“Holy Discomfort” by Pat Conover

 Scripture: I. Samuel 1:4-20, 2:2-4; Daniel 12: 1-4; Mark 13:1-8

The Samuel and Daniel passages make reference to three periods of Jewish history. Each passage was written by priests as stories that expressed their visions of kerygma, a word that means “saving truth.” Each story was written for there and then guidance.

The first Samuel story introduces the Samuel character as a nazerite like Sampson, a holy person who doesn’t drink alcohol or cut his hair. Samuel grows up as the last great Judge who both opposed government by kings and then reluctantly as God’s channel for choosing and anointing David as King and ushering in the brief period of Empire. This bit of historical fiction was written four or five hundred years after Empire.

The second Samuel story, the Song of Hannah, was written six hundred years after Empire and inserted into the Samuel scroll to address the challenges of living in exile.

The apocalyptic Daniel story in the second half of the Book of Daniel is probably the last written story in Hebrew Scripture as recorded in the Protestant Bible, about seven hundred and fifty years after Empire and one hundred and fifty years before the birth of Jesus.

The strengths of each story is that they addressed the spiritual needs of their diverse audiences. The weaknesses of each story is that they obscure or distract from the kerygma that was valuable during the period of reference. The same is true of the Mark story, a Jewish-Christian version of the apocalypse story we have in the Daniel passage.

In short, each author used an interpretive principle that is common in Seekers today which I summarize as, “I’m not sure I understand the story but I can tell you what it means to me today.” This approach to interpretation effectively kills off the chance that the kerygma gift of Jewish and Christian authors, and more importantly of the hard won kerygma of Jewish and Christian experiences, will be taken seriously as guidance in their own right.

The first story presents the genealogy of Samuel capped by a special birth story. It is similar in narrative structure to the special birth stories of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, of Caesar Augustus, of various Greek and Roman Gods, of John the Baptist, and of Jesus. This story is fitting for the character Samuel presented as the Great Judge and Priest, a model of what was good about the time of the Judges. The next step in the original scroll contrasts Samuel to the corrupt priestly sons of Eli. What it does not do is illuminate the wonderful kerygma of the leaders of the time of the Judges.

Samuel as king maker obscures the reality that anointing David as king is part of a story of civil war in which David rebels against King Saul, raises a raiding terrorist army, and finally defeats and kills King Saul. We know this was a narrative problem because the author has David slay the messenger who comes to tell David that Saul is dead.

The creation of the David character in response to recorded or oral stories passed down for five hundred years is interesting. David is presented as a super warrior who, as a youth, defeats Goliath the Philistine giant when all the other soldiers were cowards. We get a lot more of David as a warrior, plus his love of Jonathon, Saul’s son, plus music, dancing, and multiple wives and consorts.

After the stories of conquest we mostly have the stories of David as a bad king who nonetheless holds a covenant with God in the anointing act of Samuel, who has a long rule characterized as a traditional forty years. The climax of the Samuel story is not David, but rather good king Solomon who is wise like a Judge and builds a temple for the priests in Jerusalem, a rival hill town to Shiloh. The military conquest in civil war and then in ethnic cleansing against foreign enemies, including stealing the treasures of defeated tribes and kings, is terrific because it puts the priests in control of everything, and priests are wise. This story of conquest and empire feeds the Jewish theme of military zionism which showed itself in the Christian Testament as the Zealots who led the Jews into two disasterous revolts against Rome, and fuels the current disaster in Palestine/Israel. 

Now lets look at the kerygma of the period of the Judges, the actual time when Judaism catalyzes as the major religion it became. Here is an over-simplified sketch of the actual formation of Israel and Judaism stripped of the marvelous stories of the ancestors and promises.


A number of tribes escaped from oppression in Egypt. Forget the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea which destroys the Egyptian army. The tribes survive for hundreds of years as nomads in the area between the Jordan river and the Babylonians. It was hard times of constantly fighting for water and pasture in land to poor to be worth capturing and subduing by the shifting power of there and then, mostly Egypt. Moses is the hero of this period. He brings together the monotheism of a moment in Egyptian religion and combines it with a vision of justice as a basis for covenant and thus as a basis for cooperation. This understanding makes Moses, not Abraham, the first historical Jew. The precious kerygma is rule by law as a vision that supports cooperation across the arbitrariness and self-interest of  patriarchal/tribal lines.

