Weekly Preaching: June 17, 2018

June 11th, 2018

1 Samuel 16 gifts us with one of the Old Testament’s signature theological texts. I preached a sermon I felt pretty good about on this three years ago, and another two years ago. Although it makes for a longer reading, it is well that our lectionary picks up at 15:34. Samuel doesn’t anoint David out of the blue, but only in the wake of his grief and God’s sorrow over the debacle that was King Saul. God, ever true to God’s self, grieves for a time and then unfolds the new thing God will do.

Samuel’s mission, to anoint the new king — even though it’s only a proleptic anointing, as Saul will reign for quite a while after David is soaked in oil — must be sneaky, surreptitious, clandestine. It’s intriguing that Jesus, too, the anointed one, the Messiah, was rather on the secretive side about his reign during his ministry; Mark pictures him shushing the disciples. The powers that dominated the world then would have snickered at the notion that Augustus or Tiberius was not emperor, or that Herod (or Herod Antipas) was not king for much longer.

Walking your people back through the story, which is so very vivid, is helpful (if you don’t belabor it for too long). What were Jesse’s feelings when he learned one of his sons would be king? Pride? Shock? A fearful trembling? He called them together and lined them up by age, height, and brawn. But one-by-one, Samuel dismissed them: the strapping Eliab, the burly Abinadab, the finely-chiseled Shammah. Seven altogether. The preacher can use hands, standing on tiptoe, gesturing to illustrate the gradually receding bulk of these fine boys.

The Lord spoke each time to Samuel — but how? Did the others hear? Was it a whisper? An interior voice? The Lord said, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Preachers can expand upon this at length.

We might want to locate times the meek and unlikely were the game-changers. We might compare God’s vision to the way Thomas Kuhn spoke of revolutions in perspective: people thought the world was flat until Copernicus explained things from a very different viewpoint; nothing was ever the same. God’s way isn’t about ability, strength, IQ, street smarts, agility, or savvy. It’s about the “heart” — although really it’s just about God choosing whom God chooses.

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Puzzled, Samuel shrugged. Only then did Jesse acknowledge that, well, yes, “There is still the youngest one… but he’s out keeping the sheep” (v. 11). The obvious deduction is that Jesse didn’t even consider the possibility that this little one might be the one. But could it be that Jesse actually feared David might be the one? That he saw unprecedented potential in him? Or perhaps he was simply the one he loved the most — the unexpected child of old age, the apple of his eye? The writer does note that David “was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking” (v. 12). Perhaps Jesse wanted to keep this small but handsome one home to shelter him for himself and from the perils of kingship.

Christian history features so many stories of parents blocking their children’s calling to sainthood. Francis of Assisi’s father, Pietro, was so mortified when his son began giving to the poor with total abandon that he took him to court and disowned him. Pope Francis’ mother was crushed when he reported he was headed into the priesthood instead of to medical school, and she would not speak to him or forgive him for some time. How many women and men never became great heroes of the church because parents restrained them and wouldn’t let go?

Francesca Aran Murphy points out that there is not one divine miracle in the entire sixteen chapters of the story of David’s rise from obscurity to power. As she puts it, “God’s working has gone underground.” Leaders understand that God’s working generally is underground; rarely does anything remotely miraculous save the day. What matters is trusting that God’s working is still going on, as unseen as water being soaked up by the roots of a tree.

Or, maybe we develop a different kind of seeing. The verb see (ra’ah) occurs six times in the story of David’s anointing: “the Lord does not see as mortals see” (v. 7 NRSV). How does God see? How can we see as God sees? Can we see things as they really are instead of being deceived by what is only superficially visible? As Gandalf wrote in a letter to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “All that is gold does not glitter.” In The Little Prince we find this memorable quote: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Or that Native American saying: “We teach our children to see when there is nothing to see, and to listen where there is nothing to hear.” It’s common to say a leader is responsible for having a vision; 1 Samuel’s take might be that the leader is someone who can see and who sees clearly and deeply.

The Hebrew word for “see,” ra’ah, is one barely distinguishable sound away from ra‘ah, the word for “shepherd.” We might think of shepherds as lowly and despised, poor laborers of no account. Yet there is always an ambiguity to the image of a shepherd. Yes, they spent their days and nights outdoors with smelly animals who tended to nibble themselves lost. Mothers didn’t fantasize that their daughters would marry shepherds one day. And yet in the agrarian, pastoral culture of the world in those days, where sheep were everywhere and they mattered for survival, even the mightiest kings of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt were often dubbed the “shepherds” of their people. David was a shepherd boy, but his responsibilities — to care for the flock, ensure they got food and water, protect them from harm, bring them safely home — were identical to those of a good ruler.

