“What’s Going On Here?”
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Chilmark Community Church –UMC
September 6, 2015
From time to time, Armen and I have the pleasure of house sitting for friends who live above Squibnocket Pond.
From the living room window I can see the glittering water, the hills and stone walls, the movement of the sun across the sky, the dunes in the distance, Noman’s Island – – and I can revel in the silence there. Paradoxically, the view everyday is both unchanging and continually changing across the hours from sun up to sun down
All that nature serves as a perfect foil for the themes in the reading from 1st Samuel because a lot of the stories and traditions in the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel pose the theological problem of the unchanging changeability of God. The stories raise questions about the character of a God who does not change and yet changes all the time – – a God who resists any fixed notions that humans may have about the predictability of divine movement and influence.
Gail Godwin has written a novel called “Finishing School”. Near the beginning of the book she describes a penetrating and telling conversation between two characters, Justin, the narrator, and Ursula. Ursula is speaking to Justin:
“There are two kinds of people,” she once decreed to me emphatically. “One kind you can tell just by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas, the other kind keeps moving and changing. With these people you can never say, ‘X stops here,’ or ‘Now I know all there is to know about Y.’ That doesn’t mean they are unstable. Ah, no, far from it. They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard, Justin, against congealing.”
And so it is with coming to terms with how we understand any biblical text and ultimately, how we come to know God and ourselves. For the most part we have learned to read the Bible in bits and pieces. Parts of the Bible are so familiar to us that we think we know all there is to know about what those parts mean. The stories and the message have become congealed. So for a few minutes this morning, perhaps we can approach the ancient witness fluidly, assuming nothing. We will probably not gain a true and accurate, complete and final reading, but perhaps just some elusive insight just for today. Next week or next year, the same text might raise very different questions and understandings.
It almost seems like we are jumping on a moving train in the first verse where God says to Samuel: “How long will you grieve over Saul??? I have rejected him from being king over Israel.” Generations of Israel’s colorful and complex history have led to this point. In a nutshell, after many generations in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses, followed by many more generations of struggle to gain a foothold in the promised land under first Joshua and then under a variety of other tribal leaders, Israel begged God to provide them with a king. God chooses Samuel, a priest and a prophet, to find and anoint this king – who turns out to be Saul. The arrangement works for a very brief while, but at some point, Saul loses his ability to lead. His charisma begins to disappear – -and God decides a new king is needed. It will, again be Samuel’s responsibility to find and anoint the one whom God has chosen. In the process, Samuel grieves over Saul. And I wonder what this means? Is Samuel grieved by his own failure as a leader? – – He was the one who anointed Saul in the first place. Is Samuel grieved because he has failed God in some way? Or is his grief personal? Perhaps he has sympathy for Saul who is about to be relieved of his kingship? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that God directs Saul to get over it and move on. This might be a point where we could ask “What’s going on here?”
Do we have here an instance of an unchanging God having a change of mind and heart? We are not even out of the 1st verse and God says to Samuel: “Go to Jesse, the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king from among his sons. The Hebrew word ra’ah which is translated as “I have provided” may also be translated as “I have seen”. So we might ask “Does God see a kingly possibility that is already there?” or “ Does God actively work to provide the king that God needs?” Which way is the truth about God? The questions keep the text and us from congealing. The answer has to remain fluid.
Whichever translation we choose, it is clear that the anointing of David is not a happenstance event. As Samuel follows the commands of the fluid God, the anointing of David will not be a historical accident or a political stratagem.
It turns out that this is a dangerous adventure for Samuel. One simply does not anoint a new king while the old one is still on the throne. Even though God has withdrawn divine favor, Saul is still the king. Anointing a new king makes Samuel a traitor and Samuel is not too thrilled about carrying out the plan. But God isn’t interested Samuel’s resistance and fear – – and God is not prepared to reason with Samuel.
BUT, God does come up with a way to get around some of the risk and instructs Samuel: “Tell the people you have come to make a sacrifice. This will relieve their suspicion about why you are there. God authorizes a deception that provides protection for Samuel. The Divine goal is to get to Jesse’s family. Maybe this is another place to ask “What’s going on here?”
As only happens in stories, the Bethlehemites naively believe the ruse that Samuel has come merely to make a sacrifice and the deception buys him the entrance he needs.
The story tells us a few things about how our ancestors understood God.
1st – The story tells us that God could act and then decide that the act was a mistake – – it is a glimpse of a God whose mind could change. God commanded the anointing of Saul and immediately regretted it because Saul messed up on his first assignment. God dis-invited Saul from his kingship.
Our ancestors conceived of a God who is fallible.
2nd – The story tells us that being a servant of God is risky. Samuel is put at great risk for his life by the order to anoint a new king. God is not terribly reasonable. God wants something done and expects Samuel to do it. God doesn’t want to hear about Samuel’s fears and orders Samuel to get on with it. Our ancestors conceived of a God with an irresistible will.
3rd – The story tells us that God is not above a little artifice in order to accomplish the Divine will. God gives Samuel a plausible story to tell the elders of Bethlehem in order to get to his real purpose which is to anoint a new king. Our ancestors conceived of a God who was the source, the guide and eventually the goal of the outcome.
As the drama unfolds, Jesse brings out all his sons for Samuel’s blessing and anointing. Eliab – – the oldest – -attractive – – tall – – all the signs of leadership potential. But God says “no – not him.” “Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have (already) rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
A second and then a third son come forward, but, as in the Cinderella story, Samuel persists. “Are there any other sons?” Reluctantly, Jesse sends for his youngest son who is tending the flocks. The young boy comes forward and Samuel anoints him to become heir to Saul’s throne – and so the great King David of Israel enters the stream of our ancestral story.
On a communion Sunday at the beginning of September and at the beginning of a relatively unanticipated future together, what are we to take from this story that will not allow us to become congealed?
Maybe first and foremost is the notion that God does not wish any of us to congeal prematurely! We can get too fixed and comfortable with the status quo. A congregation can get stuck in an identity that may need to change and grow. A quirky God can shift things around. A clergy couple can get too content in the routines of retirement – and may need to become uncongealed. Maybe we are to learn not to depend so much on external, human forces – on the frailty of human seeing – – but rather draw strength from trusting that God sees more accurately and acts to carry us forward like Samuel – – even though we are uncertain about where we are going. The Divine Influence that sustains and guides us is a radically free and adventuring God. The entire body of scripture that we have inherited attests to this God who is not satisfied with a congealed people. The dynamic activity of God doesn’t end in the ancient story. It continues right here in our midst. We gather at the table to enact an ancient ritual. Some days it has meaning for us – -other days it doesn’t. But we gather anyway because this radically free God works in us through simple things like bread and wine – -drawing us closer to one another – strengthening our connections so that we have the spiritual resources we need to stay in realtionship with this ever-moving God.
God seeks an uncongealed people who are willing to be on the move and to be fully open to the eternally changing Unchanging One.
Perhaps, just for today, to paraphrase the character of Ursula, we can experiment with being fluid – – with moving forward – -with making new trysts with the Holy One. Being in motion with the Christ who offers us living bread will keep us ever young. Indeed, the deeper fellowship around the table is what keeps us alive and uncongealed. Perhaps that is all that is going on here.