Saturday, October 19, 2013

Don't Judge By Appearances ~ Sermon (I Samuel 16)

Have you ever felt overlooked?  
Have you ever felt as if your gifts were going to waste, as if your abilities were unrecognized, as if your training was lying dormant?

Have you ever felt unappreciated?  Have you ever labored hours over a thankless task – in the barn, or in the office, or in the kitchen – to discover, in the end, that it was indeed thankless, that no one uttered a word of gratitude?

Or have you been in a position in which you have come to expect nothing ~ because you were the youngest, or you were a girl, or you were the smallest, or you were the least co-ordinated,  or you were the step-child, or you were the ex-spouse, or you were too old?

Life is filled with opportunities for us to feel as if we have little to offer, as if our voices do not matter, as if we are always  overlooked.

And our culture often confirms our own self-assessment.   Our culture looks for the beautiful, the graceful, the brilliant, the charismatic, the one naturally inclined – or so we think – to leadership and responsibility.

And so, perhaps, it has ever been. 

Let’s look at our story today.  First, some background:

The Hebrew people were ruled for many years by judges.  Today we think of a judge as having a specific role in a courtroom, but at that time the role was much larger and more generalized.  The judges not only made rulings in disputes, but generally governed and led the people as rulers and even as military commanders.

The Hebrew people, however, looked around and saw that other nations had kings, and thus they wanted a king, too.  And so God told Samuel, who had been called by God as a child and who had as a judge led the people to victory and achievement, to anoint Saul as their first king.

Saul, however, made a mess of things, refusing to obey God’s commands , with the result that God turned away from Saul and spoke again to Samuel, saying, “I have someone else in mind, and I want you to go and anoint him.  Go to the house of Jesse, in Bethlehem, and from his sons I will point my choice out to you.”

Samuel was not enthused about this new task; in fact, he was frightened.  “Saul will kill me,” he said.  But unlike Saul, Samuel was always obedient to God’s commands and so, reluctantly, he went, under the ruse of going to Jesse’s house to conduct a sacrificial offering.

You have to wonder why Samuel was so frightened.  It seems that others were intimidated by him.  The Bible tells us that when he arrived in Bethlehem,  the elders were trembling, were apprehensive and anxious.  He assured them that everything was all right and that he had merely come to lead them in worship.  He also made sure that Jesse and his sons were there – at least, that the seven eldest of his eight sons were there.

Now here’s where we begin to see that being left off the team is not a problem which first arose in contemporary schoolyard games.  Because one of the brothers isn’t there.  David, the youngest one, the one whom his father refers to as “the runt” in today’s translation, is off keeping the sheep. 

I wonder whether David was used to that sort of treatment.  The youngest of eight brothers – was he overlooked most of the time?  We think of him as the master of the slingshot, the courageous shepherd boy who killed a giant.  We think of him as a poet and songwriter – tradition has long had it that he authored many of the psalms.  We think of him as a great military commander, leading his people to the victory that would return the city of Jerusalem to them.  We think of him as a great king – and we may, if we are honest about these things, also think of him as a deeply flawed human being, as a man who committed grievous sins to get what he wanted, to obtain that to which he was not entitled.

However we think of David, we do not think of him as someone easily overlooked.   And yet today, he isn’t even invited to the grand occasion.  Were his feelings hurt?  Was he resentful?  Was this oversight so typical that he took it in stride?  Or did he even know – did anyone bother to tell him?

We might pause a moment here to consider those times in which similar things have happened to us, times in which we have been the one left out, and to recognize that such experiences do not reflect who we are in the eyes of God.   Perhaps everyone else is ignoring us, but that does not mean that God is ignoring us.  In fact, God may call upon us at exactly that moment in which we seem to be the least likely to be noticed by anyone at all.
“The last shall be first” – do those words sound familiar?  Words uttered by Jesus, David’s descendant. in the Gospel of Matthew, at the end of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, in which he tells the story of workers hired at the end of the day who are paid as much as those hired at the beginning.  And as we get to know that God of the Bible, we discover that God seems to have a preference for those whom human beings overlook.  The youngest, the poorest, the least, the last.

Now we might pause again.  Because while we might feel a sense of identity with David as the youngest brother, the one who spent hours with those troublesome sheep without a word of thanks from anyone, without even an invitation to the grand event over which Samuel would preside, perhaps that to which we are really called to pay attention here is our affinity with those on the other side of the equation: those who ignore David, or who forget all about him.

How often have we done exactly that?  How often have we made Samuel’s mistake?  Let’s look at what he does.

Jesse’s seven sons show up, his seven eldest sons, and Samuel takes one look at the eldest of all, Eliab, who must be tall and good-looking, and says to himself, “There’s the one!  Obviously that’s the one whom God has anointed!”  He must be thinking, “This won’t be so difficult after all.  One name and I’m out of here.”
But God says to Samuel, , “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart.”

