What is this thing we call "Covenant"?

I remember landing at Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan very early – maybe 2 a.m. – some December morning in 2011.  The base was very dark to prevent night-time mortar attacks.  As we navigated the small Forward Operating Base to get to our temporary barracks, I remember hearing a very loud, high-pitched hum coming from the flight line.  It sounded unlike anything I’d heard during my previous almost six years in the Air Force Reserve – like a very loud swarm of bees.  When I woke the next morning, I discovered the source of this mechanized buzz.“So this is what a drone looks like,” I thought to myself, reflecting back on the headlines from earlier that year, which warned of the proliferation of drone strikes under President Obama. 

I start by sharing this story because I want everyone to pan out with me from this current moment and take into account the collective historical memory of this country.  One that spans beyond 280 characters and weekly news cycles and, instead, chooses to remember that America has always put America first to secure America’s interests.  We could reach as far back as the genocide and displacement of this continent’s Native population or so-called “Manifest Destiny,” but there are also plenty of examples from within the last few decades: approving Unocal’s proposed Trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline during the 1990s despite the brutal reign of the Taliban, shooting water cannons and rubber bullets at the Lakota protestors trying to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock Indian Reservation, or in recalling the pained words of an Iraqi translator during a 2010 This American Life episode, “The American forces use us [Iraqis] like a tissue.”  Whichever way the wind blew that supported American interests, that was the group we propagated.  We have cycled through using the Sunnis, Shittes, and Kurds so many times in the last 45 years that it is no wonder Saddam Hussein was surprised when the United States decided his time was up.  “This is America.  (Don’t catch you slipping up.)”  This is what we do.  This country has always gotten what it wants…at whatever cost.

Yes, we are living in a frightening moment for this country and for the world.  I do not want to diminish the terror of the now.   But I can also imagine that when we, as progressive Christians, read this passage in First Samuel, we might be tempted to reach for the low-hanging fruit and apply Samuel’s warning to the political situation in our country today. “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights,” Samuel warns.  “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”  We must keep in mind the pitfalls of a shortsighted analysis and recognize that these are the same concerns that we voice about more conservative theologies applying what they view as “the inerrant Word of God” to fit their political agendas…about cake, bathrooms, or seeing scriptures about David pointing to Donald Trump as “God’s anointed.”

If we are to stay consistent and authentic to the way that we, Broadway United Church of Christ, approach scripture as an exercise of Revelation, then we must be circumspect when passages like 1 Samuel 8 come before us.   We must strive to acknowledge that the different books of the Bible were composed at a specific point in history to speak to that time and those circumstances, and by looking at that perspective, we can draw out what wisdom or insight God might be inviting us to witness today.

So Broadway, I call us to look and see where this passage falls in the midst of the whole story of the Hebrew Bible.  Then we realize that while First Samuel 8 is indeed a decisive moment of learning, growth, and political change for the Israelites, this passage is part of a much larger history about the Covenant held between God’s people and God.  Scholars include the books of Samuel as part of what is known as the Deuteronomistic History, which spans from Joshua and Judges, through Samuel, and then to both books of Kings.  This is the “History of Israel” from the time that the Hebrews enter the Promised Land until Israel falls to the Babylonians.  This history marks the attempts of God’s people and God to be in relationship with each other, according to the Covenant outlined in the Book of Deuteronomy.  This Covenant signaled that the relationship between God and God’s people was a different way of being and doing in the world.  God’s expectations for God’s people centered around love, respect, and right relationship, and the stories within these books of the Hebrew Bible outline the striving and falling short of God’s people (and God) while navigating this Covenant together. 

Today’s scripture passage marks a transition when the Israelites begin to feel overwhelmed by the chaotic instability of Judgeship.  The brief periods of security and trusting God’s protection under Judges like Deborah, Gideon, or Samson are overpowered by their fears of conquest and subjugation under the Philistines.  So they ask Samuel, the last and final Judge, for a King “to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”  When Samuel tells God of his disapproval of the Israelite elders, God reminds Samuel that the people are not rejecting him.  They are rejecting God.  Their fears and corresponding desire for security were leading them away from faithfulness to their Covenant with God, a Covenant that called them explicitly to be unlike other nations.  They were rejecting their trust that God loves them.  Or, maybe in that moment, God’s love for them wasn’t enough.  They needed a human, a tangible reminder of their safety and security, and that reminder was a King. 

When we take a step back from this story and look at it within the context of this covenantal relationship between God and Israel, we see how remarkable this moment is – God listens to God’s people, even while knowing that meeting the Israelites where they are in their moment of need might not be in Israelites’s long-term interest.  God does not push God’s expectations onto the Israelites; God readjusts.  What makes this Covenant so special is that while God wants the people to flourish, God is willing to live with Israel’s demand for a king for the sake of the covenantal relationship God has with Israel.  God’s power reveals itself differently within this Covenant by responding, yielding, and empowering God’s people.  The power of God lies within this Covenant…in the active, changing relationship that the Israelites share with God.

As I read this scripture, I am reminded that we too are in Covenantal relationships: with God, with each other as members of Broadway UCC, and with every fellow being that is a part of God’s Creation.  This Covenant relationship is radical – it invites us to continue reevaluating how we live with each other in ways that engenders God’s love, mercy, and justice in the world around us.  This Covenant asks us to love the Lord God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  When we trust that God is calling us to love God’s Creation, we realize how this Covenant impacts where we direct our love, focus, and energy and in whom we put our trust.  God is calling for us to put our trust in God because this Covenant is mutual.  God is always reaching out and readjusting to be with us…to meet us where we are. 

This Covenant asks us – if we are a Just Peace church, then what does it mean to seek justice with fellow humans in this world around us?  How do we honestly and authentically take a stand against American imperialism, racism, heterosexism, sexism, and ableism in a way that is accountable to the troubling reality that structural violence was a founding principle upon which this country was built?  How can we disrupt the stagnant “wait and see” order of the ephemeral kingdoms of this world right now and reach for the full radicalness of Covenant within how we seek justice?  If God is on the side of the people, then that is where we are called to be as well. 

And let’s be real.  Keeping Covenant is difficult because being in faithful relationship is really hard.  We only need to think as far as a relationship that we have with an old friend, partner, or maybe a sibling.  We each evolve as people as we learn, fail, grow, and succeed, and we readjust to meet these changes.  And yet, we continue to enter into these relationships with our palms up in a gesture of openness because God created us to be in relationship with each other.  As humans, we will fall short in our relationships with ourselves, our communities…and with God.  But we have to keep striving to be all of who we are called to be within this Covenant.  We must keep fighting for and as a part of God’s people. 

This passage ends with Samuel anointing Saul to be king.  As Samuel warns, complicated years unfold for the Israelites.  But if there is Good News here, it is that God does answer the Israelites: both then and throughout their history together.  God has continued to answer God’s people and to enter into history.  At lunch counters and sit-ins.  Alongside the Palestinians on the Gaza border.  And within every tiny baby grasped by parents as they flee the violence of their homes…in Yemen, in Myanmar, or in Roman-occupied Palestine.  God loves us.  God is always faithful to this Covenant.  God is always faithful to us, even when we forsake God…even when we forsake each other.  God never gives up on us.  May we not give up on ourselves.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.