Dear Members and Friends,
“I believe there’s a calling for all of us. I know that every human being has value and purpose. The real work of our lives is to become aware. And awakened. To answer the call.”
– Oprah Winfrey, 21st century
God’s ways are mysterious, it’s true, and our Old Testament reading for this Sunday inspires a sense of wonder through a narrative illustration of God’s power to take small things, and people, and make them great. In the story of David’s anointing by Samuel, tension builds as God (mysteriously) instructs the prophet not to anoint the obvious choices, the ones the political consultants or pundits would choose today (the ones with the best numbers in the polls or the best faces for television), the ones who somehow appear most qualified or capable because they are older or stronger or more impressive.
“Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord,” Samuel thinks as he looks upon the fine elder son Eliab in verse 6. In some mysterious way, however, Samuel understands that God is concerned with the unseen, the heart, of the person, the very center and core of the one to be anointed. Bring in the little one, the one left out, the one not considered or included; bring in David, the shepherd, and make him a shepherd-king, anointed by God to lead the people and to live on throughout their history as the greatest of kings, the hope of the people, a vision for the future.
Mysterious and hidden things
Ironically, as John C. Holbert observes, our text actually dwells a bit on the very thing that we are warned against emphasizing–David’s good looks, on the outside; Holbert notes that these good looks will cause problems for David later on. The little boy is a shepherd, and it’s not unreasonable for us to think that he was a good one, which suggests he’d be a good king as well for Israel, who used that image for its rulers, according to Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson: “Shepherds stayed with the sheep, led them to food and water, protected them from animals and thieves, tended their injuries, and disciplined them.”
We also notice with Allen and Williamson that Samuel, on God’s command, is visiting the home of “Jesse, grandchild of Ruth.” Ruth is one of those biblical characters of great importance despite her own “smallness” in the larger biblical narrative: a short book of the Bible that still teaches large lessons about the great love of God, modeled by an impoverished, foreign, pagan widow toward her cranky mother-in-law.
Allen and Williamson make another important–perhaps key–point about God at work in this story: “that the anointing of David takes place while Saul is still on the throne suggests that God is often providentially active even before others are aware of need.” That claim might lead us to look on the story of our lives, and the life of our community, and see God’s hand at work in ways just as surprising, just as unlikely, as it was in the story of David and the kings of Israel who followed him. Whose need might God be addressing, through us?
Seeing the character within
Indeed, our theme for this Sunday, “God’s Role for Me,” suggests that we have reason to ask about our own calling as well, the way in which God has anointed us and others for work in this world that God loves. James Newsome reminds us that the people were always in need of leaders, and “God raised up generation after generation of divinely endowed persons, women and men who became the active embodiment of Yahweh’s saving presence in Israel’s life,” and David was simply “another in the long line of God’s specially gifted representatives” (Texts for Preaching Year B).
And so, we might ask two questions: who are the leaders who have been kept from exercising their God-given gifts for leadership because they didn’t “look” the way we expect a leader to look? We are told that we should not look with our eyes at outward appearances, but to see, as God does, the heart of the person. However, Newsome writes: “The various ways in which men and women in our and every age are tempted to do just the opposite can be documented in our racism, our sexism, and our various forms of idolatry (love of money, clothing, glitzy automobiles, and the like).” How can we see beyond “characteristics” to the character within a person?
What is our role today?
Secondly, while we are not David, not destined to be rulers, we still ask that important question: What is my role, in God’s eyes? And how will I be able to do what God calls me to do? Don’t we begin, as always, with trust in God, who holds us, who holds our lives, close to God’s heart? Doesn’t God look at us as a parent does, whose heart is full of tender love and surprising confidence (great dreams, even) for each child of grace, each child of promise? Don’t we trust in God’s spirit, which fills each one of us?
Eugene Peterson reminds us of that “spirit of the Lord” which we often hear “comes upon” people in the Bible (let’s remember Jesus in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah before him), and I believe that if God gave that spirit to people throughout history whenever it was needed, that God will fill us as well. Just as “God [was] working in David’s life–God at work in David’s muscles and mind,” as Peterson says, God will be at work in our muscles and minds when people need to hear good news, when the downtrodden need a word of hope, a hand to help and encourage them, when we and others need courage to speak out and step up on behalf of all of God’s children, whenever and however we are called to do so.
What can we possibly do?
Because this “spirit,” this “breath” or “wind” is “the invisible that moves the visible,” Peterson wisely encourages us to open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, “to the working of the God whom we cannot see in the people and events we do see.” I was talking with a friend the other day about the 50th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and wondered aloud how the world might have been different if leaders like him and Dr. King had lived longer. Having lived through all those assassinations during my formative teenage years, I may rely too much on the notion of “great leaders” while missing the tremendous impact individuals (we “small” ones) can and do have on the world.
I thought of this reading, this theme, and wondered then, what is the role each one of us is to play in the healing of the world? No matter how “small” and powerless we may feel (or be told that we are), no matter how unlikely or unqualified we may seem to others, we can still feel the power of God’s spirit at work in us, and dream the dream that God has for this world. We look around and see the influence and effects of others (for good or ill), and we realize that we too can be a blessing in our individual lives, and in (and through) the life of our communities.
There are so many large and powerful entities that surround us as individuals and as churches. Even our own denomination, the United Church of Christ, seems so small when compared to other organizations that attract the attention (and time, and energy) of our members. And yet, and yet. What hope lies beneath statistics and reports, what potential lies in giving voice to the smallest but persistent of witnesses, the early truth-telling of our tradition, the evangelical courage, and the extravagant hospitality that express our commitment and describe our deepest hopes not only for our church but for the world beyond its walls!
Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews
National offices of the United Church of Christ