Joshua inherits the Moses tradition and leads a cooperating coalition of tribes who finally have enough combined strength to cross the Jordan river from East to West. The Mosaic coalition defeats the fractioned Amorites, Canaanites, and others. They capture Jericho and move on to capture the hill towns between the Jordan river and the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The establish a ritual center in Shiloh, a hill town about eighteen miles North of the hill town not yet called Jerusalem. Shiloh is ritually marked as the location of the Arc of the Covenant which was presumed to hold the stone tablets of the ten commandments written by Moses.

The tribes hold a conference in Shiloh in which the twelve tribes, and some others, are at least theoretically assigned areas of Palestine, some of which are still firmly controlled by the Philistines. Three tribes are assigned poor land East of the Jordan, are basically dumped out of the winning coalition, due to some ritual impurity. Then the nine or so tribes attack the exiled three tribes. It is messy and confusing and the actual chain of events cannot be adequately sorted out.

What matters for kerygma is that in Shiloh, there is a religious center with religious leadership that emphasizes living by the law as the guidance of justice as a cultural basis for cooperation for some tribes. This messy moment contains the kerygma of the rule of law referenced to principles of justice that is at the heart of founding of the United States as a democracy. In the Shiloh coalition, the Priests/Judges rule based on the authority granted by a tribal coalition.

We know the something of the actual history from an analytic reading of the Deuteronomic histories including Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. The first Samuel story was written in the last period of the centuries long division and decline of Empire and probably completed during the collapse into the Babylonian exile. Purity, defined as “keeping the faith,” is a big theme of these histories and addresses the cultural crises that portion of the Jews who were captured and taken into exile return to Jerusalem with their foreign wives. The Book of Deuteronomy, including the purity code, was “discovered” in the ruined temple during its rebuilding and added as the fifth book to complete the Torah. The priestly authors in addition to telling us how bad the kings were, tell us how the people strayed from ritual purity to worship  the  Baal gods of Philistine agriculture. 

The kerygma of the period of the Judges was cooling off as attention shifted to the spiritual challenges of empire and then to division, threats, and military defeats. Military defeats were not assessed in military terms, or as failures of political cooperation. Instead, the priestly narrative is that the defeats were the punishment of God for turning away from the ethical and ritual guidance of the priests, of sinning against the laws of Moses. There was plenty of sin to point to, but the interpretation was nonetheless self-serving for priests who were preserving dreams of dominance referenced to the characters of Samuel and Solomon. In the time of failing Empire, and despite the self-serving motives of the priests, they nonetheless were carrying forward the importance of law and covenant as a basis for cooperation. Five centuries later, in the time of Jesus, they were back in power in a deal cut with Rome following the Maccabean revolt.

The failure of the priests in the first Samuel story was described by Max Weber as the routinization of charisma, the collapse of vision and cooperation into rituals and rules to the benefit of those who control the rituals and rules.

The second Samuel story, the Song of Hannah, is an insert into the Samuel scroll. The author wrote for the faithful in the Babylonian Exile, six hundred years after the Empire. It was a time after the last remnants of Empire were swept away. It was a time of powerlessness for the priests. It was a time for new leadership.

One branch of the new leadership was learning how to collaborate and find success under the rule of foreign powers. Part of that success was ending the rule of purity related to forcing Jewish men to give up foreign wives. The Wisdom theme and leadership created spiritual guidance for life in diaspora under the rule of foreign kings. We had Ruth and Naomi as a Wisdom story last week. Similar stories include the stories of Adam and Noah, both non-Jews, of Joseph in Pharaoh’s court, the recent lectionary story of the faithfulness of Job (another non-Jew), the book of Esther, and the first six chapters of book of Daniel which place the title character in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. 

These wisdom stories fundamentally challenge the concept of the covenant of God as being restricted to a covenant between God and Jews as a special people. In the stories of Jews serving in foreign courts, the foreign rulers serving foreign gods nonetheless carry good news for the Jews.  These are all stories about individual courage, love, and faithfulness rather than rallying cries for rebellion and the dream of Empire. These are stories of people who carry the kerygma of knowing they need each other and are figuring out how to make life worthwhile without being in cultural, social, or political control.

