How History Repeats, and Thank God for That

I was fortunate enough to have Jack Esformes for a teacher twice in junior high school. He was my 7th grade and 9th grade social studies teacher, classes on government and politics. With high ceilings and concrete floors, off the alley in the annex of George Washington Jr. High, the room was a little chilly, and very echoey. Mr. Esformes had lined the wall above the chalk board with the covers of about 50 Time magazines, and he kept a huge stack of books on the edge of his desk, where he also perched during his class discussions. Whenever our attentions would wander and too many of us would start staring at the magazines, or the noise level would creep up, he would grab one of the huge, thick, heavy books off the stack and drop it, BLAM!, onto the concrete floor, startling us back to attention. I learned a lot of things from Mr. Esformes: I learned to love the musical 1776; I learned that Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy in Missiles of October was just dreamy; I learned that citizens have responsibilities; and I learned several of his favorite sayings, including “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

If ever there were a group of people who could have benefited from the wealth of Mr. Esformes’ favorite quotations, it was the people of Israel as we find them in the Hebrew Scriptures. This could surely be the poster tribe for what happens when we fail to learn from history. Enslaved in Egypt, oppressed and forced to pay homage to Pharaoh as a king and a god, they weren’t 6 weeks out before they began begging Moses and Aaron to take them back lest they starve in the desert. But God provided them with quails and manna and water from rocks and the desert became their home for 40 years while they did the difficult work of figuring out how to live as free people. And while God was providing them with the necessities, God was also providing them with guidance, with direction, with the gift of the law, so that they could figure out how to live as free people. And the law began with one big one, the one that said, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Which would have been good news to people who had spent the last few hundred years making temples and tombs for god-kings in Egypt. Another way of reading that first commandment would be, “You are free now. You don’t need a king. You have God.” And for many generations, that was how Israel operated. Gathered as they were in their tribes, led as needed by the judges that God would raise up, there was no human king. The only king they needed was God, the king who had brought them up out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who had made a covenant with them on Sinai, and promised to be their God, their king, forever. 

But the Book of Judges tells us that, in spite of the covenant and the law and the God who had freed them, the people of Israel did what was right in their own eyes. They failed to learn from history. They ignored the law and the covenant and God’s sovereignty, and instead they pursued more human forms of success. They wanted to be like all the other nations, they wanted to have worldly power, they wanted to conquer land and amass wealth and maybe even have a few slaves and build temples and tombs of their own. So they went to Samuel, the last of the judges, and they said, “Hey, Samuel, we want a king! All the other nations have a king!” And God said, “You don’t need a king. You have me. A king will oppress you and take your stuff and make you go to war. You don’t want a king. If all the other nations jumped off a cliff, would you want to jump off a cliff, too?” But the people said, “Yeah. ‘Cause we really want a king.” So God said, “fine, you can have your king.” And God gave them Saul, but it turned out that Saul was not a good king. He was so bad that God decided to start this kingship thing from scratch with a new line. Which is where we come in today. Repeating history.

Samuel comes in secret to Bethlehem looking for a new king, even while Saul is still the king. Maybe he tells Jesse why he’s there, maybe not. It’s possible that everyone just thinks Samuel’s looking for a protege, another priest or prophet to anoint. But he’s looking for a king. And everyone knows what kings look like – tall, strong, proud, you know, regal. Like Saul had been – the handsomest and tallest of all Israel, it says in 1 Samuel 9. Like Abinidab here. But no, God says, I’m not looking to repeat history. We’re not going on looks this time. This time, we’re looking at the heart.

Which is when, I think, Samuel should have just called it a day. ‘Cause if we’re basing this on hearts, I have a feeling we’re all going to be in trouble. What exactly is it God is looking for in this heart? a pure heart? A clean heart? A strong heart? A loyal heart? Great. Good luck with that.

