Monday, October 18, 2021

Missing Ingredient -- a sermon on the call of David

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Missing Ingredient

1 Samuel 16:1-13

17 October 2021, NL4-7, Uncovered 6

Last week we heard God calling to the child Samuel. Samuel grew up to be a trustworthy prophet who revealed God’s word to the people, and so the people began to recognise that they needed a more formal leader. They asked for a king. Samuel reminded them that God was their king, and a human king would inevitably go wrong, but they insisted, and God agreed, anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the country, and he was handsome and charismatic. Unfortunately, he also chose political expediency over faithfulness to God’s way, and when waiting for God and Samuel to give their blessing in the midst of a military situation became too difficult, he took matters into his own hands. As a result, Samuel told him that God would choose another king to take his place. We pick up the story today in 1st Samuel chapter 16, when Saul is still on the throne but has just heard from God that his days as king are numbered. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version. 


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.

This week on Bake-Off, one of the bakers made a very big mistake in the technical challenge. When reading the recipe, she didn’t notice that one line of the ingredient list went onto a second page, and so when making sticky toffee pudding, she left out……flour.

As you can imagine, this was a disaster in the oven.

You might be thinking “how can you just forget about flour when making a cake?” Or perhaps “why didn’t she look at the second page before starting?” Good questions.

We might ask the same question of Jesse! Samuel invited Jesse and all his sons to the ritual sacrifice and feast, and Jesse brought seven sons with him. Seven was, of course, the perfect number, the number that symbolised completion. And his seven sons were tall and handsome and just great in every way. The eldest in particular seemed to have everything it takes to be just what Samuel was looking for. As the firstborn he was well positioned to inherit, and people would listen to him. Plus, of course, Saul was very tall and handsome, so clearly whoever God would choose to replace him must also be at least as good looking, right?

God’s answer to Samuel demonstrates that Samuel isn’t great at seeing with God’s eyes. Most of us aren’t, to be fair. “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.”

It always makes me wonder just what God was looking for, in the hearts of these young men who were being paraded in front of Samuel while the whole town looked on. It was like the great Bethlehem pageant or something, with seven contestants who look great but don’t have that special something that puts them over the top.

At which point, Samuel looked at Jesse and said “are you sure this is all your sons?” 

As if he could possibly forget one — of course it’s all of them…oh, turn the page, there’s one more line on this list…David is out in the fields. But he's the last, the youngest, and therefore the least important, right? No big deal to just miss out the one ingredient, just power on through even though this recipe looks all wrong…

Can you imagine that moment? When everyone else has been through the process of being sanctified for the ritual — we don’t know exactly what that means, but it was likely a day of fasting, bathing, and praying — and then they’d been through the whole beauty pageant, only to find that one person had been forgotten? And then for Samuel to insist that the ritual and its attendant feast couldn’t go ahead until someone went out into the fields outside of town, located Jesse’s flocks, got David to round them all up and bring them in, and come to the gathering…it would take a long time. And David wouldn’t even be sanctified when he arrived, he likely came in straight from shepherding, still looking (and smelling) like a young boy who’d been sleeping on the ground and wrangling sheep.

And yet, he’s the one God is calling.

The one who came after the perfect complete family of 7. The one who was not sanctified. The one who was so forgettable and run-of-the-mill that he didn’t even count in the list of ingredients. He was the one God insisted could not be left out, the one without whom nothing could go ahead.

We don’t know what God saw in David’s un-sanctified heart that was different from what was in his brothers’ hearts. But we do know that God had chosen to call someone who fit zero of the criteria for what people thought was important, and not just that — anointed him to be the king of the nation, to lead the people through the trials and triumphs that were to come. So the Holy Spirit took hold of David that day, filling him and directing him and refusing to let go. He would become the one whose word carried weight in the community, whose choices everyone looked to, and whose fashions they imitated. They would trust him to be their guide and to do the things that needed to happen to make their nation safe and prosperous and faithful.

And he had been the extra line that went onto the second page, easily overlooked.

This month we have been watching some films together on Sunday afternoons — films made by and about people who are living with the everyday effects of climate change. We saw one about a Kenyan farmer and his community’s struggle with the changing pattern of rainy and dry seasons, leading to droughts and then floods, ruining crops, meaning they cannot afford to send children to school or take them to a doctor. And another film was about a family in Kiribati, where changing weather patterns have brought floods and hurricanes they never experienced before, so the family has had to split up and emigrate one parent at a time because they can no longer make a living as the sea rises and claims their islands. Both the Kenyan farmer and the president of Kiribati went to Paris to speak to world leaders about climate change, and both left disappointed that the deal everyone was praising fell so far short of anything that would actually tangibly help their people. This afternoon we’ll be watching a film about seven people from different communities around the world, trying to figure out how to make people care about our neighbours who live on the other side of the world. 

