“…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look for outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” ~1 Samuel 16:7
Doing God’s will much of the time requires us to set aside what we value, to let go of what we think is important.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
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.’ Samuel 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.” Invite 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.’ Samuel 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?’ He 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.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But 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.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ Samuel 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.’ He 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.’ Then 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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I find it difficult these days to know what God is doing. Each day brings the grim news of exploitation, suffering, and injustices; of children bearing burdens not of their making, human beings destroying one another and creation itself. When we look at the news and see images of children in cages, is that God’s will? How do we know when we ourselves are doing God’s will? The General Assembly of the PCUSA officially convened yesterday in St. Louis, MO, to begin its biennial meeting. As in every Assembly, new policies will be made such as several years ago when the Assembly amended the constitution to expand the definition of marriage, permitting Presbyterian ministers to perform same sex marriages. At this Assembly, one of the key issues among many will be what kind of a position will the PCUSA take on climate change. How will we know that the General Assembly is doing God’s will?
I. Today’s Old Testament lectionary reading from the Book of Samuel is the story of how David was chosen to be the second king of Israel. I have learned to pay attention to the chapter preceding an assigned reading, so that I can have the benefit of knowing what led up to the presenting story before us. In this morning’s case, the preceding chapter is the story of how the first king of Israel was chosen. The prophet Samuel has been asked by God to anoint Saul king of Israel. Samuel, obediently, does God’s will, going to Saul and saying to him: “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over the people of Israel.” It didn’t stop there. God then ordered Samuel to command the newly anointed king that his first order of business was to annihilate the Amalekites—to kill both man and woman, infant and child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey—not sparing one living being. Samuel did as he was told; he did God’s will. But then Saul made the mistake of thinking for himself, failing to carry out the command of God to kill every living being in totality. Saul decided to spare the best of the sheep and of the cattle in order to offer them as an offering to the Lord. God was not happy. God was so angry and upset with Saul for not doing God’s will in its totality that the Lord came back to Samuel and said to him: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has not carried out all my commands.” In Samuel’s shoes, can you imagine how he felt hearing this from God? Imagine the spot the Lord has put him in. First, he anoints Saul the king; and now the Lord wants him to remove the crown from Saul’s head. I love this story because it illustrates the difficulty of doing God’s will. It serves as an important background to this morning’s reading of how David was chosen to be the new king. The message is that God is in charge. It is God who decides who will be king. And we are the servants charged with the task of doing God’s will.
II. With Saul’s short reign coming to an end, today’s reading is about the search for Saul’s successor. In this wonderful story, any of David’s older brothers could have, or even should have, been chosen king. They had all the outward qualifications—appearance, height, stature, impeccable resumes. But the Lord spoke again to Samuel, this time, instructing him: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see what mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” That one sentence captures the essence of what is required to do God’s will. God does not see as we do. Doing God’s will requires us to set aside what we value, to let go of what we think is important.
I chaired the Admissions Committee at San Francisco Theological Seminary for several years when I was on the faculty. In those days, we had enough applicants where we could be selective; we didn’t have to admit anyone who wanted to come to seminary. How did we know we were accepting the candidates that God had truly called? Of course, we made mistakes, choosing the good looking brothers of David, who wrote beautiful applications and had great references. And I know that we mistakenly rejected potential Davids. We all want to do God’s will, to do the right thing. Among my teaching assignments at SFTS, I taught Biblical Hebrew for many years. And from those years of teaching, I learned to identify which of my students would make the best pastors. They were not my straight A students, the students who turned in their exams way ahead of the slower B and C students. I learned that the students who became wonderful pastors were the ones who struggled, who did not think too highly of themselves. The A students thought they could do it all…on their own. They did not need any help from anyone, not even God. Their superior grades gave them such a level of confidence that they did not need to really know what God’s will was, much less to do it.