The Song of Hannah, like Mary’s song the Magnificat, makes clear that the poor are a precious part of we, not an object of our charity. It is also notable that these wisdom stories are often herstory rather than history. In the words of the Hannah character,

“Our God is a God of knowledge who weighs our actions. The bows of the mighty are broken and the feeble gird on strength. He raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”

Hannah’s Song made cultural sense for Jews in exile in the fifth century before the common era, the century in which Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean world and began the Hellenization of that world and thus laid the cultural groundwork for the rise of the Roman Empire. It also made sense for the great majority of Jews in the time of Jesus who were NOT gathered in Judah or Galilee, but were dispersed around the Mediterranean World. Many diaspora Jews read the Hebrew Scriptures in a Greek translation called the Septuagint.

Much as I appreciate the Song of Hannah, it obscures and distracts from the kerygma of the time of failed Jewish kings and military defeat. That kerygma was carried primarily by the rise of prophets who challenged both kings AND priests.

The wisdom tradition, including the second chapter of Samuel, like the like the deuteronomic histories, contains saving truth while at the same time distracting attention from the problems that arose when Jewish priests collaborated with foreign rulers which gave them significant, if geographically limited, control over the daily lives of Jews.

This was the spiritual and political problem with King Herod and Jerusalem temple priests that Jesus faced. Caiphas, the high priest had a huge and luxurious home, symbolic of his control of the Jewish courts backed up by thousands of temple police. The price of such collusion was paid at the cost of heavy taxation and economic exploitation that impoverished many Jews: taxes and exploitation that paid for the dramatic building of the temple and city of Jerusalem, economic exploitation that paid off absentee landlords and Roman merchants, taxes that funded the armies of Roman Empire. With Herod and Caiphas and their families in control, Rome could get by with a low level of Roman troops leaving more troops to continue the expansion of the Roman Empire. 

I don’t have time to fully develop the same pattern for the Daniel passage. The apocalyptic half of the book of Daniel is the last writing in Hebrew Scripture. It was written after Rome crushed the Maccabean rebellion about one hundred and sixty years before the birth of Jesus. The kerygma of apocalyptic writings is keeping hope alive in the face of crushing oppression and tragedy, keeping alive the hope that we have not been abandoned by God.

The gospel writers follow the tradition of Jewish apocalypse stories but make the failures of the Jewish leaders part of the reason for Judgment Day theology because they colluded in or possibly initiated the crucifixion of Jesus. The Daniel story and the Mark 13 respond to different moments of tragedy and hopelessness. They both obscure and distracts from the kerygma of justice and covenant, of prophetic vision and guidance, of the wisdom tradition for living well during diaspora under foreign rulers. In addition, the mark story distracts from the kerygma of Jesus. The fundamental failing of apocalyptic stories is that they distract from inspiration and guidance for responding to challenges in difficult or tragic contemporary lives to focus on an imaginary future centered on revenge against enemies and reward for the faithful.

Neither collusion, nor military rebellion, nor apocalyptic fantasy, were good guidance in the time of Jesus. Collusion led to the crucifixion of Jesus. Then rebellion led to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Then apocalyptic fantasy led Paul and the gospel writers to preached a theology that obscured and distracted from Jesus in favor of creating the character they named Christ, a character like Job in a heaven focused script. Thankfully, the gospels also tell us what we can know about Jesus if we use the several sieves of biblical analysis. Paul, to his credit, does not let his theology distract him from offering rabbinic guidance for the beginner Christian communities when they were still forming around synagogue life. 

Developing the kerygma of Jesus is another sermon. Suffice it to say that both the emergence of modern Judaism and the emergence of Christianity grew out of a synagogue oriented theology that studied scripture and was adequate for successful diaspora transformations.

The Christian Testament, the source book of Christianity, produced a great religion which has flourished in many flavors. For two thousand years Christian denominations and theologies have reasonably used the Christian Testament to wander away from the kerygma of Jesus, and have had periods of renewal when prophets and leaders refocused on the guidance of Jesus again and again.

During my lifetime, secular scholars and progressive Christian scholars have led a Golden Age of critical biblical scholarship. That scholarship has largely been ignored by established Christian congregations, and some denominational leaders, despite the excellent biblical scholarship being taught in many progressive and traditional seminaries. The tragedy of Christianity in the United States in my lifetime has been the rejection of such scholarship by most congregations even in progressive denominations. It is worse in denominations that still defend the doctrine of atonement theology, or some other version of Christianity, that trades the promise of Heaven for belief in doctrines and acquiescence to today’s priests who claim to hold the keys to Heaven. Thankfully, many congregations and denominations are also responding to contemporary to contemporary cultural, economic, and political challenges. The tragedy is that inadequate and distracting theologies distract from or weaken inspiration and commitments to witness and service, are too often afterthoughts to keeping traditions and rituals alive.

