Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on June 14, 2009.
I Samuel 15:34-16:13
For the summer the focus of our worship will come from the Bible’s stories about David, Israel’s greatest king, the one who rose from relative obscurity to unify the twelve tribes of Israel into one mighty nation. David is the single person the Bible devotes more space than to any other character … more than Paul, more than Jesus, more than Moses. It’s not so much due to his writings even though the Psalms are poetically beautiful. Rather, his importance comes because of his life as the first Bible action figure. What he does is so compelling it seems we can’t keep our eyes off him. But he’s not a cartoonish two-dimensional character described in only heroic terms as if his fame was based solely on mythic stories of exaggerated claims of bravery. The stories of his great failings are also included that make him human. In that sense, he’s complex and complicated.
The Bible claims David was “a man after God’s own heart,” as if even God cannot keep from watching him. But while the light shines bright, David also amply illustrates Jung’s concept of the shadow self because he’s also capable of casting the shadow of shame in his relationship with women and ultimately through his family relationships where his deepest source of pain and personal sorrow were experienced. In the end, he’s heroic and worthy of acclaim for all he accomplished yet at the same time, his story is tragic and flawed. That’s where we’ll be this summer … the stories of King David and the united kingdom of Israel.
Our story today begins with God’s regret over having chosen Saul to be Israel’s king and ends with the surprising selection of David the youngest of Jesse’s sons who will become Israel’s next king. You realize how complicated the story is already as Saul is the reigning king and naming a successor is not typically received well by the king on the throne. Additionally, this is a story of false first perceptions based on nothing more than superficial impressions. In that regard, we are today no further along than Samuel in his day as we make the same mistake and show a preference based on the surfaces of persons (perceived beauty, the color of one’s skin or the build upon which the person is built) rather than on what Martin Luther King called “the content of our character.” And yet Samuel determined he would honor God by sensing and doing what God told him to do. The struggle for him was to silence the voices of superficial preferences and let God lead him to look deeper. And we stand with Samuel in front of the long row of the sons of Jesse.
The Bible claim a man’s glory is in his children and that’s especially true in the case of a man’s sons. We’re left to understand that Jesse the Bethlehemite has been blessed mightily by God to have so many sons – all signs of God’s rich blessings on him. The first son was the most impressive … tall and handsome … surely the one Samuel assumes. When Samuel first saw Eliab, Samuel thought to himself, “Surely, YHWH’s anointed stands before me” (I Samuel 16:6). But YHWH rebuked Samuel for thinking so thinly and said, “Do not regard his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him. For God does not see as humans see. Humans see the face, but God sees the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). It’s not Eliab God had chosen and neither was it the next one or the next one or the next all the way down the line until there were no more. Who was it then, he wondered? So Jesse called for the last son – there was yet one more son who was dutifully tending the sheep, and David, the youngest, was summoned. When David stood before Samuel, he was not the tallest or the most impressive; nevertheless God told Samuel, “This is the one.”
Likely David was rather short. In the lineup of sons, David was described as the youngest, or the “smallest,” as the Hebrew word can be translated either way. Beyond that, we’re told he was ruddy – meaning his hair had a reddish tint to it. Red hair is usually accompanied by fair skin that when exposed to the daily sun of tending sheep, would perhaps mean his skin had a red tones to it. The Bible tells us he had beautiful eyes and was handsome. Was he one Samuel would have picked? Not on your life! But he was the one God nevertheless chose and Samuel looked past all the others and selected least likely young David.
This past April, Britain’s Got Talent, the British TV show that inspired our own American Idol featured an obscure frumpy singer from West Lothian, Scotland. Susan Boyle, a never-married woman pushing fifty stood in front of the three hosts of the show who nearly hooted her off the stage as they rolled their eyes contemptuously at her answers. The crowd quickly joined in and you could hear their snickers at the unmarried, unemployed and “never been kissed” woman talked about her wish to sing, “I Dream a Dream” from Les Miserables. Asked why she wanted to do this, she said she had always wanted to sing before a large audience and that her dream was to become a singer as famous as Elaine Paige who had sung “I Dream a Dream” onstage (more laughter from the audience). But she slayed the audience with her great gift and brought the audience to their feet, demonstrating how often our first impressions are cruel and simply wrong-headed. This Scripture about Samuel’s choosing a new king from among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite is about seeing past one’s outward appearances to try to see others as God sees them as children of God, persons created in the image of God and who may contain unbelievable gifts that can be used mightily in the kingdom of God.
