If At First

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the wonder of what it means to be in a position to be called by the Lord.  We heard the stories of God’s calling the boy Samuel and the annunciation to Mary and thought about how or when we might be able to respond to God’s call on our own lives.  


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below:

It wasn’t a joyous Christmas for everyone when Mikayla brought home her final report card from the first half of the third grade. Although she had been a wonderful student in previous years, every single subject showed a marked decline. Worse than that, at least for her mother, was the fact that Mikayla’s teacher indicated that Mikayla’s attitude had become really negative. The teacher said, “It’s almost as if she doesn’t care about school.”

Well, as you might imagine, there was a pretty serious conversation at dinner that evening. Mikayla’s mother was appalled by her daughter’s blatant disregard for her concerns. Finally, the child blurted out, “Look, it’s just too hard! Multiplication? Sentence structure? I hate that stuff. I’m just going to quit school.” At this point, Dad tried to take the long view, and asked about her future. Mikayla’s face brightened immediately, and said, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about there. I have it all figured out. I don’t need to finish school or go to college. When I grow up, I’ll be a Kindergarten teacher. That stuff is easy! I understand all that.”

How frustrating is it when you find yourself in a situation where you are not able to understand what’s going on? Maybe it’s when you walk into a room and everyone is laughing… and you’re not sure why… You’re given an assignment at work or at school, and you just can’t figure out what is expected… You know what it’s like to encounter a situation in which you know that something should make sense, but you have absolutely no idea how to make it comprehensible.

We want the world to make sense, to have order, and to be predictable. We want to know what to expect, and when, and why. And yet all too often, it’s not that way. Especially, it seems, when God is involved.

Eli and Samuel, unknown illustrator.

Each of our scripture readings this morning presents us with a biblical character who simply cannot get a grip on what God is up to in their lives or in their world. In the first reading, we encounter young Samuel, who believes that the most important thing in his life at this point is to help Eli get through his days and nights in service to the Lord at the temple. Samuel respected the old man and he probably felt sorry for the ways that Eli’s sons had turned out. And Samuel probably wasn’t sure exactly why all the other kids lived at home with their parents, and he was here in the Temple, but he was making the best of it.

As you know, he heard a voice, repeatedly, and is finally able to ascertain that the voice belongs, not to the ancient priest, but to the God that they both serve.

Luke tells the story of a teenaged girl named Mary who is, by all accounts, simply minding her own business and planning a wedding. There’s a lot to do, and I’m sure that tensions were high. All of a sudden, her reverie is interrupted by the appearance of an angel who tells her something that she simply knows to be flat-out impossible.

There is not a person in this room who hasn’t asked each of these questions before: “Is that really you, God?” and “How can this be?”

You know what it’s like to ask these questions. How do you respond when you are faced with a situation that is puzzling, or confusing, or heart-breaking? It would seem to me that we could learn a thing or two from the models we have encountered in scripture this morning.

Samuel might tell us that it’s ok to slow down when you are confronting a perplexing situation. “Take some time,” he would say. “Get your bearings and try to discern what is really happening, not merely what is apparently going on.” He would know, since as you heard he didn’t get things right on his first, second or even third try.

Samuel’s willingness to restart, and his acknowledgement that his perception might not be ultimately accurate allowed him to embrace the new thing that God was going to begin in his life and in the experience of his people.

Our sister Mary would add that it’s ok to ask for help. When Gabriel started spouting all of this nonsense about her being pregnant she listened politely, but then she reminded him of the facts of her own life. And then she simply asked a question: “How can this be? I hear your words, but it simply seems unbelievable to me. Can you say more about this, please?” And in response to that, the messenger from God does, in fact, elaborate. He says that the Holy Spirit will “cover” her. The word for “cover” that is used there is the same word that the Greek Old Testament translators used to describe what was happening in the very beginning – when back in Genesis 1, the Spirit of God was “hovering” or “moving over” the water.

Mary’s willingness to ask for support and encouragement brought her to a place where she was able to see herself as a part of God’s creative movement in and through the world. She came to see that this thing was not happening to her, but rather in or through her.

Annunciation, Matthias Stom (c. 1600 – 1652)

In both instances, we see that slowing down, seeking alternative understandings, and asking for help leads God’s people to a deeper self-awareness and greater self-understanding. As young as they were, Samuel and Mary were each in a position (guided, I will note, by a mentor of one kind or another) to step outside of their own hurt, pain, confusion, or bewilderment and in so doing gain a deeper understanding of the roles that were being offered to them in the Divine economy. And in the security of that mentorship, the assurance of God’s presence, and with the gift of faith, both of these young people were able to redefine themselves, first and foremost, as “servants” of the Lord.

