Unlikely Vessels: A Sermon

Unlikely Vessels

A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church

June 17, 2012 (Father’s Day)

Rev. Julie Emery

1 Samuel 16:1-13

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 Bethelemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

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.” 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.” 

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?” 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.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”  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.” 

Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel.  He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.”  Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.”  Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 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.”  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.” 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 went out and went to Ramah.

Our Old Testament reading for this morning falls right in the middle of the story of the kings of Israel, just as King Saul has fallen out of favor with the Lord.  Samuel, who had been the prophet and judge over Israel for many years, has been pressed by the people to raise up a king to rule them.  Samuel is getting older, and the Israelites are worried about who might lead them when Samuel is gone.  They decide they want a king, “so they can be like the other nations.” 

Samuel warns them of the risks of kingship: noting that God is the true king, that human kings can only bring human faults and high taxes (a fair warning╔) but the people of Israel insist –  and so God calls forth Saul, a man strong and mighty in stature, to be named king.

Unfortunately, Saul is just what Samuel warned a human king would be: fearful and manipulative, failing to heed God╒s commandments.  But he is also confident and mighty in war, winning both battles and favor with the Israelites.  While adept at power, Saul is flawed in faith, and he quickly loses favor with the Lord.  The story says that God’s Spirit departs from Saul.  Samuel is grieved at Saul’s misfortunate choices, and is deeply sorrowful at this new king╒s faithless ways.  Samuel finds himself heartbroken and hopeless over Saul.

The Lord God, however, is on the move, giving no time or attention to Samuel╒s grief.  Quick to address the failings of the first king, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to find a new king: a king after God’s own heart.

Ironically, Samuel is the fearful one now, fearing Saul’s wrath at his treason.  The people of Bethlehem fear as well the presence of Samuel in their town, knowing that Saul and Samuel are at odds.  Even amidst all this fear, however, God’s Spirit continues to blow where it will.

+++

As stories about dads go, Jesse kind of falls short of what we hope a father might be.  As he presents his sons to Samuel, he begins with his first and tallest, Eliab, and then presents his sons in order of age and stature.  His youngest doesn’t even get invited to the sacrifice, instead he╒s left to tend the sheep.

To be fair, Jesse is responding to the way the world judges his sons, isn’t he?  I mean, wouldn╒t each of us, if in the same situation, present our child with the highest IQ, the best test scores, the best presentation.  Don’t each of us know to put the best foot forward, to dress for success, to show our best traits in order to get the best jobs?  We want the best for our children – and so we help them grow into their fullest potential.  We don’t let them slack when we know they can do better; we help them, even push them to be the best they can be. 

Recently I read an article by a New York Times blogger about why he had agreed (against his better judgment) to let his daughter, who is finishing up her junior year in college, spend her summer as a camp counselor rather than at an internship or some other resume-building job.  The decision ran fully against, he admits, his instincts of parenting.

He points out all the reasons we fear for our children╒s future: the economy what it is, our children need every leg up we can give them, he argued.  The competition is fierce, he pointed out, and every other college student he knows is stacking their resume with every possible “extra” they could to insure that they may, God willing, land a job upon graduation.

But camp counseling?  Spending time in the woods and on the lake, having fun in the sun?  At the same camp she╒d been attending since early childhood?  It just didn╒t seem like the “right” resume addition.  Part of the argument given was the feeling that the “real world” would come sooner or later, so why not just let her enjoy her summer while she still could. 

But the best argument, was the fact that camp counseling might simply be more important and more valuable than fetching coffee at some well-known company that looks good on paper:

“What I do there matters,” said his daughter, and then she laid out the truth of her summers in the ╥woods.  “Over the course of her summers she had helped a camper cope with her mother╒s debilitating depression and comforted others whose parents were fighting or separating.  She had aided 11 and 12 year olds who were coming to terms with their sexuality, battling anorexia, confronting body fear.  She had devoted many hours to water-skiing lessons, instilling confidence  into awkward, gawky, painfully self-consious 8 and 9 year-olds as she coached them to stay prone in the water, hold onto the rope, then rise up and stay on their feet as the boat pulled away.  “What╒s more important than that?”  She asked.”

So often we overlook what is truly important for the thing that the world deems important.  Isn╒t this what is happening when teenagers, as the Times reported last weekend, begin snorting un-prescribed Ritalin so they can score higher on their SATs?  Isn╒t this what is happening, when our children are in tears when they don’t get into their top-tier college?  Or when they won╒t leave the house because they don╒t have the right thing to wear?  Or when they use hateful and even violent language to speak about kids who are different?

Because somewhere along the line we have allowed them to forget that God is the only worthy judge of their character. 

