Posted by: owizblog | June 7, 2015

Misfits: Communion Sermon, UCB, Sunday 7 June 2015

I Samuel 8:3-20

Mark 3:20-35

1

What on earth connects the two readings you just heard?

The one comes from a very particular point in the history of Israel. Certainly, I can go on to say that the other comes from a very particular point in the story of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels; both mark a point of transition, where the very beginning is now behind, and being put behind, and something different is about to follow. But that doesn’t tell us very much, at least not until we’ve looked much more closely at the two stories.

samuel at ramah

Samuel is under pressure. Prophet and judge, he combines two offices which have marked off Israel as different, different from all the nations round and about her. She seems to have lived her life for a while now as a federation of tribes, who for the most part lived their lives and conducted their business, and even fought their small conflicts with other peoples, separately or in small groups. But they had their shared God. And there were things they did together, worship, assemblies to promulgate shared law. And if they were threatened in a big way – and they were, from time to time – then from their shared culture and religion, and under their shared God, a very special kind of leadership would emerge.

A judge would emerge.

Deborah the Judge

Deborah who defeated the iron chariots of the Canaanites,

Gideon

Gideon, who attacked the Midianites with a tiny commando of a few hundred men at night, waving torches, yelling furiously and causing panic in the camp, Samson –

Samson jawbone

well we all remember the stories of Samson, slaying “a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass,”

Samson Delilah Cranach

and succumbing to the wiles of his Philistine wife Delilah, losing his strength when she cut his hair (“Why, why, why, Delilah?”) before standing in chains

Sam brings the house down

in the Philistine temple and bringing it crashing down on his head and theirs as they feasted, by pushing its pillars apart. Ripping yarns we remember from Sunday School!

These were the judges, together with people whose names wouldn’t even feature in a game of Biblical Trivial Pursuit: Tola the son of Puah, son of Dodo, a man of Issachar; Jair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years and had thirty sons who rode on thirty asses – and others…

Stories from impossibly long ago. But they are also stories from, and about, a people whose lives were organized around the rule of their God, so that strong men – some of whom were women – only came forward to exercise central leadership when the occasion required it. They rallied the tribes, led through the crisis, and then retired.

This is a simplification, but essentially, a thousand years plus before Jesus, you seem to find a group of people whose life was organized around their God, and his place in their life, so that where other nations had their kings, and their kings claimed the authority of their gods to rule, Israel had nothing. Nothing but God. And if times came when they needed a strong, central leadership, then God would provide. A judge would emerge. This is exactly what the great German sociologist Max Weber called “charismatic leadership.” Somebody with the gift, the charisma, given of God.

2

And it’s worked for a long time now.

The trouble is, those Philistines didn’t go away. The Midianites, even the Canaanites, the original inhabitants of Palestine, with their great cities and high culture, the Israelites dealt with these. But the Philistines are different. And now, Samuel is the leader of Israel, Samuel, the old man who heard God’s voice in the temple when he was a child, another favourite Sunday School story.

So the people come to him, and they say “We need a new political structure. We need a permanent leadership, an executive. We need a king.”

But they are also saying something else. “We want to be like everybody else…”

This difference – it’s hard to live with. This eccentric organization of our life, this radical dependence on God. This having to wait-to-see what happens in each new crisis; we want to move beyond that.

We want to be normal…

sam ram 2

Well, eventually they get their king. This chapter eight of I Samuel is the first of three chapters that weave together the story of Saul’s coming to the throne as the first King of Israel – but they weave it out of two strands that are very pro-monarchy, and this one (which pops up again later) which is clearly very anti, which warns, in effect:

“You want normal? Do you want to know what normal is like? Normal is oppressed, put-upon, made to conform, to fit in to the way someone else runs your society and your lives. Normal is cashing in your uncomfortable freedom for a conformist, restricted security at a very high price. Normal is the forced amputation of everything that your society and its political structures will demand of you. Look around, and see it in the lives of others…”

It would be potty to say that people weren’t made to fit in under the judges. This is an idealization – it’s a looking-back through rose-coloured glasses at a past that is slipping away, and probably has to. The institution of the judgeship isn’t dealing with the Philistine threat. Actually, King Saul won’t manage that either – but then, his kingship is very like the rule of the judges, and it isn’t until the military and political genius who is David comes along, and actually sets up not just a proper monarchy but a personal empire which for eighty years is a regional superpower, that the Philistines are crushed.

But what we can say is this. This story, from I Samuel 8, marks a moment, when a whole community can be invited to look at the dangers of yearning for normality. Of being like everyone else…

jesus in house

3

Jesus, by chapter three of Mark’s Gospel, has been teaching, and healing, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, for a wee while now. And forgiving. Don’t forget that. He’s been setting people free from what they were, so that they can become what they should be. What God made them to be.

He’s making an impression.

