Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 29, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 2, Scene 4 — Divided Lives”

 

Texts:  2 Samuel 11:1-15 and Psalm 14  •   Ephesians 3:14-21  •   John 6:1-21

To the one able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  Amen.

Today we come to one of the most infamous and troubling stories in scripture, and certainly in the stories of King David and his dynasty.  It is a story of rapacious desire, cowardly murder, and unrepentant shame — and it will take us two weeks to fully tell.  This week we will hear what happened, just the facts.  Next week we will hear how God, through the prophet Nathan, confronts the evil David has done.

But before we delve into the story, I want you to open your bulletins and find the second reading, the one from Ephesians that Wendy read to us a few minutes ago.  I’m going to re-read verses 16-19, and I want you to hold this passage in mind when we return to the story of David and Bathsheba.

Paul writes to the Ephesians,

I pray that, according to the riches of [God’s] glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [the] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is for us as well, that we would be strengthened in our inner beings as we are rooted and grounded in love, and that we would comprehend how fully we are loved by God in Christ Jesus.  Without the knowledge and conviction of that love, we might never find the strength to look at our inner being, and would surely never find the strength to confront what dwells there.  By that love, however, God is able to accomplish far more in us than we could ever ask or imagine.  Now back to the story…

It begins ominously.  “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.”  Since meeting David as a boy, he has been known to us as one who was unafraid of battle, always confident in his engagements with enemies much larger and stronger than himself.  The power of his courage and his victories drew a literal army of supporters to David, and through that army he won the love of the people.

David was exactly the king that the people of Israel had demanded from the prophet Samuel.  He took them from being a loose group of confederated tribes to being a nation like those that surrounded them and who had terrorized and defeated them in battle.  In fear the people had asked for an earthly king to strengthen and protect them.  They got what they’d asked for, but they forgot what the prophet Samuel foretold about the price paid for the protection of kings.  Do you remember what he told them?

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves…

It’s a long list, but you don’t have to memorize the items to remember the actions.  Samuel said, “he will take, he will take, he will take… and you shall be his slaves.”  The God of Israel, who liberated the people from the slavery of one monarch in Egypt, foretold that the love of power, the misplaced faith in war to create peace, would return to people to slavery from which God is always laboring to liberate us.

So, when did the problems start?  Almost immediately after David was named king over the united tribes of both Judah and Israel.  You remember two weeks ago, when we heard the story of David dancing before the people as the ark of the covenant was moved to the new capital city, the one they began calling the “City of David,” Jerusalem.  There was a warning sign then, as people began to treat the presence of God too casually, presuming God could be moved about like a piece on a chess board.

There was another warning last week, as David proposed to build a house for the LORD to match the one he had first built for himself.  If you were here last week you’ll still hear Pastor David Weasley, our guest from The Night Ministry, reminding us that David “had it wrong about houses” — as so often we do as well.  It is not David who makes a house for God, but God who makes a house for David.

An important shift takes place in the relationship between God and Israel at the end of that story that I want to recall to our minds.  After setting David in his place on this matter of houses, God declares,

“I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.  When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.  But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure before me; your throne shall be established forever.”  (2 Sam. 7:14-16)

Scholars of Hebrew scripture point to this as a pivotal moment not only in the relationship between God and David, but between God and the people.  Until this point, God’s covenants have been conditional — if you will do such, then I will be your God and you will be my people.  It is the language of contracts and law.  Now God declares a new relationship in unconditional language — when you falter and fail, nevertheless I will not take my love away.  It is the language of family and love.

But, as anyone who has helped raise a child knows, love still sets limits and sometimes we allow natural consequences help us teach our children what will and will not harm them.  This is what is meant when God says, “when he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use with blows inflicted by human beings.”  God seems to be saying here, “I will not abandon you, but when you act unjustly there will be human consequences.  I won’t have to punish you.  The ‘blows inflicted by human beings’ will take care of that for me.  Nevertheless, I will always love you.”

Now this new covenant is put to the test.  True to the prophet Samuel’s prediction, the king who once led the people in battle now takes the people’s sons and sets them as his foot soldiers and charioteers, staying behind in Jerusalem while he sends them to fight and die in his place.  Because he is not with the people, fighting alongside them, but rather remains at home enjoying the privileges of being the king, he enjoys the luxury of a stroll along the rooftop of his castle during which he sees a beautiful woman, Bathsheba.  David asks who she is, and he’s told that she is married to one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite.  Nevertheless, David does what kings do, he takes, and takes, and takes.  He takes Bathsheba.

