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Our First Loyalty
June 6, 2021
1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20
In 2012, Loren Krytzer was teetering on the ledge of financial ruin. He was broke, unemployed and barely surviving on $200 a month disability checks. As if that weren’t enough heartache, he had lost a leg in a nearly-fatal car accident. But his life would radically improve in a matter of 77 seconds due to a half-forgotten blanket.
Seven years earlier, Krytzer’s grandmother had died. His sister and mother took on the major task of cleaning the grandmother’s house to ready it for sale. And Krytzer went over to the house to collect the books his grandmother had promised him.
By the time he arrived, everything had been cleaned out except for a bag that contained two blankets: “a softer Hudson’s Bay blanket and the Navajo blanket his grandmother once laid out on the porch when her cat was having kittens.” Krytzer’s sister grabbed the soft blanket, allowing the Navajo blanket to simply fall to the floor.
Krytzer asked his sister, “What are you going to do with that?” When she replied, “I don’t want that dirty old thing,” he picked it up and took it home. And there it sat in his closet for years until he happened to watch an episode of Antiques Roadshow in which a man from Tucson was told his Navajo blanket was worth a half million dollars. At that point, Krytzer got out his own blanket and held it up to the TV screen. It was nearly identical to the one on the show. So he began to imagine his might be worth $5,000-$10,000.
So he searched for antique dealers, most of whom turned him away. But then he found one who specialized in Native American artifacts. He showed that dealer documentation that traced his blanket back to his great-great-grandfather, who was a Dakota tradesman from the 1800s. After some testing, the blanket was authenticated.
At that point, several people offered to buy it from him outright, but Krytzer decided to see what he could get at an auction. That auction proved to last a mere 77 seconds. The bidding began at $150,000 and quickly soared. When it was all over, a new record was set with a sale price of $1.5 million.
Clearly that shocking outcome changed Krytzer’s life. And it was all due to a dirty old blanket gathering dust in a closet — one that no one really wanted because it appeared to be worthless.
Isn’t that really the story of our Old Testament lesson today, too? Like the account of Krytzer’s good fortune, our passage in 1 Samuel is the tale of a major turning point; however, in the case of the Bible, the story in 1 Samuel is a turning away from good fortune.
It’s actually more of a parallel to Krytzer’s sister’s reaction to the Navajo blanket — that is, a familiarity-breeds-contempt-type reaction.
Ever since God sent Moses to Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery, the Hebrew people had been ruled directly by God. Their fortunes would rise or fall depending on how loyal they were to their divine king.
The book of Judges describes the history of that time with these words: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” That pronouncement is a recurring theme in the book of Judges — like a slowly tolling bell — a theme that offered a regularly repeating cycle of Israelite history.
The people would gradually forget about God and then an enemy would conquer them. That causes them to repent of their neglect of God and cry out for deliverance. So God raises up a hero — or, in at least one case, a pair of heroines — who drive out the enemies and restore the nation’s freedom. However, after a while the people slowly drift away from God again and the cycle is repeated again.
That pattern is shown very clearly by the author of Judges; however, most Israelites who lived during that time didn’t really understand their problems were due to their own lack of faithfulness. Instead, they came to believe their repeated military losses were due to their not having a king like all the nations around them had.
Sure, having an all-powerful, invisible God as your ruler is great in theory, but in the dangerous reality of the ancient Middle East, the people of Israel wanted someone they could see who would make decisions for them and protect them. How could they feel truly secure when their king was both invisible and, to some degree, unknowable? So their faith in God’s ability to protect them ebbed and flowed in a classic what-have-you-done-for-me-lately style.
God clearly understood the request for a human king as being a rejection his rule. God’s vision for his Chosen People was for them to serve as a light to the nations, drawing others to God when those other nations saw that the Israelite community was organized around justice and compassion.
As Kathy Donley put it, “The God of Israel did not support the status quo. And belief in the power of that God [which] surfaced in the brickyards [of Egypt] and came to life in a rebellion of the Hebrew slaves, [was] a movement for human freedom and justice.
