Sunday, October 24, 2021

Phil Kniss: Who God chooses: Breaking the code

God calls David’
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary
1 Samuel 16:1-13

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Here’s my sermon in 10 words—
New story.
Same question.
And the beginnings of an answer.

In our narrative lectionary this fall,
this new story from 1 Samuel 16
brings into sharp focus the same question
we have already pondered multiple times.

I asked the question a few weeks ago
when I noted all the shady characters God chooses
when God needs partners to help heal the world.

Jacob lied to his father to steal the blessing of the firstborn.
Abraham and Isaac, both passed off their wives as sisters,
putting them in harm’s way,
so as to gain a tactical advantage for themselves.

The question is, why in the world
does God choose the people God chooses?

That’s the precise question being asked in today’s story, too.
But this is a different sort of story.
It doesn’t involve morally questionable behavior,
that leads the reader to ask, in reflection,
“Why is God working with these scoundrels?”

Today, the question is not implied,
it’s the central point of the story.
And it’s not the reader asking the question,
every character in the story is wrestling with it.

This is a story about God choosing someone,
and about God’s rationale for the choosing.
It’s one of few places in scripture,
that openly examine God’s rationale.
Even Jesus’ selection of his 12 disciples
doesn’t get this investigative treatment.
It’s simply told matter-of-factly,
that Jesus said to them, “Follow me,” and they followed.

But here, there is an orderly selection process,
run by people who think they have a pretty good idea
about what God wants.
This is a search for a king of Israel.
And a highly unusual search,
in that it’s done in secret,
while the present king is alive and well,
and sitting on the throne.

God rejected the currently reigning King Saul,
because of disobedience, God tells Samuel.
And God directed Samuel to go to the family of Jesse,
and identify the king that God was going to choose.

Now there is a normal way to select ruling monarchs.
And this isn’t it.
Kings don’t campaign for office.
The throne is a birth-right.

So when Samuel was sent to the family of Jesse,
Both Samuel and Jesse knew how this would play out.
Jesse’s family had good DNA.
He was from a good tribe.
And he had a whole line of strong, handsome sons,
of leadership caliber,
all capable of leading an army into warfare,
which, in the Ancient Near East,
was the main job of the King.

Just by identifying the family of Jesse,
God’s work was already done here, so it would seem.
There was a code for this situation,
and Samuel and Jesse knew the code.
The first-born son was the first choice.
The only way it wouldn’t be him,
is if something glaring disqualified him.
In which case, it would be the second son,
and on down the line.
If Samuel just followed the code,
he wouldn’t need much help from God at this point.
But we already know something about Samuel.
He’s a listener.
Remember last Sunday’s story of the boy Samuel in the night?
“Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
When Samuel listened for God’s affirmation of the #1 son,
the affirmation didn’t come.
Nor did it come for son #2.
Nor 3 through 7.

Son #8 was absent.
Sometimes we like to think of this as a kind of Cinderella story.
That son #8 was somehow despised by the rest of the family,
and therefore intentionally left out in the fields.
I rather doubt that.
At least, there’s no evidence of that in the text.
Fact is, someone needed to tend the sheep out in the fields,
and it was kind of a thankless job, so naturally,
the junior member of the family got stuck with it.

I assume father Jesse did not call David in from the fields
when he found out what Samuel came there to do,
because he was sure the oldest son would get picked,
or if (for some strange reason) it wasn’t him,
surely the second oldest.
This was a leader of armed forces being selected.
Jesse knew there was no way
it would go all the way down the line
bypassing all of the older seven strong and capable sons.
So it was an act of kindness, and practicality,
not to send his servants by foot
for many miles into the wild,
and drag David home for no good reason.

But when the unimaginable happened,
and the older seven were passed over,
Jesse stepped right up.
Yes, there’s a younger son.
And yes, we’ll go get him.

Then comes the best line in the story.
See, earlier, as they are going down the line of older sons,
and noting how strong and handsome they looked,
God spoke to Samuel,
“Do not consider his appearance.” . . . and . . .
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at.”
“People look at the outward appearance,
but the Lord looks at the heart.”

But the moment David appears,
the narrator of the story gushes, and I quote,
“He was glowing with health,
and had a fine appearance,
and handsome features.”
Clearly, King material, from all appearances.

And in fact, the Lord chose David.
The youngest.
Shaped by life as a sheep-herder.
Tough, and sensitive.
A poet, we would later learn.
One who must have,
after living a solitary life in the wild,
been deeply attuned to the rhythms of nature,
and attuned to himself,
to his inner life.