If you survey the art that has been created over the centuries to depict this scene from scripture, you notice something very troubling.  Bathsheba always seems to be presented in a seductive pose.  You, as the viewer of the painting, are put in King David’s position — seeing her perhaps as he wanted to see her, as inviting his attention.  But the scriptures give us no indication that she had any awareness of the king.  We’re told that she was following Levitical law, purifying herself after her period.

By contrast, David is breaking the law, on numerous levels.  Viewed through the lens of the law at that time, he is not only taking another man’s wife, but he is touching her during a time when she was ritually unclean.  David shows utter contempt for the law, setting his own desires above the customs and rituals observed by the people since the time of Moses.

Perhaps most troubling to us, as modern listeners, but most importantly to Bathsheba herself, is her almost absolute silence in this story.  The only words given to her come as she sends her report to the king after he has taken her — I think we must assume against her will.  She sends word to the palace, “I am pregnant.”

Can you imagine what must have gone through Bathsheba’s mind when she discovered she was pregnant?  Would she have feared the king, that he might try and dispose of the evidence of his misconduct?  That she might be disappeared?  Would she have feared her husband, who would return from the war to find his wife pregnant, and her unable to say how it had happened for fear of her life, or his life?  What options did she have, when everyone around her held more power than she by virtue of their gender or station.  What must she have felt when the only power she could appeal to was the one who had harmed and imperiled her in the first place?

The rest of the story is one long, failed attempt at a cover up.  The king has Uriah the Hittite brought back from the war and tries to get him to sleep with his wife so that the child growing within her might be believed to be Uriah’s son instead of David’s.  But Uriah shows a solidarity with the people that David has lost.  Uriah will not accept the comforts of home and hearth while his comrades remain on the front lines of battle.  Even after David gets him drunk, Uriah refuses to return home and sleep with his wife.  So David sends him back to war, and realizing that he will someday have a new enemy to deal with once Uriah realizes what has happened, he arranges to have his loyal subject killed on the fields of battle.

As we will hear next week, this marks the beginning of the end for David’s reign.  The natural consequences of his behavior set in motion of chain of events that divide David’s own household and lead to the separation of the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah, and eventually the entire people are taken into exile.  The nation crumbles, and it begins when David the king loses the personal integrity that once made him great.

That is, perhaps, where this story becomes most instructive for us.  None of us here are kings, so this story — so full of pathos and drama — strikes us as juicy and lurid, but perhaps also irrelevant.  At least we might like to imagine that to be the case.  In all likelihood, we share more in common with Bathsheba, a victim of sexual violence as too many people still are in this day and age; or with Uriah, carrying out our duties as best we know how, not able to see how power is moving around us, conspiring to crush us as it covers up its own complicity in our deaths.

But because this story is told with David as its central character, and because by faith we take the promises made to David as promises made to us as well, the scripture here invites us to at least try and imagine ourselves in David’s place and to wonder alongside him how our ego stories mask the inner divisions that separate us from our integrity and undermine the people we were anointed to be in our baptisms.

In his book “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life,” Parker J. Palmer — a name familiar to many of you from his books on education, leadership and vocation — discusses the tragic consequences for each of us and for the world when we divorce our soul from our role, as David has in this tragic story.  He writes,

“As we cross the rising terrain between infancy and adolescence — still close enough to our origins to be in touch with inner truth but aware of the mounting pressure to play someone else ‘out there‘ — the true self starts to feel threatened.  We deal with the threat by developing a child’s version of the divided life, commuting daily between the public world of role and the hidden world of soul…

As the outer world becomes more demanding — and today it presses in on children at an obscenely early age — we stop going to our rooms, shutting the door, walking into the wardrobe [a reference to the imaginary moral world created by C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia], and entering the world of the soul.  And the closer we get to adulthood, the more we stifle the imagination that journey requires.  Why? Because imagining other possibilities for our lives would remind us of the painful gap between who we most truly are and the role we play in the so-called real world.

