[1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; St. John 9:1-13,28-38]
Both the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) and the Gospel readings today raise the issue, what do we do when our expanding vision of the God’s purpose becomes a threat to our religious convention. In scripture, in the life of the church, and in our own personal walk of faith these conflicts can occur around many experiences. However, most of our religious assumptions can be challenged on matters of grave social, economic and political injustice, the acknowledgment of human needs and suffering, and our own personal spiritual experiences that provide insights which push us to broaden our faith commitment or to rethink—even question—our normal religious assumptions about God and common assumptions about our Faith.
These can be very difficult experiences for us as individuals and for the church as an institution. Yet anything that is alive is by definition growing and change in understanding and awareness: not necessary beyond perception or recognition, but growing more fully into its purpose and its understanding of God and God’s will.
Now I am aware there are always challenges to institutional religious convention, its structures, its practices and beliefs. I also understand that every call to change is neither Godly nor necessary. Even to many post-modern persons part of the attractiveness of the church or traditional religion is its conservative quality. This is partly because it is institutional religion that is a conservator – a trustee – of a faith experience, an historic tradition, a community’s sacred story. Furthermore, constant change simply for the sake of relevance is not healthy. Biological organisms can experience rapid erratic change as cancerous and can be a sign of death rather than health. We must prayerfully discern what may be the call of God and be willing to obey – to take the risk. As we shall see both Samuel the prophet and the “Man Born Blind” are examples of this dilemma; persons of faith dealing with personal and individual dilemmas of conventional religion and an expanding vision of God’s will.
In the first lesson Samuel the prophet is instructed by God to anoint or confirm a new King, as God has rejected King Saul. Samuel is in a difficult position. He is, on the one hand, clearly God’s spiritual agent to the people of Israel, protector of the Faith, somewhat like a bishop. But Samuel is also the King’s chief chaplain and religious advisor. Also, there is a special relationship between the two because Samuel chose Saul and anointed him Israel’s first King and had been somewhat of a mentor to this neophyte in a neophyte political system. For, you see, Saul being chosen king was a result of Israel having decided upon a monarchal system of government rather than its previous system which was the periodic selection of warrior-magistrate (called a Judge) who was principally a military leader. Prominent biblical examples are Joshua and Deborah. This system was politically and spiritually held togther, particularly in the interim periods, by national prophets such as Eli and his successor, Samuel. We know from the stories of Samuel and Nathan that even in the monarchal system prophets continued to have great moral and political influence. But as Israel’s national sense of identity grew, they demanded a change. As the lesson says, Israel “wanted a King so we will be like the other nations [8:20].”
Now, Saul was presented as having all the outward requisite qualities that a great king, Israel assumed a king should possess. The Bible describes him as wealthy, young, and the epitome of conventional handsomeness; and he was unusually big and strong. 1 Samuel 9:2 says, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” For today’s generation, Essence or Cosmopolitan magazines would say that Saul was a “HUNK!”. .
Saul, at first was a great warrior, won battles and attracted military allies. But he was disobedient, if not defiant to God’s instructions, and resentful of Samuel, God’s messenger. There seemed missing in him spiritual depth and religious commitment. Furthermore, political power seemed to make Saul arrogant; at times he would usurp the role of prophet and priest in key religious ceremonies. Ultimately, it was clear that Saul lacked the temperament for political leadership. The strain of leadership became more than he could bear, causing him to experience deep depression, indulge in dangerous behaviors and use erratic judgement in the royal court.
Samuel’s first challenge of obedience is to risk death to obey God. If Samuel would obey God he could give the people of Israel a new future. But to obey God and anoint a new successor with incumbent still living would be treason and thus give unquestionable cause for Saul to kill Samuel. I would say this was reason enough to be hesitant.
