Pick of the Litter

1 Samuel 16:1-13

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore MD

March 26, 2017

It may not be obvious to us, but Samuel’s state of mind in chapter sixteen represents something in life that most of us will experience: that is, the failure of our best made plans. Saul was the name of Samuel’s best made plan.

Saul was anointed king by Samuel. Samuel, the high priest of Israel, was something like the electoral college for the kings of Israel. Saul had promise — he was the son of Kish, who is described as a man of power and wealth. Saul gained notoriety as a warrior king. He knew how to throw a spear. The people demanded a king and a king they got, but not a particularly good one. He turned out to be temperamental, given to dramatic mood swings, petulant, and erratic behavior.

At heart, he was a man of violence.

Saul was legitimate, at least constitutionally speaking. But he was an unmitigated disaster for Israel. Samuel, who was charged with overseeing transitions of power, was despondent.

Samuel grieved over what had happened – his best made plans, his calculated risks, all of it was in disarray.

That’s all he could see –  hindsight, they say, is twenty-twenty. We see clearly when we look back, or so we imagine.

And this is the irony of the scripture reading: the Hebrew verb “to see” appears six times in today’s text. He was giving his vision to what he had lost.

Our regrets may go under a different name, but the phenomenon is similar. Grief sharpens the perception of regret, and perhaps, ironically, does so to the point excluding actions which would lead to a meaningful future. Regret has way of shifting our focus to what might have been, which we see clearly, even as we perhaps struggle to see either the present or the future.

Does America look back and see the road not taken? Do we grieve for an all but lost golden age?

Yes, we do, says Yuval Levin, a conservative scholar and political scientist. In his book, The Fractured Republic, he argues that American’s are mired in the past – listen to Republicans, and they pine away for the Reagan era, or pray for a revival of the morality and social order of the 1950s.[i]

Listen to Democrats, he says, and they want to go back to the political idealism of the 1960s or perhaps to the Clinton years. Both parties speak the language of the Boomer generation, people born before 1950. He says, “. . . [in America] we’ve rented out our understanding of ourselves to the older baby boomers.” By the year 2017, something has been lost. Some of what our political parties say is true. Some of what they say is not true. But, he says, together they miss an awful lot about what has changed in America over that time.[ii]

I would probably make a different diagnosis than Levin, and you might also, but I think he’s got it basically right – we’re grieving over a golden age that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever existed.

And maybe this regret, or our nostalgia for the past, our Make America Great Again madness, is getting in the way of a meaningful future.

Samuel seems to have felt this and he grieves – for what might have been. Samuel felt this – even when God’s future came knocking on his door, even then, all he could see was the wreckage of his plans. God says to Samuel, “How long will you grieve for Saul? How long will you pour your tears into this broken vessel? How long Samuel will you grieve for what no longer exists? How long before you look at reality?”

We may think this is unfair of God. And yet, scripture tells us that God grieves. God grieved when God saw that human beings were cruel. God in Christ grieves over Israel. Jesus grieved when he learned that Lazarus, his beloved, was dead.

Grief gets its time with God. There is grief for a season, even in the life of God. But, in God’s economy, only for a season and when that season is done, it’s done. Jesus has a way of interrupting our grief sessions with redemption action. There’s a story in the Bible. A girl has died. And the people get busy grieving. Get busy mourning. They choose their funeral hymns. But Jesus comes in as resurrection action and gets busy with living. The little girl is raised from the dead. And songs of mourning are turned into songs of rejoicing.

I see a bit of Jesus in God’s message to Samuel: “How long will you grieve? Get up, get out of your funeral clothes, get out of your graveyard sorrow, and go, I’m sending you to anoint a new king.” And I see a bit of us in Samuel response: “How can I go? If madman Saul hears of it, he will kill me!” I sense a “how can I go?” mentality in the church, certainly in the country – how can I go? – Saul still holds the power, commands armies, and every twitter he posts is gobbled up like it was manna from heaven, a few crumbs to perhaps reveal where this madness will ultimately lead.

But notice how God answers Samuel. Samuel does not see the future. And God doesn’t show him the future, either. God says, “Take a heifer, fill your horn with oil, and do your job. And I will show you what to do.” Do your job – your day job – and I will show you in that moment what you shall do.

