So, for those of you who weren’t here last week, just a quick word to orient you to what’s going on with this summer worship series. We’re following a set of readings called the “semi-continuous series” that trace the rise of the House of David in Israelite history, the stories of how God’s people went from being a loose confederation of tribes governed by a series of judges to a nation under the rule of a king.
Since last week, I’ve given this series a name — which you’ll see on the front cover of your bulletin. I’m calling it “A Game of Thrones” after the books and the HBO series by the same name. These books by George R. R. Martin (who has been hailed as the American J.R.R. Tolkein) tell the story of seven noble families fighting for control of the throne in a medieval fantasy setting. After watching two seasons of the television show, I’ve finally started reading the novels this summer, and I’m hooked. Like, up reading into the wee hours of the night hooked. They’re good.
And so are these stories from the books of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings. When I was a very young boy, I remember that these were my favorite stories in my illustrated children’s bible. Even as I grew older, once I had my first “real” bible, these were the stories I wanted to read the most. It’s not hard to understand. For a kid who gravitated to comic books and sci-fi/fantasy, these stories felt familiar. A boy hero who fells a giant with a slingshot isn’t all that different from the boy wonder, sidekick to the caped crusader. Children look for images of other children in story books and movies as they are growing up to give them glimpses of who they might become.
Quite a bit has happened in the gap between last week’s story, where the people demand from the prophet Samuel a king like the other nations, and this week, where Samuel travels to anoint David, the son of Jesse. In between, there’s been a whole other king, Saul.
Like David, Saul tended to his father’s animals in the field. His father, Kish, was a man of wealth and Saul is described as tall and handsome. The scriptures say, “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” Saul sort of stumbles into the monarchy, out in the fields looking for his father’s lost donkeys. Instead he finds Samuel, who has been waiting on God to show him who to name as Israel’s king. In their initial exchange Samuel says to Saul, “And on whom is all Israel’s desire fixed if not on you and on all your ancestral house?” Saul answers, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why have you spoken to me in this way?”
This introduces a theme that runs through our scriptures this morning, that God consistently chooses what is small and weak to upend what is mighty and established. In the opening chapters of First Samuel the prophet’s mother, Hannah, has sung a song remarkably like the magnificat that Jesus’ mother, Mary, will later sing. Both women declare that the greatness of God lies in the fact that God casts down the mighty and raises up the weak. Later, Jesus shares a similar vision for the reign of God come near, offering a parable of the mustard seed — “which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
A friend of mine, Dr. Jeremy Posadas, who serves as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, dropped the following bit of theology in a recent Facebook post. He writes,
The central message of the Bible is NOT God’s UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, but rather God’s PREFERENTIAL OPTION FOR THE POOR. In my heyday as a church-based organizer for LG(BT) inclusion, I proclaimed and trained others to proclaim that “the central message of the Bible is God’s unconditional and redeeming love for humankind.” But I realize now how much that framework subtly reinforces Christian / churchly tendencies toward INDIVIDUAL care rather than SYSTEMIC revolt – toward INCLUSION (of others) rather than DISRUPTION (of our own ways) – toward CHARITY, rather than JUSTICE. God does NOT love the part of humankind that leaves the poor to die – in fact, God HATES that part of humankind and wants to destroy it in all forms. And God DOES set a condition for participating in God’s love: be metanoia’d [to repent, my addition] from structures and practices that perpetuate poverty, or you cannot take part of the reign of God.
Yes, there are people who post heavy-duty theology on Facebook.
This is not to say that God doesn’t love us, but that this may not be the only, or even the central message of scripture. That, beyond being loved, we are called to participate in the love of God, that takes sides. That picks a king from the humblest of all tribes, that picks a king who is the youngest among his brothers, that picks a king born among an occupied people. God’s consistency is rather remarkable. God takes sides, and God sides with those who have the least and need the most, because God has the most to give — and those who belong to God are called upon to give the most as well.
So, Samuel anoints the Benjaminite, Saul, to be king. Things begin well enough. Saul rallies the people behind him and, together, they drive off the Ammonites — some vicious bullies who had threatened to gauge our the right eye of every Israelite (I’m telling you, these stories are good!). Samuel, believing that he has successfully transitioned the people from his care into Saul’s rulership, delivers a farewell address that reminds everyone of his misgivings with the whole idea of kings, but hopes for the best.
