1 Samuel 8; 11 and
The Truth Shall Make You Odd
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1 Samuel 8; 11 and
The Truth Shall Make You Odd
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
If we were to travel to southeastern England, to Canterbury Cathedral, we would see on the floor of that great church a design called the Compass Rose, which identifies us and all who belong to our worldwide Anglican Communion. The Compass Rose includes words in Greek that translate as “The truth shall set you free.” This is a quotation from John 8:32 where Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Here Jesus speaks about the saving truth that he himself is, and how it liberates us from all that holds us captive.
Flannery O’Connor was a great American writer. She was once described as someone who consistently “probed, in a distinctly Southern idiom, the mysterious outer reaches of reality that are the province of the prophet and the poet.” (Brian Collier in Atlanta Magazine)
A person of deep Christian faith, Flannery O’Connor built upon John 8:32 when she famously wrote, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”
Today’s Gospel and our reading from First Samuel both shed light on how the truth makes us odd.
Let’s consider the gospel reading first. It recounts an episode early in the public ministry of Jesus, yet already he is causing an uproar. He has been healing people and preaching throughout Galilee. He has invited a collaborationist tax collector to become one of his followers, and has bested the Pharisees in controversy. Unclean spirits have shouted out their admission, “You are the Son of God!” He draws crowds, and the reaction of the crowds is positive, time and again.
So what happens? His family shows up, intent on restraining him, for the rumor is going around that Jesus is crazy. Some even believe that his power comes from the chief of the demons.
Here Jesus himself appears to his relatives, together with some other people, as, to say the least, odd. He is the Truth incarnate, yet sections of the population oppose him, and people who care about him want to restrain him, to have him settle down.
If this happens to the Truth incarnate, and it continues on until people kill him on the cross, then maybe what Flannery O’Connor tells us is true: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.
Now let’s consider today’s reading from First Samuel.
In this episode, things are not going well for Israel.
Years back, the old priest Eli had a pair of sons who were scoundrels, unfit to succeed him, so the Lord came to the rescue by raising up Samuel, an important figure who serves the nation in various roles: ruler, military leader, priest, prophet. So far so good. But the Philistines remain a continuing threat, and Samuel is getting old. But Samuel’s sons are perverters of justice; they cannot be relied upon to follow in the steps of their father. Samuel, however, appears blind to their unworthiness. And so the elders of the people come to him and ask him to make a king to rule over them. Appoint for us a king to govern us, they say, like other nations.
The people of Israel are looking for a solution to their problem. They want to be normal, like everybody else. We can appreciate that. But in their desperation they are looking in the wrong direction. As the people of the Lord, they are not like the other nations. Israel has its own story to tell, which is the story of the God who has called them to be his people, to be a light for all nations.
They have encountered the truth, and the truth has made them free, free of Pharaoh and all the other despots. They have encountered the truth, and the truth has made them odd, odd in not having a human king like the other nations, but serving their eternal King, the one true God who has told them his name.
To make short a very long story, the Lord eventually tells Samuel to let them have their way. They are not rejecting Samuel; they are rejecting the Lord himself.
Their first king is David, very human in the best and worst ways. Their next king is Solomon, who appears flat, two-dimensional, and whose policies and projects resembles those of the Egyptian pharaoh from whom Israel escaped long before.
A splitting of the kingdom then takes place, and there follow separate lines of kings for Israel and Judah. The biblical history dismisses the great majority of these monarchs as having done what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord. This monarchy project does not turn out well.
Yet the Lord never forgets his people. He keeps sending them prophets and sages who invite the people to as much freedom, as much oddness, as they can stand.
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd. These realities appear intertwined time and again in the history of the Christian movement. Allow me to offer you a couple of examples.
• Consider Francis of Assisi. Encountering the truth in Christ made this young man free. It also made him odd, very odd.
The son of a prosperous silk merchant, Francis lived a high-spirited life as a wealthy young man, and fought as a soldier for his native town.
In time, however, his behavior changed drastically. He went to lonely places to pray. He nursed people stricken with leprosy. He joined in begging at the doors of churches.
Francis received a call from Christ to repair the Lord’s house and he took this literally, setting about to repair a ruined building. To fund this endeavor, he sold cloth he appropriated from his father’s store.
All this left his father uncomprehending and highly indignant. The older man responded first with threats and then with beatings.
Finally, in the midst of legal proceedings before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, stripping off and laying aside the clothing his father had provided him.
The Church in the time of Francis was wealthy and powerful. Yet it was in desperate need of repair. Francis and his followers contributed greatly to that repair, not through construction work, but through witness to the simplicity and innocence of Christ. Franciscan spirituality continues as a transformative force in the world today.
By the standards of his original situation, encountering Christ made Francis free. By the standards of his original situation, encountering Christ made Francis odd, very odd indeed. Sons of prosperous merchants generally do not behave as he did.
Another example, this one closer to home.
Hiram Bingham IV, an Episcopalian, came from a prominent American family. His father was a former governor of Connecticut and United States senator; his mother was an heiress of the Tiffany jewelry fortune. Following graduation from Yale University and Harvard Law School, Hiram Bingham IV scored third in his class on the Foreign Service exam.
After diplomatic service elsewhere, he was posted to the United States Consulate in Marseilles, France in 1939. The next year France fell to the Germans. Thousands of refugees fled to Marseilles seeking visas to leave the country. The United States government actively discouraged diplomats from helping these refugees, but Hiram Bingham ignored his orders. He violated State Department protocol by arranging escape routes for persecuted Jews and often provided the most wanted with safe haven in his own home.
In 1941, Bingham was abruptly pulled from his position and assigned to Portugal, then Argentina. In 1945, after being passed over for promotion, he resigned from the Foreign Service.
Even his own family knew little about his wartime activities until documents were discovered in their home after his death in 1988. Since then, he has been posthumously honored in a wide variety of ways. In 2002 the Secretary of State presented the Constructive Dissent Award to his children.
Hiram Bingham knew the truth in Christ, and the truth made him free. Hiram Bingham knew the truth in Christ, and the truth made him odd. Diplomats generally do not behave as he did.
In the hearts of many of us, there may be a longing to be normal, to fit into the crowd, not to make waves, to go along in order to get along.
Yet if we listen to the voice of God, we may hear a different message.
The truth in Christ calls to us through the cracks in life, as it did for an American diplomat during the Second World War, and for a merchant’s son in Italy eight centuries ago.
That truth calls to us and in some unique way makes each of us free, makes each of us odd, all to the glory of the Holy One and to the true welfare of the world.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.