Judges and Kings: God’s Wisdom in Clay Vessels

Preacher: Barb Schweitzer

Scripture: 1 Kings 3:1-15

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

We have met Israel’s first two kings.  Saul, who was from a wealthy and influential family within the tribe of Benjamin was Israel’s first King.  Saul started off as a good king, as he gave the people what they wanted in a king, “someone to fight their military battles.”  David, was Israel’s second king, chosen by God, not because of his wealth or outward appearance, but because he was “a man after God’s own heart.” David became a “symbol of hope for all of Israel” because he was willing to align his vision of the kingdom with God’s vision, which meant looking out for the welfare of all people, including neighboring nations who were willing to be friendly.  Both kings started off wanting to be good kings, but were increasingly influenced by their growing political and military power. This would also be true of Solomon, Israel’s third King.

Solomon was David and Bathsheba’s son.  Like David, Solomon’s reign begins with conflict because Solomon’s older half-brother proclaimed himself king before David was able to crown Solomon as king. After his coronation, Solomon found it necessary to execute three people involved in the near coup, in order to secure his claim to the throne. After securing his throne, one of Solomon’s first decisions was to marry an Egyptian princess, which to him, seemed politically useful, but was unwise, because it violated Mosaic Law.  Please listen as Kelvin reads today’s scripture.

[READ 1 Kings 3:1-15]

What is wisdom?  Is wisdom what we learn from our parents growing up, the sort that says, work hard, get plenty of exercise and rest, and eat healthy?  Or is wisdom, knowledge—the stuff we learn in school?  Or is wisdom what we find in the Bible, knowledge of God and his history with his people, as well as knowledge of how to live a good life?

The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary says that “in the Ancient Near Eastern context, where our story was inspired, wisdom was an umbrella term that encompassed humanity’s quest to understand and organize reality, to find answers to basic existential questions, and to pass the information along from one generation to another.  Wisdom’s roots were located in the family unit, where each generation shared insights about how to live well with the next generation.  As societies became more established and institutionalized, wisdom moved up through families to the administrative and religious systems of city-states and empires.  Thus, the accumulation of transmission of wisdom transferred from the family to the national setting.” Let’s keep this in mind as we think about Solomon’s story. ( adapted from The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary S-Z: Vol. 5. p. 862-863).

So what did  you notice about Solomon in this passage?

I noticed that Solomon was mindful of how God had shown steadfast love to his father David and mindful that it was God’s gift to be named King.

I noticed that Solomon also thought of himself as a child, lacking experience and direction, and acutely aware of his need for wisdom, and the ability to discern between good and evil.

I can imagine Solomon feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job of King, especially if he really was between ages 13 – 23.  I don’t know about you, but I know I wasn’t ready to run a country at age 23.  Heck, I’m not sure that I’m ready to run a church at age 55!

I can imagine that Solomon was sorely aware of the mistakes made by his predecessors and their devastating consequences, despite both kings having desired to be good kings when they started out. Saul’s mistakes cost him his mental health, his throne, and his and his son’s life. And David’s mistakes brought calamity and violence into the royal household, which was, of course, Solomon’s family of origin, with whom he currently lived.

And, when I think of Solomon’s mixed family and their history— where one half-brother raped his sister, yet David did not punish him, so another half-brother took revenge by murdering the brother guilty of rape.  To top this, David, his own father, was also guilty of rape and murder. And then, God forgave his father because David repented, but not without devastating consequences for the family.  (Pause) If I were a kid growing up in Solomon’s family, I would have a serious need for God’s wisdom to help me sift through the family drama to gain some type of perspective.

But there’s more, directly impacting the claim to the throne itself. Adonijah, Solomon’s older half-brother had the nerve and ambition to proclaim himself king, forcing David to crown Solomon as king while still a youth, in order to stop the palace coup which was in progress. This family history and drama gives new meaning to Solomon’s statement, “O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.” Yep, I can certainly imagine how Solomon must have been acutely aware of his need for a discerning mind and the ability to discern between good and evil.  Can’t you?

In James, chapter 1 verse 5, James, the brother of Jesus writes that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

This truth from James seems to have been true with Solomon, because God grants Solomon wisdom, without rebuking Solomon for his initial missteps as king—like killing his half-brother and contender for his throne and slaughtering a priest and military advisor for their disloyalty to both his father and himself.  Nor did God rebuke Solomon for marrying an Egyptian princess or worshipping at the high places–all of which were forbidden in the Mosaic Torah.  Despite these missteps, God comes to Solomon in a dream, and asks Solomon to decide what gift he wants from God, and then grants Solomon his request for wisdom and much more.

Immediately after God grants Solomon wisdom, we see Solomon, making his most famous and amazingly wise ruling by discerning which one of two women was the real mother of a baby, when both were claiming to be its mother.   We also see Solomon wisely negotiating business deals with his neighboring countries of Tyre and Sidon, by appealing to their loyalty to King David and by offering to continue peaceful and cooperative relationships in exchange for Tyre’s cedar and Sidon’s lumberjacks needed for Solomon’s building projects. Solomon wisely offers to pay fair wages to the lumberjacks. At the same time, Solomon makes the bad decision of forcing his own people to labor on those same building projects without being paid, probably following the council of his new Egyptian father-in-law and his new wife, the Egyptian princess.

So, we see, that even though God’s wisdom is readily available to Solomon, Solomon was inconsistent in applying that wisdom to his life and work as King.  Surely his family of origin and the larger cultures within which he lived had some subconscious influence at times.

This begs the question, both for Solomon in his day, and for us today:

  • How do we know when we’ve truly heard from God?
  • How do we discern when our family of origin and other cultures our clouding our judgment?
  • And how do we avoid making mistakes that will have a negative impact not only on our lives, but on the lives of those around us, and on God’s kingdom?

Have you ever sensed God talking to you?

John Wesley spoke of his first real encounter with God as experiencing his heart being “strangely warmed.” And two disciples talk of how their “hearts burned within them” when Jesus “opened the Scriptures to them” on the road to Emmaus, in Luke chapter 24.  So, we have people who attested to Jesus speaking to their hearts after Jesus was resurrected.

This concept of God talking to us is hard for us modern people to fully wrap our heads around, making people hesitate to say that they have heard from God. John Wesley, however, encouraged the practice of sharing with one another what God was doing in their lives along with studying scripture, praying, and fasting as an important way of learning how to discern God’s voice and mature as Christians. John Wesley called this process, Christian Conferencing.

You might find the story I’m about to tell you a bit strange, I know I certainly do, but it illustrates something of how we discern God’s voice through Christian conferencing and by using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  When I was 24 years old, I woke up after a dream, believing that God told me I would be a missionary in Bangladesh.  Before that dream, I had no idea that Bangladesh existed.  9 years later, Glenn and I ended up being sent to Bangladesh by the State Department, even though we had not personally requested to go there. So, I must testify that God does still occasionally speak to people in dreams, but more often, God speaks by strangely warming our hearts when we read scripture, pray, or listen to others.

