Second Sunday after Pentecost
Even those sympathetic to the cause of the young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were a bit shocked by the brazenness of the young organizer. President Johnson, the same president who would later sign the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts into law, asked King to tone down the spectacle a bit—there were, after all, elections to be won and constituencies to satisfy.
As the Civil Rights movement began to gain strength through the tactics of non-violent resistance, the establishment grew increasingly uncomfortable. White pastors across the South, in an attempt to keep the peace, appealed to King to be patient. Those with less sympathy to the cause of Civil Rights were quick to vilify and attack the calling and character of the preacher-King.
The great irony of all this was that it was taking place in the South, in the midst of one of America’s most deeply religious landscapes. In a time and place where you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t say ‘God is our King,’ or ‘Jesus is our Lord,’ the man whose life so clearly sought to resemble that Lord and King was vilified and ultimately silenced.
And so goes the story that is as old as time itself… We humans reject the God who offers us nothing less than the joy and peace of abundant life in favor of the gods who satisfy our basest cravings and reinforce our way of seeing and being in the world. In his book, For All God’s Worth, the theologian NT Wright writes, “left to myself, the god I want is a god who will give me what I want. He—or more likely it—will be a projection of my desires. At the grosser level, this will lead me to one of the more obvious pagan gods or goddesses, who offer their devotees money or sex or power (as Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche pointed out). All idols start out life as the god somebody wanted” (21).
Just a few days ago we gathered in my congregation and celebrated Trinity Sunday. This often-missed Sunday marks the transition from the Easter-Pentecost season into the long season of Ordinary Time, or Kingdomtide. Trinity Sunday, says Wright, “is the day that we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word ‘god’ might actually mean….We celebrate the God whom we didn’t want—how could we have ever dreamed of it?—but who, amazingly, wanted us” (21).
This week, then, we begin the long summer journey of unpacking all of the ways in which we do encounter and follow this God who wants us. It seems fitting to start that journey with these two stories from 1 Samuel and Mark so that we might become aware up front of some of the possible ways that we will (with all good intentions) try to reject, vilify, and silence the God who is.
We reject God when we forget the distinctiveness of our identity as people whom God has planted in this world to reveal God and God’s ways to the nations and instead try to “be like all the other nations” (1 Sam 8:20). When the power of the Spirit blows in unexpected and strange ways and incorporates, dignifies, and heals those we thought should remain outside, we find all sorts of ways to continue to justify their exclusion. We will likely attempt to vilify and silence the ones who point us towards the Kingdom (Mark 3:20-22). We will cling to what we know and attempt to preserve the status quo.
These two stories prove that Wright is right on cue when he remarks that the god we really want is a god who can be our puppet. “Nobody falls on their face before the god they wanted,” he writes. “Nobody trembles at the word of a homemade god. Nobody goes out with fire in their belly to clothe the naked, to heal the sick, to teach the ignorant, or to feed the hungry because of the god they wanted. They are more likely to stay at home with their feet up” (22).
If we are going to follow this God and do God’s will as Jesus’ brothers, sister, and mother, it seems to be an important first step on this journey to name out loud some of the contemporary ways in which we are tempted to dismiss, shut-down, and ignore the God who is in favor of the gods we want. These two lessons remind us that our rejection is oftentimes more subtle than we might have imagined. Both young Israel and the religious establishment of Jesus’ day prove that we often reject God while still doing all of the “right things”.
What we see in these two texts is that God will never force our acceptance or our service. God allows us to choose the gods we want and will not prevent us from experiencing the consequences of serving those gods. But that same God is the one who refuses to stop wanting us. He is the God who continues to offer us his very self.
And so we are alerted early on in this journey through Kingdomtide to keep our eyes and ears open as we walk through the events of Jesus’ life, for we just might find that the stories that follow this day will serve as a “sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, ‘You did not choose me; I chose you’” (22).
Thanks be to God for the love that continues to seek and save us despite our rejection.
Citations from N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church, WB Eerdmans, 1997.