Sunday, June 10, 2012

Proper 5

1 Samuel 8
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.’

It began life as a French song, then a Canadian added new lyrics.
Some argue it is the most covered song in recording history.
Sid Vicious did the most famous cover in 1978.
The song tells the story of an old man looking back on his life.
The singer who made the song his trademark didn’t actually like it, labeling it “self-serving and indulgent.”
Popular at funerals, at one Bishop in the UK has decreed that the song not be played.
The lyricist, Paul Anka, wrote the song specifically for Frank.

The song, of course, is “My Way,” and according to Paul Anka, he wrote it in the voice of Frank Sinatra, or at least the way Frank might express himself at the end of his life. It seems the various members of the “Rat Pack” enjoyed the company of the Las Vegas mob guys, and would frequently imitate their way of speaking. The rest, they say, is history.

And despite Frank’s feeling that the song sounds ‘self-serving and indulgent,’ it does seem to effectively express the conflict that comes when we deal with regret. To be human, and to spend some time on planet earth, means you have regrets.

Unless you don’t. In year’s past there was a lively debate in the psychology community about the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. By the time DSM-IV was published they set aside the debate and opted instead to use the label ‘antisocial personality disorder.’ And one of the common elements of this disorder, an element that allowed them to see them as one, was an alarming lack of regret.

So setting aside that some have a disorder, people tend to feel regret. Some may feel too much regret, and the same diagnostic people included that in the DSM and called it ‘borderline personality disorder.’ But setting aside too little and too much, we are left with garden variety regret. And it comes in all sorts of forms, not just old singers looking back.

Maybe the most common, and certainly one that plagues our modern world, is a version of regret called ‘buyer’s remorse.’ It is kind of fascinating, really, since most of us experience it and yet seem powerless to stop it. If you are one of the few who don’t understand what I’m talking about, it is that sense of regret that follows the euphoria of buying something new.

Questions like ‘should I have waited for next year’s model?’ or ‘is this the right one for me?’ or ‘did I pay too much?’ quickly erode that sense of excitement and newness we once felt. And it doesn’t stop at the check-out counter either, it includes an array of decisions we make then later rethink. It even happens in the Bible.

The passage Joyce read describes one of those turning-points, a moment in time that will alter Israelite history and redefine who they are. In short, they want a king. They are tired of being unlike all the other nations around, tired of being led by judges rather than kingly rulers, and they begin to press their demand. Samuel hears their plea, offers a timely warning, and resigns himself to their desire.

You will recall that all this began with Jethro. I’m not blaming Jethro, but the story does begin with Jethro, so I’ll tell it, though I should confess I just like saying the name Jethro. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, come to visit and sees the strain that Moses is under. From morning to night he is settling disputes in the camp, answering questions and generally wearing himself out. And his wise father-in-law, Jethro, hits upon an idea. ‘Appoint a few wise people to sit as judges in your place, the answer the simple questions. You can instruct them, and you can still take on the truly difficult questions when they arise.’

Easy-peasy. Moses goes from being the only judge among countless troublesome people to being a sort of supreme court judge, waiting for the big questions and never sweating the small stuff. Jethro may even say that: “Hey Moses, don’t sweat the small stuff.” You’ll just have to read Exodus to see for yourself.

So judges are appointed, and it seems that for a few years, at least, they do a good job. The Israelites move into the Promised Land, they fight with their neighbours, they fight among themselves, and all the while the judges are standing by. And they seem to be jack-of-all-trade kind of characters. Some are like generals, some prophets, some are actually judging. In many ways, they are like anyone we might imagine as a tribal leader. Everyday brought a new challenge, or the same old challenges, and the judges did their thing.

Until they didn’t, and then we arrive at Samuel, or rather, Samuel’s sons. It seems that wisdom and integrity that the people valued in a judge ended with Samuel. His sons were quite the opposite, and the fact that they are mentioned as the root of this problem seems to be the problem itself. You see, the office is no longer given based on having sound judgment, but has become hereditary. And wisdom, unlike colourblindness, isn’t always passed on.

So the sons and daughters of judges don’t necessarily make good judges, and the people have had enough. They don’t want a collection of tribal leaders any longer, they want a king. They want a king in the same manner that the other nations have kings, someone to lead the people in battle, someone to represent all the people. And Samuel said, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

Well first, Samuel confers with God, being a good judge and prophet, and God says, ‘Go ahead, give them what they want. Warn then, but give them what they want. They rejected me, there at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, and now they reject you.’

So Samuel gives them a solemn warning, which I won’t read again, but remains one of the most concise and insightful summaries of human government ever written. It describes the eternal conflict between the desire to be governed and the price people pay for that right. And it is just as accurate today as the day it was first spoken aloud.

Samuel, inspired by God, describes conscription, the cost of war, military hierarchy, the military-industrial complex and the attendant supply chain, domestic servitude, expropriation, taxation, serfdom and state-sanctioned slavery. In one paragraph Samuel describes the scope of governance and a catalog of abused that follow when people trade relative autonomy for authoritarian leadership. Notice I didn’t say monarchy, since this is happy-thought monarchy week, but it wasn’t always so. Life under Louis XIV and life under the ancient near eastern kings looked exactly the same.

Now, it shouldn’t come as a surprize to you that much of the Bible was written after the fact. The words of Samuel were written down long after he spoke them, and whenever that happens, stuff gets added. Maybe added is not the right word, and my resident Hebrew scholar no doubt knows the right word, but I think you get my point.

Rather than ‘added’ we might say clarified. And the driving force behind that clarification is regret. Only someone who had lived the full extent of the oppression described could write these words. Inspired by God, of course, but more inspired by God to truly see the limitations of human government, not inspired to somehow peer into the future. In other word, what we read is lived experience, and the experience of kingship is far from good.

If you ever saw the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” you will know a thing or two about Game Theory. The movie tells the story of John Nash and his lifelong struggle with mental illness: from his student days until he receives the Nobel Prize in Economics. Related to Game Theory is another discipline called Decision Theory, and within Decision Theory we meet something called ‘opportunity loss.’ Laypeople, those of us without a Nobel Prize, call it regret.

But the thing about advanced theories is they can often clarify even the simplest things. Regret is something we all experience, but at it’s heart it is opportunity loss. And opportunity loss seems to take regret out of its emotional and seemingly final form and frames it differently. There are, of course, formulas that mathematicians developed around this idea of managing opportunity loss and we can try to understand them, but it might not work out. Better to take the new perspective that this idea brings and run with it. That’s what preachers do.

And I think this is what Samuel was doing too. He was taking what seemed like a sad and rather vexing “I told you so” story and actually constructing a warning. He was describing a moment in time when the Israelites seem to make a foolish choice but he was also constructing a critique of government that people have been pointing to ever since. Samuel may have been facing an immediate crisis of transition, but he was also giving the gift of insight, an insight that has served anyone who has stood against state-sponsored oppression.

So the time of judges and prophets continue, not because the office remains, but because the ideas remain. May we, on the 82nd anniversary of the United Church, continue to be the church that offers caution to power. May we always speak for the voiceless and stand with those who need God’s help. Amen.


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