I must also testify to how we can misinterpret what God is saying, when we do think he’s spoken.  Hindsight has taught me, that I added to God’s message in the dream, without being conscious that I had; because of my preconceived notion — at that time, that dictated that all missionaries stayed in their assigned fields for life.  So, I automatically assumed God had called me to spend my whole life in Bangladesh—which was never actually stated in the dream. This assumption caused me a whole lot of grief when I turned down the opportunity to stay in Bangladesh, after our 3 month summer assignment was completed. Hindsight has taught me that if I had discussed my sense of call openly, with other discerning Christians, they might have been able to help me sift through what was God, and what was me much earlier in my life.  Something else has also helped me sift through what was from God and what was from me.  It is a tool that United Methodists use as a way of discerning what is God and what isn’t God.  It’s called the Wesley quadrilateral, and involves consulting scripture, Christian tradition, reason, and experience when discerning God’s voice. In my case, scripture agreed with the idea of being a missionary.  Christian tradition also spoke of many people being missionaries throughout the world.  Then we come to reason.  Was it reasonable that God could have called me to Bangladesh?  Sure.  And it helps that I ended up there eventually.  But, was it reasonable to think that God wanted me to be there for my whole life?  Here’s a question I needed to answer.  When I had the dream, I was young and unmarried.  But when I ended up in Bangladesh, I had both a husband and a 1 year old baby.  And as I encountered the environment filled with cholera and dysentery and many skin diseases and worm infestations, I realized that Bangladesh was not the optimum place to bring up my one year old child.  So, that was something God would have to help me think through.  Then, I needed to consider my husband, who at the time was working on his doctoral degree.  Was God calling him to drop that and stay in Bangladesh?  2 catholic priests asked me to consider staying and teaching English at Dhaka University, so I had been offered a job, but I didn’t know if I could support our family on what they might pay me, and I didn’t know if it was right to ask Glenn to forfeit his career to support our family in Bangladesh.  There were so many questions.  Finally, I needed to consult my experience.  My upbringing had told me that the man was to be the head of the family and income earner and the woman was supposed to care for the kids.  These were assumptions and teachings that I really needed to think about and work through—before I could make a commitment to stay.  If I had known about the Wesleyan quadrilateral back in 1996, and practiced Christian Conferencing, I would have been able to discern what God wanted much easier.  As it is, it took me a few more years before I worked through everything by myself—which I don’t recommend.

It is important to understand that for these processes of discernment to function, it is expected that we routinely and in an ongoing fashion, seek to know God intimately, seek to walk in God’s ways, and seek God’s guidance in all things through prayer, studying scripture, taking communion, fasting, and conferencing with other Christians.

God had similar instructions to Solomon, in our text, saying, “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

Now, we post-modern people don’t like to hear these conditional statements made by God which come off as threats and seem to convey that we should follow God out of fear.   If we are going to understand God’s wisdom, we have to understand what the Bible means when it says, “the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

In Hebrew the word fear means to show a reverence for God and God’s law.  It does not mean that God wants us to live terrorized by fear of what God can do to us if he don’t obey God’s law. But like any relationship, we will be less likely to trust God and less able to discern God’s voice and meaning if we do not routinely spend time reading the Bible and seeking to understand and know God and  God’s wisdom for all aspects of our life.

So, the question God is asking us today, is the same he asked Solomon so long ago: “Ask what I should give you.”

Will you answer with Solomon’s answer, “Give your servant . . . an understanding mind . . .  able to discern between good and evil?”

The choice is yours.  Amen.

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Judges and Kings: Speaking the Truth

2 Samuel 12:1-15

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

Saul has been killed in battle with the Philistines, which means David can finally take his divinely approved place on the throne of Israel.  But while David’s kinsfolk and supporters in the tribe of Judah are quick to place that crown on his head, the northern tribes hold back.  Instead, Saul’s last surviving son Ishbosheth reigns over the northern tribes of Israel for seven years until his untimely death, at which point it falls to David to unite the twelve tribes under one government, one system of worship, and one national identity.

All this time, David has been a rising star in Israel.  He’s gone from shepherd boy to giant-slayer to court musician to royal son-in-law to decorated warrior to king.  Once David has secured the throne he brings the covenant chest to Jerusalem, builds a palace, and handily defeats the Philistines and other local enemies.  Not only that, but God makes a covenant with David, telling him that someone from his family line will reign on the throne of Israel forever.

But rising stars can’t rise forever, and the tide of David’s story is about to turn.

“In the spring of the year,” 2 Samuel 11 begins, “the time when kings go out to war,” David sends his top general with all the officers of the armed forces off to fight the Ammonites.  David, however, does not go out to war.  Instead he stays behind in Jerusalem, and one afternoon he happens to see a woman bathing on a nearby rooftop, and he thinks she’s beautiful, so he sends some of his guys to find out who she is.  Her name is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who serves in David’s army.  David then sends his guys to go get her, and he sleeps with her, and she gets pregnant, and David panics.  He tries to stage an elaborate cover-up, which fails miserably, so David arranges instead for Uriah to be accidentally-on-purpose killed in battle, and takes Bathsheba as his own wife.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same David we have grown to know and love, the “man after God’s own heart.”  But it is.  People are complex, and power corrupts, and our rising star has just shown the tragic flaw that will lead to his downfall.

But what I want us to hear now is what happens right after all of this, when David is confronted by the prophet Nathan.

 

[READ 2 Samuel 12:1-15]

 

Before we talk about Nathan, let’s go back to David and Bathsheba.

It’s possible that Bathsheba had a whole plan here.  It’s possible that she positioned herself so that David could see her bathing in order to seduce him.  It’s possible she was angling for whatever benefits she expected for someone who was sleeping with the king.  It’s possible, but the Bible itself doesn’t give us any reason to think that.  In a crowded city, the roof was where you took a bath.  There was nothing seductive about that.  Furthermore, the language the Bible uses in this story is the language of taking.  David saw Bathsheba, and he took her.  Bathsheba, as far as the story goes, has very little say in the whole thing.

We’ve grown accustomed to talking about David’s sin with Bathsheba as the sin of adultery, or maybe the sin of lust, giving into temptation.  But in the past couple years we’ve been having a lot of cultural conversations around power and consent; around sexual harassment and assault and how people (women) don’t always have a meaningful choice to say no.  And I have to tell you that in light of those conversations, I have a hard time hearing this story of a king who saw a woman, took her, and slept with her as just a story of lust or adultery.  Let’s face it: it’s possible Bathsheba said yes, but there was definitely no way she had the choice to say no.

You might say “It was a different time,” which is what we say when someone we love and admire from the past did something we don’t approve of in the present.  And it was.  Certainly we can’t expect that someone from the Ancient Near East three thousand years ago would operate under modern American norms and expectations.   In David’s time, women were largely viewed as the property of either their fathers or their husbands, which is why David’s sin with Bathsheba is primarily seen in the Bible as a sin against her husband Uriah.  Rules around legal consent had to do with whether you were in a place where other people could hear you scream (Deuteronomy 22:23-29).  We can understand these things without excusing them.  We can understand the culture and context the Bible was written in, the ways it does and doesn’t push back against that culture, and still put it in conversation with our own contemporary culture.

And so when I read the story of David and Bathsheba it’s hard for me not to hear the echoes of so many other more contemporary stories: stories of powerful people – primarily but not exclusively men – in government, media, sports, Silicon Valley, you name it, who have used their power to prey on others – primarily but not exclusively women – who don’t have a realistic choice to say no.

Bathsheba doesn’t ever get a chance in Scripture to tell her own story in her own words.  But if she did, we might call that Bathsheba’s #metoo story.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the #metoo movement, which was popularized late last year after the film producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment or assault by over 80 women.  The hashtag #metoo emerged on social media encouraging women to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault.  Wikipedia tells me that in the first 24 hours of the hashtag appearing on Facebook, it was used in 12 million posts by 4.7 million people.[1] You have probably heard some of these stories, and if not, they are easy to find.  They range from catcalls on the street to inappropriate comments on one’s appearance at work to persistent unwanted advances to women being pressured by dates to do things they weren’t comfortable with to full-on violent assault.  Clearly some of these things sound more commonplace than others, but the point of the movement is that all of them are commonplace – this is the world women live in, and it’s different but not so different from the world Bathsheba lived in.