Don’t many of our stories wind up like David’s? Public events and private lives twist, turn, and collide. The pursuits of power and pleasure get mixed up with efforts to be pious and faithful, and the results are mixed. This is life in God’s world: we do our best, but then cruel processes of history steamroll everybody. Yet somehow, they almost accidentally further God’s kingdom. Does God cause or even superintend all this? We live, always, with this mystery: where is God in it all? There are hints, clues, guesses, wonderings. But who can be sure?

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The epistle, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17, flawlessly picks up on this vision thing. “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Faith is a peculiar way of seeing. I recall David Steinmetz, lecturing the Reformation, explaining how most theologians trusted in what they could see, but Martin Luther insisted that the organ of faith is the ear, not the eye. “The eyes are hard of hearing.” What we see can deceive, but the Word we hear is trustworthy, enduring forever, creative of new, unseen life.

Two little details beg for attention. Paul suggests that the purpose of life isn’t to be good or do good but to please the Lord. Want to know how fabulous, significant and powerful you are? You have the ability to please God — or to displease God. God opens God’s holy self to the vulnerability of being pleased, or not, by people like us. We know we will falter terribly, but I take heart from the famous Merton prayer,

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

At the same time, it is hard to scare up a mainline denominational sermon that dares to speak about Paul’s insistence that we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. What we do, and how we live, is deadly serious. God wants us to envision that day of judgment (as the daily prayer in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer puts it, “Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgments, and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.”

And yet we needn’t tremble as we enter the courtroom. God is judge and prosecuting attorney, but God is also my defender and the jury. God wants me to be released from bondage more than I do. God’s is no fair, blind justice. God is absurdly, intensely, passionately biased toward us. So yes, humbly approach the seat of justice — the God waiting for us is the one who shed his blood for us, who healed the sick, who touched the untouchables, who forgave those nobody else would tolerate.

Notice that in this season, the lectionary adds verses 18-21, which I like. This business of reconciling and being ambassadors for God, the universal scope of it, not merely individual or personal of God’s work and our ministry, is just staggering, beautiful, and hopeful. I preached on 2 Corinthians 5:14-20 last year and focused on all this. Our church was engaged in a marvelous and impactful ten-week series on Reconciliation with Christena Cleveland, Ben Witherington, Brenda Tapia, Matt Rawle and more; see videos and other resources here. I have no doubt that reconciliation is God’s clearest calling to the church in our day, summoning us beyond simplistic forms of forgiveness, urging us to connect at a deep level with others — in fractured relationships; in a divided denomination; in a broken world; with other religions; in our communities; and in mission, which isn’t the haves doing for the have-notes, but lost people finding one another, sharing their gifts, journeying together. No one has spoken more eloquently of this than Sam Wells, first in A Nazareth Manifesto, and then in his Incarnational Ministry and its companion, Incarnational Mission.

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Finally, we come to the Gospel (Mark 4:26-34), which is fine (of course), but for me is just not as interesting as the Old Testament and Epistle — or the other moments when Jesus speaks of sowing seed (earlier in Mark 4!). Jesus wouldn’t have known what we smart modern people know (unless you need to attribute omniscience to the earthly Jesus and pit him against farming realities), that, horticulturally speaking, the mustard seed isn’t actually the smallest; orchid seeds, and maybe others are tinier.

This parable is utterly uninterested in human efforts (which is required for farming to happen well); I’m reminded of the old joke about the guy who bought an abandoned farm, cleared the fields, plowed, planted… Then, as his crops came in, the local preacher said to him, “Look what God has done!” To which the farmer replied, “Well yes, but do you remember what it was like when God was working this farm alone?”

Still, Mark’s theology is on target: the real growth, the miracle of the seed, soil, sun and rain, comes from God. I cannot pass here without directing all preachers to the most moving, helpful sermon I’ve ever heard directed to clergy from my friend Bishop Claude Alexander (watch here, and don’t miss the music that follows his sermon!). His way of speaking of God’s hand being on the field while the farmer sleeps: brilliant, encouraging, and theologically humbling and hopeful.

"What can we say come June 17? 4th after Pentecost" originally appeared on James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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