It happens to me once or twice a year, perhaps: I get to about Friday morning with a text, a sermon feels in some ways like it is just "out of time." I have done my homework, my exegesis, and try to follow where the text leads me. In this case, this week, I've been focused on the unfolding narrative in First Samuel from which we will continue to read over the course of this summer in the Revised Common Lectionary. (Is it track one or track two; I always get confused about that!)
I believe no work in Scripture is ever lost, and some of this may come back again, and maybe even in three years this sermon will be "ripe." But I decided early this morning to scrap it and move on over to the Gospel Reading from the fourth chapter of Mark, and the parable of the mustard seed.
So what to do with all this work? Well, I'm glad I have a blog!
Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. Notice that Samuel is not grieving over Saul because he has died; the problem is that he is still very much alive! Samuel is grieving because Saul has turned out to not be a very good king, and he (Samuel) was the guy who anointed him. He is grieving because he feels responsible for the way things have turned out.
Saul has been a huge disappointment as king. It would be as if Samuel had run a presidential election campaign and got his guy elected, and now he can’t sleep through the night because he realizes the person he helped to elect is completely incompetent. So that’s where Samuel is emotionally. He is grieving, because he was the one who helped Israel transition from a period of judges to a monarchy. While he was personally against the idea from the beginning, he finally got on board and anointed Saul as the first king. And it has turned out to be a disaster.
The Lord is disappointed with King Saul as well. But the Lord is ready to move on. And as is always the case, when the Lord decides to act, helpers are required to be God’s hands and feet in the world. So once again Samuel is being called upon to act. “Go to Bethlehem,” YHWH says to Samuel, “and find me a new king.”
Now here is the thing: what YHWH is asking of Samuel is treason. Because, as I said, Saul is still very much alive. There is no vacancy on the throne! If Saul gets wind of this plan, Samuel will be executed as an enemy of the state. So Samuel isn’t too sure he wants this job. But YHWH insists, telling Samuel, “if anybody asks, just tell them that you are in Bethlehem to worship me. (Which of course is technically true, because to worship me is to do what I ask, and I am asking you to go to Bethlehem now to find me a new king!)”
And so, Samuel arrives at the home of Jesse. Jesse has seven sons—a perfect number in the Bible, a full complement of sons—and they all pass by Samuel. Yet none of them is the one. What next?
Well, it turns out that Jesse actually has eight sons. The suspense is killing us, yes? But who would have thought to bring in the youngest who is out keeping watch of the sheep, the baby of the family? Samuel figures he has come all this way to Bethlehem, however and so if he is already there they might as well wait. They remain standing, however, because this shouldn’t take very long. And then the kid walks in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. He’s the one! Anoint him now!
And then, finally—for the first time in the Bible—we hear the kid’s name. This story is told like those videos we’ll see later this summer at the two political conventions when the candidates are introduced. We will see footage of Obama and Romney as little kids, now fulfilling (or so the videos will suggest) their God-given destinies. This story from the fifteenth chapter of First Samuel is like those videotaped intros and this kid from that little town of Bethlehem is a political consultant’s dream: shepherd, giant killer and very handsome. (There will be rumors of womanizing, but that won’t be made public until much later, when the story of Bathsheba-gate breaks.) Finally, at the end of this long introduction, his name is spoken: this is David.
The fifteenth chapter of First Samuel is about the transfer of political power; it’s about God’s politics. It’ll take a long drawn out coup before Saul is in fact dead and David finally ascends to the throne. But as readers we now know where it is all headed. We’ll be hearing lots more about King David over the course of the next six weeks or so as this summer unfolds, until finally in August we’ll hear about how the second son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon, becomes the third king of Israel. But all of that in due time.
For today, I want to focus on Samuel, for whom this scroll is named, since he is about to fade into the background. As I said, Samuel is breaking the law and committing treason because he believes that this is what YHWH is asking of him. That’s not something to be done lightly and it doesn’t make a very good defense in any court of law if you get arrested and tell the judge, “I did it because God told me to.” The best you may hope for is that you’ll end up in the mental hospital rather than the big house!