But I believe there was another reason that Samuel was hesitant, perhaps a more important reason. In verse 2 God says, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him….” Samuel, a very old man now, had seen Israel through many changes. He is tired of change. He thought that Saul would be the last big transition. He a had selected Saul, ritually anointed him King for a life time; and Samuel to be a mentor to him. Although they had many conflicts, he never stopped hoping Saul would change and succeed. But Saul didn’t change and Samuel is still grieving what Saul could have been, perhaps even angry that Saul has squandered such great potential. As a pastor I have often seen prolonged grief as an excuse not to move towards the future. Either we fear entering without the ones we love, or feel resentment and anger towards life and the people who have left us. Samuel is not only disappointed, but very angry with Saul. But God, like a good friend or pastor, says “O.K., Samuel, enough, already. It is time to move on into the future.”
Samuel’s second challenge transcends the conventional criteria of qualities for choosing a King. Samuel wants to anoint David’s eldest brother (Eliab), who is to be the inheritor of his father’s wealth, conventionally handsome and very large; clearly someone who would be pleasing to the eye, people and other nations; someone who looked like the favor of God. But God says, “Do not look on [ i.e. who he is physically], for he is not my choice. Mortals look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.” Finally, David is presented and the oil flows in Godly confirmation.
David, who lives in the wilderness as a shepherd, a lowly job. However, as shepherd he seems to have a pastor’s heart and the courage and commitment of a protector. David, is an accomplished musician—harpist— and has the creative spirit and a religious sense. We sang one of his devotionals today, the 23rd Psalm. He is connected to the religious heritage of Israel. Yes, we do come to know David as person with his own character flaws; for example we know this of his adultery with Bathsheba. But we also see in him, (II Samuel 12: 1-15) one who can be challenged to face his sins and willing to repent and accept the consequences.
David seems to have a unique but distinguishing spiritual character which God wishes Samuel (and subsequently, Israel, the community of faith) to see and honor. There is a inner quality, a qualification of the heart which seems to distinguish David from Saul. The Bible describes David as “ruddy”; that is, David was a red head, an oddity among Hebraic heroes (only Esau, Jacob’s fraternal twin, is so noted—Genesis 25:25) When the writers of the book of Samuel say that David was Ruddy and handsome it was to say that he was handsome even with his oddity. This reference seems to be implying that physically and spiritually David was unconventional. As the youngest he was not the primary inheritor of his father’s wealth, he is noted as particularly tall or large of physique. But the message seems to be, what is unconventional can be seen as beautiful and that which is conventional can become unattractive and ineffectual, as was the case with Saul.
This is still true in political life today. How many political races have been lost because the candidate was not camera friendly and not because of character and vision? How many political candidates have been elected because of their media attractiveness, with little regard to questions of character and the absence of a substantive vision? With the 2000 elections on the horizon, perhaps we need to be pondering this lesson in considering local and national officials.
Samuel is the man of God but he is also a man of the people. In many ways he thinks like they and shares their values. This is true of any good pastor; she or he is a part of the people to whom and with whom they minister. But a faithful pastor is also one who can live apart from the people. One who, when necessary, is willing to live in the tension between loving the people and sharing their values while prayerfully seeking to be open to what God’s leading may be at a given time. At times the expanding awareness of God’s vision for the church may painfully challenge conventional thinking. However, the true and purposeful ends of God’s challenge are always that the community of faith may become more just, more compassionate toward others, and more faithful in its love and obedience to God.