As we become more obsessed with succeeding, or at least surviving, in that world, we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles.  The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult — at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large.  Is is a cost that can be itemized in ways known to many of us:

  • We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
  • We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.
  • The light that is within us cannot illuminate the world’s darkness.
  • The darkness that is within us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light.
  • We project our inner darkness on others, making ‘enemies’ of them and making the world a more dangerous place.
  • Our inauthenticity and projections make real relationships impossible, leading to loneliness.
  • Our contributions to the world — especially through the work we do — are tainted by duplicity and deprived of the life giving energies of true self.

“A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life” by Parker J. Palmer (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 2004) pp. 15-16.

He may not have had King David in mind, but do you see how Parker Palmer’s description of the divided life applies to King David’s story?  Somewhere along that journey from childhood to adulthood David, the boy we met out in the fields tending to his sheep, lost sight of who he was.  He forgot what is was to be a care-giver, divorcing his shepherd’s soul from his kingly role.  The results of his divided life bore tragic consequences for himself and for the life of the community.

You may not see your story in David’s, but have you ever detected the symptoms of the divided life Parker Palmer lists?  The sense of inauthenticity or invisibility in certain spheres of life, whether that be at your workplace or in your marriage.  The search for an ever-elusive “something” missing from your life.  The harsh division of the world into right and wrong, good and bad, us and them.  The dimming of your own joyful light.  The persistent weight of so much internal darkness.  Loneliness that clings to you, even when surrounded by crowds of people, even while resting with those who know you best.

The divided life begins with little cracks in our integrity, and grows into crevasses between our “public lives” and our “private lives.”  What the story of King David reminds us this morning is that this imagined division is really an illusion.  There is no such thing as the person you “have” to be at the office, and the person you are with your family and friends.  You are the person who acts as you do across each of these situations.  A lack of integrity in any area of life leads, sooner or later, to a lack of integrity throughout your life for the simple reason that each of us is given only one life.  Compartmentalization, a functional myth that serves the interests of our employers, is a euphemism for self-denial.

All of which brings us back to Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, which I believe is God’s desire for each of us this morning and throughout all the days of our lives.  Paul prays that we would each be “strengthened in our inner being,”  which I hear today as the call to live an undivided life, where inner and outer are reflected in each other, where the personal and the public display strong congruence.  Paul prays for us to have integrity.

But Paul’s prayer doesn’t stop there, because in his day as in ours, the pressures placed on our inner beings are tremendous, even more than we can begin to imagine resisting.  So Paul assures us that we are not expected to dredge up from somewhere within our depths the power to live the undivided life.  Rather, we are promised that there is a power already at work within us that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine; and that this is the power from whom every family — David’s family and our families — take their names; and that this power is rooting and grounding us in a power that is almost incomprehensible in its breadth and length and height and depth.

The name of this power is the “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” which means that it is true for you whether you know it or not, whether you can feel it or not, whether you believe it or not. We are called to live undivided lives, lives healed by the love that is our birthright, unconditional love of the God who has made each of us members of one family and who feeds us at one table.

Over the coming week, I’d like to invite you to pay attention to the places in your life where you feel yourself pulled to perform your “public” identity.  As you’re able, try to slow yourself down enough to check in with yourself and ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?”  Notice what thoughts or feelings arise for you in response to that question, maybe even right them down.  Those imaginings of the cost or consequence of being yourself are important pieces of information about what stands between this present moment and your one, precious, undivided life.  Try not to let this become an exercise in self-judgement, just a moment of reflective examination.  Above all, remember that you are held by a love that always present to you, that is already at work in you — healing you, restoring you, and setting you free.

In the name of love,

Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 24, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 1, Scene 3 — Forces of Nature”

Texts:  1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 18:10-16 and Psalm 133  •   2 Corinthians 6:1-13  •   Mark 4:35-41

You’ll remember that we’ve been reading through the books of 1 & 2nd Samuel this summer, hearing the stories of the formation of the nation of Israel, and their demand for a king.  Last week we read the story of shepherd boy David who was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be king. I preached about the differences between the David, the boy God had chosen, and Saul, the king God had rejected.