Malcolm Gladwell is the writer of bestsellers. In his book Blink he helps us understand how amazingly reliable rapid cognition can be. That’s the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye, what is known in psychology as “thin-slicing” as a way of forming useful first impressions. To this end, his book builds a case for how we can learn to give credence to first impressions and learn to trust them as an intuitive tool. Gladwell claims these kinds of snap judgments formed in less than two seconds can be very powerful and useful in the right conditions.
But it can also work as a poor judge of “how things are.” Gladwell recounts how the idea of “thin-slicing” came to him when he decided to grow his hair out long – if you’ve seen his press photo, he looks a lot like Art Garfunkel, with boisterously long hair sticking straight out like a white man’s Afro. With no other changes in his appearance, he became the victim of criminal profiling so often the evidence of our community’s racism. He started getting speeding tickets when he had not gotten them before. He was often pulled out of airport security lines for special attention. Stereotyping is a social sin that goes on every day and in every community.
Laura Cadena wrote this week about those described simply as, “others,” those who live outside the dominant cultural system: “I worked for a missions organization for several years. During that time, I learned that I was a member of the ‘others.’ Listening to conversations, I determined that “other” was a seemingly nice term for ‘anyone different, (someone) from another country, someone from a low socio-economic level, someone from a people group, or someone not from a middle to upper class Anglo background.’ Sometimes I wondered when they spoke among themselves if they realized that one of the “others” was in their midst?”
Laura writes out of a love for the church … a love that won’t let her not be prophetic in speaking the truth in love about how it is we hold our prejudices so strongly even when they become institutional ways of holding people at arm’s length acting as if we’re not intimately tied to them by the all-inclusive love of God. In her essay, she quotes Cesar Chavez who ponders the “other” in relation to faith:
The Church … is a tremendously powerful institution in our society, and in the world. That Church is one form of the Presence of God on Earth, and so naturally it is powerful. It is powerful by definition. It is a powerful moral and spiritual force, which cannot be ignored by any movement … what do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches or fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.
But this kind of prejudging can also be ways we dump people into categories they cannot escape because we don’t allow them the freedom to live into their fullest potential.
His name was Charles and he was a fellow student at Southwestern Seminary when I was there working on my Masters. Charles carried all his books in a backpack slung over his shoulders – not because backpacks were in because they were not popular then like they are now. Rather, he carried his books in a backpack because he had to, as both hands were busy with maneuvering around the hallways on the two forearm crutches he used in order to get around. Charles was a student preparing for ministry just like every other student at the time – only he was unlike every other student in that he suffered from a particularly complicated form of cerebral palsy. His disease had struck him as a young child as it often does. The usual symptoms were evident – he slurred every word he tried forcibly to speak, his limbs would not act according to his instructions to them and his arms held him up but his legs would flay from side to side making walking anything but easy.
What I liked most about Charles was the homemade sign he hung around his neck like his own self-statement. On it was a simple Bible reference, Exodus 4:11. In that simple verse was wrapped a sermon of profound implications for anyone inquisitive enough to look it up. In that Scripture, God ignited the bush in the desert where Moses was watching idly over his father-in-law’s flocks. God then described a mission he wanted to take Moses on that would place him in front of the Egyptian Pharaoh asking Pharaoh to “let the people go.” After God gave Moses signs of power and authority, Moses finally blurted out his most personal excuse: “Please, LORD, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since Thou has spoke to Thy servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). To which God responded, “Who made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11)
Charles could have withdrawn into the betrayal of his body because he was the least likely student to ever become a professional minister. What church would hire Charles as their pastor when they couldn’t understand what he was saying? He could have shut down all efforts to extend himself outside the disease giving in to its arbitrary and severe boundaries. But unlike Moses, the great emancipator of Israel, Charles bravely ignored his limitations and hung a sign around his neck for anyone curious enough to reach for their Bibles to read. “Who makes tongues? Is it not I, the LORD?”
Charles figured, even if he couldn’t speak with great eloquence, he could still speak a message in ways other than words. The words of St. Francis of Assisi must have been Charles’ inspiration: “Preach the gospel,” he said, “and if necessary use words.” And so Charles, struggling down the hall to his next class, grunting and straining with every movement, preached a sermon to a school of preachers. With every painful flailing step, Charles preached powerfully to us: “Preachers, tell your story! Christians, tell it with words if you have them. If you can’t form the words, tell it with acts of kindness. Tell it with mercy and God’s gracious welcome.”