Mary, in fact, goes even further, referring to herself as a doulé of the Lord – a “slave”. Singer-songwriter Michael Card notes this in his volume on Luke, saying,

Her final response to the angel is conclusive proof. Essentially she responds, “Look, the slave of the Master.” Of all that she does not know, one thing seems perfectly clear to her. It is a perspective that will help her navigate the deep waters into which the small vessel of her life is about to go. It will be the source of her disturbingly clear obedience… She is surrendering her rights, her hopes and dreams and her own body absolutely to him. Mary seems to know that she is owned by Another. The message that has come to her through the angel is absolute and life-changing.[1]

So when you find yourself up against things – whether you are confronting some of the great existential questions of life, such as “Why is this hurting so much?” or “When will healing come?” or “What next?”, or whether you are encountering yet another situation where it seems as though a colleague is determined to ride your last nerve, to poke and dig at some source of irritation, or to accuse you of that which is not true… When any of those things are going on in your life, it might be helpful to remember the practices enjoined by Samuel and Mary.

Remember that you are still – and that you are always – learning how to live in the life of faith. There is no one in this room who can claim to have mastered that. Some days, you may feel as though you’ve made a lot of progress, and you can think, “Wow! I’m glad I am not where I used to be…” But never forget that each and every one of us has a long way to go on our journey toward maturity and discipleship.

Try to remember what you told your daughter when she was learning to tie her shoes, or what your friend told you when he was trying to teach you how to drive a stick-shift car: Slow down. Relax. Let’s try this again. Watch.

Remember not to take yourself so seriously. In all probability, the situation in which you find yourself is not really and ultimately about you anyway. In any case, the realities of your life at this instant are offering you with an opportunity to come alongside of God and to help conform God’s world to God’s intentions.

You know, that all sounds pretty good. Relax. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Give yourself a break. As God for help. Remember that you are a part of the thing that God is doing in the world.

Nobody would be surprised to show up for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent and hear the preacher spouting stuff like that. It’s the sort of thing that we think we pay for from the pulpit.

But here’s something that struck me as I contemplated the nativity narratives: actually doing those things is easier for some people than others. I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, Carver goes to school for a hundred and twelve years, and then serves as a pastor for a quarter of a century, and he’s beginning to get a glimmer of understanding that we’re not all alike…”

That’s not what I mean. Look with me at some of the stories you all know about the birth of Jesus – the biggest, newest, most amazing thing that God is doing. The angels are dispatched to the Shepherds – a lowly, marginalized group on the fringes of that culture – with a message of God’s new and amazing thing, and how do the shepherds respond? “Let us go to Bethlehem and see!” The star shines in the East, and a group of foreign non-believers sense that there is something overwhelmingly compelling about this particular event, and they leave everything behind and prepare themselves to worship whoever or whatever they meet at their journey’s end. In each case, you have a group of people who are less invested in the status quo, less tied in with how they think that the story should end, and they respond by saying, “Wow, this is the coolest thing ever. Let’s move into this a little deeper!”

On the other hand, the more entrenched the participants are in their own practices and understanding of the life of faith, the harder it is for them to perceive this new thing that God is doing.

Mary is a teenaged girl who is, from everything we can tell, simply trying to do the right thing: to worship and serve God, to honor her parents and her commitments… she hears word of this astounding plan and raises her hand, haltingly, to ask a clarifying question…

Joseph is a responsible, righteous, well-regarded member of the community. He is afraid of bringing disgrace on his own family as well as that of Mary, and when he is confronted with this impossibility, he decides in his heart that he can’t possibly get behind this and so he plans a quiet bit of legal action to make everything go away quietly.

Zechariah, the priest serving in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the one who was chosen to be the father of John the Baptist – the man who, as much as anyone in this part of the story is an insider aligned with a particular way of understanding God at work in the world – he hears word of what is happening and is so surprised and upset by it that he actually argues with the angel and is struck mute as a result. And although the other priest of whom we read this morning, Eli, does not figure in the narrative of the nativity, it is worth pointing out that he cannot even hear the voice of God speaking when the Spirit announces the intention to do something new.

Could it be that in our quest to consider ourselves “mature Christians” and “growing disciples” that we may be prematurely declaring that we know what God wants and we can take it from here, thank you very much? Could it be possible that in my quest to take care of things and try to impress either you or God with my wisdom or insight or faith or whatever… that I have lost something of my ability to wonder at and seek to join in with God’s purposes?

At the end of the day, both Samuel and Mary are able to adopt a posture that is first and foremost humble, teachable, and trusting.

Samuel says, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

Mary echoes, “I am your slave. Let it be to me according to your word.”

When Jesus’ friend John wrote his account of Jesus’ life, he didn’t tell any stories about when Jesus was born. But he did give Jesus an interesting label: John said that Jesus was the “word” for God. There are all kinds of good reasons for that, I’m sure. Perhaps chief among them for me, this morning at any rate, is the fact that Jesus was the Word that was shaping Samuel (“Speak, O Lord…”. Jesus was the Word that was preparing Mary (“Let it be to me according to your Word…”).

Today, dear friends, and in the days to come, let me encourage you to find some quiet spot. Unplug. Listen. I suspect that the Word which became apparent to Samuel and to Mary is longing to become audible to you in a new fresh way here in Advent of 2017.

