Sunday, March 26, 2017

Myth Busting

Scripture Reading:    1 Samuel 16:1-13 (NRSV)  

16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, 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.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

This has to be one of the most difficult days of Samuel’s very long life.  It is clear that Saul, the king, has been disobedient.  God has told him to go find the next king, one of the son’s of Jesse from Bethlehem.  And Samuel is afraid, because if Saul hears about it, he’ll have Samuel killed.  He might even do the deed himself!  He is not exactly emotionally stable, you know.

You might wonder how on earth an emotionally unstable man like Saul happened to be chosen king of Israel.  After all, they selected him from among all the men of Israel by using lots, which they believed was the best way to make sure that the choice they made was God’s will.    And it was God’s will that they choose Saul, but in this case, God’s will wasn’t exactly running in line with what the people of Israel thought.  You see, they had come to Samuel saying, “Hey, you’re old.  Your sons are useless.  We need someone to lead us.  Give us a king.”  This upset both Samuel and God, both of whom saw this as Israel rejecting their leadership.  God said, “OK.  First tell them what it will mean to have a king, then let them choose one for themselves.”   So Samuel told them how kings behaved - about taxes and taking their daughters as servants and their sons as soldiers, and about all the excesses kings were prone to and the abuses that kings had been known to perpetrate on their people.  And they said, “We don’t care.  We want to have a king like everybody else.”  God said, “Go for it.”  Then God, who knows everything, including who is best suited to being king, selected Saul to be anointed as king, the people cast lots to determine which man of Israel was to be their king, and surprise!  Saul was the winner.   

Sidebar:  Casting lots wasn’t exactly the same as throwing dice or choosing the short straw.  There was quite a bit of religious ceremony involved, as they firmly believed that God’s hand was the one making the lots fall in order for God’s will to be made known.  Indeed, God’s will was made known in this case, although God’s  choice wasn’t what the people had hoped for when they asked for a king.

Saul thought that being the king meant he was in charge.  And he was certainly very good at being in charge of the armies, defeating everyone he came up against.  But he was disobedient to God. He made rash vows which bound even people who had no chance to know about the vow (which nearly got his son Jonathan killed), he wouldn’t listen to Samuel, he even set up an altar and performed sacrifices to the Lord in Samuel’s absence, as if he was a priest or a prophet.  And God finally said, ‘“Enough is enough.  I have chosen another king to take over Israel from Saul.”  So we arrive at today’s story.  And the myth of David, the shepherd boy.  

Samuel has looked over all of Jesse’s sons, or so he thought.  There was one more, he was told, the youngest, but he was out in the fields keeping the sheep.  And from that one line comes the image of David as the innocent young shepherd, much beloved of the people who illustrate children’s books.  (May we see the next slide, please?)   We love the image of this young boy going up against the wisdom of all the warriors and the leaders of the armies and even the king himself to face the giant Goliath, armed with nothing but a slingshot.  That is so awesome, right?  God took this young man, a child really, and performed a miracle so that Israel would win the victory!  

Or not.   Consider this.  The flocks that Jesse’s youngest son watched represented a large portion of his family’s wealth.  He would be out in the fields with them for weeks, maybe even months, at a time.  He would help ewes deliver their lambs, he would chase down any of the silly things that wandered off and got lost (and for those of you who don’t know, sheep are not the brightest animals on God’s green earth!).  And he protected them from dangers, from lions and tigers and bears, oh my.  OK, not tigers.  But hear what the Bible has to say about the David who was eventually presented to Samuel.  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”    A few verses later, when Saul asks someone to find him a skilled musician to help combat the evil spirits tormenting him, 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.”     An accomplished musician, a skilled warrior, proficient in the use of the sling, a man of valor.  Not a child.  Not an adorable shepherd boy.  A man - a man who had God’s favor from that day forward.  

I know, I hate killing beloved myths.   I love myths and legends.  You should have seen me when I first learned that the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox was an advertising gimmick!  I was devastated.  I was a bit disappointed when these truths about David were pointed out to me, too.  But, we all have to grow up sometime, I suppose.  And the fact of the matter is, this young warrior did go up against Goliath, and did defeat him in what was maybe not quite a fair fight because he was armed with and proficient in the use of one of the deadliest long distance weapons  of the time, and Goliath was expecting hand to hand combat.  (I know, another myth bites the dust.  Sorry.  Not sorry.)

But that’s not the point of today’s story.  The point of today’s story is that Samuel listened to God, went to Bethlehem even though he was fearful that Saul would find out and have him killed.  Samuel listened to God and passed over the first, strong and attractive, son of Jesse, and the second and all of the seven who were presented to him, because no matter how suitable they may have seemed, God knew which one was the right one, and it wasn’t one of them.  And although David was every bit as attractive as his brothers and as strong and as brave, he was the youngest.  The youngest son was rarely ever the one receiving the greatest blessing.  Samuel listened to God even though left to his own human devices (and prejudices) would have chosen the oldest, or the best looking, or the strongest appearing, or the most articulate.   Later, David would be disobedient.  He would commit terrible sins.  He would even be denied permission to build a Temple for God.  But he never lost God’s favor.  He was always “a man after God’s own heart.”  

We have no idea who God is going to choose to do God’s work in the world.  God has made a lot of strange choices.  Rahab, a prostitute, helped God’s people defeat Jericho.  Ruth, a Moabite, became an ancestor of David.   Martin Luther King, Jr., who really only wanted to be the pastor of his church, a church which, by the way, had fired his predecessor for excessive activism, became the leader of the Civil Rights movement.  An Albanian nun who expected to teach all her life, heard God’s call to work with the poor and sick in India, and is now known as Saint Teresa.   So many of God’s choices seem strange to us.  But every choice God makes is the right choice.  Even if the outcome isn’t exactly what was expected, as was the case with Saul, God’s choice is always the right one.  God’s direction is always the right direction.  And we should always listen.

On Wednesday I received a card in the mail with $40 cash inside.  I contacted my friend, who said she was told to send it to me, and that it was supposed to let my light shine.  So I took it with me to the MDA Lockup the very next day and the light of that gift will benefit some child with Muscular Dystrophy.  

When you hear God speaking to you, when that still small voice whispers in the back of your head, or when you are hit upside the head with a God-by-4 (which happens to me much more often than the still, small, voice) - listen!   Even if it seems like a strange direction, listen.   Even if the idea of doing what God says is frightening, as it was to Samuel, listen.  Because the Good News from today’s passage is this - God chooses whom God will, and even if we feel unworthy, even if we think we aren’t good enough, even if we are afraid to step out, even if we think we aren’t the right kind of person to do whatever it is that the voice tells us to do, God’s choices to be his hands and feet and voice in the world are always the right choices. There is no right or wrong kind of person.   God selects us, just as we are, to do whatever best suits the gifts and talents that we have been given, to serve God’s people in the world.    Go out, then, without fear, for God is with you.

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