Well, we never actually learn from this passage what God is looking for, only that David is chosen, and anointed in front of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. And if we’re at all surprised at this point, it is only because we have failed to learn from history, and so it is repeating itself. Because by now, this should be a familiar story. God chooses the least likely, the youngest, the scoundrel, the fugitive – Abraham and Sarah are the barren recipients of the promise of  offspring like the stars; Isaac, Abraham’s younger son, bears that promise; Jacob is not only the younger son but also a cheater and a liar, but receives Isaac’s blessing and God’s promise; Joseph, the young dreamer, is Jacob’s favorite; Moses, the stuttering murderer holed up in the wilderness to avoid punishment, is sent to deliver Israel from bondage. Israel itself is a rag-tag band of ex-slaves eking out a living in the desert, and is chosen to bear God’s blessing to the entire world, to serve as God’s priests to all the nations. And yet we’re surprised when the oil comes out and David is chosen, the youngest, the shepherd who was so insignificant that no one thought to call him when Samuel started sizing up Jesse’s sons. But here he is, and God tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” And David is thus destined for God’s favor, destined for kingship, destined to be the anointed one, the meshiach, the christos of Israel.

Because of his heart? This I don’t get. Because the more we learn about David, the more we learn about his heart, the less sense this makes. How is this guy’s heart the one that suited God? How is this guy’s heart the one that God looked on and thought, “Yup! That’s my guy! That’s my king!” Sure, David is a good guy in many ways: he trusts God enough to stand up to Goliath; he’s a gifted musician and a gifted warrior; he’s brave and ambitious. But a pure heart? a loyal heart? a clean heart? Not exactly. This is the guy who takes the kingship out from under the man who had mentored him. This is the guy who seduced Bathsheba and, when she got pregnant, had her husband killed in battle to cover up his crime. This is the guy who, on his death bed repeats history yet again, passes over his oldest son and gives the kingship to Solomon, making him promise to kill all of David’s oldest enemies for him after he’s dead. This is the heart that God chooses and anoints.

Which, while it may be bad news for those who stand in David’s way, strikes me as pretty good news for the rest of us. Because this is the heart that God also creates anew. Frequently. In Psalm 51, David pleads with God to create in him a clean heart, to put a new and right spirit in him. And it is clear from the rest of the psalm, that David knows God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. David knows that this is the God who anointed him, who chose him. This is the God who looked at the heart of David, in all its brokenness and damage, looked at how David was busy hardening his heart, putting layers of protection around it, making it safe and secure in it’s stone case, so that power and greed and murder and revenge were not a problem for this hardened heart, and said, “aha! now that’s something I can work with! That’s a heart that needs me! I think I’ll anoint it and claim it for my own.”

How hard is your heart? What is it that you have hardened it against. I know you have been hurt. I know that your heart has been pulled out and stomped on the ground. We usually talk about it in romantic terms, but our hearts get broken by so many things – by lost love; by grief; by broken dreams; by the endless battery of ads that tell us that we aren’t good enough, aren’t smart enough, aren’t rich enough, aren’t enough; by bullies on the playground and in the pulpit and at the office and in the home and in the house and the senate. We spend our lives having our hearts yanked out and examined by those around us, who always find them wanting in some way, and return them, broken and battered. And so we do the only thing we can. We protect them. We harden our hearts. We build up layers of stone, little by little, so that our hearts are less vulnerable, so that we are less vulnerable, so that we are safe. But it’s awfully hard to love with a heart of stone. Which is why the God of love talks so much about hearts. Like when, through the prophet Ezekiel, God says, “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Because while the world would do its best to break your heart, would judge your heart for all its stoniness, would dismiss your hardened heart as unworthy or unusable or unloveable, God looks at your heart and says, “aha! now that’s something I can work with! That’s a heart that needs me! I think I’ll anoint it and claim it for my own.” And the waters are prepared, and the oil is poured, and you are named and claimed as a baptized child of God and you are anointed and sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ. Forever. 