And you say, “Yeah, but it’s Christmas Eve! And did you see the news? Taxes! Russia! Cancer! Wildfires! Jobs! Those idiots in congress! How am I supposed to unplug?”

Listen. Seek God’s face for half an hour. None of those things are going anywhere fast. They’ll all be right where you left them when you get back. The question is, can you be different as you consider the questions in your life and in our world? If Christmas means anything, it means that you can. Thanks be to God, we all can. Amen.

[1] Michael Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (Biblical Imagination Series, IVP 2011), p. 39.

Lessons Learned

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  The second message in the series brought us the opportunity to consider the ways in which David was shaped for his vocation in surprising ways.  Our texts included I Samuel 16:14-23 and II Corinthians 4:7-12.

When you are driving past the bus stop and you see a group of young people wearing oversize white tops and finely checked pants, you know that you’re looking at folks who are on their way to the Culinary Institute, where they’ll continue their preparation as chefs. Similarly, when you are walking through the corridors of the hospital and encounter a quartet wearing stethoscopes trailing a woman in a white lab coat, you assume you’re seeing student nurses. In these professions, and in dozens of others, folks enter into their vocation after a period of training, apprenticeship, or coursework. You probably did something like that in one way or another.

Last week, we began our exploration of the stories surrounding King David by reading about the day that, as a young boy, he was taken aside by the old prophet Samuel and anointed as King. One of the difficulties that this presented, as we noted, was that the office of King was not vacant at the time – Saul had been anointed King some years before and he had grown pretty accustomed to the position.

David, then, finds himself in an awkward situation: he’s preparing for a position of which he has already been assured, but has no sense of when he’ll actually be called into that place. In our reading for today, we learn more about the training that David received as he waited for God’s direction. What lessons will he learn as God continues to shape him for the office that he will eventually occupy? And as we consider these events in the life of David, we need to ask ourselves how we understand them to be relevant in our own circumstances.

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

We’re told in verse 14 that the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul and, instead, an evil spirit from the Lord was tormenting him. It’s hard for us, as 21st-century believers living in the USA to enter into a mindset of good and evil spirits, let alone a view of the world which holds that the One whom we suppose to be nothing but goodness and light is in the business of tormenting poor unfortunate souls. However, the text we’ve received is one that comes from another time and another place, and an unsophisticated worldview which held that all things are ultimately a result of God’s work; God kills and God brings to life; God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and so on.

In an effort to de-mystify some of the language here, a few modern readers have simply assumed that Saul was suffering from a medical condition: maybe depression, maybe anxiety disorder, or perhaps schizophrenia. While this may be helpful in terms of giving us an insight into the symptoms that Saul may or may not have displayed, it ignores the fact that Saul’s primary problems were theological in nature. He had flagrantly disrespected and violated the Lord’s presence, and so the Lord left him, and that resulted in this series of unfortunate symptoms.

Saul felt the absence of God horribly. In spite of having the best medical care available, with zero copay and zero deductible, he was overwhelmed. Fortunately for Saul, though, the people around him were brave enough to risk acknowledging his situation publicly. “Saul, you are a mess! You need help, and you need it now.”

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 - 1812)

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 – 1812)

One of the lessons that young David needed to learn as he prepared for his role of King is that every one of us needs to listen to the wise counsel of those who are close to us. It’s not something that comes easily to many, and as we look at some of David’s most spectacular failures, we’ll see that it took him some time to figure this out. Yet we note that here, before he ever tries on the crown or even thinks about moving into the palace, David is learning the importance of acting upon trusted advice and having a teachable heart.

Saul is more than eager to be relieved of this distress, and so he listens to his counselors and sends for the musician to be brought before him. He finds, much to his own delight (and surely that of everyone on his staff), that the shepherd boy really does have a great voice and can play the lyre like nobody’s business.

David is brought before Saul and asked to do something for which he had prepared – even though he had no idea that’s what was happening. What I mean is this: do you suppose that David took his lyre out to the hillsides while he was hanging around with those sheep and said, “I’m going to practice and practice and practice, because you know what? Sooner or later, I’ll be called to be the personal musician of the King!”

That’s unlikely. My hunch is that he probably took along the lyre to alleviate the boredom of being alone so much; that he sang and thought and played because he thought he was all alone; in actuality, though, he was being prepared in the solitude for that great call that came through Samuel.

Perhaps as he played the lyre for a King who was in such distress, David was able to remember that God sometimes uses the unpleasant, or bitter, or painful experiences to grow us in some way for the future. Have you ever had to work for a boss that is completely unhinged (I’d be grateful if current and former church staff did not answer this one out loud)? It had to be very, very difficult to be David in that situation; he knew that he had been called to be the King, and yet of course he was not the King, and instead he was being called to soothe the dis-ease of the one for whose position he was being groomed.

Let me ask those of you who can remember being in an intensely painful or unpleasant situation: is it possible for you to look back on that time of your life and see that you experienced some growth, that you learned some lesson, that you discovered some fruit as a result of being in a difficult place? I’m not asking you if you were glad to have been there; I’m not saying that God put you there so that you’d be taught something… I’m asking whether or not you can look back at some horrible time in your life and say, “You know what? When all of that was going on, I learned ___________.”

