“Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you.” (1 Samuel 7:3)
The people of Israel were constantly at war with the Philistines, as the Israelites were regarded as interlopers seeking to displace the various Canaanite tribes. But what was always a danger for the Israelites was that they would be subsumed into the local culture. The Philistines worshipped an assortment of gods, among them Baal and Astarte, and the worship of these idols was always enticing to the Israelites, especially when times were hard. In particular, there was always the temptation to forget that Israel was called by God to be a priestly people dedicated to God alone. Soon, we will see this in the story of 1 Samuel how Israel transitioned from the time of the judges to the time of the monarchy—the elders demand a king to be “just like everyone else,” and in doing so, they forget that they are supposed to be ruled by God.
As the daily office reading today from 1 Samuel 7 reminds us, the people of Israel—whose very name reflects the name of God– have turned aside from remembering who they worship, and have started worshiping the deities of the Philistines, especially “the Baals and the Astartes.” Baal was a fertility and storm god, and Astarte represented the fertility of nature, as well as war and sexual power. Remembering the marginality of the land that was farmed by the Israelites, it is no wonder that gods who promised to bring rain and fertile fields would be appealing, and apparently many of the Israelites were engaged in worshipping these deities in the hope of short term, but important, gain. Worship of Baal and Astarte was often promoted by fear, and by the magical thinking that if people perform some ritual act, then the power of the gods will be harnessed to suit human concerns. Samuel calls the people back to remembrance of who they are and who their true God is. Once the people make the vow, he set up a stone, and named it Ebenezer, which means “The Stone of Help,” as a visual reminder of where help truly comes for God’s people.
As I write this, the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church is gathering in Salt Lake City, and will begin the first day of its legislative session tomorrow. We will set our course on a number of issues for the next triennium. There’s a lot packed on the agenda: election of a new Presiding Bishop, hundreds of resolutions including the relationship of our church to the rest of the Anglican Communion, revision of the Prayer Book Lectionary, and revisions of the canons. All of this is vital work. But there are also other issues we hopefully take up—resolutions dealing with social justice, poverty, hunger, gun violence, and racism. Resolutions of this sort are also important in the life of the Church—to remind us that we are IN the world, but not OF the world, and to remind us who we worship and who we are called to be as disciples of Christ. We are called to witness to our society about who God is, and how our understanding of our God is transformative and renewing in a world that all too often clings to its brokenness and tribalism, in all its many forms. And for Episcopalians, individually, we are repeatedly reminded in the theology of the baptismal covenant that we are ALL ministers of the Church, called to do the work of building the kingdom of God in the world. We are called to build altars to God in the world.
Simultaneously, all the way across our country, preparations are being made for nine funerals in Charleston, South Carolina, where African American Christians were murdered in their church while engaged in study and prayer. The storm god of racism and hatred burst into that sanctuary and unloosed his lightning through the deluded, terroristic actions of a young man filled with fear and malice. He sought to let loose the goddess of war that our culture all too often worships not through love but through fear of our fellow-human beings. The shooter sang a hymn rooted in a culture founded upon a mythology in which its adherents imagine themselves surrounded by threats from both without and within, and believe that their only hope lies in machinery which is designed for one purpose only—to kill others whose very claim to humanity they deny in their fear.
These two events, and other events of the past many months, are inextricably intertwined. In New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston and Charleston, we have seen people sacrificed on alien altars of violence and oppression. We have seen storms break open the heavens and we have seen war committed against each other, both overseas and within our own shores. Can we put aside our own Baals and Astartes, and turn back to remembering where our allegiance and love is really supposed to lie?
As our 78th General Convention begins, we are reminded that we are a church within a world that is profoundly troubled. May we not retreat into our own concerns without remembering that as Church we are called to engage in the world and work for justice and peace, to prophetically call for mercy and reconciliation where injustice and oppression have previously taken root. While it is certain that much of the business of the Convention is concerned with polity and church politics in the best sense of that much-maligned word, I hope we can remember that we are also called to witness through our engagement with the culture that surrounds us. As Christians, our faith and love is rooted in hope—hope in our Savior who points us toward God, and hope in each other to work together and side by side, blessed to be called into the world to seek to restore the original vision of peace and justice that was woven into the very fabric of creation. Let us resist the tendency to worship the storm, and refuse to lay our treasures before the altars of warfare. Let us have a heart for the world, filled with resolve to be God’s hands in that world. Let us raise our Ebenezer to the One who calls us to new life rooted in hope, not fear.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: Photo from Point Lobos, California by Leslie Scooper