All three of these films are about those people who are the line that goes onto the second page of the recipe…out of sight, out of mind. Most of us couldn’t place Kiribati on a map. I only learned how to pronounce it when we were watching the film last week. When we’re asked about bringing everyone to the table, they are the ones left out until someone asks specifically if there’s anyone else, and then we turn the page and say “oh yeah, that other one. But they’re small and insignificant and poor and no one will notice if they’re not here.” 

God notices that they’re not here. And that we’re not only not listening, but actively ignoring them, choosing not to care about our neighbours who live on the other side of the world.

And it’s out there — beyond the boundaries of what we think of as whole and complete, on the forgotten second page of the list of people we have decided are the ones who count and whose opinions matter — out there that God has seen and provided a leader for the people.

Maybe they don’t have the experience we think they should, and maybe they don’t look the part of a world leader to us, and maybe they’re not sanctified like everyone else coming to the feast, but the truth is that we cannot proceed until everyone is here, because they’re the ones God is calling to lead, and we’re the ones God is calling to listen and follow.

Without flour, the sticky toffee pudding is just a burned pile of smushed dates, butter, and sugar. Without the 8th-born child shepherd David, even the powerful and rich will wait in fear and expectation because the ritual cannot go on until the future king arrives. Without the people of those nations we have overlooked, we cannot move forward on climate justice and we will miss the future God has planned. 

God may well be working outside the systems we set up, and calling into leadership people whose bodies or histories or locations are outside what we think is the “norm,” and God is definitely calling us to take notice of those we have long thought didn’t count, didn’t need or deserve or earn a seat at the table, those we didn’t even remember they existed let alone mattered.

The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. Whatever God is uncovering in our own hearts, and in the hearts of others, it’s time to look and to listen and to follow faithfully.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Hineni -- a sermon on the call of Samuel

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s / Greenock St Margaret’s

Hineni (1st third “Blinded” MSG 2017)

1 Samuel 3.1-21

10 October 2021, NL4-6, Uncovered 5

Last week we read about the Israelites at the beginning of their wilderness journey, learning how to trust God and live in God’s kingdom ways. After forty years, they stood on the banks of the Jordan river and crossed into the land God promised them. It took some time to settle down and there were many conflicts and mistakes along the way. There was no leader or king, and each person did what they wanted or felt was right for themselves, and the situation deteriorated as over time the people forgot what they had learned about being God’s people. God raised up judges to be leaders who reminded people of God’s ways, but they had only limited success. By the time we get to today’s story, the people had built a shrine to house the ark of the covenant that they brought from their wilderness years, and there was a seer there — not exactly a judge, not exactly a prophet, but someone who could help conduct worship and interpret God’s word to the people. His name was Eli. He had become something of a foster-parent and mentor to a child, Samuel, because his mother Hannah had promised him to the service of God at this shrine.

We pick up the story in 1st Samuel chapter 3, and I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.


Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called to Samuel and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

When I arrived at my first church as a brand new minister, I discovered that one of the things the church had been putting off doing until the new minister arrived was a confirmation class. They had 20 teenagers waiting, and no plan. Among my first tasks, therefore, was to recruit several teachers and at least 20 mentors who would work with these young people one-on-one. 

In making what felt like a hundred phone calls, I lost count of the number of adults who told me they were afraid to talk to children.

Afraid of what, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps afraid that the teens would only know how to talk about mobile phones and video games? Worried that they didn’t know how to have a conversation without a script or curriculum? Or maybe afraid that the kids would have questions about God that they didn’t know how to answer? 

I wonder how Eli felt when Hannah dropped off Samuel at the temple, saying “this is the child I prayed for that day we last spoke—here, he’s dedicated to God, so take him in and teach him.” I wonder if he was afraid he wouldn’t have anything in common with a four year old, and wouldn’t be able to relate to him. Did he worry about how to talk about the God that Hannah had promised Samuel to serve?

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about people’s feelings or inner thought processes, but in this case I think it’s possible that Eli felt ill prepared for this task. His own sons were corrupt and he didn’t know how to set them right. And here, a few years after Hannah had left Samuel in the temple, we discover that in spite of his religious duties and his presence beside the ark of the covenant day and night, Samuel does not yet know the Lord, and God’s word has not been revealed to him.

It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To get so caught up in the tasks of the church that we never get around to knowing the Lord. And it’s easy to pass that on, too, as we inadvertently communicate that church or faith is an obligation grown ups bear, rather than a body, a relationship, a way of living, or a family where all are valued. Yet it is to Samuel that God speaks. Even though he doesn’t have the right education or credentials or anywhere near enough years of sitting in the pew or serving on a committee…even though he hasn’t yet been taught, even though to him God is more like a piece of furniture than a living Word…Samuel is still known, by name. God knows where to find him, and how to call him, and God waits patiently while Samuel learns how to be in this new relationship he didn’t even know to expect.