I don’t want to spend time talking about the causes of these difficult situations; I simply want to ask you to explore whether or not you have grown through times of pain.

And if you can say, “yes, I can look to some important things that I learned while in that difficult place”, then are you able to recognize that it’s likely that you are going to be able to grow in, through, or in spite of the next painful spot in which you happen to find yourself?

I believe that one of the things that David was able to grasp while in the service of Saul is the truth that even in seasons of pain and discomfort, of horror and grief, we can grow.

Perhaps the third lesson that David was able to grasp while in this formative place with King Saul is the importance of waiting on God and honoring those with whom you are placed.

David Playing the Harp Before Saul, Ivan Ivanovich Tvorozhnikov (1848-1919)

Think about it: David knows that he’s the next King. He’s been told that by no less an authority than the Prophet Samuel. The kid leaves his house, where he’s in charge of keeping the sheep out of trouble and maybe carrying the groceries every now and then, and comes into the royal residence. He sees the luxury that surrounds the King, and he sees the King in a very, very fragile place. And look at what he does: he acts to be an anxiety-reducer in that place. In some ways, David is acting against his own best interests here. There has to be a part of David that’s saying, “You know, if old Saul finally loses it here, then I’m in! It’ll be my turn to live into the prophecy that Samuel shared!” There are all sorts of reasons why it would be to David’s advantage to hasten Saul’s descent into madness and obscurity, yet he refuses to do so. Instead, David brings life to Saul, and helps Saul to find his way back to normalcy. David does not feed the fear; instead, he seeks to defuse and disarm the fear.

There’s a word there for the church today. We live in an environment where there is every conceivable incentive to grow fear. Everywhere we turn, people are trying to get you to be more alarmed, more anxious than you were five minutes ago. Politicians tell lies and make up stories about each other; the current Presidential election is rife with fear-mongering and alarmist rhetoric; the entire culture is saturated with distrust and disgust and fear and anxiety and there is no peace.

A couple of weeks ago, the Smith & Wesson Company announced that their profits have doubled since last year. Background checks for weapons permits are on a pace to shatter the record that was set last year. Do you think people are buying all this firepower because they feel safe and secure? And do you think that anyone who owns stock in Smith & Wesson (the value of which has surged 60% in 2016) has any interest in reducing anyone’s anxiety right now?

Of course not. There’s money to be made in fear. Hate sells. Anxiety brings out the voters, brings in the money, and obliterates the truth.

And far too often, in our culture, it’s people who wear the name of Jesus who are out there leading the yelling and screaming. We feed the fear. We nurture it. We allow it to grow, when we should be seeking, as David did, to be a non-anxious presence in time of great fear. David’s eyes were not on the madness of King Saul, but on the presence and power of God.

Father Luis Espinal was a priest born in Spain, but who went to Bolivia to serve as a missionary amongst the poor in 1968. For years, he spoke out against the gangs who ran the drug trade and the government that supported those gangs. He railed against injustice, poverty, the lack of freedom of the dictatorship, the massacres, the exiles, the complicit collaboration of many with the dictatorship, drug trafficking, and the guilty silence of members of the Church. On March 21, 1980, he was leaving a movie theater when he was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a death squad. Yet just before his violent death, he wrote this brief meditation:

Now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands. They act violently as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph…with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are a definitive smile for humankind.

What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die!

We march behind you, on the road to the future. You are with us and you are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces. We are not in a game of chance…You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones, now has begun the eternal “alleluia!” From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies and souls there arises now a triumphal song!

So, teach us to give voice to your new life throughout all the world. Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever…and death will disappear.

Does any of that ring true with you? Have you or your friends fallen prey to “hysterical reactions”? Does it seem conceivable to you that the world is slipping out of God’s hands, somehow?

When I say it like that, you say, “Oh, no, Dave, we don’t believe that. God is still God. God is our Rock. God is our fortress.”

If that’s the case, then the challenge for this week is for you to go out there and live like that’s true. Accept the call on your life that was the call on young David: to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of a fearful world. To be the voice of reason and tolerance even as you are surrounded by those who hurl vile racism and who abuse power and who profit from decay and would foment discord. Use your voice, your presence, your song, so to speak, to speak truth and peace and grace to those around you.

I know that it’s not easy to do this. And it’s not easy to hear this. Earlier this week, in an effort to be perceived as funny and sophisticated and wise, I made a comment that was smug and dismissive and disrespectful. Someone I love came to me and said, “Do you realize how hurtful that was?” In my attempt to be well-regarded, I was instead smarmy and self-inflating, and I contributed to separation and alienation. And someone cared enough about me to pull me aside and say, “Look, Dave – is that your best self? Is that who you want to be?”

That’s what I’m asking you to do today. To show up in rooms where people are acting more irrationally than old King Saul ever did and to use the voice that God gave you to bring peace, to point to hope, and to demonstrate resurrection.