And in case you’re thinking that things are different in church, #metoo gave rise to the spinoff hashtag #churchtoo, where women have shared their stories just how different things are not in church.  Just this week, the entire staff of Willow Creek Community Church, which is a huge evangelical megachurch outside Chicago, stepped down in response to allegations against Willow Creek’s founding pastor and church leadership guru Bill Hybels.  He’s not the first, either; and while it’s true that in mainline churches we tend to have more official accountability for those in leadership, neither are we immune to the surrounding culture.

My own #metoo stories are for the most part few and far between.  I could tell you about the older man at a different church who often used to put his hand on the small of my back as we chatted in the narthex before worship.  To this day I don’t think he was actually trying to be creepy; so I didn’t say anything, and instead I learned to avoid or strategically side-step him.  I could tell you about the man – no one you know – who once exposed himself to me in the course of an ostensibly pastoral conversation.  Still, I consider myself lucky.  Some of my friends have much worse stories.

Women who are here today, I bet you have some stories of your own that you could tell.  Some of you might have stories you can’t tell, for fear of what would happen if you did.  But one big thing we can all do to make both the church and our wider world a safer and more holy place is to listen to each other, and to take the stories and experiences we hear seriously.

Which brings me to Nathan.

I have always liked Nathan.  He’s not afraid to speak the truth, even when it’s hard.  We know him as a prophet, who dares to tell David that God is not happy about this whole situation with Bathsheba and Uriah.  But reading the story through a modern lens, I also see Nathan as an ally.

Theologian Wilda Gafney defines an ally as a person with privilege who uses that privilege on behalf of others with less.  If “privilege” is an unfamiliar term, think of it as a cultural advantage, based on something like your race, sex, gender identity, economic position, or else something that places you in a culturally dominant group.  Privilege isn’t absolute: you can have some kinds of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard to get where you are or have never had any problems.  What it means, for example, is that if you are a man, you generally don’t have to worry that your gender itself makes you a target for sexual violence.  But most of us women learn very early on that ours does, even those of us who have plenty of privilege in other areas.

Nathan has privilege.  He’s a man in this very patriarchal world, which means that his words get recorded in the text where Bathsheba’s do not.  He’s an Israelite, unlike Uriah the Hittite, whose life was possibly seen as less valuable for being an outsider.  He also has the ear of the king, which is nothing to be sneezed at, though he is clearly not just allowed to say anything he wants.

Nathan uses his privilege to stand up for two people whose lives and choices David didn’t value, but who God still valued.

He begins with a story.  Nathan knows he has to be smart and couch things in a way that David will respond to.  So he tells the story of a very rich man and a poor man with one little ewe lamb.  A guest comes to dinner at the rich man’s house and, instead of taking a sheep from his numerous flocks to slaughter for dinner, the rich man takes the poor man’s one little ewe lamb.  David thinks what the rich man did is just terrible – not showing a huge amount of self-awareness, there – and that gives Nathan just the opening he needs to point out what David himself has done.

Nathan isn’t a perfect ally.  His confrontation with King David is still entirely based on the idea that David has taken something that belongs to someone else, rather than having done any harm to Bathsheba herself.  Again, we can understand that in the context of their culture but not excuse it.  But at the same time, none of us are going to be perfect allies either.  We’re all going to act imperfectly in the context of our own imperfect culture.

But Nathan took a risk to speak the truth on behalf of Uriah, and Bathsheba, because he could, and because he was in a position to, and because he knew God cared.

I hope that you men here will resolve to do the same on behalf of women.  Listen to our stories.  Believe them.  Make sure they are heard.  When you’re in a position to call someone out for acting in a way that treats women as less then, take the risk and do it.  Be an ally.

My fellow white people, let’s resolve to do the same on behalf of our friends and neighbors who are people of color.  Don’t say that racism doesn’t still exist.  There are literally white supremacists with swastika flags and tiki torches gathering in our city right now.  But often it’s a lot more subtle than that, so notice it, listen to people’s stories (or read them), believe them, amplify them, call it out when you’re in a position to do so.  Be an ally.

Use your privilege, whatever kind you have.  Be an ally.

Now let’s talk about grace and consequences.

When Matt Lauer was fired from his position as host of the Today Show late last year after multiple allegations of sexual harassment emerged against him, one of my (male) friends on Facebook raised the question: “When is it OK for Matt Lauer to work again?  Is he supposed to be punished forever?”

I found this to be a thought-provoking question.  I believe that someone like Matt Lauer should have to face some consequences for his actions, but what kind?  And for how long?  Is sexual harassment an unforgivable sin?  What about assault?  How could Matt Lauer, or others like him, meaningfully repent and prove they could work respectfully with women in the future?

I don’t know what Matt Lauer’s future holds, or should, but I do know what happens to David.  And I have to say that when if talk about David as an adulterer, I think, OK, adultery is not an unforgivable sin.  There can be grace and a future for David.  (That’s just putting aside the whole murderer part.)

When we reframe the story in our modern terms of power and consent, or lack thereof, I struggle with that a lot more.  It makes David seem a lot worse, like maybe he should be blacklisted forever for his crime against Bathsheba and, by extension, women in general.

But David isn’t blacklisted forever, and maybe what I have to deal with there is that God’s grace is sometimes scandalous.  God doesn’t reject the people who may deserve to be rejected.  But in the end that’s good news, because I know I’m also not immune to our surrounding culture.  I know I’ve been molded by the racism I’ve absorbed, and I’ve been content to rest in my privilege rather than using it for good.

David regains self-awareness enough to repent when Nathan confronts him, and we can all learn something from him here, too: he doesn’t deflect.  He doesn’t pin it on Bathsheba.  He doesn’t say she was asking for it, or it was all just “locker room talk.”  He doesn’t claim that Uriah was “no angel.”  He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  And Nathan tells him that the Lord has put away his sin.

Grace is scandalous, but it is not cheap.  I said before that this incident is the beginning of the fall of our rising star.  The child Bathsheba bears to David will die.  From there David’s whole family will implode.  One of his sons will rape one of his daughters, the son’s half-sister.  The full brother of that daughter will kill his half-brother in revenge and then flee, and from there plot a full-on rebellion against David.  This son’s name is Absalom.  David will eventually defeat Absalom, but not before David is forced to vacate the throne and leave Jerusalem altogether.  And not before Absalom dies, leaving David to mourn the death of yet another child.  These things may not flow directly from David’s sin with Bathsheba, but the writers of the Bible see them as connected.

But David will come to occupy the throne again.  And when he returns to Jerusalem it will be as a humbled man, asking God for guidance in all he does, just like before, when he was a “man after God’s own heart.”  And David’s son – and Bathsheba’s – will sit on the throne after him.  And God’s promise to David will stand, that someone from David’s line will sit on the throne of Israel forever, and as Christians, we understand that promise to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

So listen to the stories and experiences of others. Take a risk and speak the truth.  Trust in God’s grace, both for yourself and for others who don’t deserve it.  And let’s witness to God’s kingdom here on earth, together.

I still wish Bathsheba had gotten to tell her story.

