THE GOD OF SURPRISE
Times of sorrow weigh on us ... but the God of compassion offers a doorway to strength and renewal.
Talking about politics in the pulpit is always dangerous business. I rarely do because I know that one mention of something political can be so distracting that I lose your attention for the rest of the sermon. So I am going to ask you to hang in there with me because I think our secular world can teach us something about our sacred world today. Back in 2008, a young man named Barack Obama was running for president. Though many of us had no interest in his candidacy, some people saw a sense of hope and the possibility of a change that might bring about a new era of progress. He even won a Nobel Peace Prize before completing one year in office. But as time rolled on, many of his enthusiastic supporters began to be frustrated. The hope they had seen seemed to fade away. I remember I spoke with someone about this sense of lost hope, and the person confessed, “The problem is that people were treating Obama like he was the next Messiah. He’s not. No one is. We have one Messiah, and we killed him on a cross many years ago.”
In our scripture lessons last week, God warned the people of Israel through Samuel that electing a king would involve such a challenge. A human king could never give them all that they dreamed about having. A human could never be God. Having been fairly warned, the people insisted on having king anyway, and were given Saul. For a while, things were okay. Saul seemed to thrive and make progress for the people. But Saul got cocky. He overstepped his bounds, and he stopped following God’s instructions. Finally, Saul made one fatal mistake that cost him his anointed kingship. He had been instructed to completely destroy the Amalekites and all that they had. But Saul saved some of the best of the spoils of war – animals, valuable trinkets, even the rival king. This was the last straw for God, and Saul’s rule was over in God’s eyes. In today’s lesson we find Samuel grieving over Saul and God being sorry that God had made Saul king of Israel.
We are no stranger to this sort of grieving in the church. We have watched bishops leave the Episcopal Church in protest of decisions made at General Convention – taking many priests and parishioners with them. We have watched priests who were seemingly amazing leaders ruin careers and parishes with romantic affairs or financial indiscretions. Even in our own parish, less than ten years ago, we went through a period of grief when our relationship with our priest required us to dissolve the pastoral relationship, ending for some what had been a meaningful relationship, and for others had been a fraught relationship. Like Samuel, we grieved that relationship – in fact, many of us still do. I have heard story after story of grief and guilt about that time. Some members of the Search Committee who helped select that priest feel as though they did a faithful job in selecting the priest for this parish; but in hindsight, they wonder. Some leaders of our Vestry feel as though they bent over backwards to accommodate and help our priest thrive as much as possible, but they mourn the way history unfolded and they still feel the scars of that turbulent time. And some leaders in our parish were so upset by the final decision that their grief drove them out of the church, never to return.
Although Samuel grieves Saul’s demise, God does not allow that grief to be the end of the story. [i] God sees hope and promise in a way that Samuel cannot. Seeing that Samuel is not going to be able to move on and do the work God needs Samuel to do, God steps in and guides Samuel into a new future. Samuel struggles to take those first steps. When God tells Samuel to get up and go to anoint another king, Samuel is terrified. He knows that Saul is a vicious king, and will kill Samuel if he finds out. But God makes a way, creating a “cover story” of sorts to encourage Samuel. Later, when Samuel meets the eldest son of Jesse, Samuel is certain the eldest will be the next king. But God has to keep guiding Samuel to the true king – the unexpected youngest son, David. When Samuel is weak, God is strong – nudging and guiding Samuel into new life.
What I love about this part of Samuel’s story is the way that the story reminds us that God does not call people and merely wish them well and send them on their way. God empowers those who are called to accomplish what they are called to do. God walks with them, corrects them, forgives them, protects them, and keeps directing them to see what God sees. [ii] God is not a passive god, but a “passionate, fully engaged deity, willing to take risks and even expose vulnerability in order to continue the relationship with the people.” [iii] We see that reality with Samuel, and later we will see that reality with David – who, if you remember, is no saint himself. Though David becomes the ancestor of the Messiah, David has his flaws that God will journey through as well.
God has been journeying with St. Margaret’s in a similar way. In our grief from a troubled relationship with our priest, God stepped in and pushed us forward. God sent us other priests, but more importantly, God sent us new life. New parishioners joined us, new ministries unfolded, and new life emerged. God did not allow grief to have the final word. God knew that there was life beyond our grief – and that life has been born in each of us, and has been renewed by each new person who has joined us in our journey since then.
I have heard this story from First Samuel many times. Every time I read verse 16, when God says, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” I thought God was scolding Samuel. I could almost imagine God rolling God’s eyes at Samuel, God’s tone being one of annoyance and exhaustion from Samuel’s lingering grief. But as I read God’s words this week, and I thought about St. Margaret’s, I heard them with a bit more tenderness. [iv] I think of the young teen looking over love letters and trinkets, mourning the loss of a romantic relationship. I think of the man who visits the grave of his wife every week, wondering what is left of life. I think of the mom whose fingers still rub the ultrasound picture of the baby who did not survive. God knows the depths of that grief and, even in our passage today, we see that God grieves too. But, when the time is right, God also saddles in beside us, and whispers ever so gently and kindly, “How long will you grieve?” The question is not one of rebuke, but one of encouragement. The question is followed up with some sort of promise for tomorrow. For Samuel, God promised a new leader and a plan for how to find that leader. For us, God promises something new too. God asks us too, “How long will you grieve? Because when you are ready, I have something tremendous in store.”
Our invitation this week is to ponder anew what that promise is for us. Grief always has a place – whether grief over the failure of a leader in our lives or the loss of something or someone dearly loved. But God will not let grief have the last word. When we are ready, God stands waiting – not only with new direction, but with a plan to help us. Our task is to listen. Our task is to discern the movement of the Spirit already alive and active in us, gently pulling us from our grieving rooms. Our task is to acknowledge our fear and resistance, and to allow God to guide us anyway. Grief will not have the last word. A new promise awaits. Amen.
[i] Cynthia L. Rigby “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Yr. B, Proper 6 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 1.
[ii] Rigby, 5.
[iii] Charles L. Aaron, Jr., “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Yr. B, Proper 6 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 2.
[iv] The various ways of hearing God’s words were introduced to me by Roger Nam, “Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13,” June 14, 2015, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2473 on June 11, 2015.