We’re in a hard place. We can expect that it’s going to get harder. Let’s go ahead and do what is right anyway, trusting God to be with us even as he was with David, in the midst of our vulnerability and risk, in a place of fear. When we are tempted to distrust, can we join together and repeat the psalm of peace? Thanks be to God, Amen.


For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  Our series began with this message, and the texts included I Samuel 16:1-13 and I Corinthians 1:26-31.

OK, so you’re sitting around with someone you love, and you’ve got nothing better to do, so you decide to pop on down to the Redbox and get a movie. There have been all kinds of new releases lately, and it’ll be a great way to spend some time together.

Until you find yourself standing in front of the machine, looking at row after row of titles, saying, “Nope… nope… nope… Um – wait, who’s in that one? Oh, right. Nope… nope…” It’s horrible, isn’t it? How hard can it be to pick a film?

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Believe it or not, that’s the image I have as the old prophet Samuel meets with Jesse’s family. God has told him that there’s a new king to be anointed, so here is Samuel, watching each of the boys pass before him, shaking his head over and over again, “nope… Uh-uh… Nope…”

For much of this year, we’re going to be looking at the life and times of the one who is eventually chosen by God, the man we’ve come to know as King David. It seems to me that this is an appropriate time for us to consider issues of power, leadership, integrity, perspective, and God’s working in history.

First, an introduction. Most of content at which we’ll be looking in the months to come is found in the Old Testament books of Samuel. Although your Bible might refer to these as among the “historical” books, it’s important to note that they are not “history” in the way that most of us understand that word. What I mean by that is that this is not an ordered account whereby we are given a strict chronology of events, complete with footnotes and cross-references. What we have before us is more of a series of family remembrances – stories that are told from a particular perspective that aim to remind us of certain core truths again and again.

In the books of Samuel, we see a significant transition in the life of Israel. What we heard about in Judges and Ruth was a loose confederation of insignificant tribes that really had no cohesion as a functioning nation, but in the span of a few short pages, we see the emergence of a centralized nation-state that is moving into some prominence on the world stage. There are three key figures in this narrative. Samuel is the last “Judge” of Israel, and he is called by God to establish a monarchy. Samuel has incredible religious fervor and great depth of character, but he is not really a great leader and has absolutely no patience when it comes to working with other people. He is led to anoint Saul as king. Saul is an amazingly motivational leader who really knows how to work the room – whichever room he happens to be in. He has a commanding presence. Unfortunately, however, Saul is also spiritually bankrupt and mentally unstable.

Samuel and Saul are really the set-up men for the main event, however: David, the one who no less an authority than the Apostle Paul described as “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22). David is the instrument by which God transforms this motley group of clans and warlords into a functioning nation, and today’s Old Testament lesson introduces us to this remarkable person.

Our reading opens with a reminder of Saul’s inability to be king and the declaration that it’s time for something new. When God sends Samuel on a mission to anoint a new king, he is understandably frightened. After all, Saul still thinks that he is the king; if he discovers that Samuel is out there looking for a new king, well, there’s going to be trouble. After all, the job isn’t really vacant.

The Lord gives Samuel a cover story about going to make a sacrifice (which reminds me of the time that God told Moses to take the people out of Egypt: “Tell Pharaoh that you need to take a long weekend to offer a sacrifice…” That seems to be one of God’s ways of announcing regime change…). So Samuel goes into Judah and is met by a quaking group of elders from the town of Bethlehem, who are troubled by the presence of the old Judge in their town. If Samuel is there because Saul sent him, then they are afraid that Saul’s about to inflict some new round of taxation or plunder. If Samuel is there to incite rebellion against Saul, however, the elders will be held responsible and punished accordingly.

Samuel manages to quiet everyone down by saying it’s time for worship, and then he asks to have Jesse’s family invited. Well, again, this is awkward. I mean, if you’re going to have a sacrifice and worship as God’s people, why invite Jesse? His grandmother, Ruth, was from Moab. According to Deuteronomy (23:3), Moabite families – down to the tenth generation – are excluded from the assembly of God’s people. And yet, here (at God’s urging), Samuel is insisting that the worship service can’t go on until Jesse and his boys show up.

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

That leads us to the parade of sons with which we began this message: Jesse marches his oldest boy in and Samuel is immediately struck by the notion that this is one amazing young man. But the Lord says, “Nope. That’s not our guy.” Son after son comes in until there are seven fellows standing in the “rejected” line and no others visible. Now it’s Samuel’s turn to be perplexed, and he says as much to God as to Jesse, “Wait – isn’t there anyone else?”

“Oh, well, there’s the youngest, but he’s out with the sheep.”

Samuel and our narrator heighten the drama by bringing things to a grinding halt until this nameless afterthought could be found and brought to worship. Eventually, the young man is brought in and, even though Samuel was warned against judging anyone from the outside, he is quick to notice that this boy is special in all kinds of ways. What matters most, however, is the fact that the Lord grabbed hold of Samuel and said, “Now! This is the one!”

