Wednesday, October 23, 2013

“Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord”

Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
Sunday, October 20, 2013

“Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord”

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 Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel 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.’ 3Invite 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.” 4Samuel 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?” 5He 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.

6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But 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.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel 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.” 12He 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.” 13Then 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.

One: The Word of God, for the People of God.              ALL: Thanks be to God.

            Friends, last week, we received some startling news. Even for those of us who might have known that our beloved Phillip Thomason was considering retirement, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the powerful vision of our beloved pastor taking off his stole and laying it on the altar. To be clear, this is Phillip’s choice, and one that he celebrates. He has gotten married to his beloved partner of 19 years, and they share this crazy and wonderful notion that they should be able to live together in holy matrimony for the rest of their lives. For those of you who don’t understand why he needed to give up his credentials, it is because the United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being ordained. You and I can talk all day long about the ignorance that’s implied in this description, but they are the rules by which we must abide for now. Phillip has gladly chosen to give up the credentials he has earned and honored; no one has taken them from him. It might have been unexpected, but “No one expects the Spanish inquisition!”
I am so proud of my colleague, but I am so furious at the Methodist church.
            Much has happened since the last time I was in this pulpit, which was the Sunday after DOMA was struck down. Since June, we have heard of countless couples heading to California or Washington or … Provincetown to make their vows to one another. The only sad thing about this is that all of my beloved friends are holding destination weddings, and I keep missing them. But, this is the way the world is working right now. The IRS is officially more progressive than the church on this issue, which might be the most bizarre evolution to date.
            But, the last time I preached, I told you about the story of Ruth and Naomi, and how these women took vows to one another, and managed to create a new family together. In Ruth, Chapter 4:13, we hear that, “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! … 17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” 
            Today, our story picks up during this generation, as we hear about the youngest child of Jesse, the handsome, ruddy boy named David who is anointed king. Since Obed was born to Ruth and Naomi, the Israelites have found themselves in dire need of someone to rule over them. They have begged the Lord for a king, that they might be ruled as other nations are ruled. They came to Samuel, who was the prophet born of a faithful, yet barren, woman named Hannah. She prayed for a child, and the prophet at the temple, named Eli, ensured her that God had heard her cries. When Samuel was weaned, she brought him to Eli at the Temple, where Samuel lived and served God.
            When he was very young, Samuel heard God’s voice calling him, and he did not comprehend that it was God, and not Eli calling to him. Eli said, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening'" (1 Samuel 3:9). From that time on, Samuel became the messenger of God’s will to others. After many years of defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Israelites finally came to Samuel and said, “you are old, and your sons to not follow in your ways. Give us a king to govern us” (1 Samuel, 8:6). Samuel was despondent, fearing as though he had failed to be a leader for his people, but God said, “Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). Because of this, God told Samuel to warn the Israelites that the king they would receive would be greedy, unyielding, self-serving. They refused to listen to this caution, and God anointed Saul as king.
            Now, when evaluating the merits of leadership, a story cannot help but be political. Ten years ago in May, I was on the verge of graduating from seminary and was hopeful that a small, United Methodist Church in New Jersey would have the need for a pastor. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, and it is the heartland of American Methodism. Our annual conference gathering was so large it had to be assembled at the Convention Center in Atlantic City where the Miss America pageant was held. There was no shortage of people in New Jersey, and the last thing they needed was one more person trying to noodle her way into the conference.
            And yet, one week before I graduated, I got a call from a woman who was serving as a District Superintendent. She had a church near Jackson, NJ that she was wondering if I would like to serve. A few days later, I met with the good and kind folks at West Farms UMC, and a month later, I was their pastor.