Talk about history repeating itself. Eventually, God would reclaim the kingship, by coming into the world, by becoming the king, the anointed one, the meshiach, the christos. But as has been God’s way from the beginning, it didn’t happen the way people were expecting. It happened in God’s way, with a homeless, teenage mother, from a backwater of a backwater; with a baby whose first breaths were taken in a stable right down the street from where David was anointed; with a king who rode in on a donkey, not a camel; with a king whose crown was made of thorns, whose sovereignty was rejected, whose message was dismissed, but who showed us the true heart of God. The heart of God who would come to us, because we can’t get it together to go to God. The heart of God who would reserve the right to surprise us time and again with the kind of grace and love that we could never earn, the kind of grace and love that is so ridiculous that we could never even believe it, not even when we’ve seen it, not even when we have experienced it, not even when our own hearts of stone have been ripped out time and again, replaced with clean hearts and right spirits.

This is the history that repeats itself, as we live out our baptism, as we rise again each morning, as we are resurrected each day with a new heart, a clean heart, a heart of flesh. New, every single day. Because God is patient. God has looked on your heart, as God looked on David’s heart, time and again; God has looked on your heart of stone and said, “aha! now that is something I can work with! That’s a heart that needs me! I think I’ll anoint it and claim it for my own.”

Called to Be Helped

When we last saw the people of Israel, they were whining in the desert, worried about having enough food and water. The Lord sent them food and drew water from the rock and 40 years later, they finally stumbled into the promised land, and after a few battles and some rough times, they established themselves there. But remember that the people were still a rough and ready collection of loosely affiliated tribes. They shared a common ancestor in Jacob/Israel, but they were organized as 12 tribes. As they spread out into the promised land, their main loyalties remained with their tribes, and they divided Imagethemselves out geographically and politically that way. At this time there was no Temple, and the ark of the covenant moved about. The temple at Shiloh, where today’s story happens, was more of a tabernacle, not a huge temple like the one Solomon built. Shiloh was apparently the last stop the ark made before being brought into Jerusalem by David.

Our text today picks up where the Book of Judges leaves off. After arriving in Canaan, the tribes mostly rules themselves, but as was needed, God would raise up a leader, or Judge, to stand against foreign powers or lead the people back to God when they would stray. Among the most famous Judges were Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. And of course Eli.

Now, at the close of the book of Judges, we are told, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Then, we meet Eli. Eli was very old, and his sons are supposed to be learning the family business and taking over for him. But we are told that “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had not regard for the Lord.” They did what was right in their own eyes. When you hear that in the Bible, it’s not a compliment. It’s code for scoundrels. When the people begin doing what is right in their own eyes, it means they are not paying attention to God, to what God is calling them to. They only do what benefits them. Eli’s sons did what was right in their own eyes. They abused their power. They embezzled and worse, in the temple, in the name of God. And meanwhile, the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread, and Eli’s eyesight was growing dim.

And this is when God called Samuel. Usually we focus on the first half of the story, the part I shared with the kids this morning. It’s a great story, him hearing God calling his name, going to sleepy Eli, and finally figuring it out. We sing the song, Here I am, Lord, and remember Samuel’s response. But the hard part of the story comes next. When Samuel learns what he has been called to do. This young boy, maybe 12, maybe even younger, has been called to replace his mentor, and not just to replace him, but to scold him along the way. To tell him how badly he has messed up, how he failed to correct his sons, how he has brought a curse on his house forever. And that’s Samuel’s first assignment. To un-call the guy before him. The mentor who has nurtured him for years, and who continues to train him.

I couldn’t help but think, as I read this, of the new presiding bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton. Bishop Mark Hanson has been her bishop for 12 years, both when she was a parish pastor and when she was the bishop of her Ohio synod. And here she was, called to replace him, though fortunately not called to scold him or curse his house.  But the Lord looked at the ELCA, and seems to have decided that it was time. Time for a new leader. The seasons have changed and it is time for a new leader. And the moment in the service that shows that most clearly was this one: [1:30:40-1:31:30]

During that rite of installation last week, there was a moment when Bishop Hanson began to lay out the charge that Elizabeth Eaton was about to accept. He began listing the things that she was taking responsibility for, and the people whose lives she was to hold in care and prayer, and I thought to myself, this is it, this is the moment where any sane person would run screaming from the room. And instead, she replied, “I will and I ask God to help me.” And I thought, man, she must be a brave and faithful woman.