If these stories have piqued your interest at all and you’ve been reading First Samuel in between Sundays, then you might have noticed some odd features of chapters 15-18, the chapters we’ve been covering in worship this week and last.  First of all, just like the book of Genesis has two different accounts of the creation story, and the New Testament has four different gospels with four different perspectives on the Jesus story, the book of First Samuel has three different stories in these four chapters about how the boy David is introduced to King Saul.  In fact, David is “introduced” to Saul on four separate occasions — so, either Saul has a horrible memory for faces and names, or (and this is the prevailing view) First Samuel has preserved and presented a set of oral traditions, legends, about the relationship between the House of Saul and the shepherd king, David.

Saul, you’ll remember, was chosen to be the first king over Israel.  He’s described as being tall and handsome, his father was a man of wealth.  He was, in short, the kind of person typically chosen to lead.  After being anointed by the prophet Samuel, Saul leads Israel’s armies into battle against the Ammonites, the Amalekites and the Philistines.  He calms the people’s fears by charging into battle, by going on the offensive.  Over time he comes to be ruled by his own fears — his fear that the people will turn against him or abandon him.  In his fear he abandons his faith in God, and begins to build monuments to his own strength and success and offers worship and sacrifices on his own timeline and not the LORD’s.

That’s the recap from last week.  That’s the first force of nature we’re dealing with today: fear.  Fear is a powerful force, and a particularly destructive one precisely because it separates us from our own nature.  Even as Saul’s tragic reign comes to an end, even as his authority is crumbling, scripture is clear that he is still loved by God and the prophet Samuel.  But fear has kept him from faith, and so he has become a prisoner to his own paranoia.

Have you known people like this — people who were so obviously gifted in remarkable ways, but whose attention was always on what they didn’t have, or what they were afraid they might lose?   Or, maybe this has been your story.  Maybe you live in a state of fear and anxiety about what the people around you would say or do if they knew the real you.  If they knew what you’d done.  If they knew what you’d left undone.  If they knew the secrets you try to keep hidden inside. It’s tragic, isn’t it, to see someone whose life is governed by fear.

By contrast, David is presented as all that Saul is not.  Saul is tall and handsome — perhaps manly and ruggedly good-looking.  David is small and youthful, red-faced but eyes sparkling with a heart filled with love.  Saul armed himself with a spear and a shield.  David carried a harp in his hands and a song on his lips.

When we finally come to the famous battle scene between David and the Philistine giant, Goliath, Saul tries to make David be the kind of man who can win a fight.  He loads him down with armor and a heavy sword and sends him forth for battle.  David takes a few steps in Saul’s armor and realizes it’s no good.  So, he strips the armor off and drops the sword, taking up his shepherd’s staff and slingshot to face the mighty giant.

On any other Sunday I might not say this, but given that it’s Pride Sunday and that some of our friends are not here this morning because they are already lining up for the march that starts at noon, and others of us will be leaving directly after worship to march with them, I can’t help but notice that this is a coming out story of sorts.  David is not the kind of man Saul expects can win a fight.  He’s not the kind of man his father expected had any shot at being chosen as king.  But David knows who he is.  He is able to face down a foe much larger than him, much stronger than him, because he is unafraid to be himself.  He will wear no armor and carry no weapons other than the ones he’s used to take care of his flock.

David, too, is presented as a force of nature.  Against all odds, he defeats his foes.  Time after time in the stories that follow, Saul sends David out into battle against impossible odds, but David returns victorious.  What distinguishes David from Saul is not his size or his strength, but his faith.  His trust in God gives him the strength to remain himself as power and popularity come his way.  Soon the entire nation is singing his song, but David remains himself.

In a 2006 article in U.S. News and World Report titled, “Truly Authentic Leadership,” Bill George — the former CEO of Medtronic and professor at Harvard Business School writes,

What, then, is the 21st-century leader all about?  Is it being authentic, uniquely yourself, the genuine article. Authentic leaders know who they are. They are “good in their skin,” so good they don’t feel the need to impress or please others. They not only inspire those around them, they bring people together around a shared purpose and a common set of values and motivate them to create value for everyone involved…Authentic leaders know the “true north” of their moral compass and are prepared to stay the course despite challenges and disappointments. They are more concerned about serving others than they are about their own success or recognition.

Have you people like this — people who have every reason to boast, but remain humble in the presence of praise.  People who, on the outside, seemed like unlikely leaders, but who gathered people around them by the power of their authenticity?  People whose integrity inspired loyalty and who courage inspired action?  People like young David, whose power came from his ability to be his own kind of man, to overcome obstacles by being himself — not in spite of himself.

