ideal! We strive to do God’s will, but because we are human there will be in everything we do that small bit of sinfulness, that portion of self-serving falsehood. By what we do and by what we leave undone, we will constantly err and stray from God’s ways like lost sheep, we will follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, and we will we offend against God’s holy laws. None of us can ever claim that our will is God’s will; none of us can ever claim that God is in union with us in what we do, because what we do is, at least partially, always corrupt, false, and incomplete. Beware of anyone, especially any leader, especially any politician, who claims otherwise.
The best we can do is the best we can do, always knowing that it will fall short of God’s ideal. Thus, we can never claim that our will and our falsehood is God’s. To do that is unforgiveable blasphemy. All that we can do is acknowledge our shortcomings, constantly seek God’s inspiration, and strive to follow God’s guidance. Then, by the Grace of God, we will be not kings ourselves, but brothers and sisters of the King. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.