“[But t]hat movement and the alternative social reality that it created was hard to maintain. By the time we pick up the story, 200 years have passed. The people don’t like the idea of being different. They want to be like all the other nations and so they clamor for a king. This is not the first time that they have broken covenant with God, but what happens next will decisively change the nature of their relationship.
“They demand a king. Samuel warns them what will happen if they have a king. […U]ltimately a king will be able to demand any service he wants. They will become his slaves. To choose a king is to choose to return to bondage: to reverse what God did in the Exodus. They are rejecting God, choosing instead the idolatry of a king, and being like the other nations.
“[…] God has Samuel warn them, but God also tells Samuel two times to listen to the people, to do what they want. And in this we learn an important thing about God. God does not approve, but God permits. ‘...God is willing to let God’s covenant partners take their own risks, when God believes their choice to be unwise.’ God is free and God allows human beings freedom as well.”
In that regard, Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, features a scene set during the Spanish inquisition when Jesus returns to earth and begins healing people and setting them free. Much like the gospels, when the authorities hear about what Jesus is doing, they have him arrested and thrown into a dungeon. There the Grand Inquisitor himself visits Jesus in his prison cell to explain why he was arrested.
He tells Jesus that the common people simply can’t handle freedom. That’s because they prefer security and predictability. He claims that freedom is disruptive to society and he adds, “[W]e shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us […]. They will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Thy freedom brought them.”
In thinking about that scene, Stan Duncan adds, “The central element in this is that when humans experience fear and ambiguity, they move away from their essential trust in equality and toward a belief in inequality. Before the experience of fear, we may have believed that ‘All people are created equal,’ but after it we want some to be better than others so that our side will win and our enemies will lose. We no longer want to rule ourselves, as in a democracy, we want instead to defer to someone else to rule and decide and solve problems for us. If that means giving some of our civil liberties to get there, then so be it. The desire is not for democracy, but for stability.”
If there is any note that dominates our nation’s political life at this moment in time, it is fear. Fear of Republicans, fear of Democrats, fear of foreigners, fear of other races, fear of the future, fear of behind the scenes skullduggery.
However, the New Testament book of 1 John tells us that that is never the right perspective for Christians to have. It says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear […] whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Therefore, the persecutive of Christians in our political realm — whatever stripe you may be — should be respectful listening to others, valuing facts over spin and weighing the ideas of others, not reacting emotionally against whomever might be speaking.
All the way back in 1966, my father added the following related warning to one of his sermons: “[…] love of one’s country; this feeling of kinship with one’s fellow countrymen is good.
“But it becomes evil when zeal for a person’s own country becomes hatred of other lands, or suspicion of any foreigner, or contempt of any alien. To the ancient Greeks any non-Greek was an outsider to whom no justice needed to be observed, and no mercy shown. […]
“The Jews had a similar spirit. After the return from exile, Nehemiah forced the men of Jerusalem to drive out their Philistine, Ammonite and Moabite wives. Then he boasted: ‘I cleansed them from everything foreign.’
“[…So i]t becomes important that we begin to understand the political application of what St. Paul meant when he wrote: ‘[R]emember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us […] that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
Some 3,200 year ago, the ancient Israelites allowed their fear to lead them into rejecting God in favor of a having human king. That, in turn, led to all the social evils Samuel had predicted, along with the beginnings of poverty in Israel — a state of financial woe that had been previously unknown.
Twelve hundred years later, the same thing happened in the early Christian Church when the surrounding culture gradually convinced the church to back away from the radical equality of male and female, slave and free that Jesus had promoted, as well as his unswerving opposition to inflicting violence of any kind.
If we are to obey our divine king, our faith should be free from captivity to any human political or social group. Our first loyalty is and should always be to the Kingdom of God, where all people are loved and accepted and are constantly being drawn into deeper, richer, fuller, more faithful lives.
Our calling is to turn back to the rule of God that was rejected by those fearful elders who begged Samuel for a human king so long ago. We’re asked to accept everyone and to help inspire them to grow in faith, love and understanding of the depth of God’s love, just as we ourselves are choosing to do. Amen.
by Jim McCrea
Rev. Jim McCrea
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