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

God reaches into an insignificant family in a forgotten corner of a developing nation and says, “Yes! This is the one who has a heart like me. This is the one with which I will shape the history of my people!” David is chosen, not for any quality of which he or anyone else is aware, but because God has decided to take something of apparent insignificance and use it for eternal purposes.

While young David may be striking in his appearance, what is important for us to remember this morning is that at this point, he is one of the marginal people. You’ve seen a thousand faces like his this week, as you’ve read or seen stories of Native Americans protesting a pipeline, or Syrian refugees struggling to find safety, or anonymous first responders showing up on doorsteps where who knows what is inside, or kids from this neighborhood waiting for the bus to come and take them to school. The point is that David has no credentials, no social standing, and no reason to attract the attention of the local military recruiter or scholarship officer, let alone the Lord of heaven and earth. And yet, that attention is given, even to David – even to the one who was marginalized.

Illustration may not be to scale...

Illustration may not be to scale…

In the late 1970’s, Douglas Adams produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a remarkable work of science fiction and imagination. In it, we are introduced to a device called “the Total Perspective Vortex”, which is allegedly the most horrific means of torture a sentient being can endure. Adams writes, “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.’” The idea behind this torture is that the victim is forced to realize just how insignificant, how worthless, how small he or she is, and such knowledge is totally debilitating. When you see yourself in comparison to everyone and everything that ever was, is, or shall be, the logical response is “Who am I?”, and a logical consequence is having your entire sense of self obliterated. Interestingly enough, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have experienced something like this, called the “Overview Effect”. When we realize just how small we are in comparison to everything else there is, well, it redefines us…

So this anointing of David, the great-grandson of a foreign-born refugee, the lastborn son of a sheepherder from a little town fourteen miles from nowhere, the marginalized and uncredentialed and unschooled and unworthy one – this anointing could have been the moment when David realized that he was nothing and nobody; it could have, and perhaps should have, blown his mind.

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea...

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea…

But it didn’t. It didn’t because David chose not to compare himself to everyone and everything else. Instead of seeing himself in contrast to all that surrounded him, David saw himself encompassed by God’s care and God’s call. Instead of seeing himself alone in a world filled with people who were more competent, more powerful, wiser, smarter, or more important than he was, David chose to see himself as wrapped in the intentions and heart of God.

The anointing takes place in silence, and at the end of the day, David is still everyone’s little brother, given the grunt work to do by the family and village that do not understand what’s happened. Saul is still the king. Samuel is on his way to Ramah. The key change is unseen: the Spirit has come upon David in a new and powerful way. The anointing has received no press coverage, and its secrecy will last for years. Yet history has been changed, and the Spirit is at work. The old order, whether Saul knows it or not, has ended. The next big thing is under way as God’s Spirit works on and in and through the young boy who has been called to change the world.

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid
Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

In 1809, if you asked anyone in Europe, Western Asia, or Northern Africa, what was going on, all you’d hear about was the Napoleonic wars. The Emperor of France was gobbling up territories and people in London and Rome and Moscow and Tunis and Madrid went to bed wondering what the world was coming to. The war was horrible, and in fact spilled over into North America in the form of the War of 1812.

And while Napoleon was getting all of the media attention in 1809, other things were happening. Babies were being born, for instance. A family in Coupvray, France, welcomed a young son named Louis. In Boston, two young actors named their son Edgar. A family in Shrewsbury England welcomed young Charles, and deep in the woods of Kentucky an impoverished family named their second child Abraham. Nobody cared about these children in 1809. Everyone cared about battles.

And yet today, nobody but a few historians know who fought in the Fifth War of the Coalition in 1809, or which side prevailed in the epic Walcherin Expedition. But ask people about the ways that the work of Louis Braille opens up the world for them, Edgar Allan Poe shapes imagination, or Charles Darwin engages sense of wonder at the natural world, or the impact that Abraham Lincoln has had on this nation and the world, and you’ll see that some of the seemingly insignificant events of 1809 wound up as being far more important than anything that was in the headlines.

I don’t know what the headlines of your life are right now. I don’t know where you fit in the grand scheme of things, as compared with all the other people and places and things in God’s great creation. You may well go to bed tonight thinking that you are, by many measures, insignificant. You may walk home today with a heavy heart as you know that you are surrounded by some sort of a battle that makes the Battle of Aspern-Essling look like children fighting in the sandbox. And you may be right, if that’s the way that you choose to measure those kinds of things. But if you and I can let go of that system of self-evaluation and instead think about the fact that the same Spirit that was at work in David is available to us, then we can grasp the truth of which Paul spoke in his letter to the Corinthians. We are where we are, we are who we are, by the grace of God. If we bring ourselves to God in humility and with joy, it may seem insignificant, but I’m telling you that such discipleship is wrapped in significance.