Most of us will never have to make a decision with as much at stake as what Samuel had to face. And yet there may in fact be times in our lives when fidelity to God will make the neighbors and maybe even our families think that we are crazy. But all of us have to make choices in the midst of our daily lives. And sometimes the faithful choice is the hard one that goes against the grain—and may even get us into trouble with the law—or at the very least proves to be unpopular.
From the perspective of Samuel, then, I think this is a text about discernment: how do we know what is really the voice of God in the midst of all the other competing claims on our lives? We do well to remember that Samuel didn’t just wake up one day and know how to know that. It’s a learned skill. In fact, if you are reading along in the Book of First Samuel it’s like a scrapbook of his life and it goes by so quickly: in chapter one he’s born after his mother prays to God for a son and by chapter three God is calling. But at first Samuel thinks it is Eli, the priest, who is calling him. Remember? So he keeps getting up and waking Eli up: “did you call me?” No, it wasn’t me, Eli says: go back to bed! It turns out it was God who was calling Samuel, but he didn’t yet recognize God’s voice. So he had to practice listening and praying and trusting until he was able to discern that particular voice in the midst of all of those other voices in his life. By the time he’s an old man that we see before us today, Samuel is pretty well equipped to know what is of God and what is not because he’s been at this for a while.
This weekend we will baptize Colin and Abigail at the 10 a.m. service. Their lives are so uncomplicated at the moment. But the longer I am a pastor, the more I realize how quickly their lives will fly by. This weekend I am baking bread with a group of elementary school kids who are part of the Eucharist Instruction program; it feels like just yesterday that they were being baptized. Even more amazing: I look out now at kids I baptized fifteen years ago and I feel like I just blinked, and some of those kids will be getting letters this summer inviting them to be part of next fall’s confirmation class. I’m not trying to rush any of this faster than it will unfold. I’m just saying that time really is an ever-flowing stream. I am getting used to taking the long view when I celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Along with their parents and godparents, this congregation takes vows this weekend to help raise Colin and Abigail into the full stature of Christ. As simple as their lives may be in this moment in time, we know that they will eventually face decisions and choices over the course of their lives just like Samuel did, and just as we all do. Every now and then a really big decision. But day in and day out so many smaller ones, so many small choices and decisions about friendships and relationships and school and work. Our belief—and our prayer as a faith community that today pours water and anoints with oil—is that their primary identity in life is that each of them is a beloved child of God. Each of them called by name. Our hope as a faith community is that they will never, ever forget this—no matter what and our work as a faith community is to help them to remember, always, that they have been marked and sealed and claimed as Christ’s own forever.
And so we also pray that they will learn from us, and with us, the art of listening for God’s Word. That takes practice—especially in a noisy world. So today, we ask God to give them “inquiring and discerning hearts.” We do well to remember that this won’t all happen today. Baptism represents the beginning of a journey. Here at St. Francis, we seek to raise up Christians into the full stature of Christ—to become mature adults who, like Samuel, practice listening for God’s Word in Scripture and in their own hearts and in the midst of this faith community.
Sometimes people want to get their child baptized as if they were buying fire insurance. And sometimes people want to bring their children to church because they want them to be more moral and ethical. While I’m all for ethics and morality, the rhythms of community life—of common prayer and weekly sharing in the Eucharist, of listening to sermons, and of opening the Bible and learning to pray—are about something greater even than morality. We do all of these things to shape and form a people after God’s own heart. And that takes time. But we keep at it, knowing that over time—over decades even—that faith, and hope, and love in the living God are deepened.
Today in our opening collect we prayed these words:
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…
As we welcome these little children with open arms, we remember again who we are as God’s beloved. We remember that we, too, have been claimed and marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever and that we have been given a mission; or more accurately that God has a mission that we have been invited to be part of. We remember that we are called to be a people, a household, where these old stories are remembered and cherished so that in the midst of our daily lives, we will, like Samuel, be in the habit of listening for God’s Word and the Spirit’s guidance every step of the way.