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_Too_movement

Judges and Kings: A Higher Allegiance

Scripture: 2 Samuel 5:1-5

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

David and Saul are now locked in battle for the throne of Israel.  Admittedly, the battle is somewhat one-sided.  David has fled the jealous Saul’s court for fear of his life, and as we last met up with him, he was running from town to town, with Saul in hot pursuit.  While Saul pursues David, David actually has two opportunities to kill Saul and end the whole thing.  Kelvin preached about one of these times two weeks ago: Saul enters a cave where David happens to be hiding, but instead of killing him, David cuts off a piece of his garment – just to show him later how close he really was.  Later, David comes across Saul while Saul is sleeping – but again, David spares Saul’s life.  Let no one say that King David ascended to the throne illegitimately.

It’s possible to see a certain ambivalence (or contradiction) in David as he runs from place to place.  On the one hand, he seriously freaks out when someone mistakes him for the king of Israel.  On the other hand, we also see him garnering support, little by little, first from his family, then from all the dispossessed and marginalized people who seem to flock to him; even brokering his own alliances with foreign leaders from time to time.  What are David’s motives, really?  I’m not sure we entirely know.  But it’s clear that gone are the days of the ruddy-cheeked shepherd boy.  David is becoming, if he’s not already, a true politician.

Eventually, Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, and David is crowned king.  But here’s the thing – he’s only crowned king by the people of his own tribe, the tribe of Judah, in the city of Hebron.

In fact, David must now contend with the first-and-a-halfth king of Israel, Saul’s son Ishbosheth, who succeeds his father on the throne.  For seven years, in a foreshadowing of division to come, Israel effectively has two kings: one of the northern tribes, and one of the large southern tribe of Judah.

Unfortunately one day Ishbosheth is murdered, and the rest of Israel suddenly finds itself in need of a king.

 

[Read 2 Samuel 5:1-5]

 

You might remember from your high school American history classes, or more likely from Hamilton, how our country began its independent life as 13 states loosely joined under the Articles of Confederation in 1781.  When the Articles failed, due to the completely ineffective central government they created, strong leadership and diplomacy were required to forge a new system of government and a new American identity.

Imagine David, now, as an Ancient Near Eastern Alexander Hamilton or George Washington, charged with transforming this loose confederation of Israelite tribes into one people, with one common identity, one common vision, and of course, one common and undisputed king.

When David is finally crowned king over all Israel, he knows his newfound power is fragile.  The people of Judah will back him no matter what, but he needs to show the other tribes that his aim is to be their king, too.  And for that, first of all, he needs a new capital.

His current capital, Hebron, is in Judah, and that’s not going to work.  If he moves his capital north, though, the people of Judah will consider him a traitor or a sellout.

Solution: the city of Jebus, strategically located right on the border between the northern tribes and the southern tribes, which was never captured from the Canaanites and does not belong to any one tribe.  So David commands his army to capture Jebus.  He renames it – any guesses? Jerusalem.  And he moves his capital there.  It is in Jerusalem that David will build his palace, there that David will bring the covenant chest that represents God’s presence with God’s people on earth, there that David will organize his new centralized rule in a way that jump-starts the economy and brings peace and prosperity and a common national identity.  It is in Jerusalem, finally, that God’s Temple will be built, the one place people will come from all over Israel to worship God.

Tribal loyalties run strong.  That’s not just true for David’s time, because our own modern tribal loyalties unite and divide us all the time: our political affiliations, racial and socioeconomic demographics, age groups or generations, even our schools and the teams we root for.  But David’s first job as king is to call people to a higher allegiance than just allegiance to tribe.  His job is to call them to a higher identity that is not first Judah or Benjamin or Naphtali or Asher but Israel, the children of Jacob, God’s chosen people.  And he does.

Again, King David is a masterful politician.

Some people will tell you that church isn’t supposed to be political, that the Gospel isn’t supposed to be political.  I disagree.  God’s story has always been political.  It’s even been inherently partisan: Team David over Team Saul.  That’s not to say it’s partisan in the context of US politics today: instead, to paraphrase the theologian Karl Barth, the Gospel always stands in judgment over all of our earthly values and systems.  In fact, you could say that to be part of the story of God’s people is always to be called beyond our tribal loyalties to a higher allegiance.

In a few minutes we’re going to have a chance to remember our baptism.  I want you to remember back to the promises that were made at that time.  Maybe someone first made them for you; maybe you later had a chance to make them for yourself.

-Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?  Do you?  Do you reject the evil powers that tempt us to hate and fear one another?  The powers that say that some of us are better than others and deserve more than others?  The powers that compel us to take as much as we can for ourselves?

-Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  Do you? Do you not only renounce those powers but commit to resist them in their many different manifestations?  Do you accept that power God has given you?

-Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord?  Him, and no one else?  Not Caesar, not the latest politician who says things we want to hear, not the almighty dollar – but do you put your whole trust in Jesus and promise to serve him alone?

And are you ready, as part of this congregation, as part of the Body of Christ, to live as an example for each other so that each one of us can be strengthened in these promises over the course of our lives?

Baptism isn’t just a nice ceremony.  Yes, we affirm that God loves the person before us and has been at work in their life before they even knew it.  Yes, we affirm that in this new life death is left behind.  But don’t let baptism lose its edge.  Baptism is an inherently political act, because it’s our official entrance into God’s story.

It’s in baptism that we receive our calling to a higher allegiance and a new identity: neither male nor female nor Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free, but one in Christ Jesus; members no longer of our tribes but of the Body of Christ – ready to renounce and resist together all other powers that ask us to call them Lord, ready to serve one Lord alone and work to make his Kingdom known on earth.

 

 

Beautiful Feet

We take a break from our summer sermon series Judges and Kings to share and celebrate our recent mission team’s week with Appalachia Service Project (ASP) in Johnson County, TN.

Scripture: Isaiah 52:7-10

In a few minutes we will get to hear from some of the people who went on this summer’s Appalachia Service Project mission trip.  Appalachia Service Project is a thing Arlington Temple does every summer, led by Pat Booher for 19 years now, and Arlington Temple acts as a kind of anchor church, bringing people from lots of different small churches or other various connections, who might not have enough people to form their own group, together into one group.  This year we sent a group of 26 people to Johnson County, TN, for the week of July 16-20, and they spent that week helping making homes in that area safe, warm and dry.  If, after today, you are interested in going on ASP next summer, Pat would be overjoyed to talk to you.

“How beautiful,” says the prophet Isaiah – “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news; who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who proclaim to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

I was not part of this year’s ASP team, but I have been several times in the past, and I know my feet have probably spent that time being a lot more dirty than beautiful – but there is something beautiful about going out into this world to bring good news.

Back in Isaiah’s day, this good news meant that people who had been sent away in exile from the land they called home were allowed to return.  It meant they could rebuild and repair everything that war had left in ruins – their city walls, their homes, their Temple.  It meant that after everything they had been through, they could see now that God had been with them through it all and had managed, in the end, to bring redemption and salvation out of the whole mess.

The kind of good news we have to proclaim today might be a little different, but maybe not really so much.  When our feet go out in mission today, our good news might be that God hasn’t forgotten people, even in one of the poorest regions of our country where people might often feel like the rest of the country has forgotten or misunderstood them.  Our good news might be that God is always at work repairing and rebuilding, not just homes and buildings but hearts and lives as well.

