Better Call Saul

Rev. Gussti Linne Newquist
June 6, 2021

Based on 1 Samuel 8:4-20. The People Clamor for a King

Poor Samuel. He has tried so hard.

By the time we meet him in our Scripture lesson this morning, he has given every part of his life to leading the people of God in ancient Israel. He has spoken prophetically of God’s justice and love. He has led priestly rituals as a steward of God’s mysteries. He has settled disputes, led the people into battle, soothed their wounds, and kept the peace. They cannot even begin to imagine their lives without him.

But to everything there is a season, and by the time we meet Samuel in our Scripture lesson this morning, Samuel’s season is coming to an end. And he knows it. And so do the people.

So Samuel sets up the ancient Israelite equivalent of a Congregational Assessment Team, morphed into a Strategic Issues Team, morphed into a Staffing Model Advisory Team, morphed into an Online Worship Assessment Team! Joel and Abijah, Samuel’s two strapping sons, have more than enough wealth and training and God-given talent to take on the task. Samuel sends them off to learn the trade throughout the farthest reaches of the federation, expecting them to return to Ramah—the center of the federation in the time of Samuel’s judgeship—ready to lead upon his death.

It does not go according to plan.

While Samuel shows every indication that he has found his power directly from God’s anointing of his ministry, Joel and Abijah draw their power more from the job of judging, itself. They plunder the villages they have been appointed to serve. They take bribes for their economic influence. They twist justice at every turn in order advance their own agendas.

Or at least that is what history records. Truth be told, we never do hear their side of the story.

The bottom line is that something must be done. The question is ... what?

It helps to understand what is going on in this Scripture if we take a step back from this tale of a leadership transition gone south and focus on the even bigger transition going on all around the ancient Israelites. Because at the time of our Scripture lesson, the entire political and social and economic structure of the land we still to this day call “holy” is also changing dramatically. The other, non-Israelite, tribal federations that live in the land with them have begun to centralize their governments and specialize their occupations and consolidate their militaries and emerge as nation-states. Every one of them ruled by a king.

Sociologists who study religion have begun to call the kind of sweeping societal change that is taking place in our Scripture lesson today something like a great big “rummage sale,” when people of faith re-evaluate our expected norms and practices in light of dramatic societal shifts. It happens every 500 years or so. The Protestant Reformation is an example. The emergence of Christianity in the first century as a form of post-temple Judaism is an example. And this transition from the period of judges to the period of kings is an example.

Samuel’s pending retirement, in the context of the Really Big Rummage Sale that is swirling around their society, gives the ancient Israelites a chance to toss out what they don’t need any more and to make way for the new. Which is what the people rightly call for, even though Samuel gives them a whole lot of grief for it. And although the first King — Saul doesn’t work out so well, the next King — David — and the King after that — Solomon — lead the glory days of ancient Israel. In hindsight, we can see that the people who are calling for a king do move the tradition forward. And they are to be commended for it.

The real point of the lesson of First Samuel is not about whether or not it is a good idea to transition to a king. The real point of the lesson is about whether or not we are trusting the God who has anointed the king! And every other leader who came before the king! And every other leader who will come after the king! Because the community of faith really is, always and forever, about the kingdom of God, regardless of whom God has anointed as the leader of the moment.

It God who will always and forever lead every one of us out of whatever bondage we are in, through whatever transition we are in, into whatever new life we are about to become. That is what Samuel is so concerned the people will forget if—and when—they finally get their all-too-human king.

Woe unto us if we forget it, too, here at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, as we transition out of global pandemic and into whatever form our ministry will take on the other side. Don’t forget we started this pandemic only five months into a transition with a new pastor. When we return to worship in the sanctuary, only three out of nine paid staff will hold the positions they held just two years ago: a bookkeeper, a cleaning service, and our furloughed choir director, Georgiann Toole.

As thorough as we have been in our Congregational Assessment, as thorough as we have been in our Strategic Visioning, as thorough as we have been about replacing six out of nine paid positions in the past two years, as thorough as we are now trying to be in our focus groups around what online worship will be in the months and years to come, none of what we are doing is, in the end, about the individual pastor, or the nine paid staff, or the leaders you elect to the Session and Deaconate, or the identity statement (as great as it is), or the commitments to Hospitality, Spirituality, and Compassion (as great as they are), that will lead SPC for the next season.

It is about the God who will guide us through every season.

It may have been an immediate pastoral transition, followed by a nearly 100% staff transition, exacerbated by a global pandemic that has been occupying much of our recent imagination, but we, like those ancient Israelites clamoring for a king in the face of Samuel’s pending retirement, do well to remember that we are actually caught up in a much larger transition, as American Protestant Christians in the twenty-first century. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, launching what became the Protestant Reformation. On March 12, 2020 – five hundred two and a half years later – your Session, along with church governing bodies around the nation and the world, closed the building in response to global pandemic.

Martin Luther, I am guessing, did not intend to launch a 500 year transition in religious history. The COVID-19 virus, I am quite certain, did not either.

But launch it, they did, this “great rummage sale,” that is far bigger than SPC’s minor – by comparison – transitions. Every one of us on the entire planet is now re-evaluating basic norms and practices in light of our own great dramatic societal shifts. And, boy, are we shifting!

Where the ancient Israelites were consolidating and expanding in response to their cultural context, we are decentralizing and diversifying and dreaming whole new ways of being church. Where the ancient Israelites were compiling their traditions into a grand narrative, we are opening up a multiplicity of new ways to tell “the old, old story” of Jesus and his love. Where the ancient Israelites were building a big temple for the common worship of God, we are learning to take the church to the people beyond the building and into “the cloud.”

“Hybrid ministry,” we call it. Not just in person worship PLUS online worship, but imagining entirely new ways to invite and equip those who are desperate for the kind of inclusive spiritual community, rooted in The Way of Jesus we try to practice through SPC: Radical Hospitality, Holistic Spirituality and Engaged Compassion. We, ourselves, must become the very “transformation” we preach. Which is, of course, exactly what we have said we want to do. So let’s do it!

Poor Samuel did not really get it wrong when the people clamored for a king. He just wanted their true king to be the God they worshiped and served. And we are not getting it wrong when we prepare the church for this great paradigm shift into hybrid ministry. We just need to remember that God is the one doing the true boundary crossing, leading us onward in The Way of Jesus. If we do that, we will be just fine.

Let the church say, Amen!