But that’s the key, isn’t it? I will, and I ask God to help me. That’s what we sing in the song, “I will go, Lord, if you lead me.” Bishop Eaton is not doing this alone. And this was made clear in another portion of the Installation, because even as she was taking on this huge responsibility, this huge task of leading and caring for and praying for this church body of 4,000,000 people, Bishop Hanson, ex-Bishop Hanson, was standing there beside her, supporting her with his wisdom and his prayers. And then there were the other blessings she received: 1:22:31 – 1:25:19 (F,S,HS, Amen) pause In all there were blessings from 11 representatives of other denominations and other Lutheran churches around the world, including the Lutheran Churches of Nicaragua, Canada, Sweden, and South Africa, and Methodists, Moravians, Episcopalians, UCC, Presbyterian and Reformed, plus the Church of Christ in Thailand. Not to mention the blessings from you: unpause to Amen. On your behalf, the people gathered there that day blessed and received this new presiding bishop of the ELCA, and on your behalf, they promised to pray for her and support her during the next 6 years.

Ours is a can-do kind of culture. It’s a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of culture. Over and over we hear that we have to do everything ourselves, to succeed on our own merits, and to define success by the stuff we have and the names we drop. To be perfect. So it is tempting to build Samuel up as a hero, bravely responding to God’s call even when it’s a difficult one. It is tempting to denigrate Eli as a scoundrel like his sons, doing what is right in his own dim-sighted eyes, and bringing ruin on his house, getting what he deserves in the end. And we apply the same logic to ourselves. I have what I have because I deserve it. I’ve earned it. Good or bad. My successes are earned, and my failures my fault. We even apply this logic to God, living by a prosperity gospel, even when we know better. So many of us live as if it were true, that God will bless me if I behave; that God will punish me if I fail; that material wealth is a benefit of living the good Christian life; that poverty is a moral failing. As if there weren’t good and moral Christians dying of starvation in every corner of the world. As if there weren’t scoundrels basking in the ease of privilege and prosperity. This is the false teaching that leads us into a theology based in shame and guilt, a dead-end street where we spend all our time trying trying to live up to the impossible belief that I can have enough, be enough, if only I were a better person. If only I could do it myself. This is doing what is right in our own eyes.

But that is not what it is to be called. To be called is not to enter an isolation chamber, where you must succeed or fail on your own merits. To be called is enter into the community. To be called is to hear a voice and not be able to understand it, and to ask those around you, those with age and wisdom, to help you discern it. How is God leading you, if not through the voices and the service and the love and the prayers of your community.

That’s what it is to be called. To be called is not always to have such clarity of vision that you can see the scoundrels as they are. Instead, it is to be a fool for love, and fail time and again to see the plain truth, and still to have God draw you into community, to have God call you out and name you as God’s own, even in your very weakness. To have God turn your weakness to God’s purpose, and deliver on the promises through your weakness, not in spite of it.

You have been called. Whatever it is that you do, whether you are working in a classroom or an office or a church building, or whether you are retired from your career. You are called. Now. Just as you are. Eli still has work to do. Samuel needs training and guidance and support and prayers. Those who are active in the world of work and ministry need wisdom and stories and encouragement and prayers. We are all called. Today. Just exactly as we are. Young and old, in the world and in the home, at the office and at the dining table. The call of your baptism draws you into God’s service. And the promise of your baptism means that you do not go alone. You go, gathered into the Body of Christ, made one with your sisters and brothers in Christ here at this Table each and every week, and sent out and sustained by the prayers and wisdom and encouragement of that great cloud of witnesses, those who surround us here on earth and those who have gone before us. This is that image-of-God we’ve been talking about from the beginning: A creator; a spirit or breath; a powerful word; a community. The image of God in which you were made and called. Thanks be to God.