When our feet go out in mission, there is always the danger of being presumptuous: of thinking that we alone have good news to bring to people who don’t have any. It’s true that we may have some time and resources that others do not, and we can use those to help.  But the people we meet and serve tend to have some good news for us, too.  They share with us the good news of trust – they trust us with the safety of their homes.  They share with us the good news of hospitality – they let us enter into their place and their homes and their lives, maybe bringing tomato sandwiches or lemonade, maybe bringing company and conversation, maybe sometimes, according to their ability, even working alongside the rest of the group.  They share the good news that we are welcome, even in this place where we are strangers, and where we shouldn’t take that welcome for granted.

When our feet go out in mission, my hope for our missionaries is always that they do good and faithful work, sharing the good news that they have to bring, but also that their eyes will be open for the good news that God has given other people to bring to them.

That’s also my hope for all of us.  The best mission trips aren’t just about one week each summer.  They’re about reframing things so we’re more ready to be in mission the other 51 weeks of the year.  They’re about opening our eyes and our hearts to all the opportunities around us to share good news in our everyday lives: with people in need of food or shelter in our own communities, neighbors who are sick or lonely, or someone at school who needs a friend.

And for those of us who didn’t go on this particular trip, I hope that hearing the experience of our mission team can also reframe things for us.  You may not have been out there with a hammer or a Sawzall this week, and you may or may not have the physical stamina or vacation time to do so next year, but you can still go out there and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner, welcome the stranger, and in doing all these things bring to others the good news that Jesus first brought to us.  AND, you can be ready to receive hospitality and love and mercy and generosity from those same people who have good news to bring to you.

When we all have beautiful feet ready to share the good news God has given us, and we’re all waiting on the footsteps of those who bring the good news God has given them, then “all the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

 

Judges and Kings: Facing Your Enemy

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: 1 Samuel 24:1-7

Previously on Judges and Kings: we heard about the rise of the monarchy in Israel. Faced with multiple crises of leadership and morality, and the reality of nonstop internal and external sociopolitical and economic pressures, this small and loose confederation of tribes began to admire a monarchy as the system of government that would keep them safe. Their faith in religious leaders acting as governors and judges was no longer sufficient to protect them from hostile nations, armed conflict, and unfair trade practices. They needed a King, “a strong man,” one who would build a permanent army of trained soldiers, increase military spending and readiness, and secure their borders like other nations, rather than rely on a volunteer militia.

Honestly, I find this language to be eerily familiar looking at our current US politics. Much has been spoken about making America great again, by projecting strength, increasing our military spending, securing our boarders, and control trade arrangements.

So, the Israelites got what they demanded. Saul “a strong military man” became the first king. With the blessing of prophet Samuel and the people, Saul built a good enough army that lost as many wars as they won. This transition from shared leadership to “strongman” leadership created both sociopolitical and theological tensions that we see throughout Israel’s history.

Now that they had a human king, how did they reconcile that with Israel as God’s Covenant people? If God was no longer the sovereign over Israel, could God then be somehow involved in the selection and rejection of rulers, and in the winning and losing of wars? Could it be that the monarchy arose in disobedience and rejection of God’s rule like Samuel advised (1 Samuel 8)? Numerous themes suggest that God acted behind the scenes, usually refraining from direct supernatural interventions, and humans taking center stage and their lot being determined by their own conduct.

In one famous battle with the Philistines, David, an unlikely hero from a peasant background, defeated and killed Goliath. Goliath was a great commander in the Philistine army. This feat pushed David into the limelight and into proximity with the ruling class. David would then marry into the royal family and win the fondness of his brother-in-law Jonathan. This relationship would later save David’s life.

David quickly rose in rank and favor among the people. This popularity and favor, however, disturbed King Saul who began to see David as a threat to his Dynasty and authority. Saul, thus, resolved to kill David. From this point forward, nothing David did was pleasing to Saul who was consumed with insane jealousy. Prince Jonathan became instrumental in helping David escape multiple times from his impending execution by the now unstable King.

Read 1 Samuel 24:1-7 (David spares Saul’s life).

In this passage, Saul is bent on killing David and is hunting him down like a dangerous animal. 3000 special operation forces have been mobilized for the mission. When Saul experiences nature’s call, he unknowingly enters the cave to relieve himself where David and his militia were hiding at the back. Saul did not see them, but David and his crew sees this an as a God-given answer to their prayer. After all, Saul has ruined their lives, torpedoed their careers, and turned them into homeless beggars.

But instead of killing Saul, David is convicted and spares Saul’s life. He decides instead to stealthily cut off a piece from Saul’s royal cloak as proof that he could have killed him. David is, however, not aware that cutting off a piece from the cloak has symbolic significance, namely, cutting off the kingdom (1Sam 15:27-28).

Some of you know what it’s like to live or work and be in an environment filled with jealousy and hatred. Despite all your good deeds and intentions, people find reasons to speak evil against you. They accuse and blame you for things you haven’t done.  Churches are not exempt. Pastors tell stories of their mean-spirited members who make their lives a living hell, that others have even asked the leadership to transfer them to another church.

Many of us would say that David had a legitimate reason to kill Saul. After all, he would have been acting in self-defense. He would have been standing his ground. He would have claimed that he felt threatened. That’s how George Zimmerman got away with murder for killing Trayvon Martin. The list is endless of many people killed by the police who claimed they felt threatened. Blacks have had cops called on them as looking suspicious for looking on their phones while trying to follow directions on google maps.

But, here David demonstrates a different response to his enemy. That vengeance is not the only choice, you can make a different choice. Killing someone because you felt threatened is not instinctual as people would like you to believe. It’s a choice. It does not matter whether you do it within seconds or takes you a minute or an hour. It is still a choice. David chose a different route when he faced his arch enemy. He chose not to kill. He did it not only for the sake of Saul, but for his own conscience. “I shall not kill the Lord’s anointed.” Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself that also benefits your enemy. You cannot move forward without forgiveness.

Faithful Responses to our enemies:

Eva Mozes Kor and Miriam (Holocaust survivors), were only 10 years old when they arrived at one of the most notorious concentration camps – Auschwitz. It was an early spring day in 1944 when the family of six were ordered to get off an overcrowded cattle car they had been hiding in a standing position for four days. It was the only Jewish family living in the German-occupied town in Romania. The Nazis forced them on board the train headed to Auschwitz – the city of no return.

Once on the selection platform at Auschwitz, the family was separated. The father and two older sisters were taken away by the guards never to be seen again. Eva and her sister Miriam tightly held on to their mother not knowing what would happen to them. At a talk two years ago, Eva recalled that “a Nazi looked at us and asked if we were twins. My mother asked if that was a good thing and he said yes, so my mother said yes. Then the Nazi came over and pulled my mother to the right, Miriam and I were pulled to the left.” This would be the last time the sisters would see their mother.

The next 30 minutes would change the sisters’ lives forever. The twins became one of the 1,500 sets of twins enrolled in Mengele’s evil human experimentation program. They were taken inside and told undress, and their clothes were taken away. They were then given haircuts and dresses with a red cross. They then stripped them of their identity and humanity and with hot needles were branded with tattoos numbered A-7063 and A-7064.

Almost 3000 individuals were housed in cramped and filthy rat-infested quarters and starved of proper food, routinely subjected to humiliating and harmful studies. Their body parts measured so Mengele (dubbed Angel of Death) could compare them to each other and the other twins. Their blood was often drawn and tested. If one twin died, the other would also be killed immediately so that side by side autopsies would be done. The Holocaust Museum records that of the 3000 individuals in the twin program, an estimated 200 survived. Less than 10 percent.

Eva and Miriam were liberated on January 7, 1945, by the Soviet Army, and later immigrated to Israel. And later came to the US when she found love with an American Tourist. In 1993 Eva’s sister Miriam died after a long fight with kidney issues and blood cancer, conditions believed to be linked to the human experiments at Auschwitz.