This kind of authenticity is extremely attractive.  People flock to it.  In the case of David, one man in particular is drawn to him, the king’s own son, Jonathan.  Here’s what the bible says,

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.  Jonathan stripped himself of the robe he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.

Here is yet another force of nature, the power of love.  Lots of ink has been spilled on the question of whether or not the love between Jonathan and David was more than brotherly, or whether it’s symbolic of the shift of power from Saul to David.  I tend to think we find what we go looking for (or avoid finding what we don’t want to see).  To my eyes and ears, this story seems to go to great lengths to portray the depth of love between David and Jonathan as being incredibly intimate.

Consider the actions Jonathan takes as he makes his covenant with David.  He strips himself of all the signs of his father’s house.  Jonathan, the crown prince who might be expected to inherit the throne upon his father’s death, hands his birthright over to the one he loves.  There’s also a kind of mirroring, or repetition, going on here as well.  Just as David rejected Saul’s armor and weapons when he went out to face Goliath, so too Jonathan rejects all the clothing and accoutrements of his father’s house as he joins his soul to David’s.

Again, on any other Sunday I might just let this slip by, but how often does this text present itself on the very Sunday that we celebrate with pride the progress and accomplishments made by the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer communities?  And how many of you, or your friends or co-workers, can tell a similar story of having to pick between the love of another and loyalty to your family?

There are people in this congregation, and not just LGBTQ people, who have stories to share about being in the terrible position of having to pick between love and loyalty.  These are stories of tremendous pain and horrible heart break precisely because it’s never as simple as love for a partner and loyalty to one’s family.  There is also love for our family, and loyalty to those with whom we have fallen in love.  Jonathan makes a covenant with David, not the covenant of marriage that was unavailable to him, but a set of promises no less deep and life-changing and true.  Then he imitates his beloved, David, and comes out of his father’s armor and armaments.

I know that some of you feel like there’s been a lot of politics in the pulpit as of late.  You may wonder what all this has to do with you and the concerns of your own private lives outside the scope of global politics and national elections.  What I love about these stories from First and Second Samuel is that they don’t separate the personal from the political.  Israel’s demand for a king is a national problem, but the trouble with Saul stem from a personal problem that plagues us all: fear.  David’s selection as the new king is a pivotal moment in Israel’s story, but it is his faith in God that gives him the courage to remain himself, to be authentic as a human being in this role to which he has been called.

That’s why these stories are our stories.  It is our memory of God’s love, first learned from family and friends, that gives us the courage to face the storms of this world.  It is knowing who we truly are, each of us, that allows us to be something truly powerful — a force of nature — acting in the world.  It is love that ties us together, calling us beyond our little tribes, our unwieldy weapons of prejudice and our arduous armors of pointless protection.  Like David, our strength comes from the Lord, and for that reason we, like the apostle Paul, can proclaim to those who gather on the streets and those who remain trapped in closets built by fear,

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry…we have spoken frankly to you…our heart is wide open to you.  There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return — I speak to you as children — open your hearts also. (2 Cor. 6:1-13)

Beloved children of God, anointed in baptism and joined to the body of the prince of peace and the lord of lords, on this day and every day, God calls you to leave behind fear and embrace with pride all that you were made to be.  No matter who you are, who you love, where you come from, what language you speak; no matter the size of your body or the size of your bank account; you are God’s and God’s love is yours.  Claim the power of your precious being, love yourself and one another, and together we will be the force of nature by which God will change the world.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 17, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 1, Scene 2 — The Unexpected King”

Texts:  1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 and Psalm 20  •   2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17  •  Mark 4:26-34

So, for those of you who weren’t here last week, just a quick word to orient you to what’s going on with this summer worship series.  We’re following a set of readings called the “semi-continuous series” that trace the rise of the House of David in Israelite history, the stories of how God’s people went from being a loose confederation of tribes governed by a series of judges to a nation under the rule of a king.

Since last week, I’ve given this series a name — which you’ll see on the front cover of your bulletin.  I’m calling it “A Game of Thrones” after the books and the HBO series by the same name.  These books by George R. R. Martin (who has been hailed as the American J.R.R. Tolkein) tell the story of seven noble families fighting for control of the throne in a medieval fantasy setting.  After watching two seasons of the television show, I’ve finally started reading the novels this summer, and I’m hooked.  Like, up reading into the wee hours of the night hooked.  They’re good.