Eli had lost his sight—which, granted, was never particularly good in the first place. When he first met Hannah at prayer, what he saw was a drunken woman, rather than a person pouring out her heart to God. When Samuel appeared at his bedside at night it took three tries before reality broke through. Perhaps he thought Samuel was too young, or too inexperienced, or too ignorant of God’s ways, or maybe just adorably naive. I suspect many of us have thought the same when a young person has spoken up. Perhaps Eli was so used to doing things on his own without God that it didn’t occur to him that the Spirit’s voice could still speak. Maybe he was just tired—after all, his own sons were grown, so why did he now have to deal with teaching another round of Sunday School? Whatever the case, he was blinded, whether by his assumptions, his fear, his arrogance, or his apathy.

Once Eli began to see, though, he became the mentor Samuel needed. He passed on what he knew of prayer, and Samuel heeded his advice and ran back to his bed, probably practicing his lines as he made his way through the dark temple. When God stood at the foot of the bed, Samuel was ready—or as ready as any of us ever can be. He responded to the voice calling his name, and listened carefully for what the Lord had to say. 

What God has to say at this moment is actually a message for Eli. Perhaps Eli’s blindness extended to his ability to hear for himself. Now, through the collaboration of mentor and student, elder and child, the word of the Lord was becoming known once again. Remember at the beginning of the story we heard that the Lord’s word was rare at the time…and by the end, God is appearing again and again and all the people are hearing the word. That is only possible because the elder both teaches and learns from the younger. 

Eli’s response to the message that God gives through Samuel is fascinating. It’s a message of destruction, of punishment for not doing more to stop his corrupt sons from taking advantage of people and abusing their power as priests. It’s the sons who have done wrong, yet Eli bears the responsibility because he did not stop them. Instead he had just halfheartedly said “it is what it is” — which is exactly what he says when he hears that the consequences are coming. It is what it is. There’s nothing to be done. That’s just the way things have always been.

Perhaps it is this apathetic complacency that made it impossible for Eli to hear the word of the Lord and do his job passing it on to the people. Or perhaps this apathetic complacency has actually solidified into opposition to hearing God’s word, because it might require something of us, calling for change that we do not want. After all, saying “this is just the way it is” makes a nice cover or excuse for all sorts of mischief and wrongdoing, and at the same time lets us off the hook for things we find uncomfortable anyway.

Often when the word of the Lord shows up in a community, it’s the young people who hear and take it seriously, who then say “things need to change if we’re going to be faithful.” Young people hear with fresh ears, and they believe what we teach — that we are striving for the kingdom of God, and God’s vision is an alternative way to what this world offers and demands. And they believe it’s possible! Rather than simply accepting the way things are because it’s easier, young people, like Samuel, often insist that we take seriously the word of the Lord.  

It’s hard, though, for older people to listen. Like Eli, our vision grows dim and we are tired and we are comfortable with how things are. We like that our religious institutions are set up to serve us. And, if we’re willing to be super honest, we don’t want to admit that the way we’ve always done things has produced the results we now have, where whole generations of young people realised we didn’t actually intend to change our lives based on what we taught so they left the church to find causes or groups that put into practice the words they spoke.

Samuel’s answer when he’s called is “here I am” — that Hebrew word Hineni that we’ve heard all autumn. It’s more than just “here,” it means I’m fully present and committed, ready to do whatever you ask. That’s what he says to Eli, over and over and over: hineni. I’m here, I’m committed, I’m all-in. 

That’s what our young people are saying to us. Hineni! They trust that we, the people who have promised to bring them up to know and love Christ and his church, to pray for them and teach them, to walk alongside them on this journey of faith, are also saying Hineni to them. That we are fulfilling our promise to be fully present, committed, all in. To say “here I am” to each other across the generations is to commit ourselves to a relationship — both of teaching and learning, listening and speaking. 

Young people want to know if what we say we believe, what we teach them to believe, actually matters to us and how we live. They want to know if our faith makes a difference in our choices, our business practice, how we spend our money, how we share our resources, how we vote, how we get around, who we care about. They want to know if the Christianity we teach them gets put into practice when we see things in the world that are wrong, unjust, harming people…or if, like Eli, we simply say “it is what it is” and go on in our comfortable ways that look no different than anyone else. To say Hineni to one another, not just youngster to elder but elder to younger as well, and all of us together to God, is to promise that we will believe together in the possibility God is setting out before us, and that we will walk hand in hand on this road even when it takes us away from the safe place and into unknown territory. When we say Hineni, Here I Am, we commit to following God’s lead together, even if it means that we have to stop saying “that’s just the way things are.” 

In the whole story, Eli never once said Hineni. Not to Samuel, and not to God. In fact what he teaches Samuel to say to God is not “here I am” either — he teaches Samuel to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Which is an important lesson — if we aren’t listening, we can’t commit. But Samuel shows us how to commit to whatever God is going to ask…and how to follow through, even when the task is difficult, like delivering bad news to his mentor and foster parent.

It often feels like the word of the Lord is rare in our days, just as it was when Samuel was a child. But perhaps if we are willing to offer our commitment, not just in words but in actions, to God and to each other, we might just uncover the promise and calling that God has been speaking all along.

May it be so. Amen.