Eva says, “she never wanted to forgive anyone.” Shortly after her sister’s death, she was invited to a conference on Nazi medicine at Boston College. The hosting professor also suggested that she brings along a Nazi doctor. She thought it was a crazy proposition, but she managed to track down a Dr. Munch who had also worked at Auschwitz and had known Mengele. He refused to go to Boston but agreed to meet her at his house.

During their conversation, Dr. Munch admitted his role in the killings, how he watched through the peephole and waited until everyone died, then sign a single death certificate that only stated the number of bodies. No names.

Later Dr. Munch agreed to write the details down and agreed to accompany Eva back to Auschwitz in 1995. “She was so moved by his willingness and by her realization that from that day on, the world would know the truth, and no one would be able to deny what happened. She wanted to thank him.” Then she decided that she would write her own letter of forgiveness.

When they arrived in Auschwitz in 1995, accompanied by her daughter, granddaughter, and son, they stood in front of the ruins of the gas Chamber. They both read and signed their written statements in the presence of witnesses. Eva recounts, “immediately, I felt that I was no longer a prisoner of my tragic past. I was free of Auschwitz, and I was free of Mengele. After being a victim for 50 years, I had the power even over the Angel of Death. So, if I could forgive Mengele, I decided I could forgive everyone” (Vickroy, 2016, p. 5).

I don’t know how deeply hurt you feel, or how broken your life has been. How people or systems of oppression have ruined your life and career. You may be angry at the world for not paying attention or your own relatives for trying to destroy you. May be its your spouse, or someone you loved who used you and left you devasted.

We can learn from David’s response and certainly be inspired by Eva’s generous heart to forgive. Forgiveness is a powerful force. Forgiveness is essential to our lives. Since conflict and disappointments are inescapable parts of human nature, we are bound to hurt others and others are bound to hurt us. Therefore, we need to learn to leave room in our hearts to embrace mercy.

And our good example as Christians comes from Jesus Christ who was subjected to public humiliation up to the point of his death but still chose to forgive. “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).”

And in the words of Eva now Ms. Kor (84 years old) “People who are angry are more likely to start a war. That is true today and that was true then. Hitler… thought of himself as a victim.”

“I call anger a seed for war,” and “I call forgiveness a seed for peace.”

 

Judges and Kings: An Unlikely Friendship

Scripture: 1 Samuel 18:1-5

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

The people of Israel, now ruled by the Philistines on the outside and corrupt local leaders on the inside, have demanded that the prophet Samuel give them a king.  Samuel is not a huge fan of the idea, but God ultimately tells him to go ahead. So Samuel anoints Israel’s first king, a tall, strong, handsome young man from a wealthy family, named Saul.

It isn’t long before things start to go downhill, and we see Saul begin to rely more and more on his own questionable wisdom rather than God’s.  So God, through the prophet Samuel, tells Saul that he’s been rejected as king.

This does not mean Saul automatically stops being king of Israel.  It does mean that the days of his kingship and would-be dynasty are limited.

Meanwhile, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king.  This king is also handsome, we’re told, but he’s also young and kind of forgettable, the one son his father didn’t think to introduce to Samuel.  Yet it is David who is God’s chosen, not only to lead Israel but to become the enduring symbol of its hope.

This does not mean David automatically starts being king of Israel.  It does mean Israel’s future is promised to him, and not to Saul.

As I said last week, when you have a new king and the old king is still around, it generally means civil war.

And that’s – almost – where we are today.

The start of the conflict between David and Saul isn’t really a clear one.  At the end of chapter 16, right after David is anointed, we read that “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”  One of Saul’s servants suggests he find a good musician who can play the lyre to help calm him down.  As it just so happens, David is not only a shepherd, but he also plays a mean lyre.  And so David comes to work in the court of Saul. Saul knows nothing, yet, about David or any pretensions to the throne he might have.  It’s not long, though, before he starts to get both jealous and suspicious of this promising young musician – who turns out to be a pretty decent warrior, too, when a Philistine named Goliath enters the picture.

But here the story pauses for a moment.  Because it is there, serving in the court of King Saul, that David meets Saul’s son Jonathan.

Jonathan is a leader in Saul’s army, fighting for his father against the Philistines.  He is also – we surmise, though we are never told – the crown prince of Israel.  But everything’s about to change when he meets the new musician in his father’s court.

 

[1 Samuel 18:1-5]

 

“The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David,” we read.  Or, depending on the translation, “Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life.”  That’s beautiful, isn’t it?  What do you think that means, for your life or soul to be bound up with someone else’s?  Maybe that you can’t live without someone; that you are meant to be; maybe that you know someone will always have a tangible presence in your life whether you are together or separated by circumstance, distance, or death.  Or maybe it means that your fates are intertwined, somehow.  It’s the kind of phrase I might be tempted to use in a wedding liturgy, but the idea goes beyond romance.  This story is a testament to the power and beauty of friendship.

But it’s an unlikely friendship.  Maybe even a star-crossed friendship, between the crown prince and his rival for the throne.

At this point in the story I’m not sure how much, exactly, Jonathan knows.  The notes in one of my study Bibles say that when Jonathan makes a covenant with David and hands over his robe and armor and sword, he’s effectively handing over his right to the throne.[1]  But David has only just appeared on the scene, and maybe Jonathan doesn’t yet understand what their friendship will ultimately mean for him.

Or maybe, somehow, intuitively, he does, and friendship blooms anyway.

In 2016 when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, there was a lot of talk about his longstanding friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The two justices had fundamentally different views on how to apply the Constitution to the questions the US faces today.  They voted differently on almost everything: women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights.  None of those are mere philosophical differences of opinion, either.  They were real issues that deeply affected the lives of real people.[2]

But they also both came from New York City, and were fans of the opera.  They worked together and laughed together.  They went souvenir shopping together on trips.  They rode an elephant together in India.  Their families spent holidays together.  When Ginsburg’s husband died, Scalia cried on the bench.  You might say it was as if their lives were bound up with each other.

In (quote) “these divided times” (unquote), a lot of people found the story of this friendship charming.  It felt like proof that we can, perhaps, transcend our differences and come together after all.

There were also those who did not find anything about this friendship charming.  Because, after all, the things we value, the things we stand up for, say something important about who we are as people.  We can’t just put those things aside.

I can understand both views.  But I do see the Bible making room for this kind of unlikely friendship in the story of Jonathan and David.  They had both personal and political reasons to not like each other, but instead, they found their lives and souls bound up with each other.

It does feel, at least to me, that if we are talking about unlikely friendships across enemy lines, there’s no more obvious enemy lines than those that divide us politically as a country these days.  Maybe you don’t like thinking of political divisions as “enemy lines.”  But the metaphor does seem apt sometimes, doesn’t it?  Polls have shown that most Republicans and Democrats today have few or no friends of the opposite affiliation.[3]  (Again, you can think what you want about that.)  We vilify each other constantly and publicly.

I’ve thought of the friendship of David and Jonathan as I’ve followed the news lately, and especially as we’ve been talking about things like members of a certain administration getting heckled at dinner or asked to leave restaurants due to their involvement policies such as separating migrant families at our border.  These incidents are followed by cries for “civility,” which are then followed by cries that what’s at stake here is much more than civility.

To be honest, I’ve been torn on what a good, faithful, Christian response should be.  Should Christians be the hecklers here, ready to make it personal for a good cause – whatever you think that cause might be – or should we be the ones calling for civility, saying we should put aside our differences and just be friends?

