Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ 1 Samuel 8:4-20 ~
It’s been a rough week. Two well publicized suicides have left many people reeling with questions about mental health and cultural culpability. There’s an outcry against the current executive policy of separating refugee parents and children— warehousing toddlers through teens in prison-like conditions for weeks at a time. There may or may not be a summit with North Korea, and it may or may not be a legitimate attempt at peace. The G-7 just met, but the President alienated our allies and claimed it should have been a G-8. And though Pride Week has had many joyful moments, it was kicked off by a Supreme Court decision that didn’t fully acknowledge the civil rights of LGBT individuals as a class.
It’s been a rough week. And I had to choose what to preach. Pride? Mental health and suicide? Children’s rights? The importance of resistance and never giving up the fight? Oy. So, I took a look at today’s lectionary readings. As you know, I sometimes preach from the lectionary (the three-year cycle of Old and New Testament readings many churches use as their scriptural guide) and sometimes I don’t. But when I’m stumped, I always look. And this week there was 1 Samuel… which spoke to me. As did some Facebook posts around the same time. Thus revealing I’d preach about kings.
Now, please understand: I’m not obsessed with royalty. With no offense to those who did (because I know it was fun!), I did not wake up early to watch Meghan and Harry’s wedding. I didn’t even watch the later coverage (though I did check out the powerful sermon given by Bishop Curry). So, my choosing to preach about kings has little to do with the current British royal family. Ironically, it has everything to do with our current president.
You see, this week Time Magazine will feature yet another cover of Donald Trump by artist, Tim O’Brien. In the words of CNN’s Michael D’Antonio:
The magazine’s cover features the President in his business suit, staring into a mirror that reflects him in regal splendor, complete with crown. “King Me,” declares the cover line, but the good stuff is announced in the headlines below: “Visions of Absolute Power,” “Trump vs the Constitution” and “Why Mueller Won’t Indict.”
From the mirror, he looks us straight in the eye. An image of our president, as king, with all the power this role implies. Of course, having a president with traditional kingly powers would be wildly problematic under our constitution and according to our founders. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 69, in such a scenario:
“The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.”
Hamilton drew a sharp contrast between the role of President in the newly created Union and the unchecked authority of the monarch whose rule America had just cast off. “The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable,” he wrote, “there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution.” None of which, under our constitution and according to our founders, is true for the US President.
It’s problematic under and according to Christianity as well, despite our history of collusion with monarchy and the current sycophantic strain of Evangelicals. I mean, Jesus was NOT a fan of imperialism. Nor was the God of the Hebrew Bible.
Let’s consider this morning’s reading from 1 Samuel and the message it gives. The passage refers to the end of the tribal period of the Hebrews. Up to this point, they’ve been led by Judges, or tribal leaders. But now they want a more central, unified form of government, ruled by a king. Samuel, himself a tribal leader, tries to dissuade them. But God intervenes and says if they want a human king Samuel should let them go ahead and try. However, God asks him (Samuel) to warn them (the Hebrew people) about all the bad that can occur under human kingship. And, God assures him:
…they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods…
Which is pretty clear. For, in Hebrew scripture, God is king. And yet, we continually reject this power, this mystery, and turn to human rulers, even tyrants, because we fear the unknown (in a sense, God is, ultimately, unknowable). We fear uncertainty. And the “devil” we know often seems better than un-knowing.
For some reason, we like kings. Or, the people who’ve had the power to choose scripture and publish hymns seem to like them. For, even when we choose God over human royalty, this is often how Christianity portrays the divine. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the image of king is pretty popular in Christian symbology. And this is true, I think, for at least these two reasons: 1) we’re still besotted with royalty, and 2) we really do see the dangers of human tyrants and believe only Christ, hence God, should be given that title.
If you take a look at the front of your worship bulletin, you’ll see the UCC emblem, which features an ancient Christian symbol called the “Cross of Victory” or “Cross Triumphant,” the crown symbolizing the sovereignty of Christ. For our Puritan forebears, the concept that Christ (and only Christ) was king, was tremendously important. They didn’t acknowledge any earthly king, and needless to say, this theology set the stage for politics which led to the American Revolution.
So, from our denomination’s biblical and theological perspective, the God of Christianity is sovereign and human royalty thus idolatrous. But I’d like to push this notion further. I think it’s arguably true that many of the voices in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament saw God as the only legitimate ruler in a hierarchical sense. But I believe Jesus saw it differently. The more I read the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the more I see Jesus as consistently subverting notions of traditional hierarchy and rule. Picture him riding into Jerusalem on a barely grown donkey (while, at the other end of the city, the Roman rulers were engaged in a pretentious parade with chariots and steeds). Imagine him and his followers, walking in sandals or bare feet from town to town, with no actual home to call their own. Think of what it would have been like to know his message would most likely result in his execution as a common criminal—and continuing to preach, teach and heal anyway. Picture the Roman centurions mocking him as King of the Jews, when the last thing Jesus was trying to emulate was the hierarchy of empire.
Jesus was not pursuing monarchy. He was undermining it. He did not value the kingship of “power over.” He preached the kin-ship of “being with.” The Kingdom of God about which he preached looked nothing like the empire under which he lived. It was filled with Samaritans and lepers and menstruating women and mental illness and refugees and children and widows and day laborers and prostitutes and tax collectors and smelly fishermen. It was not a 1st century version of the Cosmos Club. Or Wall Street. Or the West Wing. Or Buckingham Palace.
The kin-dom of Jesus, in today’s world, looks like the community of young, black, gay and trans youth we learned about in our Pride Week documentary, Check It, who have formed a gang in NE DC that defends itself because no one else will. Or it looks like the immigrant children being taken from their parents and detained alone. Or the person who can see no other option than taking her own life. Or a prisoner in the hands of North Korean tyranny. Or the person denied service because of whom he loves. In each case, I say with conviction: this is where Jesus is. It’s everything he preached about. It’s where all his parables, or stories that circle ‘round to truth, pointed. It’s where he lived. It’s how he lived.
I’m pretty sure Christ had no desire to be called, “king.” And, if you recall, he didn’t use that term for God, whom he called Abba, Daddy. Because the power kings have isn’t the power Jesus preached. It’s a poor excuse, a sham of a substitute for “real” power. It’s power over, oppression of, selfishness about, jealousy of, entitlement about, privilege of, judgment of, disdain of. It’s the perverted power of Empire, the type of power Jesus subverted and resisted. It’s the type of power he spent his short life challenging. It’s the type of power he calls us to thwart.
So, yes, it’s been a rough week. But it was a good catalyst for thinking how Jesus might respond. Because, sadly or not, the world hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. Humans are still humans. Kings are still kings. And the need to resist oppression from those inclined to absolute power is just as strong as it was when Jesus challenged the rights of Caesar to make his rules and the Pharisees to enforce theirs.
It’s been a rough week. But we know where we stand. While tea and scones are tasty, royal power is not. Our president is not a king. We are not subjects. And Jesus lets us know it. So I say (and I think he would like): “Christ the Commoner!”