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1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
Psalm 138
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

Here’s a case of statistics telling us what we already suspected: Recent surveys and studies show that our trust in each other is eroding. Trust in the government has stayed below 30%, where it dropped after the 2008 financial crisis; trust in law enforcement dropped to 50% after the killings in 2014 and 2015 of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others; fewer than 20% of Americans trust big business; only 12% of people have ‘a lot of trust’ in the national media; and only 37% of Americans think we can trust each other. We do seem to agree on one thing: over 70% of Americans say social media has been divisive for our country, so it begs the question of why are we still using it. At any rate, if you’re feeling isolated, wary, exhausted, and alone as you survey the civic landscape, well, there’s reason for it. It’s draining to live in a world where you can’t trust others.

In the church lectionary, our cycle of scripture readings, we now settle into the long season of ‘ordinary time.’ This is the year in the cycle when we hear about the kings, about Saul and David and Solomon and so on. These stories are exciting, the kind they make into children’s books like the ‘Action Bible’ my kids used to like so much – battles and scheming and rebellions and intrigues. (They’re also the kind they don’t make into children’s books, as we’ll hear when we get to the story about Bathsheba.)

But before we get to the exciting stories we have to set the stage for them, which is what today’s reading from 1 Samuel does for us. The story is about leadership, and who will lead God’s people. The people of Israel began to form in Egypt, where they originally went as the family of Jacob – that’s the story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, who rises to power there and is able to save his family from famine when they come begging. But the new king, Pharaoh, enslaves their descendants so God calls Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. They cross the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership, and settle in the Promised Land of Canaan. Now they’re a small warrior tribe, with charismatic leaders called judges who arise from time to time when leadership is needed. Finally Samuel becomes their judge and leader. But in today’s reading the people tell Samuel they’re through with him and don’t want his leadership passing to his sons – who in fact are pretty disreputable characters. The Israelites are right not to trust them, but their solution is to make their own solution: they want to have a king so they can be like other nations.

Samuel doesn’t like this – no wonder, for he’s being ousted from power. God doesn’t like it either, but God tells Samuel, give them what they want. Just make sure you tell them what having a king entails – let them make this decision with eyes wide open. So Samuel does, and he lays it on thick. You want a king? This is what the king will do to you. He will take. He will take what is yours for himself. He will take your sons and take your daughters. He will take your crops. He will take your money. Remember Pharaoh in Egypt? That’s what a king is like. You will go back to being slaves instead of free, beloved children.

And the people say, ‘yeah, whatever, we know what we want – give it to us.’ So Samuel anoints Saul, and the king stories begin. They’re no longer a family, no longer a tribe – they’re a kingdom like other nations, with less freedom, heavy taxes, conscripted military, and a whole lot of flawed, despotic people ruling over them right down to the day Jesus comes on the scene as a new and different king.

God says to Samuel, the people aren’t rejecting you – they’re rejecting me. They don’t trust me to work this out for them. God has given over and over, yet it never seems to stick with the people. He tells Abraham & Sarah, I’ll make you the ancestors of a mighty nation, but Sarah laughs at him and Abraham tries to pursue other solutions with Hagar. He tells Jacob, I’ll be your God, and Jacob tricks his brother and plays games to gain his own advantage. He tells the Israelites, I’ll lead you to the Promised Land, and they grumble that they really liked it better in Egypt. So this behavior, demanding a king instead of God, is right in line with it all. God is the perpetually jilted lover, the rejected parent, with this people.

We might be tempted to apply this story to our own nation today, warnings against a despotic king at a time when we feel so much less secure in our democratic institutions. But this is not a story about the kind of government God prefers. It’s a story about community trust, or the lack of it. The whole identity of God with Israel is as one who delivers from slavery and sets us free – that’s the founding story of the Exodus, that’s the name Jesus is given, the name Yeshua, ‘God saves.’ But despite all the history of saving, freeing, feeding and healing, Samuel’s people still can’t seem to trust God. And we too struggle with that. We too have a habit of disregarding all that God has done for us, doubting what God has promised for us, trying to figure things out for ourselves even though we don’t really know what we’re doing. Every time things go south for us, we struggle anew with doubt. We want to set up our own kings rather than follow the one God – success, prestige, the elusive sense of control, or yes, political leaders.  And whatever or whoever that new king is, it never works out the way we hope. It’s more often like the king Samuel describes: a king who demands everything from you, and leaves you with nothing. We really can’t trust kings like that. And when we follow those kings, we wind up not trusting each other as well.

When God takes, it is only to give again – God takes, blesses, breaks apart and gives out again just as Jesus did with the feeding of the 5000, just as we experience every Sunday in the Eucharist. God gives himself up for us, makes sure we have enough, and more leftover besides. And we’re invited to gather around, to share with one another, to relish this abundance. That’s the difference in trusting God – in accepting the gifts God so wants to give us, we live into the abundance there is all around us.

Yet it feels risky to trust this – risky to trust that God will be with us as promised, that all things will work together for good, that God saves and delivers and heals. Risky to trust that others might be part of this family more than adversaries or competitors. And it’s true, things don’t always settle out the way we think they should; it doesn’t often work out according to our plan; it feels so much safer to believe in the false promises of corporations and government and consumer products, and to each go our own way as we do so. And yet we experience over and over how little all of those deserve our trust. And how isolated we are from one another as a result.

Countering all those terrible statistics I started with, numerous other studies show that participating in a faith community correlates to more happiness, better mental health, stronger marriages, more civic engagement, and overall higher levels of trust in leaders and other people. So part of being in church, you could say, is to counteract this tendency we have, of distrusting the good and true and putting our trust in what is only temporal and flimsy. We practice trusting here by again and again receiving God’s gifts – we practice here together every Sunday, when we receive the Eucharist, broken and offered to us. We live it out when we allow others in our community to help us, instead of insisting that we can go it alone. We try it by stepping forward into new roles in the community, willing to pitch in and help even when we’re afraid we’ll do it wrong. We let ourselves be vulnerable, in other words, and so give ourselves the opportunity to grow. We trust that God, through these people right here around us, is bringing about God’s realm of life and love – not someday, but here and now. Who are my mother and brothers and sisters, Jesus says in the gospel story – who are my family? The ones who live out God’s will – who trust enough to follow and be part of what God is about in the world. That’s not just a kingdom with a benevolent king; that’s a family,

In a distrustful world, we come here to learn to trust again. And so once again, we lay down our pretensions to control, we rest in God’s presence, we receive what God has for us today. And we go out from here to share this with the world. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, we come to trust that ‘God’s power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.’ (Eph 3:20) May we be part of God’s healing of trust and wholeness.

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