            Now, I tell you this story because it relates, not to me, but to the leadership at that time. My District Superintendent was not dearly beloved by my congregation; they feared she was trying to merge them or close the doors of their tiny church home. But, she had some great gifts for ministry. She was an elegant writer and a beautiful pray-er. I have her to thank for entrusting me with my first pulpit, my first congregation. You can imagine my surprise when, two years later she retired and married our former Bishop. He had retired under allegations of inappropriate behavior, and now, they live in New York City, where he serves as the lead pastor for a United Methodist Church in the village.
            This story is the shadow side of the way the world works. It is, to me, the flip side of the coin of Phillip’s story. One pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his partner of 19 years when it becomes legal, and he must retire and rescind his credentials so as to live in peace. Another pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his mistress after being brought up on charges, and he is permitted to retire and serve a really great church. These things do not balance for me on the scales of justice.
            But, if there is one thing we know about God, it is that God’s justice does not calculate like ours. In the story of Saul, God is persuaded by the Israelites to give them a king, and so he offers them a very poor choice. Saul does, in fact, attempt to lead the Israelites. He even builds an altar (just the one) to the Lord after decades of serving as king, countless battles with the Philistines, horrific bloodshed, and irrational behaviors (14:35). The Lord is unimpressed, because time and again, Saul is disobedient, following God’s commands only in part, leaving Samuel to come in and clean up his mess, account for his behavior, or do his awful, dirty work. There is no justice in this.
            In the passage just before our text today, Saul receives word from Samuel that he is to “utterly destroy the Amalekites,” for what they have done to in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Saul summoned the people and killed every living soul, except for the valuable livestock, as well as the Agag, king of the Amalekites. The Lord is furious, and tells Samuel that Saul can no longer serve as king. When Samuel shares this news with Saul, he tries to defend himself, saying that his plan was to sacrifice the sheep and cattle to the Lord, but Samuel explains that “to obey is better than to sacrifice, for rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (15:22-23). It is then Samuel’s job to assassinate King Agag, a task he is mournful to complete. When Samuel retreats to Ramah, he grieves Saul and all that has occurred. More interestingly, the text tells us the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. God has regrets; God is mutable – changeable – persuadeable. God lives with guilt and grief.
            This is where we find Samuel, a tired and lonely prophet, who had done his best to stop the anointing of Saul and explain to the Israelites that they had no need for an earthly king, for the God of all heaven was already their king. But, God, who never ceases to listen and be moved by God’s people, allows another king to be anointed. He tells Samuel to cease his grieving over Saul, and to go to Jesse, Ruth’s grandson – the son of Obed  - a man from Bethlehem. One of Jesse’s children has already been chosen by God to be the next king of the Israelites. Samuel comes to Bethlehem with a heifer, so as to offer a sacrifice before the Lord, he finds Jesse and his sons.
            The first son to greet him is Eliab, and Samuel thinks that this man will be the next king, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord!” But, God offers this insight to Samuel, his trusted prophet, “Do not look on his appearance or on his height, because I have rejected him; the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). After rejecting Jesse’s seven sons, Samuel asks if he has met all of them. In a story that has a comical similarity to Cinderella’s, the young boy who is tending the sheep is brought to Samuel. It is David, young, ruddy, and handsome, who is in possession of the monarchical glass slipper, and this child is the one whom the Lord tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, and Samuel departs for Ramah.
            The story line we follow from Ruth to Obed to Jesse to David is filled with utter humanity and God’s never-failing attempt to stay in relationship with God’s people. But, there is something more than a monarchy that leads us from one generation to the next. It is the Prophet, the go-between, the means by which we hear both the word of God and the advocate for the people. This story is about God and Samuel. This relationship is the means by which God and the Israelites maintain their ongoing connection. Samuel is the faithful hearer and the brave voice. 
            It may seem, today, as though our beloved friend and pastor is being taken from us by an unjust system, but, my friends, there is something we have not yet considered. We, ourselves, are the faithful hearers. Phillip may be for us an irreplaceable voice of love and acceptance, but we have being willing to listen. So, what does that make us? The new king, ruddy and handsome, anointed to lead, and pray and dance before the Lord with glass slippers in our pockets? No, because we are not a simple Cinderella story. We are not the underdog, the unexpected, the overlooked. Perhaps, but what is true is that we are to be a continuation of Samuel’s lineage. We are to be the prophets, the go-betweens. We are to be the ones with the courage to speak up, to witness to injustice, to petition God with our prayers, and who are willing to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Amen and Amen. 

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