III. In his book on vocation, Parker Palmer, a Quaker, describes how the Quakers discern their call and God’s will. Their proverb is, “Have faith, and the way will open.” Palmer described how hard this was for him personally. He writes: “I have faith, I thought to myself, what I don’t have is time to wait for the way to open.” Approaching middle age, he had yet to find a vocational path that felt right. Desperate, Palmer went to an Old Quaker woman, known for her thoughtfulness and candor. He said to her: “Ruth, people keep telling me that ‘way will open’; well I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I’ve been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do. Way may open for other people, but it’s sure not opening for me.” Ruth’s reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking. “In my 60 plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me.” She paused, and Palmer started sinking into despair, wondering whether this wise woman was telling him that the Quaker concept of God’s guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin. “But a lot of way has closed behind me and that’s had the same guiding effect.” Palmer then confessed that he behaved like many middle-class Americans, especially those who were white and male; and raised in a subculture that insisted they could do anything they wanted to do, be anything they wanted to be, if they were willing to make the effort.
When I was being interviewed by the Pastor Nominating Committee of the United Presbyterian Church on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, I was pretty sure that I was their choice as we approached the end of the interview. I glanced out the window at the beautiful acreage on which the church and the manse sat; and wondered aloud, “So who mows the lawn”? I asked because there was at least a couple of acres of lawn. Their long silence gave me the answer I dreaded. “The pastor has always mowed the lawn.” I tried to explain how valuable my time was, and how I could be spending that time making pastoral visits, writing sermons, preparing bible studies. The PNC did not budge because they didn’t know who else could do the job. It wasn’t worth the battle; so I resigned myself to adding that chore to my pastoral responsibilities. By the time I left that church, I had come to the realization that mowing that lawn saved me and my ministry among the Native American people. In the 6 years of ministry there, I never felt so helpless and hopeless, wondering whether I was accomplishing anything, whether my ministry made any difference. I came to discover that what kept me going, and not feel like a total failure, was that each week during the summer months, I could look back at that freshly mowed lawn, which took 3 hours, and see the fruits of my labor. God knows what she is doing. Doing God’s will requires that we let go of what our own wills might demand.
In all my years of ministry, I have learned that the best way to face the challenges of ministry, and there were many, is to do everything I could to read the mind of God—to let go of what I wanted to do and accomplish; to seek not my wisdom, but God’s wisdom. In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks writes: “Success is earned externally by being better than other people. But character…is earned by being better than you used to be.” He points out that in life, there are 2 sets of virtues: the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful. Were you capable of deep love? I believe that when we focus more on character, rather than success, we will be closer to knowing God’s will. And when we value more our eulogy virtues than our resume virtues, that we will be closer to doing God’s will.
I received an email from a former student at SFTS shortly after I began my transitional ministry with you on May 1st. Here is what he wrote: “I was sitting here with my wife at home in Lake Forest, Illinois, when you popped into my mind. No idea why—our paths have not crossed since I was at SFTS in 1980-81. I tracked you down online simply to say “thanks”. When you were Director of Admissions at SFTS, I had twice been accepted at McCormick and twice not matriculated. I wanted to be a minister but McCormick did not feel right, and I was plagued by boatloads of doubt on whether I had the spiritual life I felt I needed to be a seminarian/minister. In short, when I applied to and visited SFTS you made me feel welcome in ways I never felt at McCormick, and when I shared my doubts with you, your response was along the lines of ‘welcome to the club—we’d be far more worried about you if you came here feeling like you knew all the answers.’
Today, I am blessed to be serving an innovative, independent congregation. I began with no church building, members, or committees—but today some 275 families consider themselves as part of the church family. We hold our services during the school year in a College Chapel; and from May to mid-September we meet on the shores of Lake Michigan (a little ugly last Sunday—43 degrees and strong breeze out of the NE—coldest service ever).
Anyway, I feel incredibly blessed to be a minister these days, and I simply want to thank you for being one of the people who opened the door to ministry for me. Take good care, Cal, and best wishes in your work at Calvary.”
We are all called to do God’s will. It all begins with our letting go of the demands and expectations of our own wills. Amen.