Samuel had no idea what he was doing as he followed the Spirit into Bethlehem that day. I am here to tell you that the smallest acts of obedience and faithfulness and generosity can bear amazing fruit in the hands of God. Today, this week, this year, as the headline-grabbing battles rage throughout your own life – ask God for the gift of being able to see yourself in God’s heart, that you might care for the things about which God cares, in the hopes that you will be the agent of God’s presence and provision to those who need them. Your story, our story, His story, is still being written. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Models and Mentors Matter

As we continue our exploration of some of the “call” stories in scripture, we also celebrated the baptisms of two children in worship on April 26.  With that in mind, it seemed wise to be attentive to the ways in which God’s call became apparent in the lives of Samuel and Timothy.  Scripture readings for the day included I Samuel 3:1-11 and II Timothy 1:1-7.

If you’ve been around church enough – at least, a certain kind of church – you’ve heard this question: when did you get saved? Some believers find it easy to put a date and time stamp on their spiritual awakening. “When did I get saved? Oh, well, let me tell you – I was twenty-two, and it was in the springtime. My life was a mess, and I was really heading in a bad direction. All of a sudden, I had this amazing encounter, and BOOM! – my life changed forever. I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s amazing!”

monty_python_godWhen someone with a testimony like that hears a series of sermons on calls to faith, the accounts of the Apostle Paul, who was knocked onto his keister on the Damascus Road, or maybe Moses, who was stopped short by the burning bush, come to mind. Some of our favorite stories – whether in the movies or in real life – are experienced when a “bad” person comes clean and turns over a new leaf. There is powerful drama, to be sure, and also an encouragement for the people who love those who are in a hard way right now. The good news that comes from stories like that is that our God is an interrupting God. Nothing is finished – we see lives that are in progress, but always interruptible.

As we come into worship this morning, however, we are met with readings about Samuel and Timothy. In addition, we join the church of the ages in the practice of infant baptism. As we do these things, we point to the fact that while sometimes our calling from the Lord is sudden and dramatic, at other times it is gentle and continuing. Before we engage Makayla and Isaiah in the sacrament of baptism, let’s talk for a few moments about the scriptures that we’ve heard and the things that they teach us about God’s call and our role in it.

Samuel relating to Eli the Judgments upon Eli's House  John Singleton Copley (1780)

Samuel relating to Eli the Judgments upon Eli’s House
John Singleton Copley (1780)

I’d like to point out that there is an intentional, loving, non-biological connection between both Samuel and Eli and Timothy and Paul. In each of these cases, the mentors are brought into a young person’s life and choose to remain there. The earlier chapters of First Samuel describe the remarkable circumstances surrounding Samuel’s birth and how his mother, Hannah, brought him to the Temple as a child in the hopes that he would be instructed in the ways of the Lord. Timothy was a lot older when he first met Paul, although their initial meeting in Acts 16 makes it plain that Timothy was clearly the “Junior Partner” in this relationship.

In both narratives, however, it’s plain that the more mature believer makes it a priority to give some of his best time, energy, and wisdom to the younger. Undoubtedly, some of this was formal instruction. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that both Samuel and Timothy spent time simply being with these older people. Sure, they sat and looked at the scrolls together, but I bet they spent more time cleaning the Temple or walking on the road or engaging their communities together. In Mark 3 we read that Jesus “appointed twelve that they might be with him…” The best and most important thing that Eli and Paul did for Samuel and Timothy was to invite these younger men to simply be with them in the daily exercise of their faith in life.

I’m sure it wasn’t always convenient or efficient to operate in this way, and you know from your own experience that most of the time if you want it done right the first time, you better do it yourself…but much of what is truly important in life is transmitted while we are paying attention to other things. Who do you ask to be with you as you live the life that God has given you? Who comes alongside of you in your daily walk? I think that’s the most important question we can ask someone who says that they want to share the faith with the next generation: not, “who are you teaching, and what are you teaching them?”, but “to whom have you extended the invitation to come alongside you in a journey of faith?”

Another key aspect of mentoring that emerges from our readings is seen in the coaching that Eli gives to Samuel. Samuel’s hearing is fine – he’s not in need of any assistance in that department – but he needs Eli to train him to be a listener. Part of a mentoring relationship is helping another person to process information and experiences that are unfamiliar.

I love the fact that in this passage, Eli does not attempt to explain God to Samuel. Eli does not presume to know what God might say to the boy, and go ahead and save everybody a little time and effort. Instead, Eli shows Samuel how to put himself in a position so that when the Lord does choose to speak, Samuel can listen and respond to that call.

Effective mentors and role models know the joy of open-ended questions. I love to sit with someone and say, “Well, do you see anywhere in this situation where God might be moving?” One of the coolest parts of being a spiritual friend to someone is that you get to ask questions to which you don’t already know the answers.

Both Eli and Paul realize that God’s call and movement through history is linear. That is to say, God is not static. God does not call to everyone in the same way, asking them to be in the same place doing the same thing. Eli and Paul had received callings from God in the past, and they honored those calls. Now, they are charged with helping Timothy and Samuel discover meaning and purpose in their own callings.