And . . . as the story of David unfolds,
we find out he was a passionate person . . .
one who felt, deeply . . .
one who was, you might say, a bit obsessive, and impulsive . . .
Whatever he decided to do, he was all in.
All in.
Whole-hearted, no holding back.

Now, as far as Jesse and the older sons were concerned,
and as far as Samuel was concerned,
and, it seems, as far as the narrator of the story was concerned,
those character traits were not even on the radar.

No, they were looking for physical health and strength,
suitable for leading a mighty army of fighting men.
They were looking for a kind of machismo
that would command a following,
a charisma that would attract people,
and keep them loyal as subjects.
And David checked off all the boxes.

But the reader is tipped off that God was looking for something else.
God was looking for a certain tilting of the heart,
a worshipful orientation toward God,
an all-in kind of love and passion for God.

And yes, I’m getting this from clues outside this story.
There’s only a hint of it here,
in what God tells Samuel.
But elsewhere, God calls David “a man after my own heart.”
And elsewhere, we read of David’s exploits—
and David’s passionate heart—
a heart he gives away to others quickly and freely—
to Jonathan, to Michal, to Abigail, to Bathsheba—
a heart which sometimes gets him into deep trouble,
when he acts before thinking things through—
a heart willing to repent when needed,
a heart that spills out with
some of the most emotional poetry ever written,
found in Psalms—
bitter laments and soaring high praise.
Nothing lukewarm there.
All passion.
All heart.

Nothing in today’s story makes us think
that anyone in the story broke the code—
the code that reveals God’s true rationale.
Neither Jesse, nor the older seven, nor Samuel,
nor even the narrator of the story
seems to get it.
They’re all focused on the capacity to lead an army.
The storyline itself assumes that was God’s rationale.

But the key to breaking the code,
the key to finding an answer to our burning question
of why God chooses the way God does—
that key is found in looking at the larger story.

It is found as we see David’s life unfold,
in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, and in the Psalms.
And it is found most clearly in the person of Jesus,
who is sometimes called, not coincidentally, the “Son of David.”

We are familiar with the many hard teachings of Jesus,
that encourage his disciples, that encourage us . . . to go all in,
to hold nothing back,
to risk all for the kingdom—
to shed all restraint,
to turn the house upside down to find one lost coin
to leave 99 sheep alone, to find one stray,
to throw a lavish party, when the bad son returns,
and of course, to lay down our lives and carry our cross.

This was not new teaching by Jesus.
He was representing the same faith tradition
found throughout the Hebrew scriptures.
When someone asked Jesus about the greatest commandments,
he quoted, of course, the Torah.

We heard the quote in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 22:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind.’
This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
All the Law and the Prophets
hang on these two commandments.”

God is looking for people who can love like that!
When God looks for people to join with in common purpose,
God is looking for people who can love like that!

With all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength.
And with the same fervor we have in loving God,
we love our neighbors, and ourselves.
We even love neighbors
who happen to be enemies or adversaries.
We lay cold rationalism aside.
And we invest,
beyond what any market analysis would suggest.
We go in, with all our heart.

So who did God choose in the Bible?
And who does God choose today?

I am coming to believe that
God chooses those who have a fire in their belly.
Who are passionate.
Even slightly obsessed.

So, do people who lead with their heart sometimes fail?
Do the passionate occasionally misdirect their passions?
Do the obsessed every so often take the wrong fork in the road?
Do the fired up sometimes flame out?
Yes, yes, yes . . . and yes.

King David certainly did.
But he remained open in heart.
He learned, like Samuel, to listen.
And when called for, he repented, and changed course.

These are the ones God chooses.
I’ll bet the oldest seven sons of Jesse
would have made fine military commanders.
But if they lacked a humble heart tilted toward God,
they would have been long forgotten as leaders in God’s story.

Unlike the very flawed David,
who kept following his heart,
kept listening,
kept adjusting course,
kept seeking reconciliation with God.
And is remembered and admired, to this day.
Oh, for a heart like David’s.

one You see, O God, as we cannot see.
        You perceive the state of the heart, 
        and act according to your love and wisdom and mercy.
all Forgive us, O God, for judging others too quickly.
        Help us to see what you see.
one You look upon all of us whom you have created,
        and see reflected in us your own image,
        even when we have distorted or obscured that image.
all Forgive us, O God, for diminishing your image in us.
        Help us to love what you love.
one With the aid of your Holy Spirit, today we recommit ourselves to . . .
all Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, mind,
        and love our neighbors as ourselves.
one In deepest gratitude, we receive your forgiveness and grace.
        Renewed in spirit, we walk in your light and love.

—Phil Kniss, October 24, 2021

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