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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Getting What You Wish For: A Sermon

Here is my sermon for today.

Getting What You Wish For
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
July 5th, 2009

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. 3Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and 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. 8Just 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. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He 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; 12and 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. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And 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.’

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’

1 Samuel 8:1-22




The narratives in 1 and 2 Samuel are some of the most interesting reading in the Hebrew Scriptures. You will find there stories of wisdom, folly, deceit, and derring-do. They are the stories that tell of the movement of the people of Israel from a tribal confederacy to a monarchy.

This movement, while it seems inevitable, is at best ambiguous. Throughout the narratives in the Old and New Testaments we find an undercurrent of critique of the normalcy of civilization. The lesson to be learned from this passage from I Samuel is this:

Don’t ask from God what you can already get from Pharaoh.

The people want a king. They want to be like other nations. They want in these chilling and prophetic words, a king who “may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

In the narrative, the Lord takes offense at this request. It shows a lack of trust. This request for a king needs to be read in light of the central narrative of the Hebrew people, the deliverance from Pharaoh by the Lord’s hand. The narrative is clear as it can be. The Lord led them out of bondage, not Moses, not a military commander, not a king.

Why would they want a military commander, a king, to govern them? The answer is obvious. You can see a king. You can’t see the Lord. The Lord warns them as to what will happen if they get a king.

‘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.

With a king comes a standing army. A standing army doesn’t merely stand. It grows. Like a beast it eats.

It is a story of the price of protection. It is never cheap. It increases over time. After a while protection looks little different than slavery even as it is called freedom. Those who guarantee your protection come to resemble your masters.

George Orwell in his allegory, Animal Farm, tells the story of the Soviet Revolution in which the farm animals take over the farm. The pigs are the leaders of the revolution. It doesn’t take long before the pigs resemble the human masters and actually become worse.

Don’t ask from God what you can already get from Pharaoh.

In 1953 at the beginning of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower gave this speech, A Chance of Peace. This is a speech with some interesting parallels to the Lord’s warning to Samuel. He said:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace.

It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty.

It calls upon them to answer the questions that stirs the hearts of all sane men: is there no other way the world may live?

Eight years later, in 1961, the year of my birth, Dwight Eisenhower gave his last speech to the American people. In that speech he spoke of the change that had taken place in America from World War 2 to his present. The beast had grown in his eight years as president. He said:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

He went on to say:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Eisenhower saw, even as he was part of it, the price of protection. The price in misplaced power. The price of misused resources. The price of lives lost. The price always goes up, never down. The price has increased since 1961.

We don’t have a king in the United States. We do have a complex. The military industrial complex, which was Eisenhower’s phrase, is mammoth.

I suppose folks might think I am meddling. But Presbyterians have always been meddlers. With a half-smile I say I am just reading the Bible. Since it is the 4th of July weekend what better time?

Of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence, only one was a clergyperson. His name was John Witherspoon. He was a Presbyterian minister. The king of England disparaged the revolution in the colonies by calling it “that Presbyterian rebellion. The colonies,” he said, “Have run off with a Presbyterian parson.”

This congregation, the founding of which we date by best guess to 1782 had its roots with another Presbyterian clergyman, Samuel Doak, who mustered a militia at Fort Watauga for the march to King’s Mountain.

How times have changed between then and now. A muster of farmers and mountain people gathering with their muskets to fight for independence has become a military empire with bases in virtually every nation on Earth.

How we became that way is not unlike how the tribal confederacy in Samuel’s time became an empire under Solomon. It happened in about the same length of time that it took the United States to move from a collection of militias to a world superpower. They like us wanted a king. They wanted someone to “go out before us and fight our battles.”

I say these things on this day not to sound shrill or pious, but to ask, at what price? At what cost? Eisenhower said that the only way to keep this military industrial complex in check will be for the people to be aware. He said:

Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Most Americans don’t even know what is going on let alone evaluate options. While the American military is fighting two wars, the American people are at the mall. Most are afraid of uttering any criticism for fear of being labeled as unpatriotic. We think our prosperity depends upon not asking the hard questions. The protection for which we pay also provides the luxuries we enjoy.

I included this poem from Robinson Jeffers as a reading today because of this stanza:

And you, America, that passion made you. You were not born to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.

You did not say “en masse” you said “independence.” But we cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.

Bruce Springsteen put it more bluntly:

The TV, the cars, the houses, that’s not the American Dream. Those are the booby prizes, the consolation prizes for the not careful, for selling yourself, for believing this is the end in and for itself, for being suckered in.

Did we get what we wanted? Has the dream of the king reached the prophetic conclusion that we find in 1 Samuel?

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.’

Are we past the point of no return? Or is there still time for a new dream? Some have said that it is time not to celebrate Independence Day but Inter-dependence Day.

Maybe we don’t have as many enemies and threats to security as we think. Maybe we have neighbors with different languages, religions, cultures, and philosophies who are just as scared as we are. Perhaps it is time to move beyond protecting our interests to protecting a future for our descendants, all of our descendants, all over Earth.

I see signs of this new dream. It starts small. But there is a voice for lasting peace. There is a voice for sustainability. There is a voice for simplicity. It is small. You can barely hear it. But it is there. It is the sound of consciousness being raised. It is the sound of hard questions being asked. It is the sound of so-called inevitabilities being challenged.

It is the voice of those, some of whom are even Presbyterian, who are saying we can do better. We can end this nonsense, this madness. In all the profound religious stories and mythologies, the unexpected happens. The small boy defeats the giant. The word of the wise woman confounds the king. The starved prophet changes minds and hearts.

In the story in Samuel, the people of Israel made a mistake. They opted for security over freedom. They asked from God what they already could get from Pharaoh. Perhaps Americans made that same decision. But bad decisions do not last forever.

There is time to awaken and to start again.


We sang this hymn. Not quite as good as these folks, but we sang with full hearts:





This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
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