Divided Loyalties

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, June 6, 2021
1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

    “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand,” Jesus says today.  I know I said I would be focusing our attention on our first reading from 1 Samuel in these next weeks, but these difficult words to understand from Jesus in the gospel this morning echo the point of what God is telling the people of Israel in the first reading.  In both the gospel and in 1 Samuel, God warns us about divided loyalties.  Division has been heavy on our hearts and minds for many of us for a while now.  Red states get redder and blue states get bluer, leaving out residents in those states who may have a differing political opinion.  A recent survey found that a majority of parents care more about what political party their future daughter or son-in-law affiliates with than what religion he or she subscribes to.  Another survey suggests that people only want to attend churches that reflect their personal political opinions.  And certainly, while how we feel about our current or former president, governor, mask rules, and vaccines have divided us, many of us also know the pain of a household -- a family – divided because of personal hurts, words of love and forgiveness that have never been shared to heal, grudges that hang on, and so on, beyond divisive politics.
    It is telling that more and more people place political ideology and opinion above family relationships and even above faith relationships these days.  It is a dangerous thing to believe that our American political party system comes right out of the mouth of God, because if you hang around non-American Christians for any length of time or read much of the Bible, you pretty quickly see loyalty to God is more important than to any political party.  And I wonder, when we draw lines in the sand of what we can tolerate in relationships and what is non-negotiable, where our loyalty to God is in guiding those often emotional decisions, and how our Christian values might inform a different way of living in a divided world. So,  while our scripture readings today at first might seem detached from our current reality (not many people seem to be arguing for a restoration monarchical rule these days), the message that Christ unites us when nothing else can is an extremely relevant message for us today.
With our own American revolutionary history, we can easily identify with the point of view of Samuel and God when we hear in our first reading of how Israel got their first king.  Quite obviously to us from our own historical tension with monarchies, we think, “Why would anyone ever prefer a king to a loose confederation of tribes governed by local judges, priests, and prophets?”  I mean, don’t these Israelites remember their bad history with the Pharaoh in Egypt? That did not go well for them.  What are they thinking?  The people of Israel in their arguments to Samuel kind of sound like a teenager who says, “Come on, Dad, everyone else is doing it!  We want a king, too!”  Monarchy is the trendy thing.  And to be fair, the Israelites are right to be concerned about Samuel’s wicked sons having too much power.  Powerful monarchies with large armies are threatening them from all directions.  Maybe it would be best to consolidate under a capable leader, anointed by God, to rule the people, strengthen their military might and thereby protect their way of life.  You can kind of see their point as you read through the books of Samuel.
    Yet, God warns the people through Samuel that while God will give them the king they want, they have rejected the Lord as king.  Any human king will abuse his power with greed and selfish gain, Samuel warns the Israelites.  And what is most concerning to Samuel and to God, is that the people will place their trust in these imperfect human powers above God’s ultimate power to save.  God’s rule is perfect and benevolent, never self-serving.  God considers the welfare of all people, including the least of these, not just handing out favors to his cronies and friends for their political loyalty.  God’s strength is enough to protect and provide for the people even when other countries and kingdoms threaten.  The people of Israel have faltered in this basic trust in God.  Their loyalties are now divided, between God and the human institution of monarchy.  And if you read on in 1 Samuel, you will recall that while King Saul starts out pretty well as king, insanity leads him to make some pretty bad, selfish decisions.  Things do not turn out too well for Saul or for Israel in the end.
    In our gospel this morning, those who are in power are already attacking Jesus in the third chapter of Mark to try to lessen his political power.  “He has gone out of his mind!”  “He’s demonic!”  The politicians are getting nervous because the crowds following him are getting larger – he is popular with the people!  They are really only worried about Jesus harming their own political popularity, so they try to create division by attacking his character.  Sounds familiar.  But people are following Jesus not because he is espousing the politically popular thing to say of the day, but rather because he is meeting people’s basic needs – healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, casting out demons and feeding the hungry.  Beyond that, Jesus is sharing the good news of God and describing in his parables a different kind of kingdom, the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is eternal and will endure when earthly kingdoms and governments fail.
    It is important to know that the root of the word for “demon” and “devil” in the Greek both have to do with division.  The devil throws people apart.  Demons divide.  Jesus, on the other hand, brings people together.  Earthly governments and rulers operate based on what is politically profitable, what will get the most votes and secure power for their ideology to win out.  God as king brings all kinds of different people together to care for those who are hurting, to heal the sick, and promise a fulfilling life on earth while also offering a life eternal.  In these hyper-divisive times is enough for us to know that Jesus is our King, Lord, and Savior above all else.  In the kingdom of God, no vaccine passport or citizenship papers are required.  There is no right political party box to check.  God’s simple question to us is, “Do you trust me?”  Jesus promises that those who seek to do God’s will are his mother and brothers.  It is our faith in Christ that brings us together.  And especially in divisive times where it may seem a whole lot easier to find issues on which we disagree than opinions in which we agree, we remember that Satan divides, but Christ unites, and Christ, not Satan, is the one with ultimate power and control.  Amen.