Joshua D. Warren
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20; (11:14-15)
Do you remember what life was like on the playground? Is it hard to imagine? Hear the swing with its rusty metal chains squealing in unison with squeals of laughter. Feel your heart race as you go down the giant slide – the one that comes so close to touching the sky. Smell fun’s sweat as you try to cross the monkey bars five times without getting off! I can remember my six year old cry to my mother, “Mom, mom, mom, can we please go to the playground? You promised.” That must have been the Promised Land they talked about at church. You are just playing, and you know that you could do this for the rest of your life. Forget lunch time, forget naps, the only thing that’s important right now is to play. That’s all that mattered.
I like to think a playground is a good comparison to the Promised Land. How long had the people of Israel been crying, “Can we please go? You promised.” There were no sweaty monkey bars, no rusty metal swings, and no giant slide, but there was the mouthwatering aroma of a good lamb that would be shared for a community sacrifice. There was the sweat of dancing and singing at festival, “Yahweh, Yahweh has triumphed gloriously! Yahweh, Yahweh has triumphed gloriously!” And there was the smile that broke, looking out and seeing a field full of fresh grapes. It was playful thing, life was, when the farmer and the earth played a game of tag. And a person knew that they would have everything they needed. Sure, there were still the stories of water and quail in the wilderness, but a person also knew that a neighbor could be counted on for help. That’s part of what it meant to be in the promised land, you were all in it together. The widow, the orphan, the farmer that came across tough times, we all knew that we were in this together.
It’d been a while since I had been on a playground, so I decided to go have a seat on one of the playground swings at the church. It’s rare that you get a glimpse of the playground, of the promise land. We’ve grown up, and the promised land turned out to be different than we thought it was going to be. We’ve grown up, and we barely remember what it’s like to play. Have we left our playfulness at the playground? Israel grew up, and they barely remembered the promise from God, “You are my people.” We grew up, and we forgot the promise.
We forgot the promise, but there are some things we never forget. Do you remember the terrors of the playground? We may have forgotten how to play, but we will never forget the dominion of the bully. We don’t forget because the bullies grow up with us. What was once playground extortion has become highway robbery. We feared the 5th grader, fighting back the tears when that 5th grader threw the playground ball over the fence. Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone take our toys? Why would anyone take pleasure in our pain?
I’m sure the Israelites had the same questions. They had bullies on their promised playground too. They name a few of them. Samuel’s sons, those bullies. They were nothing like Samuel, chances are that they were like Eli’s sons – taking bribes and stealing from God. There were other bullies though, that what the scripture tells us, when the Philistines and other nations try to fight with and steal from Israel. Pastor Walter Brueggemann, an expert here, tells us that the Israelites might have even had bullies in their midst – the kind that had accumulated a lot of wealth and were looking to protect it, the kind that had taken all the toys on the playground and wanted to keep it for themselves.
The terrors of the promised playground, those bullies, they are still here. The wealthy still come in and take from the poor. Big nations still go out to beat up on the smaller nations. Politicians are still taking bribes. Pastors are still exploiting their congregations. Families are still robbing from each other. Women are still being raped, and men are still calling it justified. These are the terrors from the book of Judges and of Samuel. These are the terrors of the promised land.
How can we respond to such terrors? Our scripture tells us that Israel knows a way! Become like everyone else, become like the bully – call it a kingdom. The terrors of the playground make us think that security requires domination.
We are shocked when we become the terror of the playground. We are shocked when we become the people that enslaves its own. We are shocked when we become a people that tells women and men that they can only play a certain role; when one race dominates the other; when one class monopolizes the other.
I’m sure Israel was shocked when their king became the playground bully, when their desire to be safe had enslaved so many more. “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” They must have thought Samuel was kidding when he said, “A king will take your sons for war, he will take your daughters for house labor, he will take what you produce, and you shall be his slaves.” Shocked to find that within three generations, Samuel’s very words would be true.
We are still shocked today when this happens. When we want to protect ourselves so much so that we go east and wage war. We want security, so we take from the poor so that our nation can be strong. Want safety, so we give roles to people: “You are this class.” “You are this gender.” “You are this race.” We are still shocked when we find ourselves trying to maintain our authority with those we work with: “I’m the boss. If you want to keep working here, then you’ll do what I say.” Pastors, politicians, retail workers, fast-food employees – we all fight for our authority and for our security. But it destroys—destroys marriages, destroys friendships, destroys communities, and destroys nations.
Samuel warns us about it, becoming the bully. And, what does God say? “It’s just as they’ve done to me from the day that I brought them up out of Egypt until this very day.” The people forgot where they came from. The people forgot the commitment that they had made to not become the bully. They forgot how they had even gotten to the promised land. I think we forgot too. We become the bully because we forget how we even got to the playground in the first place.
How did they get to the promised land? How did we get to the playground? There is no substitute for the Divine Parent. Israel must have forgotten that truth. There could be no substitute for divine power. They must have forgotten the manna, the protection from invading bullies, and the water in the desert. The must have forgotten that they had been bullied by Egypt. They must have forgotten the gift of the commandments. They must have forgotten that when you get into trouble on the playground, you don’t become the bully. You cry out to a loving mother to embrace you; you reach out for the hand of a father. Forget dominating kings, forget corrupted politicians, forget dirty pastors and priests—it is the affection of the Divine Parent that got them to the promised land in the first place. It’s the kindness of the Divine Parent that brought us to the playground for playfulness, not terror.
Samuel warns that there is no substitute for the Divine Parent. When the people ask Samuel for a king, he says, “But on that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you on that day.” My guess is that Samuel was really trying his hardest to warn the Israelites, because we know that his statement was not true. The people did cry out, and God did hear them. The Divine Parent does not enslave you, instead the Divine Parent returns time after time. Rejection after rejection and the divine parent is still there, waiting to pick up her child from a scraped knee, waiting to hold his child’s hand down the slide. We don’t have to become the bully. When we know that life on the playground exists because of divine action, we can actually play.
To play on the playground is to creatively worship in the world. Israel did get a king and our scripture today tells us that they sacrificed offerings and rejoiced greatly. What a brief moment of worship! Soon there would be kings that took their wives, sent their sons to war, enslaved their daughters, and starved the land. It wasn’t until later that they realized what a mistake they had made.
There is no substitute for the Divine parent. The Psalms tells a similar story first praising the king, but by the end of it they know that the king will fail. Psalm 145 begins a conclusion of praises, “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised…” So we will play, and we reject any dominating voices. We will play because it is worship to the God that has brought us to this beautiful playground that we call earth. And our worship will be creative, from climbing across monkey bars to building communities. Some will use their minds to build new toys, toys that fight against the suffering of starvation. Some will us their hearts to share, and they will share beauty and art with the world. Sharing, building, playing – it is all a worshipful claim that we don’t need a bully. Imagine what their worship would have been like if the people had continued to praise our Lord, who is both mother and father to us all, rather than rejoice over their bully king. Imagine what our worship would be like if we listen to Samuel. Our earthly playground would sing with the final Psalm, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” Because there is no substitute for the Divine Parent.