I don’t really have a good answer for you on this.  (Sometimes, as I like to say, I just stand up here and ask the questions.) I somewhat suspect, though, that the answer might be neither.  A faithful Christian response is not necessarily the Democratic position or the Republican position, but one that rises above both.

When I hear calls for us to be civil or polite to each other despite our differences, I think of the Hebrew prophets, who were ready to get out there and make some people uncomfortable when they did not see God’s call to justice for the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant being carried out.  I think of Jesus and how he was willing to get in the face of the religious leaders who made faith into a game of who’s in and who’s out.  I don’t believe we as Christians should ever stop advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our society, among whom today would be children and families seeking asylum at our border, whether or not it makes people uncomfortable.

But when I hear that there’s no place for civility, I also think of Jesus healing the servant of a Roman soldier, at the soldier’s request.  That Roman soldier represented and helped carry out a truly oppressive system of government.  But Jesus treated him with love.  And I think of Jesus eating with tax collectors, who were the carpetbaggers who benefited from that same system.  He welcomed them when others were completely justified in not doing so.  In other words, Jesus didn’t have a problem crossing enemy lines once in a while to demonstrate that God’s love truly has no borders.

Mostly as I read the news I wonder how, as Christians, we can strive to do both: to be crystal clear in our call and work for justice for the poor and marginalized among us, and also to treat the people we see as our enemies and rivals with a love that has no borders.  Not civility, not politeness, not unity, but love.

I don’t think the story of David and Jonathan and their friendship magically answers the question, either.  I know there’s no perfect correlation here.  For one thing, the things that did or might have separated them were different.  For another, even though Jonathan was born onto one side of ancient Israel’s political divide, he seems to have effectively chosen the other.  He chose David over his father and over his right to the throne.  But Jonathan never really left his father’s side, either.  He ends up saving David’s life, but he never takes a clear and public stand to say David was the rightful king of Israel.  So I’d have to say it’s a little complicated: like most of our politics, like most of relationships.

But what I take from this story is that Jonathan and David could have written each other off from the beginning.  Jonathan, the crown prince of Israel, could have seen David as a threat just like Saul did.  David, God’s true anointed, could have seen Jonathan as standing on the wrong side of history, someone who was just in his way.

Instead, they saw their lives as bound up with each other.

My friend Amanda is a journalist who writes for the Washington Post.  She told me that not too long ago, she wrote a review of a play, and the play happened to be about abortion.  She wasn’t directly writing about abortion, she was just reviewing the play, which she liked.  But her review caught the eye of someone who wrote for a Catholic publication.  This writer did a little online research and found out that Amanda is also Catholic, so she wrote a scathing article all about how Amanda was a bad person and a bad Catholic for positively reviewing this play.

Amanda said she thought about writing her own scathing article about how this other writer was really the terrible person.  But she decided not to.  Instead she emailed the other writer, also a young woman, and asked if she could buy her coffee.  So they met, and they talked, and of course as it turns out neither one of them was really quite as bad a person as the other might have thought, even if they didn’t agree on everything.  They still meet for coffee once a month, as friends.

I know that stories like that don’t solve our problems.  They don’t magically create the justice we seek, and they may even seem to brush it aside.

But I wonder if they can be a reminder for us to not just write people off – to at least hold open room to let someone else surprise us.

So what does become of David and Jonathan? David continues to serve in Saul’s court and even marries Saul’s daughter.  Meanwhile Saul’s suspicion of David turns to paranoia, and paranoia turns to outbursts of violence.  He tries several times to kill David.  But when David tells Jonathan that Saul is trying to kill him, Jonathan doesn’t believe him.  So David makes him agree to a secret plan: David won’t come to dinner with Saul for the next few nights.  Instead he’ll hide out in a field.  Jonathan will make an excuse for him, and meanwhile he’ll feel out what his father is plotting, and on the third night he’ll send a servant out to the field and make one of two secret signs.  One sign will mean David is safe.  The other will mean he should run for his life.

You can guess which sign David sees.  And so he and Jonathan head their separate ways: Jonathan back to Saul, David to seek refuge elsewhere.  It is the last time the crown prince and would-be king will see  each other alive.  But their friendship will live on.

In the end, as I read the story, David and Jonathan were both changed by their unlikely friendship.  Jonathan gave up the future to which he was entitled in favor of a future he believed was God’s future.  David ended up sparing Saul’s life several times in armed conflict when he didn’t have to.  When Saul and Jonathan both died in battle with the Philistines, David wept for them both.  And Jonathan’s son, the one surviving member of Saul’s family, was promised a place at David’s table for the rest of his life.

Because likely or not, their lives were bound up with each other.

Let’s remember that our lives are bound up with each other: all our lives, left and right, red and blue, black and white and Latinx and Asian and native, north of the border and south, citizen and non, LGBTQ and non – not as Americans; not even as Christians; but as beloved children of God, all of us.

May we stand up for the vulnerable.  May we enact the justice God asks of us.  And may we love each other, and may we maybe even be changed by loving each other.

 

 

[1]     The Wesley Study Bible, note on 1 Samuel 18:4

[2]     https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/02/13/what-made-scalia-and-ginsburgs-friendship-work

[3]     https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/05/politics/friends-political-party/

Judges and Kings: The Things We Value

Scripture: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

The people of Israel have gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle.  They’re in the Promised Land, but over time, they seem to have forgotten the God who brought them there.  And so things have descended into chaos.   On the outside they are still under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines, on the inside their leadership is corrupt.  The only person we can trust is the prophet Samuel.

Maybe you remember the chorus that echoes through the end of the book of Judges: “There was no king in Israel in those days.  Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

I asked you this question a couple weeks ago: What does Israel need?  [A king.]

The Bible doesn’t actually speak in one voice in answer to that question.  The author of Judges clearly thinks the only way out of the mess Israel is in is to get a king, someone who can put things in order again.  But you may also remember the text Barb preached on last week, from 1 Samuel 8.  In that the people come to Samuel and say, “We need a king!” (This is another line I can only hear in the voice of someone else, this time in the voice of my college Hebrew Bible professor, Julie Galambush: “We want a king!  We want a king!”) And Samuel says, “OK, but you know if you have a king he’s going tax you for his own gain and conscript you and your children for war and make you his slaves.”  And the people say [pause]: “We want a king!  We want a king!”

Samuel tells all that to God and God says, “Fine, I don’t even care if they’ve rejected me as their only king, let them have a king.”

It’s probably fair to say that the author of this particular story isn’t especially pro-monarchy.

If you read on and read closely, you can continue to hear echoes of this disagreement in the text.  I think it’s so cool that the Bible doesn’t always give us clear answers in matters of life or politics; instead, what we have is canonized conversation.  In any case, Israel does wind up having a king.

In the Scripture passage we are about to hear in a few minutes today, we will be introduced to Israel’s second king.  But right now, I want to introduce you to Israel’s first king.

His name is Saul, and we first meet him as he is wandering around with a servant looking for some of his father’s lost donkeys.  As a last resort, his servant suggests they consult a seer who is rumored to be in town – maybe he can tell them where the donkeys are.  Who do you think the seer is?

It’s Samuel, and Samuel has been waiting for him.  God has told Samuel that Saul is coming, and that he’s the one – the one Samuel should anoint as king, the one to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.  So when Saul arrives and asks about the donkeys, Samuel invites him to dinner, sets a feast, anoints Saul’s head with oil, and tells him he’s going to be king.