But it’s also becoming obvious that he doesn’t fit in. The radical American New Testament scholar Norman Perrin presents that as the main theme of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus won’t fit in, not into people’s expectations, not into their capacity to make sense of him, not into their mental or cultural or religious pigeon-holes or filing-cabinets. He doesn’t fit.

Pigeon-hole-010

Jesus is challengingly, thrillingly, frighteningly not-normal.

And he’s beginning to stir up opposition, the entrenched opposition of the religious elites, the establishment and even the Pharisaic counter-establishment. And they say he’s possessed. Mad.

And so do his family. They are worried about him, and worried for him.

So there is Jesus in yet another house, and this time, he’s sitting down for a meal – if he ever gets the chance to eat.

lego jesus

Because the house is crammed with people, and over the meal-table he’s talking to them about God in ways they have never heard before, with an authenticity – “authority,” the Gospels say – that they have never encountered before.

Jesus’ impact and his message are beginning to coalesce; the proclaimer and the proclamation are merging. It would be two thousand years later, surveying an utterly different culture – our contemporary culture – that Marshall McLuhan would say “The medium is the message…” But that’s what’s happening with Jesus. What’s promised in his preaching seems to be arriving, in him.

John proclaimed the one who would come after him. What Jesus proclaims, people experience as coming with him, there in his impact, his presence.

And what he proclaims is the rule of God, the kingdom of God, the peace and justice of God, the forgiveness, grace and love of God. And none of this fits into the world the way it is. In the world the way it is, it’s not normal; radically not-normal…

No wonder they want to have Jesus committed. And that is what they want, his families for his own good, his enemies to brand him, and get him out of the way.

And what about those people who are there sitting with him, in the house? These people who respond to him, to what he says, to who – whoever – he is? Are they mad, too?

140619_FF_ResearchDoc_1

Well, they aren’t normal. They don’t fit. I find that reassuring, and I hope you do, too. Because I’m not normal. I don’t fit. And while it wouldn’t be polite to say so, I invite you to ask yourselves whether you are normal, either. “Normal,” as they say, “is what everyone else is, and you are not…”

Yet here we sit, with the Jesus who doesn’t fit. And here, therefore, as nowhere else in the world – we do fit.

4

Isn’t it nice – isn’t it liberating, freeing –to live in a society in which we are not normal? We the Church. We lament the passing of a way of living, of understanding life, and society, and the place of God in each, which, at one time, everyone shared. It used to be said that there was no law in Scotland against Sunday opening, because nobody would have dared open a shop in Scotland on a Sunday.

Today, people work on terms over which they have less and less control, on Sundays, all hours, on zero-hour contracts. And people work hard, for hours on end, and still can’t make ends meet; half the people who claim benefits are working, and working very hard. There are people in full time employment who are hard pressed to feed and clothe and house their families. And that, of course, is not anything we should ever call “normal.”

Society has changed, because it had to, because deep forces affecting millions of lives all together meant that change was inevitable. To say that is not to approve of it, not at all. But it is to make the point that we can either look back, and lament that a society, and a way of life, that we remember fondly has gone forever – which is what Samuel was doing – or we can turn right around, and be the people who look beyond the way our society is, our world is, to the way the world should be, the way God will have it be, which is what the eccentric, not-normal people crushed together in that thrilling house, around Jesus, are.

We can be survivals – or we can be a sign of hope, and promise, and the coming of the Kingdom.

Either way, of course, we won’t fit. We won’t be normal. But if we stand with Jesus –

lego jesus 2

and sit with him in the house, and, as we shall in just a moment, share a the meal with him, if we are Jesus’ folk, then our not-normalness points beyond the way things are, and points to God. What Samuel could only do by pointing backwards, to the way things were in a changing world, we can point beyond the way things are, and point to God: to the coming of God’s kingdom, to God’s demand for justice in which justice is denied, to God’s promise of shalom, of peace, wholeness, in a broken, peace-less world.

And that’s what this is all about. This table spread for us by the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There they sit, in the house with Jesus, this collection of people, none of them normal, none of them easily fitting into the life of the world around them. But here they discover that that’s all right, because here they are accepted as they are, and for all that they are.

And they can grasp here – and so can we – the shattering truth that nobody’s normal. Nobody fits easily in. We all live with our tensions, our fears and apprehensions, not least the fear and the apprehension that if others knew us, we might not, would not, be accepted. And we worry that that’s how we stand before God.

We forget…

O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar.Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me…

And that’s what people encounter in Jesus, according to the Gospels. A knowledge of them from which nothing is hidden, nor is there any possibility of hiding. And then, an acceptance, and a liberation. A knowing, a freedom, a grace.

6

And as they sit there, a message arrives. For Jesus: your family are here. They are outside. They want you outside. Your mother, your siblings.

And the unspoken “You have to go. It’s your family, your mother…”

And Jesus says “No, actually, I don’t. My family are in here. Not the family who want me to fit in. Not the family who want me to shut up, because I’m embarrassing them.

This bunch of misfits, and not-normal people who respond to me, who listen to what I say, who hear my call. This is my family…”

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