And if they have forgotten it, then perhaps we have forgotten it too.

When Samuel meets Jesse and invites him to a sacrifice, both Samuel and Jesse are looking with human eyes as the sons of Jesse come before Samuel.  The first, Eliab, is tall and prominent, very much like Saul who was described as a “head taller than everyone else.”  And yet, the Lord rejects Eliab.  In fact, he rejects all seven of the sons of Jesse, saying, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Now, if you listened closely, you will have noticed this funny thing ╨ that while God looks on the heart and finds this youngest son worthy, the text points out that David is, in fact, ruddy and handsome too.  Perhaps it is as one commentator said, that one who lives in God’s ways will exude attractiveness.  Or it could be a note that David’s attractiveness wasn╒t quite the same as Eliab╒s ╨ but more subversive or surprising.  Either way, it seems that David appears as the underdog, and God’s spirit is with him.

+++

It has been a dream of mine, for many years, to travel on a mission trip with my father.  It began when I was in college, and my dad was given the opportunity to work for a Presbyterian Hospital in Kikuyu, Kenya.  The hospital runs at a basic level, and specialists of all kinds from all over the world volunteer their time to perform surgeries the people there would otherwise not have access to.  My dad felt called.  And after the paperwork and vaccinations and organizing of time off from his office, he and my mom flew to Kenya and where he operated on broken bones for a month.

When he arrived back in the states he had lost at least ten pounds.  He looked gray and a bit haggered, but also energized.  There was a glint in his eye that I had seen before, but this time it didn’t go away.. 

I had always imagined that I would join him in Africa or the Carribean or Cuba.  But when the opportunity came that I might be able to invite him somewhere, well it was too good to resist.

When my dad introduced himself to the twenty or so folks from LAC who traveled to Nicaragua this past year, he said, “I’m a mission trip junkie.”  And he is.  Since that first trip to Kenya he’s been back to Africa, he’s worked at a hospital in Saint Lucia, he’s traveled to New Orleans and Texas, to Cuba twice, to Nicaragua with us and is starting a more local ministry in the run-down area of Benton Harbor, Michigan.  Some of those trips are medically oriented and other of them are geared toward construction.  It doesn’t really matter.  The work is never the most important part.

When we were preparing for the trip my dad and I spoke quite a bit about mission work and why he loves it, and he remembered how at the beginning he had to learn to stop himself from working to talk to the locals, hear their stories, play with the children.  It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s all about what we accomplish, he said, but in truth the most important part is the people you meet and the connections you make.

The work never starts on time, there are always tools missing and things forgotten, delays in transportation.  It’s easy to get frustrated by these things if you forget why you are really there – to be with the people you meet, to understand them and their lives, to see them as Christ would see them.

Once there, one of the things that we all noticed during our time in Nicaragua is how often we underestimated the people we encountered.  As you have heard, we spent the majority of our time digging holes, through rock and clay, with pick axes and shovels, we dug, often the entire day of work. 

Two young men joined the work on several days.  They looked like scrawny teenagers.  They were thin and wirey, with wide smiles and affable personalities. They spoke not a word of English, and so simply watched quietly as us gringos would take our turns in the grueling heat, slogging away in the hole.  And then they would shoo us out, and take their turn, throwing more dirt and making more progress in ten minutes than we did in thirty.  They would work longer and harder, than even the strongest of our group.

It wasn’t only the during the work that we were surprised by the disparity between our eyes and our hearts; Within our group it happened too.  Sometimes the quietest among us would offer the most profound insight about the day, and then recede back into the shadows.  The seven and eight year old children would out-play our teenagers in soccer in the evenings.  And the greatest joys came from the smallest moments of the day. 

This is not the way we expect the world to work.  Like Samuel and Jesse, we expect the biggest to be the best.  Like the disciples, we expect the biggest seeds to grow into the most substantial trees.  We expect that success is hard-won by our own efforts.  We expect that happiness has at least a little bit to do with a hefty resume.

And yet, this is not what God’s world is like.  Instead we are told the most unlikely vessels carry God’s grace into the world.  A mustard seed that grows into a weedy and yet protected home for the birds; A boy-shepherd, who grows into the most beloved and well-known king of Israel; Not work but leisure, that becomes the most important moment of a work-camp trip.  Not gravitas but compassion which sets us into the world with all that we need to survive, and even thrive.

No matter what we are told; no matter who our own fathers were or are to us – helpful or harmful; Whatever the message we see around us from the world about us.  The God of Israel, parent of us all, is one that sees into our inmost hearts, and loves us into becoming who we are meant to be.  Anointing us as his own, and filling us with his Spirit now and forever.  Amen.

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