Oh, and the donkeys find their own way home.

Here’s what you should know about Saul: he comes from a wealthy and influential family, even if they are from the tiny tribe of Benjamin.  The Bible describes Saul like this: “There was not a man among the people more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”

In other words, he looks and fits the part.

It’s only later that Saul is publicly installed, but when he is, his kingship gets off to a good start.  He has some early military victories and gains popularity and legitimacy.  But he also begins to make some mistakes.  He unlawfully offers a sacrifice after one of those battles instead of waiting for Samuel.  He makes a rash vow that threatens to harm his troops.  In another battle he keeps some of the booty for himself instead of offering it to God.  In other words, a picture begins to emerge of a king who is hasty and narcissistic, rather than ready to listen for God’s instruction.

Well, Samuel did warn them.

“I regret that I made Saul king,” God says, “for he has turned his back from following me.”  In the course of a few chapters, Samuel goes from anointing Saul to telling him God has rejected him as king.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Saul just steps down quietly, or anything.

But it does mean a new king is about to arrive on the scene.

 

1 Samuel 16:1-13

 

I preached on this text once in my preaching class in seminary, and I began that sermon by announcing, “There is good news in Bethlehem today!”  Our teaching assistant had to remind me that, you know, a king being anointed when there is already a king does generally mean civil war.

After Saul has been rejected – but while he still officially holds power – God tells Samuel to fill his anointing horn with oil and head to Bethlehem to anoint a new king.  Samuel is understandably a little concerned that word will get out that he’s doing this, but God provides him with an excuse: just tell the people you are going there to sacrifice, and invite Jesse and his sons.

So Samuel does.  It is from among the sons of Jesse that God has chosen the new king.

Eliab is the first of Jesse’s sons to be introduced.  He is presumably the oldest, and apparently tall and handsome.  Interesting: who does he remind us of?  Yes, apparently, if Samuel wanted, he could have another King Saul.

But God says no.

“Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature,” God says, “because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Jesse calls his next son, and the next.  Seven sons, same answer: not this one, not this one, not this one.

I do have to feel a little sorry for the first seven sons of Jesse, rejected rather rudely for a part they didn’t even know they were auditioning for.  But of course, the story is getting us where we’re going, because when all seven sons have been voted off the island, Samuel looks around almost desperately and says, “Don’t you have any more sons?”

And Jesse says, “Well, I do have one more, but he’s looking after the sheep.”

This last son is, of course, David, and they go to get him, and right then and there Samuel anoints him king.

The story of the anointing of King David is, at least in part, a story about learning to see things like God sees things.  This is apparently not so easy, since even the prophet and seer Samuel is ready to crown David’s tall, handsome oldest brother on the spot.  Yet it’s the boy no one even thought to introduce who will become not just a king but the king, the one who will be called “a man after God’s own heart,” the one who will become a symbol of hope for all of Israel.

To be fair, the text does say that David is handsome, too.  And as it turns out he’s no slouch in the war department, since he will defeat Goliath in the very next chapter.  He’s also, in the end, no more perfect than Saul.  He will make plenty of mistakes of his own, mistakes that will in fact have devastating effects on his fledgling kingdom.

But the point is that in the midst of all the people in Israel who look the part of king – Saul, Eliab, the rest of David’s brothers – God sees the one who no one even thought to call, and says, “That’s my guy.”

Because God doesn’t care who’s the most handsome or beautiful person in the land or the tallest or the strongest. God looks, instead, at a person’s heart.

On the one hand, that can be a source of comfort, to know that God sees us for who we are: not how good-looking we are, not how charismatic we are, not how rich we are, not how successful we are, not any of those things that we fear other people might look at us and see.  God sees what’s in our hearts.

But in those words I also hear a challenge: a challenge to line our vision up with God’s.

-How do you think God see your nuisance of a neighbor or that coworker you try hard to avoid?

-How does God see that panhandler you pass every day?

-How does God see that gay or trans person whose story you can’t quite wrap your head around?

-How does God see the children at our border, separated from their families or detained with them?  How about the adults?

But I think that those questions aren’t really the hard ones.  Maybe sometimes they are.  But often, I think, we know the right answers: that God values that person who’s annoying, that our poor or trans or immigrant neighbors are created in God’s image, that God sees them as people with hopes and dreams and divine purpose just like the rest of us.

It’s easy to know that God doesn’t look at outward appearances; it’s another thing to actually choose the right king.

Ultimately, this is not just a story about how we see, but about what we value. The things we value are the things we’re going to risk something for, sacrifice something for, the things we’re going to throw our weight behind.  Samuel may know that David is God’s pick but if what he still values most is a king who is handsome and tall and strong, like a king should be – then we might be reading stories about King Eliab.

Samuel needs a little help, but ultimately, he’s willing to throw his weight behind the king no one even thought to invite to the party.  Would you have been willing to take the risk?

 

When I was a senior in college, I heard a talk by Peter Storey, a South African Methodist bishop who had been active in the struggle against apartheid alongside the likes of Desmond Tutu.  He came to speak at William & Mary about his experiences in the anti-apartheid struggle, but he was also invited to give a talk to my campus ministry called “Four Things Young Adult Christians Need to Know for the 21st Century” or something like that.  To be honest, I thought it sounded boring, and I was much more looking forward to the apartheid stuff.  Instead, I came away feeling like my life had been changed.

Bishop Storey gave us four challenges, four issues that we would have to reckon with as faithful disciples of Christ.  They were 1) riches vs. poverty.  How do we live our lives in light of the glaring inequality of this world and the constant demand for more?  2) Inclusion vs. exclusion: a challenge not only for a country struggling with racial justice and reconciliation, but for the church today.  Bishop Storey said that he’d be glad to meet his Maker and be asked why his arms were too wide open instead of too closed – after all, he said, Jesus died on the cross with his arms open.  3) Flag vs. altar.  How do we say no to civic religion – the worship of country – in favor of worship of the God we meet in Jesus?  And 4) Peace vs. violence.  How do we as Christians say reject the violence our world seems to be built on, the violence many of us benefit from, and choose peace instead?

Obviously much more could be said about any of those things.  I said I left that night feeling like my life had been changed.  The truth is I don’t know if it really was.  These are issues I continue to struggle with – on my better days when I don’t forget them completely.  But I thought of this talk again this week, because I think what Bishop Storey was telling us is that we have to not only see what God sees – that inequality is wrong, or that peace is better than violence – but also to choose what God chooses.

Remember back on Palm Sunday, when we talked about Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, and how he perhaps arrived at the same time as the Romans who came to keep order in the city for Passover – this makeshift parade following some guy on a donkey coming from one side of the city, regiments of war horses and soldiers in gleaming armor come from the other?

It’s one thing to say, yeah, that guy on a donkey – he’s humble, he’s holy, he comes in peace.

It’s another thing to actually risk joining his parade.

I wonder how this world could be different if we as Christians were truly willing to throw our weight behind the kingdom that doesn’t make any worldly sense: to take the risk of solidarity with those who are least valued by the world around us, to put our money where our mouth is when we say all are welcome, to lay down our arms, literally or metaphorically, and not count on the power of violence to save us; to value generosity and hospitality and mercy over all the things the world around us values?

Would you be willing to throw your weight behind David when the world has other kings to offer?

Are you willing to call Jesus king in a world that values everything else?

We have a faith that says that the poor and the weak and the hungry and the persecuted are blessed.  We have a faith that says the last shall be first.  We have a faith that says life is found in losing ours.  If we can see those things, then let’s dare to live like they are true.