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.”

 

Advertisements

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.