Enough is as Good as a Feast

I’ve never lived through a war. Not really. I mean, I was alive during the Vietnam Conflict, and I’ve seen more troop deployments than I can count, and I grew up 2 miles from the Pentagon at the height of the Cold War, so I know about the nameless anxiety of threat from an unknown and faceless “other.” But the kind of war where there is actual deprivation, the kind of war where people give up food and necessities in order to support the war effort, or because of sheer lack of resources, I’ve never lived through that. And it occurs to me that I am one of the few people in history who can say that. Because for most of human history, there has been a major conflict of some kind some time during a person’s lifetime. Whether you lived in the remote reaches of a tribal society, or whether you fled in the face of advancing armies, or whether you sent brothers and sons and husbands to the trenches of Europe, most of our history has involved conflict, and most people in history have faced the deprivations and hardships of sacrifice or siege.

It’s no wonder if we hang onto our stuff. It’s no wonder if we have a tendency to overcompensate in our search for security. If we pad our savings accounts and our homes and our bodies with excess. We are wired for it by generations upon generations, centuries upon centuries, of need. Sure, there have been times of peace, but history has proven to us, in a deep and meaningful way, that times of deprivation are far more reliable. Our collective memory has programmed us to squirrel away extra, against the very real and certain possibility that it will be needed, and soon.

The people of Israel had been slaves for hundreds of years. They knew deprivation. For those of us reading the story, we wonder how they could be so whiny after what they’ve seen, but for them, they are seeing what they have always seen all along. They’re seeing what they’ve learned to expect. They were all too familiar with the feeling of not having enough – enough food, enough shelter, enough dignity, enough respect, enough safety. They knew how it felt to go to bed hungry and to wake up hungry and to be expected to build pyramids hungry. They had experienced it themselves, had watched their children go to bed hungry and their parents struggle to decide which child should get the last morsel of food when the crumbs ran out. So they were wired to look at the world through the lens of scarcity. There had never been enough, and there never would be enough. So it’s no wonder that the memory begins to fade, and they might begin to doubt that they ever did see the glory of God overthrowing Pharaoh.

Besides, where do they think they’re going? The promised land, right. But the promised land of Canaan is about 120 miles away, across the desert, a desert they do not know. And once they get there, it’s not like Canaan is empty, just sitting there for the taking. There are people living there already, Canaanites, and they are not just going to up and leave and hand over the keys on the way out. Moving into the promised land is going to take an army.

300px-Turkish_howitzer_10.5cm_leFH_98_09_LOC_00121In 1916 and 1917, another army crossed that same land. The British came across Sinai from their colony in Egypt, bound for Gaza, where they would engage the Ottoman Empire, in an attempt to push the Turks up the coast and back into Turkey. The British army was not a rag-tag band of former slaves from the bronze age. This was the war machine of the industrial revolution, armed with machine guns and flying aces and mustard gas. And in spite of all of that, they still had to cross the Sinai. They still had to get across that desert. It took them months to bring that army across, not because they were being hounded by the enemy, but because of the desert. Because of the deprivation and scarcity of the desert. Because the British, like the Israelites, didn’t know that landscape, they didn’t know where to find food and water. And so they had to bring it with them. As the British army marched across Sinai, they built a pipeline to bring water with them, and they built roads to refresh their supplies. And still, when they arrived at Gaza, they were defeated, twice, and turned back.

Really, in hindsight, what chance did the Israelites have? And they knew it. They could see what a hopeless situation they were in. They were born slaves and they would die slaves. Slaves to Pharaoh. Slaves to fear. Slaves to scarcity. They might begin to doubt that they ever did see 10 plagues that brought the mightiest ruler in the world, a god in his own right, the Pharaoh of the Egyptians to his knees. They might begin to doubt the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, and they might begin to remember Egypt in a very different light. They’ve been on the road for 6 weeks now, and memories begin to fade and doubt begins to seep in, because it is hard to believe that God would be so audacious, so generous, so, well, interested in the suffering of a small band of people in one small corner of the world, a tribe wandering in the desert, a people caught in bondage. Really, when you think about it that way, it’s just too ridiculous a story to believe, even if you saw it with your own eyes, and now it’s been 6 weeks, and here they are in the middle of this desert, a parched, barren landscape that screams scarcity with every step. Egypt somehow begins to look lovely in the light of nostalgia, and maybe Moses and Aaron have just brought us out here to die. The past is prologue – it has prepared them to see the present in the light of scarcity, and the future in the light of impossibility.