In hindsight, many of the hard changes we have experienced (such as women’s ordination and racial integration) may now seem like “much to do about nothing.” We may often wonder how we could think otherwise or have thought religion could be used to endorse such perspectives or have been so complicity in an unjust status quo.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, was written to prominent pastors who in a full page paid ad in the major newspaper has condemned Dr. King’s movement for equality untimely and tactically inappropriate. Dr. King, who was in the city jail, wrote his response on the edges of the newspaper and smuggled it out to be printed. He wrote:
“On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at . . . beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward and your massive education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’.” Dr. King then goes on to critique conventional institutional Christianity, saying: “The contemporary church is often a weak and ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and [at other times the churches’] often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
The measure of God expectation, into which we must constantly grow is best stated in Micah 6:8 “What does God require . . . to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. Notice the implication of the verbs: “DO,” “LOVE,” “WALK.” “DO justice!” It is a command to action not an invitation to contemplation of options. It is the work which must be done, the truth which must be spoken, without which there is no healing, reconciliation or peace. Next, we are to “LOVE kindness (or mercy)!” The passion of our souls is kindness, interestingly not justice. Justice is the work we must do, but the passion, which must be rooted within us must be kindness. Kindness, or compassion is that which tempers the radical edge of our agendas and causes, distinguishes vengeance from justice, and challenges our complacency in the face of injustice which may serve us but oppresses others. And finally, We are required to “WALK (or live) humbly with God!” Our causes nor our comforts are above God. Truth is inspired by God and discerned by those who are spiritual open to God by a life of prayer and faith. All three is hard each by themselves but to hold them together is really hard work of the faithful life. It is not so much the accomplishment of a perfect balance that makes us faithful. Rather, faithfulness is found in the struggle to interweave these requirements of God into the fabric of our daily lives.
Today’s Gospel Lesson lifts up this tension, this conflict between conventional religious perspectives and attitudes and the larger vision of God’s call to be a healing community. First, the Disciples, like Samuel in the Old Testament lesson, are also shaped by popular religious assumptions. Assumptions which are challenged by Jesus, as Samuel’s were by God. When the Disciples saw the man-born-blind, their first question was causal: “Who sinned that this man was born blind, he or his parents?” Jesus responds by saying, neither sin nor stop thinking in ways which add blame or guilt to existent suffering. Rather than focusing on guilt, can’t we see this situation as an opportunity for God to act in healing, saving and liberating ways? “Blame the victim” is a popular game in experience, even in religion. It is evident in attitudes which suggest that those who suffer injustice must be guilt or complicit in someway for this terrible thing to happen. . For example in spousal abuse cases we wonder, why doesn’t she just leave, why did she go back to him, why doesn’t she just press charges…. etc The victim must be in someway guilty or complicit —a sinner. It is hard to break away from that kind of thinking and feeling and to find positive ways to use our emotional and intellectual energies as faith resources for healing the pain, injustice, for sharing the love of God.
Early in my ministry, when I was a college chaplain, I was invited by the Southern Baptist Campus Ministry to participate in their Annual State-wide Student Retreat as a workshop leader.. As an Episcopalian, I have long admired, even envied their commitment and effectiveness to ministry with college students. When the list of workshops was published I noticed that I was assigned to lead the session on AIDS. I began the workshop by talking about the medical travesty of AIDS, its effect on the entire community (gay, straight, men, women and increasingly, children); I talked about what a great opportunity this tragic epidemic presents for the Church to reach out in love and faith by ministering to those who suffer. But somehow I had the feeling I was in the wrong classroom, that I had the wrong topic. There was a kind of confused look on many faces, a polite but incredulous climate in the group. After about 15 minutes in to the session a student blurred out, “Isn’t AIDS really God’s wrath upon the Homosexual??” Boy, did that group come alive after that…! My only question in reply, was do you believe in a God cruel enough to inflict such a tragedy? Is this the way God draws people ? I must admit I didn’t make much head-way. Yet, I still believe it to be true. None of us who claim to by Christian has come to a meaningful relationship with God because of fear, no one is scared into the Kingdom. As God reminded Israel, “It is with loving-kindness that I have drawn you”. (Jeremiah 31:3) Sadly, we often spend so much energy seeking blame and assigning guilt we have little emotional or spiritual resource left to share in healing and redeeming ways. Breaking free from our crippling fears, from our spiritually debilitating prejudices and assumptions is very hard work. Such change is necessary if we are to become people of hope and witnesses of God’s redemptive love. But it is hard work to accept new ways of seeing the vision of God for us and t