“The Thickness of Blood” Sermon for 10th Ord., Pentecost +2, June 10, 2012 on 1 Samuel 8:4-20 & Mark 3:20-35

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways;

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appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 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. 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, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Mark 3:20-35

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Thickness of Blood

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I am amazed by the way the two stories we just read connect with our world today.  In one sense, both stories are set in ancient worlds; cultures and world-views that couldn’t be more distant from our own.  But in another sense, they are practically describing the news in this morning’s paper.  Let’s look at them together, because I believe we need to hear the message that they give.

Common to Both Stories

Both stories have a couple of things in common: one person in each story, Samuel in one and Jesus in the other, is confronted by groups of people.  Both men have families with issues. It’s not a happy moment for either of them.  The ones confronting them are not on the right track; Samuel knows it, Jesus knows it.  Both Samuel and Jesus predict bad times ahead.

What Israel Wanted from Samuel

In Samuel’s day, Israel was a relatively young nation.  They could hardly be called a “nation.”  Actually, they were a collection of clans, or tribes, connected by the thickness of blood and by the bonds of covenant.  But they wanted more.  They wanted to become a monarchy like everybody else.  They wanted a king.

Samuel knew what this meant.  It meant that a king would take, and take, and take from them, the very essence of their covenantal community, and turn them into virtual serfs.

11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots…  13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards… 16 He will take the …best of your cattle and donkeys… 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

Wishing for Security 

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We all know the expression, “be careful what  you wish for.”  It was never truer.  Why did they want a king?  What were they after?  Security.  They felt threatened by hostile neighbors and believed a king and his army (every king has an army) could protect them.

The story of Samuel is part of a long story about their life as a people from the day they left Egypt where they had been slaves, all the way to the day they ended up as exiled captives in Babylon.  Their great idea that a king was going to solve their problems turned out to be a tragic mistake.  Be careful what you wish for.

I don’t think we are much different.  We don’t want a king, but we do want security.  And I believe the things we are doing to achieve that security will be our undoing.  But more on that in a minute.

What they Want from Jesus: Stop

The story from Mark’s gospel has two groups of people confronting Jesus.  First his family comes looking for him, but they get interrupted and have to wait until Jesus deals with the scribes from Jerusalem.

Neither Jesus’ family nor the scribes understand what Jesus is up to, so both try to shut him down.  His family wants to bring him home since what he is doing is practically insane, as they see it: attracting huge crowds and getting them excited about a kingdom other than the Roman kind.  People who do that kind of thing get themselves and lots of other people killed.

But before the family can get a word in edgewise, the scribes from the capital come down on a character-assassination campaign.  Jesus clearly has shown power over evil spirits, so he must, they believe, have a direct relationship with the head evil power.

Jesus and “the Satan”

Now, that’s just absurd.  Jesus points this out.  If he was working for the head of the evil spirits, why would he be casting out evil spirits?  He asks:

“How can Satan cast out Satan?

Then he says something you could take in two ways:  neither a house nor a kingdom, divided against itself, can stand.  Is he talking still about Satan casting out Satan?  Or could he be cryptically referring to the “house” or “kingdom” of Israel with all its internal divisions?  Was this a prediction of the fall of the nation?

Binding the Strong Man

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With that thought still playing in their heads, then he tells the famous “binding the strongman” parable.  If you want to plunder the house of a strong man, first you have to tie him up.  When he is helplessly bound, then you can plunder the place.

Jesus is clearly talking about the source of evil whom he calls “the satan.”  In contrast to the idea that he is working for the strong man, the satan, as he is accused of doing, he is, in fact, plundering satan’s house.  He is taking back what has been stolen in the first place.

In the ministry of Jesus, the kingdom of God has broken into the world.  His healings are a sign of the new creation.  His exorcisms are signs that the power of evil has been bound.  God is at work in Jesus, restoring people whom evil had damaged and creating out of them a new community, a new family.

The problem was that many people had identified Rome as the enemy, instead of evil itself.  And their plan to have a violent revolution to rid themselves of the Romans, as Jesus saw it, was going to head them straight for disaster.   The house would fall.

Who/what is our enemy?

Here is how this maps up to us, today.  Many of us have mis-identified our problem, and so we are applying hopelessly ineffective solutions.  And, we are failing.

We, like Israel of old, believe our problem is security.  So we make security enhancements all over the place.  We end up less secure.  We have failed to heed the advice, “be careful what  you wish for.”

This happens all the time. For example, crime.  We need to be secure from criminals.  So we vote for people who promise to “get tough on crime.” We pass mandatory sentencing laws, and end up incarcerating a higher percentage of our own people than any other nation on the planet.

What we got

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Now our prisons are full.  In fact they are hideously overcrowded.  They call our prison system in Alabama the “Department of Corrections.”   I don’t know who comes out “corrected.”   We are not making ourselves more secure, but less.

We all know the factors that produce criminals.  We all know that poverty is a huge predictor.  We know that sub-standard eduction is a huge predictor.  We know that dysfunctional families are a huge predictor.  But as long as we fail to identify these problems as the ones we should fix and instead simply concentrate on our own security, our insecurity only worsens.

But do we hear a loud, sustained, impassioned call from any of our political leaders to end poverty?  Are we, as a country, willing to do what it takes to make educating all of our children to the highest possible level, especially poor children, a national priority?

We know that only 64% of high school students graduate in Mobile, which means that nearly 40% do not.  This should scare all of us.  What do we think will happen to these people?  Many will end up in the most expensive housing and meal program in the world: US prisons.

Why not fix it?

What would it take to fix these problems?  A lot.  It would be costly.  Very costly.  Perhaps too costly.

Ah, maybe now we are getting to the root of the real problem.  Maybe at root it is my own lack of concern for “those people” and “their problems.”   Maybe I simply don’t think they are worth what it might cost me.  After all, they are not connected  to me by the thickness of blood.  They are not my “family.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asks?

The Enemy Evil in Me

The enemy-evil that Jesus came to bind and plunder, it turns out, is the evil selfishness and criminal apathy in me.  The thought process in me that says, “We have got ours, and we intend to keep it; you go find your own.”  The evil in me that refuses to recognize “the least of these” as “brothers of mine;” as my family.

Satan is bound!

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But the good news of the gospel is that Satan has been bound.  We do not have to live in the world of evil selfishness and criminal apathy.  We are members of God’s family.  God’s Spirit is living and active in us!

We have everything we need to participate in the plundering of the strong man’s house.  We have the keys of the kingdom.  We can unlock doors of hope for people that give them an alternative to the revolving doors from poverty to prison and back.

We have been given the vision of a world in which we can call one another “brother” and “sister” not on the basis of race or language or status or economics, but because we know that we share one “Father in heaven,” whose name is Holy, and whose will we will-to-be-done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

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