And so Samuel goes down the line of brothers: Abinadab and Shammah, and four more, and each time God says, “That’s not the one.” 
At this point, you might think that Samuel would give up.  All visible evidence of God’s plan has been eliminated.  Not one of Jesse’s sons is acceptable to God.

But Samuel, with a lifetime of attentiveness to God’s instructions, a lifetime of obedience to God behind him, has had instilled deep within him a sense that he is not finished; that what he sees with his own eyes is not all there is.  We talk sometimes about spiritual practices: about the practices of prayer, and study, and generosity, and hospitality.  And we  work on those practices in part so that they do not desert us at times of crisis or challenge.  If we are accustomed to praying, then at just that juncture in life when all has gone wrong and we are  most likely to give up and least likely to turn to prayer, we pray anyway, because that it what we have been trained to do.  And Samuel  has been trained by a lifetime of practice to listen to God, to the God who has told him to anoint one of Jesse’s sons, and who has further told him that “I judge people differently than you people do.  I judge not by appearances, but by the heart.”

And so he listens and responds, even when it seems that it is pointless to do so.
So Samuel turns to Jesse and asks, “Any more?”  And thus he learns about David, the youngest, the ignored, the boy left off the team.

Now, ironically, when David appears, he is the very picture of physical beauty.  Listen to some of the descriptions of David from various translations  of the Bible:

Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to (KJV).

Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome (NRSV).

He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking (CEB).

He was a healthy, good-looking boy with a sparkle in his eyes (CEV).

He was a fine looking boy, ruddy-faced, and with pleasant eyes (Living Bible).

He was brought in, the very picture of health—bright-eyed, good-looking (The Message).

Isn’t that interesting?  God’s calls are based on the heart, and not on appearance, and yet the one God chooses in this instance is remarkably handsome, with eyes which are a delight to look into.
Of course, sometimes we overlook the beautiful, too, don’t we? This can be a particular problem for women  - haven’t you heard a woman’s intelligence, or leadership qualities,  or scientific  brilliance , or caring insight dismissed because she’s beautiful, or young, or cute?

“Irrelevant,” says God.  “All of those things you deem so important, for good or for ill, are insignificant beside the standard that I employ.  I judge not by appearances, but by the heart.”

And isn’t it also interesting that we are offered, today, another element of vision?

We’ve talked off and on for several months about enlarging our vision.  We’ve talked about paying more attention to the wide, wide world that surround us, and to its people who are in so much need – of clothing, of food, of education, of evidence of God’s love.  Just last week, with Simon here, you got to hear a bit about the world of Rwanda, and at other times this past year, we’ve learned about both Methodist and Presbyterian missions in Liberia.  Today, we are reminded again: 30 households for ACCESS! And Christmas boxes for children around the world.    We are enlarging our vision every day.

We’ve talked about focusing our vision: on seeing the gifts of God that lie right before us.  On seeing the presence of Jesus, in the bread and the cup of communion, in the many ways in which we ourselves are nourished in the deserts of our lives.  And on seeing Jesus himself in the people right in front of us.

And today, we are called to see as God’s sees:  To look into the heart, rather than to linger on outward appearances. 
One of the very best parts of my job as pastor is to try to see with these eyes with which God encourages Samuel to look.  And I need the reminder as well – because how difficult it is, in the daily press of life, to remember to look into the heart.  But I do try, every day.  And just so you know, here is some of what I see in our community:
§  I see older people who appear frail, perhaps a bit unsteady on their feet, who perhaps can’t see or hear as well as they once did – and I see hearts of great courage and adaptability .

§  I see people who do nothing to promote themselves, who make no effort to stand out or be counted, quietly supporting and nurturing children  and nieces and nephews and grandchildren  and caring for husbands and wives and parents and grandparents – and I see hearts of perseverance and flexibility. 

§  I see people who are ill or injured enduring tremendous hardship  – and I see hearts of patience and strength.

§  I see people whose own lives have been filled with challenges knitting sweater after sweater or filling Christmas boxes or offering countless volunteer hours at the hospital without asking for anything in return – and  I see hearts of generosity and love.
Do you see those things, too?  How large is your vision?  How focused is your vision?  Do you judge not by appearances, but by the heart?  Do you see what is overlooked?  Do you see the many, many ways in which we are called by God, ways in which the standards of the world are irrelevant?.

And so: Enlarge your vision.  Focus your vision.  And look for the heart, for the inside, for the place where courage, and adaptability, and perseverance, and flexibility, and patience, and strength, and generosity, and love reside.  Amen.


1 comment:

  1. You had me hooked with the first line. Loved the development and understanding of beauty in a much different way.