And this is our heritage. We who sit at the cusp of centuries. There are those sitting here today who have seen war, though fewer and fewer. The last war that truly called for sacrifice from the whole of society ended when I was 3, with the fall of Saigon and the end of the draft. The last time we had rationing in the U.S. was 1946. In general, we are surrounded by plenty, though it is worth remembering that 43 million Americans live in food insecurity, unsure of where their next meal will come from. Even here, in the wealthiest society the world has ever known, scarcity is a constant companion. And we do what we can to gird ourselves. We surround ourselves with stuff – money, toys, cars, clothes, food. As soon as you’ve bought one thing, you are bombarded with advertisements for another, reasons to buy the next and the next. To listen to the wisdom of the marketplace would be to learn that there is no such thing as enough – you will never be thin enough, fit enough, pretty enough, comfortable enough, healthy enough, handsome enough, smart enough, informed enough, entertained enough, secure enough. Mary Poppins said, “Enough is as good as a feast.” But given the choice, we’d always take the feast. And then some. Image

As it turns out, God knows us. God has seen how we try to scrape it all together and hold on, how we never feel like we have enough, or like we are enough. And God has said, in agreement with Mary Poppins, “Enough is enough.” Every day, as the Israelites crossed the wilderness, enough was given. In that harsh forbidding landscape of scarcity and deprivation, enough was given. And enough was a feast. In the evening quails came up and covered the camp. Quails! Every day! In a time when meat was a luxury only to be found on feast days, they had quails every. single. night. And in the morning, this fine flaky substance covered the ground, and they called it manna, which is the Hebrew word for “what is it?” But not because they didn’t recognize food when they saw it. Because they didn’t recognize enough when they saw it. But it was enough. Exactly enough. They would go out and collect it each day, an omer to a person (an omer was a unit of measurement, something like a bushel). And those who collected more still had an omer, and those who collected less still had an omer, and it was always exactly enough. And it was as good as a feast.

When I was on my internship at Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, there was a woman named Marge on my support committee and she and I got to be good friends. She had a wry sense of humor and liked to push at me theologically. We had a running joke between us, because she always said that by the time she got back to her seat after receiving communion, she felt like she needed to come back up for another round. She said if she could, she would just have a merry-go-round, coming back again and again, because she was always sinning again by the time she got back where she started. She wondered if she could take a supply home with her to sustain her through the week until she could come back again. And I know she was only half-kidding, because I know we all feel that to some extent. Because it’s hard to trust it, to trust that this forgiveness that we receive right here at the table is going to be enough, enough to overcome all the guilt and shame and pain and grief, that there is anything in the world that could make me feel like I am enough. It’s hard to trust, even when we have seen with our own eyes what God has done, even when we have met God in some dark moment in our lives, when we have encountered God in our own wilderness and been fed and sustained by God’s love, been nurtured by the people of God who have carried us through, even then it is hard to believe and to trust, because the memory fades and the landscape of scarcity comes back into focus and it is so persistent and so prevalent and so pervasive that it pretty much wins, and enough doesn’t feel like enough anymore and I don’t feel like enough anymore, and that is why God brings you back here today, back to this table, drawing you back again and again to the promises that you receive here. It is enough. Whether you come to this table weekly, or monthly, or yearly, or daily. It is enough. Whether you are the worker who shows up at sunup or lunch or an hour before quitting time, you are enough. God has brought you through the wilderness, is bringing you through the wilderness, and is creating you anew each and every day, with quails and manna and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and however you show up, whenever you show up, you are being given enough and you are being made to be enough. And enough is as good as a feast.