Follow the Leader


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

January 19, 2020


Texts: 1 Samuel 8:1-22; John 1:43-51

       Remember the old children’s game “Follow the Leader?” One child is chosen as the head of the line and whatever that child chooses to do, everyone in the line repeats. If a child does not “follow the leader,” then the child is “out” and sits on the sidelines. When only one child remains, that child becomes the new leader and the game starts all over again. 

       Usually the leader does silly things like scratching the head or waving arms; sometimes if the leader is more creative, then the activities can become more complex. There are never instructions given; you just need to look at the leader and do whatever the leader does. And you must do it without thinking. 

       In many ways living under an ancient monarch was a bit like following the leader. You did what was expected and never questioned. In our reading from Samuel this morning, the prophet warns what will happen if he accedes to the demands of the elders to give them a king. 

       Samuel who has now been a judge for many years is told, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways.” Samuel had the same problem with his sons that old Eli had, disobedient to the Lord. “Appoint for us a king to govern us like other nations.” The world was changing and Samuel was not happy. 

       The response of the Lord in the text is interesting: in their desire the people have rejected the Lord as the one true king. And Samuel is directed to warn the people about kings and earthly rulers and what they will do. First will be the demands placed on the sons: they will have to run before the king’s chariots, make weapons of war and plow the ground for the king.

        The daughters will become cooks and bakers and perfumers. Lands will be seized and given to courtiers; the best of what the people have, livestock and slaves, to support the king in his lifestyle. Apart from the fact that the type of items are dated, it really doesn’t sound too far from where we are now.

       Now obviously as a society grows and develops it needs to have a system or, if you will, a structure of governance that fits the society. The development of kingship for the people in that time was not only a desire to be “like other nations,” as the text says but it was also a realistic understanding of the new world inhabited by this group of once wandering tribes that now had settled.

       Governmental structures are like that. When the founders created our nation through the Constitution they had the foresight to understand that no nation is static. What I mean by that is they created a system of amending the Constitution to fit the changes they themselves could not foresee. Apart from the Bill of Rights included with the original document to meet the demands of those who feared too much government power, the other Amendments were added to fit the times.

       This is not meant to be a history lecture, but a reminder that as times change, we should not simply respond to the demands of those in power. Samuel’s warning to the people can be found in the adage of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That 1887 letter to Bishop Creighton was a response to the Bishop’s statement that monarchs should be judged differently from others. 

       “Progress in ethics,” Acton wrote, “means a constant turning of white into black and burning what one has adored.” Indeed, as we consider how we have progressed ethically, morally, spiritually, we should ask ourselves whether we have progressed. Because, as Acton continued, “There is little of that between St. John and the Victorian era.” 

       Yes, just over fifty-five years ago, many of us celebrated the passage of the Voting Rights Act, now gutted by a retrograde Supreme Court. Almost forty years ago many of us celebrated the elimination of restrictions on a woman’s right to control her own body and future, now under attack by those who want women back under the thumb of men when women had no independence.

       This weekend commemorates a man who did not just follow the leader. He pushed us, the people engaged in civil rights and anti-war activities to do more than simply follow a leader. There were those who did not just follow the leader and some paid with their lives. We have not been put to that test. 

        As we all know, it’s much too easy to fall into the “my country right or wrong” mentality. This toast from Stephen Decatur, possibly the most daring and famous naval hero of the age, was amended by Carl Schurz, the German revolutionary who fled to America after the failed revolution of 1848 and who became of the best generals in the Union Army, to read, “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right, and if wrong to be set right.” 

       The mentality of following the leader without question does not just apply to misguided patriotism. It also applies in other areas as well such as our social and religious lives. For instance when we are in a group or organization we often want to have cohesiveness and agreement rather than acrimony. 

       Think about your family or close friends. There are times when we just go along with some suggested behavior to maintain harmony even though we don’t particularly care to do so. Usually it’s pretty harmless. But then there are times when we’re asked to do something that either we don’t want to do or feel we just simply cannot do. Sometimes it’s just having to stay quiet when we hear someone say something offensive or just downright xenophobic or racist.

       On those so-called summer “vacations” in Alabama my mother would tell me to keep my opinion to myself. By the time I was 14 or so, she was well aware that I was in favor of desegregation, as it was known then. I had argued about this issue with my parents at home in Maryland. But my mother wanted me to shut up.

       Well, as you can imagine, that’s one thing I am not very good at––keeping my opinions to myself. And by then I no longer believed that old Bible story about Ham being cursed and being the origin of black races. At that time, of course, the Leakeys had not discovered Lucy at Olduvai Gorge. Much to my mother’s dismay I did not stay quiet. I think in my heart of hearts that I was hoping my mother would never make me go back there. And for other reasons she didn’t.

       My Aunt Ruby would say that she didn’t understand why young colored––that was the polite term in 1956––persons seemed to be so ungrateful. She would ask why they couldn’t be more like Mammy Zaida, their grandmother who simply accepted her lot in life. Aunt Ruby believed she was practicing Christian charity by giving cast-off clothing, Christmas baskets of food, or an extra dollar or two. 

        The summer of 1956 was an especially hot one then. That radical young preacher Martin Luther King, Jr.,  had helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott and although Pinckard, a town so small it only had a railroad stop, felt the impact because the teenagers down on sharecropper’s row were seething. I had been told not to speak to them, but I wasn’t very good at following those instructions.

       One Sunday afternoon at dinner during a particularly heated argument my older cousin Robert looked at his parents and simply said, “Their blood looked just like mine.” He had been in the Navy during the war––World War II––and had been saved by a transfusion. His comment ended that conversation.

       Not following the leader means thinking for ourselves and coming to conclusions that are different which may not be accepted by others. During the time of Samuel there was only one right way to be and to act. Those who did not were cast out and sometimes killed. The Lord of the early Hebrew tribes does not really reflect how most of us now think about God. 

       As we shall see, the stories about those times reflected a different image of God. The God of Samuel and Saul was unrelenting and did not show a great deal of mercy. When Saul conquered the Amalekites he had been commanded to kill everyone, including women and children, and all the animals. Saul desisted, saying there had been enough killing for the day. 

        The text tells us that the Lord regretted having made Saul king. When we read these stories, you have to remember that they reflect a viewpoint that changed as people changed their view of God. But even in some of the stories you can see the seeds of a new view of God, one who commands justice and righteousness. 

        So, what does Scripture tell us about following a leader? Scripture is not a cookbook but sets a framework. Like the Constitution, it is not static. There are times when Scripture seems jumbled; we are told this, then that and often seems to contradict itself. That’s because it is a compilation of writings over thousands of years reflecting the changes of thousands of years. And although we may have guides on how to interpret it, we are called to think in our interpretations.

       There was once a time when that old story of Ham and his curse was really believed to justify slavery; we know those stories developed to explain certain phenomena that could not otherwise be explained by a primitive people. For the most part, we do not accept such stories as historical fact. 

       We are now at a critical time in the life of our Nation, a time when we must consider its future direction for all who live in it as well as with the rest of the world. It is a time to consider what that future should be. Shall we be open or closed? To ourselves and to the world? This is not a time to play follow the leader. 

       Let us come to God in prayer: Holy Creator, you gave us minds to think and hearts to feel. May we reflect your call as given us through Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.