Saul begins a series of military campaigns, and as he grows more and more successful, he becomes less and less faithful. He offers inappropriate sacrifices to God, and sets up a monument to himself upon the mountain. The word of the LORD comes to Samuel: because Saul has rejected God’s authority, God will reject Saul’s authority. He will no longer be king. Samuel confronts Saul with this word, which is hard for Saul to accept. Finally though he admits, “I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the LORD.”
But Samuel knows that there is no coming back from the taste of power Saul has experienced. Kingship has gone to his head, which was the worry all along. He tells Saul, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” And as Samuel turns to leave, Saul reaches out and grabs the hem of his robe, and it tears. In a retort worthy of any prime-time drama, Samuel responds, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” After that, Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, and the search was on for a new king.
Now, before we allow David onto the scene, I think we need to debrief the tragedy of Saul’s short-lived reign. Remember, that before Samuel came and anointed Saul with the mantle of the monarchy, he was simply the tall, good-looking son of a wealthy donkey herder. He was enjoying some measure of prosperity, but he does not appear to have been looking for more out of life. It is the people who call out for a king, and it is Samuel who transforms that mandate into a monarch. Then, once he has been made king, Saul tries his best to unite the people, he wins them some victories against their foes — which is exactly why the people had cried out for a king — and he begins to get a sense of himself as a strong, military leader. Soon he is offering sacrifices and erecting monuments, but he says that he has simply done what the people wanted “because [he] feared the people and obeyed their voice.”
The people got the king they wanted, the king they called out for. They got a strong military leader who defended them against the wrath of neighboring lands. But God sees that, in the process, they have transferred their trust wholly to this king. Now the king offers sacrifices. Now the king is the object of their adoration. The king, whom the people asked for out of fear, has begun to rule the people out of fear of their disapproval. It’s not that God has become jealous of Saul, the king. It’s that the people and their king are ruling one another in a cycle of uninterrupted fear, and fear is the root of all kinds of evil.
People of God, where do you detect fear ruling the nation? Take a second to think about this question. Where do you sense that our way of life as a people is governed by fear? If it would help you to think through this question, feel free to turn to someone sitting next to you and ask them, “where do you see fear ruling our nation?” I’ll give you about a minute to mull this over together.
Alright. Now I’m going to ask you to try a fill-in-the-blank exercise. I’ll give you the beginning of a sentence, and I want you to come up with the ending. As you think about that aspect of our life together as a nation where you sense that we are being governed by fear, how would you complete this petition: “Lord, give us the courage to .”
Jot that down somewhere, maybe on the back of your bulletin, and when we come to the prayers of the people, I’d invite you to consider offering that simple, one-sentence prayer for courage.
It takes courage for Samuel to hit the road in search of a new king. He had grown to love Saul, even though he could no longer support him. His allegiance was to something larger than any candidate, any king. His allegiance was to God, and the world God was working to bring into being by and for the young, the weak, and the small. People like David, the shepherd-boy. This time Samuel is not drawn in by the height or appearance of his older brother, Eliab, or any of the qualities possessed by his other brothers.
Instead, Samuel sees with the eyes of God a person filled with courage, a boy will will topple the giants that surround him, a man who will rule out of love, not fear. Samuel anoints David, a candidate for king so unlikely that his father had not even bothered to call him in from the fields.
If one so small could be used to do such large things, then who is to say that God doesn’t have equally grand, or even greater, plans for you? Baptized into the body of Christ, you have been united with the one we call king of kings and lord of lords. When you were brought to the font and washed in these waters, you also were anointed with oil and marked with the sign of the cross, signifying your royal lineage and your calling to take part in toppling the giants of this day and age and creating a world ruled by love and not fear.
As a child, I loved to read the stories of the boy who became king. They gave me a place to imagine myself as one called by God to do great things. What I was too young to realize was, I was right. God is calling me to do great things with my life, and God is calling you to do great things with your life. God is calling all of us to set aside any story about ourselves that disqualifies us from acting powerfully. God is calling us to set aside the fears that coerce us into giving up our power and looking for someone taller, or better-looking, or wealthier, or stronger to solve our problems for us. God discourages us from worshipping at those altars, and calls us instead to be faithful to the one who has created each of us in the image and likeness of God. No matter how small you have been made to feel, or you believe yourself to be, on this day and every day, God reminds you that God takes sides with the small and the weak, and uses them to build a world where God’s love and God’s justice are one and the same.
We read these stories for glimpses of who we might become. Today, looking at you with the eyes of God, I see kings and queens. Accept your anointing and join the story once again.