Out of the Depths — 6 August 2023

Pastor Adrianne Meier
6 August 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana 

Out of the Depths

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1 Samuel 15:1-3, 8-19, 24-26, 34-35

Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

He took King Agag of the Amalekites alive but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatted calves, and the lambs, and all that was valuable and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.

The word of the Lord came to Samuel:“I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not carried out my commands.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all night. Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul, and Samuel was told, “Saul went to Carmel, where he set up a monument for himself, and on returning he passed on down to Gilgal.” 

When Samuel came to Saul, Saul said to him, “May you be blessed by the Lord; I have carried out the command of the Lord.” But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears and the lowing of cattle that I hear?” Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and the cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but the rest we have utterly destroyed.” Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” He replied, “Speak.”

Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”

Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”  

Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that God had made Saul king over Israel.

And now things begin to crumble. I cannot sit long with my own memories of the moments when everything was reduced to rubble and dust around me: the fight with my once best friend, the horrid confrontation with a coach, the days grief tore through me in unimaginable ways, the times I knew I would be called upon to say something in the face of a great nothingness— about the violence and hatred humanity wrecks upon itself. I cannot sit here long in recall before the chill sets in, the light dims, boulders rumble into place in my gut, my body dehydrates in preparation for the tears that wait to be shed. I cannot sit here long, even in retrospect, because when I see myself in those moments, I see myself taken apart, like a stone wall, piece by piece. And not a stone is left upon another. Perhaps you know this, too. Somethings are best left alone. And yet, I know, in retrospect—and only in this way— that this dismantling, the undoing of what I thought was me, the unfolding of my ego, was also an opening, it created a door to something more real than I could imagine. We want to hold these moments and trust that they will relinquish blessing, that they are preparation for some untold and, ultimately, better version of our individual selves. And sometimes that is true, but sometimes… there are the moments from which we cannot save ourselves, only when we relinquish hold of them can we glimpse the salvation that comes from God alone. 

Reading today’s story from the Hebrew Scriptures leaves us at the depths of human experience. How, in the wake of genocide, the rejection of a whole people, Saul himself, is rejected. And these rejections are difficult to reconcile, let alone redeem. When I read this story, my mind almost instantly substitutes for Amalakites “Jews of Europe” or “Native people on the Trail of Tears” or “Tsuti” or “Darfuri” or “Kurd” or “Rohingya” or countless other genocides from modern history. And then, I struggle to go on. How can God order this? Some have noted that when the Bible has God ordering the destruction of a people, they often have the details wrong: that people was never defeated—not like that; or that place was not populated by humans at that point in history. But I’m not sure that translating the story within history redeems it. The fact of the matter is that, in the name of one religion or another, humans have all too frequently decimated one another. God orders the Amalekites cursed—put under the ban—the language is strong: everyone is to be killed, every creature slaughtered, all the crops destroyed, and then—as if that wasn’t enough—the land should be salted so nothing could grow for generations. How can the God of love permit this? The land? Which God called God? The people, created in God’s own image?

And then, somehow, Saul is unable to follow the directions clearly, and Samuel…The question rise quickly: is this God’s word or Samuel’s? Did Saul miss some part of the direction? Did he fear the waste, with so many mouths to feed in Israel? Was his response excuse or lie? Was he supposed to be like Abraham, and wait for God to still his knife-hand and reveal God’s self as the one that spares us from eternal damnation? All week I have wanted to ignore the genocide, but I cannot ignore the layers of rejection, the interconnectedness of the stories, and my own desire that they end with some neat moral that infuses all this needless death and trauma with some kind of meaning.

That is what we really want religion to be: we want it to be the magic by which tragedy makes sense. That we see the better things God had in store for us, the reason for which everything happens, the window opening because this door has closed. We want to know that everything will be okay in the end. Because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we believe that that eventual okay-ness will redeem this. Into every life a little rain must fall, but, oh the flowers that sprout up! Alright. And, in truth, many things that happen to us do become windows to new reality. In time, tragedy blossoms to blessing. And this is a beautiful gift, but it is not a complete view of faith. The philosopher Ken Wilber calls this the translation function of religion. 

But there is another function, one Wilber calls transformation. This transformation beings when our very selves are dismantled. We labor in this world under the assumption that we can save ourselves, that we can make meaning of our own lives, that we are the authors of our own redemption. And salvation and meaning and redemption are thin veils for concepts that imply our own betterment over others. In just a few chapters, Saul goes from God’s selection to God’s rejection because he continually tried to better himself in the eyes of others. Everything he does seems perfectly reasonable to us, and yet not a bit of it is faith.

James Fowler, who outlined the growth in faith in the ways of Erik Erikson and Carl Jung, noted that at some point in time in our adult lives, we taste the “sacrament of defeat.” And the stage of faith that opens to us at this point is one of undoing, letting go of what once seemed so certain, opening one’s life to strangers and strange ideas. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “… people at this stage are ready to spend and to be spent, emptying their pockets in one last-ditch effort to make meaning.” Faith is submitting to the grave. It is being vanquished. It is yielding to the idea that our goals and aims and ambitions may be ultimately meaningless. And we do all this with only a thin hope in our hearts that God will raise us. That God alone will be victorious. That the true meaning and value in our lives is found in God alone.

I read this story over and over again this week, Beloved, and I thought about you, and us human beings, and the things we cannot bear to mention, but want to speak about all the time. The things we wish someone would ask about, but secretly dread talking about. I thought about our silent griefs, our unspeakable traumas, our hidden guilt and shame. I ached. We walk around wounded but assuming that we are responsible for either the pain we’re in or the path out of it, but nothing could be further from the truth. I cannot explain the depths of human suffering. I cannot name the countless causes—be they divine or human. I cannot even name the redemption we wait for, but I can only name that in that place is the depth of faith. Faith which trusts that even in the darkness–even in the depths, even in the pain­–God is there and indeed is working to redeem it in ways we cannot name or know, but in which we are compelled to hope.