And so are these stories from the books of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings.  When I was a very young boy, I remember that these were my favorite stories in my illustrated children’s bible.  Even as I grew older, once I had my first “real” bible, these were the stories I wanted to read the most.  It’s not hard to understand.  For a kid who gravitated to comic books and sci-fi/fantasy, these stories felt familiar.  A boy hero who fells a giant with a slingshot isn’t all that different from the boy wonder, sidekick to the caped crusader.  Children look for images of other children in story books and movies as they are growing up to give them glimpses of who they might become.

Quite a bit has happened in the gap between last week’s story, where the people demand from the prophet Samuel a king like the other nations, and this week, where Samuel travels to anoint David, the son of Jesse.  In between, there’s been a whole other king, Saul.

Like David, Saul tended to his father’s animals in the field. His father, Kish, was a man of wealth and Saul is described as tall and handsome.  The scriptures say, “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”  Saul sort of stumbles into the monarchy, out in the fields looking for his father’s lost donkeys.  Instead he finds Samuel, who has been waiting on God to show him who to name as Israel’s king.  In their initial exchange Samuel says to Saul, “And on whom is all Israel’s desire fixed if not on you and on all your ancestral house?” Saul answers, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why have you spoken to me in this way?”

This introduces a theme that runs through our scriptures this morning, that God consistently chooses what is small and weak to upend what is mighty and established.  In the opening chapters of First Samuel the prophet’s mother, Hannah, has sung a song remarkably like the magnificat that Jesus’ mother, Mary, will later sing.  Both women declare that the greatness of God lies in the fact that God casts down the mighty and raises up the weak.  Later, Jesus shares a similar vision for the reign of God come near, offering a parable of the mustard seed — “which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

A friend of mine, Dr. Jeremy Posadas, who serves as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, dropped the following bit of theology in a recent Facebook post.  He writes,

The central message of the Bible is NOT God’s UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, but rather God’s PREFERENTIAL OPTION FOR THE POOR. In my heyday as a church-based organizer for LG(BT) inclusion, I proclaimed and trained others to proclaim that “the central message of the Bible is God’s unconditional and redeeming love for humankind.” But I realize now how much that framework subtly reinforces Christian / churchly tendencies toward INDIVIDUAL care rather than SYSTEMIC revolt – toward INCLUSION (of others) rather than DISRUPTION (of our own ways) – toward CHARITY, rather than JUSTICE. God does NOT love the part of humankind that leaves the poor to die – in fact, God HATES that part of humankind and wants to destroy it in all forms. And God DOES set a condition for participating in God’s love: be metanoia’d [to repent, my addition] from structures and practices that perpetuate poverty, or you cannot take part of the reign of God.

Yes, there are people who post heavy-duty theology on Facebook.

This is not to say that God doesn’t love us, but that this may not be the only, or even the central message of scripture.  That, beyond being loved, we are called to participate in the love of God, that takes sides.  That picks a king from the humblest of all tribes, that picks a king who is the youngest among his brothers, that picks a king born among an occupied people.  God’s consistency is rather remarkable.  God takes sides, and God sides with those who have the least and need the most, because God has the most to give — and those who belong to God are called upon to give the most as well.

So, Samuel anoints the Benjaminite, Saul, to be king.  Things begin well enough.  Saul rallies the people behind him and, together, they drive off the Ammonites — some vicious bullies who had threatened to gauge our the right eye of every Israelite (I’m telling you, these stories are good!).  Samuel, believing that he has successfully transitioned the people from his care into Saul’s rulership, delivers a farewell address that reminds everyone of his misgivings with the whole idea of kings, but hopes for the best.

Saul begins a series of military campaigns, and as he grows more and more successful, he becomes less and less faithful.  He offers inappropriate sacrifices to God, and sets up a monument to himself upon the mountain. The word of the LORD comes to Samuel: because Saul has rejected God’s authority, God will reject Saul’s authority.  He will no longer be king.  Samuel confronts Saul with this word, which is hard for Saul to accept. Finally though he admits, “I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the LORD.”

