Last week we met Samuel, the seer, the prophet, mediating between God and the people who wanted a king. Today, we hear only briefly about the king Samuel gave them, a man named Saul.
According to chapter nine, “Saul was a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” With apparently nothing other than his looks to commend him, Samuel selected him to be king.
However, in a fierce battle, Saul went against God’s instructions to spare nothing and no one. I’m not sure who is writing God’s lines here, but that’s what the text gives us. Saul does spare the best of the livestock for an offering to God, and spares the king as a professional courtesy. When Samuel discovers this, he assassinates the king with his own sword in front of Saul and then, despite Saul’s contrition, Samuel walks away and goes home, never to see him alive again (they do have an encounter after Samuel is dead but I don’t think that story makes the lectionary cycle).
Even in his strident zeal, however, Samuel misses Saul. And, in finding the next king, it would appear that he’s about to find Saul number two, by picking Jesse’s firstborn son Eliab, a man who like Saul was handsome and tall. As we know, however, it will be Jesse’s youngest son David who will be the king, with God telling Samuel that Samuel’s sights are on the wrong thing. Accurate vision is at the center of this story; the theme of appearances versus realities; and the reality of God’s presence in our lives and plans for our future that do not always appear clear to our human eyes, even to a prophet’s eyes. God sees possibilities when others do not.
I get that God does not look on the outside but on the inside, on the heart. What I don’t get is what God sees in the heart. Because, it isn’t what I see. We’ve been told since childhood that actions say a lot about what sort of person someone is on the inside. Saul was a great military strategist. And he was compassionate, even toward his enemies. He was repentant, acknowledging when he had done wrong. He appears to have suffered from both serious depression and bi-polar tendencies, but this is hardly his fault. He didn’t lie and he didn’t take another man’s wife and then arrange for that man’s death to cover up his adultery, all of which King David did, who according to God’s script was a man after God’s own heart.
In this whole Saul and David story, I find myself strangely drawn to Samuel and the fact that he keeps walking away every time God acts. Come to think of it, even as a young boy Samuel walked away when God talked to him. Despite being a “seer”, Samuel struggles to pay attention. In fairness, it isn’t just that God does not see as man sees, but more to the point man simply cannot see as God sees, certainly not into the heart of another person, and maybe not even into our own hearts. We need help to see what God sees, because it is the only way we will be able to sustain a love relationship with each other. Fortunately, there are patron saints to help with this sort of exercise. They are called artists.
One of our present Wednesday night events is a class based on “The Artist’s Way”, by Julia Cameron. Cameron’s gift of reflections on her own journey helps individuals, in the context of community, with their “artistic creative recovery.” This “recovery” is at the heart of finding one’s own heart. It connects us to God by opening a window into God’s view of things. This “recovery—the process of going sane—can feel just like the process of going crazy.” Like Samuel, seeing what God is doing may make us feel like walking away. So, what on earth does the early history of the monarchy have to do with us here today? For one thing, we are invited to pay attention to this story and our own story. Because, for example, this story isn’t so much about kings as it is about the seer, the prophet, who is tormented by seeing God work. But God, in God’s faithfulness, continues to work in Samuel’s world and in our world, and invites us to pay attention.
It is true that, for a fairly famous period in David’s life, his actions indeed were reprehensible. These can hardly be what tugged at God’s heart. There is a brief episode toward the end of David’s life, however, mentioned only in the Books of the Chronicles of the Kings. There, the angel of God confronts King David at the end of his reign, telling him his sins have come home and giving him a choice—punishment for himself or punishment for his people. And David answers, “It was always, only ever me. Please spare these people, these sheep, whom I love.” At the end is his beginning—a king who is a shepherd with a single duty to protect the flock. This, friends, is a glimpse into a heart after God’s heart. It doesn’t make excuses or give explanations. It doesn’t walk away when God acts, but stands there paying attention. And ultimately, even at great personal cost, it is a heart consumed with love for others.
Paying attention to what is happening right now in our lives can be painful. It was for King David and it often is for us. This week I visited an 86 year old parishioner laid up with a broken knee, a broken arm, five broken ribs, and pneumonia, all as a result of a random freak accident. One minute she was walking through the airport on her way home from a marvelous Italian vacation with her husband and the next moment a careless person pulling her luggage clipped her ankle, throwing her off balance and into the air, then down to the floor.
“When I waked up here, unable to move, barely able to breathe, I said ‘Lord, you must want me to see something that is going on right before my eyes but I don’t see it because I’m always moving too fast to notice.’” And then she recited for me a list of missed opportunities she had seen to truly care for the elderly: for those who can remember how to walk but not which way to walk to return to their room; those who can still speak but not loudly enough to be heard. And as she talked passionately about what she had seen, her own spirits began to buoy with ideas about how to help others. As Cameron observed, “Paying attention always leads to healing.”
Her confession continues: “Writing about attention, I see I have written a good deal about pain. This is no coincidence. In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past is too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. Yesterday the marriage may have ended. Tomorrow the cat may die. The phone call, for all my waiting, may never come. But just at the moment, that’s alright. I am breathing in and out. Realizing this, I begin to notice that each moment is not without its beauty.” Heads up, eyes open, God is at work. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
June 14, 2015