Jesus Wept John 11:35

“Now we want a king to be our leader,[a] just like all the other nations. Choose one for us!”

~ 1 Samuel 8:5

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pogo, 1971

“Jesus wept.” John 11:35

I was in the third grade, sitting in class on a normal November day, when shots were fired in Dallas and the world changed forever. I remember the schools being closed. At home, I watched as Ruby shot Oswald.

Five years later, it was Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. In Viet Nam, the Tet offensive galvanized public opposition to the war. The Democratic Convention joined a long list of other events that descended into chaos and riots. The Chicago Seven trial, the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers – and Nixon with his law and order rhetoric (while Agnew, his Veep, was forced to resign due to financial misconduct), all turned the decade from 1963 – 1972 into one of our nation’s most polarized times. Political and religious leaders were shot while pop culture heroes overdosed in droves – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Alan Wilson, and on and on. It seemed it all started in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Today, we are as divided as a nation as we were in those days. The recent spate of bombs delivered to prominent Democrats, the school shootings, the church shootings, the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pennsylvania, the continued attempts to reverse legal protection for LGBTQ citizens, the equating of immigrants and refugees with rapists and terrorists – it all seems too familiar. Perhaps the dead do not have the high profiles of 1960’s leaders, and we certainly do not have newspaper columns full of long lists of the dead and wounded in Viet Nam as I remember seeing in the Boston Globe as a kid, but the numbers still add up. There have been 152 mass shootings in America between 1967 and May of this year. Pennsylvania’s eleven dead are the latest, but not likely the last. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young singing of “four dead in Ohio” and finding the cost of freedom “buried in the ground” still sounds relevant to me. And the beat goes on.

Long ago, God’s people were not satisfied with their leadership. Although Samuel was a great judge, he was more respected than listened to later in his career. Going against God’s preferences, the people demanded a change. They wished to be like other nations, ruled by a king, according to 1 Samuel 8. Being chosen by God, a sort of national experiment, was not working for them. They did not want to be special. They wanted to be like everyone else. So they demanded that Samuel find someone to be their king and turn power over to him.

Our own national story, with the Pilgrim’s and Puritans setting out across a dangerous ocean to form colonies where they could be, in a word, “special” – a light to the nations, a “citie upon a hill” is in such contrast with what we have become that it seems hard to believe our ancestors could ever had held such lofty and noble dreams for us, their grandchildren several generations removed. It seems these days, we prefer to be like other nations, with their antipathy toward the free press, their anti-Semitism and racism, their xenophobic attitudes toward foreigners, their walls and their fears and their hatreds.

Didn’t we learn anything from our Pilgrim and Puritan predecessors? Or do we really, like the people of Samuel’s time, want to be like other nations and admire their leaders – Putin and Kim and Duterte, among so many others?

Samuel’s people wanted a strong leader – a king. Basically, according to 1 Samuel, God told them they’d regret it, but acquiesced to their desires. Eventually, the people of God had their rise and they had their fall. The church was born near the end of their time as a country. It was a very long time between the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple and Israel’s 1948 rebirth. The internal divisions between the Pharisees and Sadducees, the “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” types, division after division, left them little chance when it came time to fight off the Romans.

I liked the music of the 1960’s. I didn’t like the divisiveness, the belief that our fellow Americans were our enemies, or the sense that our country was tearing itself apart. As we head toward another Veterans’ Day and another Thanksgiving, I look around and wonder how much longer we will remember the ideals that founded our nation and led our people to fight for its values.

The Bible tells the story of God’s people. Sometimes, they were faithful. Often, they were not. Jesus wept over Jerusalem for a reason. Will he have to weep for us as well?

Rev. Rob