Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost - June 10 2018

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
June 10 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Theocracy is a troublesome concept.  In the period of the Judges, before Saul became Israel’s first king but the people were crying out for a king, God warned them, more than once, through Samuel that kings would force them down paths they might not wish to tread.  The implication is that following God would be the better option.

Yet there are plenty of societies governed by religious authorities that offer evidence that a theocratic government structure can be just as problematic for the people.  History tells us this; the experiences of the present day tell us this.

So the problems of governance are not confined to secular authority; they infest religious authority as well.

Why is that, do you suppose?

I think it comes down to a certain narrowness of vision leading to a hardness of heart, in both secular and religious governance.  We need a larger vision; we need to take the responsible path.  When a people give up their own responsibility to learn, consider, and choose the path that is right for themselves and for their community to others who will take on those actions for the whole, there is always a risk that the ones who take up the mantle of authority will make bad choices. 

We know this is true.  This has always been true, and will always be true.  When we hear God warning the people of Israel that kings will take their rights away from them, when we see the religious authorities of Jesus’ day setting the boundaries of who is in and who is out, when we see the medieval church struggling with kings for political power, when wars break out in our own time because the people of one religious tradition despise the people of another, the same warning that God gave Samuel applies. 

The sad fact is that when religious leaders function as political leaders - but forget or ignore or misinterpret or warp the commandments of God – injustice and persecution are just as likely as under any secular government.

And what are the commandments of God for governance?  The same as they are for ordinary people.  Love God, love neighbor.  Over and over the prophets called out the kings not only for failing to take care of widows and orphans, but for actively impoverishing people, for starting wars, for grabbing food, for greed, for arrogance, for selfishness, for unkindness, for cruelty, and for abandoning their trust and their responsibility to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before their God.

When God talked to Samuel, he said that the people were not rejecting Samuel, but God “from being king over them.” 

In later years, prophets scolded kings for the things God said kings would do – they would “take your sons and appoint them to [their] chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands…” and all those things listed – daughters to be bakers, fields for his courtiers, grain for his officers, animals for his work, his people for slaves, and slaves for his work….

Kings in those days did not appear to have much respect for the rights and dignity of their people, but took what they wanted and gave their takings to their friends and supporters. 

In those days, most people didn’t have a lot of choice over who would be their king – they didn’t get to vote the bad ones out of office; the only way to get rid of a king short of his natural demise was to assassinate him in some kind of uprising or revolution; and then the one who came after might be better – or might be even worse. 

And even that great God-loving king, David, had his selfish instincts as well; just ask Uriah the Hittite, or his daughter Tamar.

The prophets focused on the kings, in the perhaps vain hope that they would remember the desire God has for justice, mercy, and humility.

Jesus seems to have tried as well with the religious authorities of his own day, but as often as not, he ignored them or wrote them off completely, because they did not seek justice, love mercy, or walk humbly with their God.  Instead they clamped down on the poor and ignored the needs of their people. 

They did not challenge the Romans’ oppressive practices; they enforced them from fear.  They were more worried about social order than social need; they were more worried about peace than justice; they were more worried about keeping their authority than about using it to help their own people.

Why is it so hard for those in positions of authority and power – religious or not – to do the right thing? 

This is some kind of constant theme throughout history.  Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail[1]: “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.  Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Neibuhr reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.”

And there you have it – groups are even worse than individuals.  We know about mobs – they give each member a share of invisibility under which shelter the members may commit more heinous acts than if they were acting alone.  We know about Germany, where the concentration camps and the SS gave so-called good Germans cover for the holocaust.  We know about police states, where protestors and journalists are chased down, caught, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed to shut them up. 

An unjust law is no law – thus wrote St. Augustine.  A just law is one that “squares with the moral law.”  Thus wrote Dr King.  It is also a law that is written with the input of all the people, not just those who have grabbed and maintained power to their own benefit.

God’s warning to the people of Israel still holds water today.  In our communities.   In our country.   In every country.

When we forget God, we forget our humanity.  When we ignore those without power, we forget their humanity, too.

Yet we, as Episcopalians, have taken vows to “continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers”; to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord”; to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ”; to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourself];” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

These are actions we’ve pledge to take, not simply thoughts we’ve pledged to remember when it suits us.  Persevere.  Proclaim.  Seek and Serve.  Strive.

We have an obligation to do these things, just as the kings had obligations, just as the disciples had obligations, just as the religious authorities – then and now – have had obligations to act in ways that honor the wholeness of each person, of any color, race, country, legal status, age, sex, gender,….

When Jesus’ family showed up, they thought he must have a screw loose because he challenged the “way things are” by letting his disciples harvest grain on the Sabbath[2], by healing on the Sabbath[3], by eating with tax collectors and sinners,[4] by curing countless sick and casting out demons[5], by appointing apostles and sending them out to proclaim the good news and cast out demons[6], and on and on.  The religious authorities accused him of being a devil-worshiper and a tool of the devil.[7]

He wasn’t taking it – he challenged their logic and essentially said they were opposed to God in that they denied the action and power of the Holy Spirit that was right there in front of them.[8]

And then he said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking around him he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”[9]

Whoever does.  Not whoever believes, whoever thinks, whoever sings, whoever prays.  Whoever does

Being Christian is an active calling.  It is an active calling to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.  It is an active calling to persevere against evil, to proclaim the good news, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

And if we do these things, in whatever way we can, as much as we can, then we, too, may call ourselves brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

And if we do these things, in whatever way we can, as much as we can, can you imagine what the world might be like?  It’s as Bishop Curry said a few weeks ago in England:  “There is power in love.”[10]

Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, become redemptive.  And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change the world.[11]

Imagine that.


[1] August 1963

[2] Mark 2:23

[3] Mark 3:5

[4] Mark 2:16

[5] Mark 3:7-11

[6] Mark 3:13

[7] Mark 3:22

[8] Mark 3:28-30

[9] Mark 3:33-35

[11] Ibid.

  July 2020  
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