A hard reading for faith-sharing this morning from the First Book of Samuel: Israel is defeated by the Philistines and loses the ark of the Lord, the symbol of the covenant between God and the people.
This is a pivotal moment in the history of the twelve tribes of Israel, which in this time of crisis evolves from a confederacy ruled by charismatic judges to a monarchy. The texts of the two books of Samuel reveal theological tensions over this fateful development. One tradition holds that Israel departed from the will of God by naming a king, for Yahweh alone was their sovereign. Another tradition holds that receiving a king was a sign of God's covenant faithfulness, a fulfillment of God's plan to make of Israel a great and glorious people. The history of ancient Israel is a story of struggle to remain faithful in a world whose ways were contrary to God's ways. Would the people of God live with and for God and fashion a community different from the empires and nations, or would they surrender faith and become like the nations who would enslave them? The losses to the Philistines began to push Israel toward the option of monarchy, a momentous decision.
To return to today's reading itself, what strikes me is the fact that the religious piety of the Israelites could not save them. I do not think it was wrong for them to hope God would fight with them and give them victory. What was wrong was the way they sought God's help. They brought the ark to battle as if that act alone assured God's presence and favor. God is for us, but it is presumptuous to call on God to take our side against an enemy. God struggles with us for justice, but God cannot be conscripted for service in our all-too-human contests like some supernatural mercenary.
In this life we are going to suffer losses. When we live by faith, we may lose quite a lot, perhaps more often than those who live by the law of club and fang and thrive under worldly machinations. The point is, we will lose and keep on losing for a long time. That's all right, because God is with us. That's all right, because the game is not always worth winning. The game is worldly, and the game is faithless. So don't worry so much about playing the game. You can lose the game all the time and still have God. What you cannot allow yourself to do is strive to win the game by playing with God, because then you can lose the game and lose your faith.
As I discern more deeply my call into religious life, I must examine my conscience daily. I must ask whether I am working humbly to win the faith, no matter what losses I sustain in my efforts at fraternity or ministry. Am I acting nobly, trusting in God who wills our good, or am I really only aiming to win the game of life by cleverer means, by playing the God card?
God of all faithfulness, make me a good loser.