by David Baer, October 22, 2017
Text: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
So, many years ago, when we were in the middle of one of our semi-annual church cleanups, somebody who will remain nameless blew up one of the ovens in the kitchen. I think later on we figured out that they had left a jar of oven cleaner inside, and then turned on the self-cleaning feature. But regardless of how it happened, or who did it, there was a loud bang and a lot of smoke and a lot of people running around like crazy. And we didn’t know what to do. Someone called 911, and tried to explain that the police station was right next door, and what we really needed was somebody who knew what they were doing to check things out. But thankfully when the fire department responds, they don’t take half measures, and we got an engine and a bunch of guys in full gear tromping into the kitchen, ventilating the room, and assuring us it was safe. They were there when we called.
And on another occasion, I remember another member of this church, who will also remain nameless, was parking a car in the police station lot next door and accidentally lurched forward and collided with the building. And when this member came inside the church to call home, not knowing what else to do, I remember Sgt. Todd Griffith coming over and sternly but politely pointing out that it just wouldn’t do for there to be a car accident in the police station parking lot without a police report. And I remember his gentleness and understanding with this older member of the congregation who was really shaken up by what had happened. The police department had a job to do, maintaining safety and order, but I’m always struck by the decency and respect they show in doing that job.
I have not yet had occasion to be personally served by the Ambulance Corps—something to be thankful for in itself—but I know our members have. I know the gratitude they feel for having medical help brought to them when they needed it. And myself, I’m grateful to you for opening your building to us, your neighbors, after Hurricane Sandy, so that we could have a warm and powered place to gather, charge our phones, and pass the time with each other. And I won’t forget the graciousness of the Allendale CERT volunteers on hand to welcome us there.
So I feel as though I have a personal debt of gratitude built up over the years to all our emergency services professionals and volunteers. That’s one reason it seemed necessary to invite you folks in today—to say thank you.
But in our faith tradition, public service means more than just good people stepping up to do good work for all of us. The institutions that govern and protect us are God-given. We believe God wants people to have justice and security and education and opportunity, and God provides for us in part by giving us government and organizations like the ones we’re recognizing today. That doesn’t mean these aren’t human institutions, and it doesn’t mean they are perfect, or that they should never be criticized or changed. But it does mean that there is something sacred about being called to serve people, and that it is an honorable thing to answer that call.
We heard a story today about God calling and setting apart a new leader. And the important thing about this story is that God looks beyond appearances, right into David’s heart.
Now, those of you who have been here at Highlands already this fall know that we’re reading our way through the Bible this year as one continuous story. In this story God chooses one family and makes promises to them, blesses them with descendants and a land of their own, rescues them when they fall into slavery, leads them through a 40-year journey through the wilderness on their way home, and teaches them how to love God and one another through a special Teaching called the Torah. And when they get to their new home, God reminds them that God intends to bless the whole world through them, that rightly loving God and one another matters. God sends special messengers called prophets to warn them when they get off track, and to offer them a second chance to get it right.
At the beginning, they didn’t have a king. Or rather, God was their king, and no one of the people got to lord it over the rest. But the people cried out for a king, because other nations had them. With some sadness, but also generosity, God let them have a king, a man named Saul. And he was a disaster! King Saul got so full of himself he stopped following God’s Teaching, stopped listening to the prophets, and he violently silenced anyone who opposed him. Now God’s people need a new king, and so God sends the prophet Samuel out with a horn of oil, the sign of God’s blessing, to anoint one of the sons of a man named Jesse. And, just to throw off King Saul, his cover story is that he is going to Bethlehem to conduct a religious ceremony, an animal sacrifice.
One by one they pass by in front of Samuel. The first, Eliab, has a princely look about him. He’s tall. He has the gravitas Samuel expects to see in a king. But God whispers, “Not so fast. This isn’t the one. Don’t look at appearances. I don’t see people the way you see people. You look with your eyes and see the outside. But I look on the heart, and I can see the inside.” So one by one Samuel rejects these young men: “Not this one, not that one either.” Finally he asks if there are any more sons, and there is one, but he’s the youngest, and he’s out watching over the sheep, so it would be an awful lot of trouble to get him. Samuel doesn’t care. We’re not going anywhere, he says to Jesse, until you bring your boy here.
Now, it does spoil the story for me a bit when it says that this last kid is easy on the eyes. After all that language about God not judging outward appearances, it would have been more effective storytelling if this youngest son had been a real ogre. “This is the one,” God tells Samuel, and Samuel anoints the man, whose name is David, with the ceremonial oil. Now David is the legitimate king, though it will be a while before he wears the crown. But the point gets across. If it were about looks, Eliab and David are both good choices, but God says a firm no to Eliab. God sees something in David that goes beyond his looks, beyond his physique, something deeper. God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, but the heart.
We look at outward appearance all the time, though, don’t we? People do judge based on appearances. And sometimes appearances are accurate, but sometimes they’re not. I’ve experienced what it feels like to have someone jump to conclusions about who I am, and maybe you have too. It doesn’t feel very good, does it? So it comes as good news to us that God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, but on the heart. God doesn’t value us based on the privileges or lack thereof that we have because of our name or our skin color. God doesn’t value us based on the way we dress or speak or sing. God looks on our hearts, at our deepest selves, at the content of our character.
Or maybe that’s not good news. Are we proud of everything we’ve done? Is there nothing in our hearts we’d rather hide away and forget about? If God just passively looked at our hearts and judged them, it wouldn’t be very good news. But God is not is not the Roger Ebert of hearts, looking at what’s there and giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. God is not a bystander. Do you remember the little detail at the end of the story we read? Do you remember what happened to David when Samuel anointed him? It says that the spirit of the Lord came mightily on him from that day forward. David became capable of doing things that he couldn’t do before. His character changed. He became more courageous, and more generous to friends and enemies alike. We also read this morning from a psalm, an ancient song that tradition ascribes to King David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me,” he says.
Being in relationship with God isn’t the reward for figuring it all out. It’s not a prize for dressing up our hearts just right. Being in relationship with God means having God’s Spirit come upon us like David, having God set up scaffolding around our hearts and get to work. It means yielding control and letting God pull us in new directions, from pasture to the palace like David, from your pew this morning to active witness at your workplace or your neighborhood. God looks not at your appearance, but at your heart, and God says, “This one’s got promise! Let’s get to work!”
Thanks be to God who looks beyond appearances to the heart, who calls shepherd boys to be king, who provides volunteers and professionals to protect and heal and help in our communities, who calls us to serve in our own way. Thanks be to God, who not only calls, but who consecrates us, who creates a clean heart in us and puts a new and right spirit within us, who shapes us to be faithful servants of God and others. My prayer for you, and for the special neighbors we recognize today, is that you would not only hear and continually respond to God’s call, but also trust as you do this that you are a work in progress, that you are being formed and re-formed, that the God who sees your heart is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.
Would you pray with me?
Great and loving God, before whom all our hearts are open, all our desires and fears known, send your Spirit on us, so that like David, like those we honor today, we might fulfill your purpose and glorify you with courageous and generous lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.