But Samuel knows that there is no coming back from the taste of power Saul has experienced.  Kingship has gone to his head, which was the worry all along.  He tells Saul, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.”  And as Samuel turns to leave, Saul reaches out and grabs the hem of his robe, and it tears.  In a retort worthy of any prime-time drama, Samuel responds, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.”  After that, Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, and the search was on for a new king.

Now, before we allow David onto the scene, I think we need to debrief the tragedy of Saul’s short-lived reign.  Remember, that before Samuel came and anointed Saul with the mantle of the monarchy, he was simply the tall, good-looking son of a wealthy donkey herder.  He was enjoying some measure of prosperity, but he does not appear to have been looking for more out of life.  It is the people who call out for a king, and it is Samuel who transforms that mandate into a monarch.  Then, once he has been made king, Saul tries his best to unite the people, he wins them some victories against their foes — which is exactly why the people had cried out for a king — and he begins to get a sense of himself as a strong, military leader.  Soon he is offering sacrifices and erecting monuments, but he says that he has simply done what the people wanted “because [he] feared the people and obeyed their voice.”

The people got the king they wanted, the king they called out for.  They got a strong military leader who defended them against the wrath of neighboring lands.  But God sees that, in the process, they have transferred their trust wholly to this king.  Now the king offers sacrifices.  Now the king is the object of their adoration.  The king, whom the people asked for out of fear, has begun to rule the people out of fear of their disapproval.  It’s not that God has become jealous of Saul, the king.  It’s that the people and their king are ruling one another in a cycle of uninterrupted fear, and fear is the root of all kinds of evil.

People of God, where do you detect fear ruling the nation?  Take a second to think about this question.  Where do you sense that our way of life as a people is governed by fear?  If it would help you to think through this question, feel free to turn to someone sitting next to you and ask them, “where do you see fear ruling our nation?” I’ll give you about a minute to mull this over together.

Alright.  Now I’m going to ask you to try a fill-in-the-blank exercise.  I’ll give you the beginning of a sentence, and I want you to come up with the ending.  As you think about that aspect of our life together as a nation where you sense that we are being governed by fear, how would you complete this petition: “Lord, give us the courage to .”

Jot that down somewhere, maybe on the back of your bulletin, and when we come to the prayers of the people, I’d invite you to consider offering that simple, one-sentence prayer for courage.

It takes courage for Samuel to hit the road in search of a new king.  He had grown to love Saul, even though he could no longer support him.  His allegiance was to something larger than any candidate, any king.  His allegiance was to God, and the world God was working to bring into being by and for the young, the weak, and the small.  People like David, the shepherd-boy.  This time Samuel is not drawn in by the height or appearance of his older brother, Eliab, or any of the qualities possessed by his other brothers.

Instead, Samuel sees with the eyes of God a person filled with courage, a boy will will topple the giants that surround him, a man who will rule out of love, not fear.  Samuel anoints David, a candidate for king so unlikely that his father had not even bothered to call him in from the fields.

If one so small could be used to do such large things, then who is to say that God doesn’t have equally grand, or even greater, plans for you?  Baptized into the body of Christ, you have been united with the one we call king of kings and lord of lords.  When you were brought to the font and washed in these waters, you also were anointed with oil and marked with the sign of the cross, signifying your royal lineage and your calling to take part in toppling the giants of this day and age and creating a world ruled by love and not fear.

As a child, I loved to read the stories of the boy who became king.  They gave me a place to imagine myself as one called by God to do great things.  What I was too young to realize was, I was right.  God is calling me to do great things with my life, and God is calling you to do great things with your life.  God is calling all of us to set aside any story about ourselves that disqualifies us from acting powerfully.  God is calling us to set aside the fears that coerce us into giving up our power and looking for someone taller, or better-looking, or wealthier, or stronger to solve our problems for us.  God discourages us from worshipping at those altars, and calls us instead to be faithful to the one who has created each of us in the image and likeness of God.  No matter how small you have been made to feel, or you believe yourself to be, on this day and every day, God reminds you that God takes sides with the small and the weak, and uses them to build a world where God’s love and God’s justice are one and the same.

We read these stories for glimpses of who we might become.  Today, looking at you with the eyes of God, I see kings and queens. Accept your anointing and join the story once again.

Amen.

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