It takes careful scholarship to open up the kerygma in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Testament. But careful scholarship is not nearly enough. It takes appreciative reading of the painful discovery of kerygma in radically different circumstances. Skipping past appreciative reading to quick slogans in response to current questions pretty much ensures that the valuable guidance of Hebrew Scripture and Christian Testament will be trivialized or lost. 

Purely secular scholarship can serve us by pointing out numerous faults, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the Bible. That undoubtedly has led some, probably many, to dismiss the relevance of the Bible as a source of valuable spiritual guidance. I say to you, thank goodness the authors were inconsistent and let us see more than their foci. Thank goodness most of the authors made it pretty clear what they were doing and why. Instead of blaming the authors for not being historians in the way we think of history, I say to you thank goodness they were story tellers and poets who wrote from the heart so that Spirit shines through despite distracting metaphysics, bad theology, and sometimes self-serving intentions. 

How can Seekers come to understand and appreciate the salvation guidance of Hebrew Scripture and Christian Testament? It is my opinion that preaching from the lectionary is at best a disjointed and fractious way to grow in understanding and appreciating the Bible, particularly when we change preachers each week. Neither do I think that the School of Christian Living provides adequate biblical education. For starters, a great many Seekers don’t take the classes. The classes generally do a good job of opening up the process of reading the Bible for its treasures of kerygma. However, good beginnings in the classes do not necessarily lead to good ongoing engagement with scripture. The most fundamental failure, from my point of view, is that a lot of Seekers are not oriented toward seeking guidance from scripture for our personal and family lives, for our common life as Seekers, or for citizenship. Good scholarship cannot overcome the reality that the world of the Bible seems a long time ago and far, far away. How can we create an ongoing culture of appreciative reading of scripture?  

It isn’t surprising to me that we are where we are. A lot of progressive Christian communities and congregations are in similar places. It is progressive evangelicals who are modeling a reengagement with scripture as they are shocked to discover that biblical kerygma supports their transitions that get them tossed out of traditional evangelical congregations, that sometimes tear apart large financially successful congregations.

Most of us have come from Christian traditions that used the Bible to justify doctrines as guidance statements. A lot of such doctrinal guidance is commonly viewed now as bad news rather than good news, particularly guidance referenced to sexual activity and gender expression. Claiming the Bible as a source for doctrine-like statements is likely to receive a limited welcome in Seekers. It seems to me that many Seekers have learned enough biblical scholarship to be suspicious of the Bible as a source of guidance, and not enough Bible to passionately appreciate the hard won kerygma claimed by a thousand year or so of biblical authorship. Our spiritual ancestors paid painful tuitions for their lessons and then largely forgot them as times changed and different spiritual challenges arose. We can choose to learn the best lessons from all of them.

Since I don’t have time to develop my understanding of the kerygma of Jesus, you will have to do it as your homework. Assume that Jesus was a good enough rabbi to have discerned and appreciated the kerygma in Hebrew Scripture. How did the kerygma of the judges, the priests, the prophets, and the wisdom teachers, guide the life choices and teaching of Jesus?

I feel compelled to use my last minute to draw out a grossly over-simplified implication of this sermon for Seekers. I think Seekers is in spiritual trouble. The clue that leads me to this assessment is the current conversation about evangelism in response to fear about the aging of Seekers. Fear may be justified, but the challenge of aging members is a misleading focus. We might better focus on the reality that respect for Christianity is plummeting in the United States for excellent reasons. Both news media and entertainment media seldom present good images of Christianity or of Christian leaders. Instead the many failing of Christian leaders and congregation, particularly with regard to sexuality but in other areas as well, have made established religion a curse word. Many of us are exiles from such Christianity ourselves. What is at stake is far more fundamental than retuning our documents, or memorizing better slogans and elevator speeches. Be afraid of being a small island when troubled seas are rising. 

The pattern in this sermon is one of Jewish and Christian authors repeatedly making mistakes out of their strengths rather than their weaknesses, mistakes arising from the inadequacy of obscuring or cherry picking memories of the past to support slogans of relevance. It is the mistake of walking North on a South bound ship and feeling good about ourselves because we are facing in the right direction.

What mistakes is Seekers making because of its strengths?

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