Sermon: Keeping Up With the Joneses

06.07.2015      Preaching Text: “[And] the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.’” (1 Samuel 8:7)

I recently heard a great story. Supposedly it’s true, though I personally cannot vouch for its veracity. But I will say that if it isn’t true, it should be!

It involves the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Supposedly, in the interests of research, Jung would travel to various places around the world to study indigenous populations. During one such jaunt he was staying with a tribe somewhere on the continent of Africa.

It was here he observed that every morning, around 6:00, the men and boys of the community would get up and go to a nearby field and with utmost seriousness perform a studied ritual. They would spit on the palms of their hands and then raise their hands to the sun.

Jung inquired as to why they were doing this. The punchline? Nobody knew!!!

The point, or at least one of them, is how easily we human beings forget why we do certain things, even seemingly important things. Which brings us to church. Why are we here?

It’s not as silly a question as it may appear. As institutions pass through time, their sense of purpose, their rationale for being, can get muddy. Would somebody sitting in these same pews in, say, 1839 identify precisely with what we’re doing here today?

In Bible Study awhile back we had an informal conversation over lunch about the future of First Church and the challenges the mainline churches face today. Someone offered that what we should do, as with all effective advertising, is simply to let the world know what our product is.

Being nothing if not pastoral, I inquired in response, “So what is our product?” Again, this isn’t a dumb question. Each of us very well might give a different answer to that apparently simple question.

Years ago I told you the story of a dangerous coastline. There were so many shipwrecks that the community on shore decided to build a lighthouse. Things improved dramatically.

Over time, however, those in charge of the lighthouse decided to spruce things up a bit, laying down carpet, hanging drapes, and even buying some upholstered furniture. The problem is that soon concern arose about bringing in wet, bedraggled, shipwrecked sailors who might dirty up the place. So the effectiveness of the lighthouse diminished, and the shipwrecks increased once again.

To rectify the problem, the community just up the coast decided they too would build a lighthouse…Well, you know what happened next!

The point is that people and institutions can lose touch with their purpose, their roots, forgetting why they do what they do, just like the tribesmen in Jung’s travels.

In today’s reading from 1 Samuel, we see something of this same phenomenon. Israel’s self-understanding from its earliest days was that Jahweh had brought them out of slavery and into freedom. It was Jahweh and Jehweh alone who had done this.

Of course their understanding was not just that Jahweh had rescued them from slavery but that Jahweh was the very source of life, the Creator of all that is. Thus everything belongs to God. God is Lord of all that is.

But over time the Israelites decide that they don’t need a heavenly king as much as an earthly one, so they badger Samuel to give them one.

“You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways;” they explain, “appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

In response to Samuel’s prayerful appeal, God answers, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”

The Israelites no longer wish to follow the one true King but submit to an earthly one. After all everyone else has one!

The moral? Simply that our tendency as human beings is to be drawn into the ways of the world. We are not content to wait upon the Lord, to obey the One who made us. We turn instead to other methods, earthly methods.

We try to fit in. We want to keep up with the Joneses. In the process we fool ourselves into thinking that in this we will find contentment and happiness.

In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus’ family is having a hard time understanding his actions. In fact, they’re not at all sure he’s in full possession of his faculties.

For one, he’s given up his career as a carpenter, and a good, solid income. He’s also stirred up the wrath of the authorities, endangering his life and potentially that of his family’s. And he’s chosen to go against the norms of society. In short, he’s given up security, safety, and the verdict of society. The reason? To serve God and God alone (and not humans).

I’m currently reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi clergyman who died in a death camp for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was among the earliest in Germany to recognize the dangers of Nazism and actively and boldly resist Hitler’s efforts to nationalize or “Germanize” the church of his day.

Though many clergy thought Hitler uncouth many supported him, if only tepidly, not just because of the pressure being applied on them but because they thought Hitler actually might benefit the church!

They applauded Hitler’s crusade against communism which had had considerable influence in Germany. They also thought the Nazi insistence on a renewed morality (after the decadence of the Weimar Republic) might actually strengthen the church and bring back those who had earlier drifted away.

Bonhoeffer would have nothing to do with such flawed logic. He recognized, as had Samuel millennia before, that accommodation with the culture could only produce disastrous effects. Only a church focused on God as sovereign Lord could stand against the ways of the flesh, no matter how popular and influential such falsehoods had become.

In all our readings this morning the one common theme is this: that God is Lord of all. There is no area of life where God’s lordship is set aside. Every aspect of human existence, of earthly existence, is guided and directed by God. We don’t worship, as Bonhoeffer, the “God of the gaps,” but a sovereign God. When we forget this, problems arise when we forget this, when we act as if God did not exist or that God does not have a specific answer for all of life’s various aspects.

When tribal ways take over, in other words, less than godly effects unavoidably ensue. Amen.