Sermon for 17th June 2012. The Revd. J. Michael Povey at All Angels by the Sea Episcopal Church, Longboat Key, FL
I Samuel 15:34 -17:48
1976 marked the bi-centennial of this great nation. It was an election year. It was the year in which I moved here from the United Kingdom.
I used to have a little joke with myself on general election years. “Here we go again”, I would think, “looking for yet another George Washington”.
We’ve never had one! He was one of a kind. Indeed if “we the people” were asked to name our greatest Presidents, Washington would top most lists.
He became President almost by acclamation, such was his un-alloyed stature. (See Note 1)
But he also became President because of the brilliant work of the Constitutional Convention. Even now it is hard for us to understand how the members of that Convention, coming as they did from thirteen disparate colonies could mould a document which created a nation. (See Note 2) As one wag put it “the Constitution is the work of geniuses created so that we could be governed by idiots”.
How do you create a nation?
That was the question also faced by those twelve disparate tribes who had settled in Canaan and were coming together to create a nation we know as Ancient Israel.
Their ideal was insufficient for their reality. The “ideal” was that they would be a loose confederation of twelve tribes, united in their common allegiance to God. God was to be their ruler. God was to be their King.
But it is very hard to have a King who you cannot see. So representatives of the people, wanting an earthly and visible King badgered their spiritual leader Samuel, who in turn consulted God.
God’s response was along the lines of “this hurts me”. “I am your King, but if you want to cheat on me I’ll go along with your foolishness, and you shall have an earthly King”.
And so, the saga asserts, God chose a young man named Saul, a man who stood head and shoulders above the people.
So it was that Saul became Israel’s first King. We enter the story at a point where it is clear that his reign has been disastrous. So disastrous that the passage includes the tantalising words “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel”. Did God make a mistake?
If the Lord was sorry, then the great priest and prophet Samuel was sorrier. He was distraught. It’s as if he blamed himself for God’s mistake and for Saul’s failures.
The Lord, responding to Samuel’s grief, encourages him to try again, and to go down to Bethlehem and there anoint another man to be King.
Samuel knows that it is a politically risky thing to do.
God understands the risk, so he sets up Samuel with a whopping lie: “If King Saul asks”, God says, “tell him that you are going to Bethlehem to offer sacrifice”.
Armed with this subterfuge Samuel trudges off to Bethlehem, and there anoints the least likely of Jesse’s sons, the young shepherd boy David to be King.
In this version of the story of how David became King, the centre of political power and authority is clear. It is vested in the Priest/Prophet. He chooses the next King.
In a bit of the chapter we did not read, soon after this anointing the young David enters the Royal household to sooth the moody King Saul by his skilful playing of the Lyre. Then he becomes Saul’s armour-bearer and court favourite - a not un-useful place for one who might launch a coup d’état!
But there is an alternative story of how David was chosen.
It comes in chapter seventeen of first Samuel. In this later version Saul had never heard of David until the latter had killed the Philistine champion, Goliath. Saul hears of David because he is an expert with a sling shot. After Goliath is killed King Saul ask his military commander Abner – “Inquire whose son the stripling is”. Then David enters the royal household “head of Goliath in hand” at Saul’s invitation.
In this version of the story, the centre of political power and authority is not the priest/prophet, but it is the King himself.
Those two versions of the story set up what will be a continued tension in ancient Israel’s story.
There is what we might call the “Religious Party” which advocates for the priority of the spiritual leaders in national affairs.
And there is what we might call the “Royalist Party” which knows that power comes at the edge of the sword.
As the story plays out over the centuries the Prophets continue to challenge the Kings for their abuses of power, and the Kings continue to persecute the Prophets.
In the end the monarchies fell in the face of invasions, first from Assyria and later from Babylon.
And the prophetic voice was muted when the crème de la crème of national leadership was shipped off into exile in Babylon, there to be trained in Babylonian forms of government.
The prophetic voice was awakened in what we call the first Century A.D. by John the Baptiser and by Jesus of Nazareth.
John the Baptiser challenged the oppressive “puppet monarch” Herod, and paid for his words with his head.
Jesus challenged the corrupted priestly class in Jerusalem, a class which having aligned its interests with that of the Roman Empire, conspired with that Imperial power to have Jesus crucified.
The followers of Jesus began a new movement which we now know as the Christian Church. Many of those followers opposed the demands of the Roman Empire and paid for that opposition with their lives.
However, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Empire, the Bishops and other leaders of the Church were willingly co-opted to become agents of Imperial power.
Thus Church and State got in bed together and the message of the Gospel was weakened and diminished.
The Church became more concerned with its power, influence and wealth than with its call to serve the poor in Jesus’ name.
Not much has changed since then.