In Eli’s case, it turned out that a part of Samuel’s call was to deliver difficult news about Eli’s own family. In Paul’s case, it turns out that Timothy was being formed to do something that Paul could not have done – whereas Paul’s life was spent on the road, wandering from one community to the next, Timothy became anchored to the church in Ephesus and apparently spent several decades leading that community. Like the best parents and friends, effective mentors and role models allow learners to become who they are called to be, rather than seeking to shape them into mere copies of themselves.

When we think about the ways in which generations interact in our world, one image that comes to mind is this: the parent or leader standing with an arm around the child or subordinate as they survey the home, the farm, the business, and saying, “Some day, all of this will be yours…” And when it comes to running the family business or keeping the family farm, there is a certain romantic appeal, or even nobility in that thought. But God forbid that the church raise up a generation of people who are nothing more than curators of the museum or custodians of the present. The task of the church is not to pass on the existence that we now have, but rather to equip God’s children for the future in which God is already at work.

We dare not spend our time and energy seeking to mentor young people who are so intent on preserving a memory that they spend their lives looking backward. Our call is not to leave a legacy of an unchanged church – but to raise up disciples who are able to be faithful in the days that are to come. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be…” is a sentence that refers to the unchanging goodness and presence of God, not a strategy for church structure and administration!

Timothy and His Grandmother, Rembrandt (1648)

Timothy and His Grandmother, Rembrandt (1648)

We are here today to say to Makayla and Isaiah, “Listen: there is a life ahead of you that is vastly different from the one in which we grew up. We would like to prepare you for this world that does not yet exist, and in doing so, we promise to do all that we can to teach you how to trust God, to trust yourself, and to trust God’s people so then when God speaks, you will be able to listen and to act.”

How do we do that? By being mentors and role models for them. By looking after them and looking out for them. There are a lot of things that these children need now and in the days to come, but I’d like to mention just three of them.

First, children need to be safe. When they are in our care, we have got to promise that we will do all that we can to ensure that no harm will come to them as a result of our negligence, passivity, or failure to create adequate supervision and protection. More than that, however, it means that we will do what we can to ensure that the children whom the church is willing to baptize are children who are fed, and bathed, and clothed, and housed with some dignity. It means that we will work as citizens of this community, this nation, and this world to see that justice is not merely a concept to which we pay lip service, but a reality in the lives of the children in this room, in this neighborhood, and indeed around the world.

In the context of that safety, it will one day become appropriate for us to make sure that these children are stretched. One of the most important thing that a spiritual friend or adult guide can say to a young learner is, “OK, now you do it.” Whether it’s running the power saw on a mission trip, learning to drive stick shift, praying out loud with a friend, or leading a devotion for the group, we let our children down if we continue to do everything for them, or if we expect that they will be interested in doing everything exactly the same way that we have done.

When children are safe and have been stretched, then we begin to think about the day when we will teach them to see themselves as sent. I do not mean to suggest that everyone will be called to a different geography, but it is important to understand, and to help them understand, that every time we get up from these pews and cross that threshold, we are being sent into the world that Christ is redeeming. The Church of Jesus Christ is not a voluntary assembly of those who are content to wander from fashion to scandal to amusement, but rather we are a company of saints who are invited to participate in the ongoing mission of God in Christ in the world.

If you’ve been around church very long, you know that there are a lot of programs designed to keep kids safe, to challenge them to be stretched, and to encourage them to think of themselves as sent. Some are produced out by insurance companies, others by curriculum publishers, and still others by great missional enterprises.


But none of those programs means a rat’s patootie unless the safety, stretching, and sending of our children is anchored in relationships with real-life Elis and Pauls and mentors and role models who will help them to hear when God is speaking and to understand what that means.

SInkholeEarlier this week, the morning news featured a story describing a ravine that has opened up along the Delaware River in New Jersey. Apparently, a storm sewer drain beneath this property has been leaking for years, weakening the hillside until this week’s collapse. It sure looked like a sudden event, but it has been happening for years.

grand-canyon-colorado-riverAcross the country, there’s a little stream called the Colorado River. It’s been so dammed up and diverted for other purposes that it doesn’t even reach the ocean any more, but over the years, that water opened a stretch of the planet that we know as the Grand Canyon. In contrast to the sinkhole in New Jersey, the Canyon has been very visibly developing, very gradually for thousands of years. The same thing has happened in both New Jersey and in Arizona – water has eaten away at soil and rock and left a hole. It has happened in different ways, but it has happened.

In the same way, sometimes the call from God is experienced in a sudden and dramatic fashion, and other times it seems to be the result of an ongoing process. The root cause in either case is the same – we respond to the grace of God that is always at work in our lives and in the lives of those we love – even when it is not always easily apprehensible. We can’t control that call – how, or where, or when it comes. But we can promise to our children, ourselves, and each other that we will do all we can to teach our young people a thirst for the Holy so that when the call is heard, they will be in a position to respond to it to the glory of God and for the benefit of their neighbors. Thanks be to God! Amen.