Saul is worried that he will be killed for treason. Anointing a new king, even if the present one has gone down to his mansion in Florida, is not a good thing.

So, God says, “Go under cover. Do what you typically do: go around to the villages, make your priestly visits, do your churchy thing. He won’t kill you for being a priest. Don’t go out as if you were going to subvert the powers – ‘mud on your face, big disgrace, waving your banner all over the place’ – don’t go that way; but under cover of your day job, become an underground collaborator with the divine instigation of a new politics.”

There are no miracles in today’s text or in the subsequent chapters – one reader says that God has gone underground. And God calls on underground collaborators to enact an alternative politics, a new politics.[iii] And maybe we just don’t know what that looks like. God says I will show you. Samuel obeys God and becomes an underground collaborator for an alternative politics that, as yet, he cannot see.

Taking that path, he shows up at Jesse’s house. Hillbillies, maybe. Or perhaps welfare kids in Section 8 housing. “Okay,” says Samuel, looking around the boarded-up windows, the graffiti scrawl, the kids looking like frightened ghosts.  “I’ll try. Not sure what that means, but I’m here, I’ll give it a shot.” Samuel says to Jesse, “Where are your sons? Send them over.”

First one looks pretty good. Eliab – check out those calves, those pecks, and that rugged look. Steely grey eyes. Sneer of power. He’s got the look of a king, our Samuel thinks, his eyes began to swell with a lust for power. And God says, “Don’t look at this place, or this family, or for your future the way you usually do. Don’t look at the appearance, but look for the heart.”

“Okay,” says Samuel. Sigh. “He’s not the one. Send another.”

So, Jesse sends another son, his second oldest.

Abinidab? No.

Shammah? Not him either.

Send another, and another, send out seven — seven sons, not one of them does God choose.

“Shoot,” says Samuel. “You don’t have any other sons, do you? I came out all this way, I was sure. . . .”

“Hold your horses, Reverend, I have another. He’s out watching the sheep. But I got to tell you, he doesn’t really amount to much. Mostly a day dreamer. That’s why I left him out there. Didn’t figure you’d want that kind of boy. Plays a harp alright. Kinda’ think he might join the choir. Not too promising, really. But I’ll get him if you want.”

“I want to see him,” says Samuel.

“Okay,” says Jesse. “Eliab, quit your sulking, go find your baby brother – bring him over here. I don’t care what you think. Don’t argue with me, son, just bring him!”

So, Eliab brings his baby brother. And the youngest is chosen. And somehow, he looks good, too – maybe even better than the big husky, athletic guys, who could throw the javelin. Something like music shines through David’s face, and it’s the song of purity and dreams and, you know, he plays a harp.

And maybe as he was coming behind his brother, he was playing some music, and maybe dawdling a little bit when he spied a butterfly fluttering through the flowers, or he danced a jig to the song of the bumble bee. He didn’t look much like a king. But he was chosen. If you looked closely, you might also have seen a sling shot dangling from his waste. This one can sing, but maybe he can fight, too. He’ll need to – he’ll face giants before this story is done. And finally, the child is named, for the first time, David.

Rabbinical interpreters like to say that in the biblical story of election, Abraham was chosen by circumcision but David was chosen by God. No one saw David coming. He didn’t have the right pedigree. On his father’s side, his grandmother was a sex worker. His mother’s side included a migrant – you know, the folks some kings like to call rapists and drug dealers. Or illegals for short. That would be Ruth – Jesus’ great grandmother, an illegal.[iv]

Scholars call King David a legend from the late iron age, more myth than man. But something in his story rings true for us.

Whenever my dad went to look at a litter puppies, he chose the one that the owner ignored. And if he didn’t see what he was looking for, we went home, empty handed. We were a dog family, so I saw this more than once in my lifetime.

The owner of the litter would point out the pup that had the best markings, was the biggest, the most playful – universal signs of canine promise.

My dad was always polite, but he seemed to have his eye out for something else. What was he looking for? As I studied my dad, it dawned on me: he always kept an eye out for the puppy that was a bit small or a little bit on its own. And that’s almost always the way we arrived at the dog that would be ours – the dog whose name would become Dolly, or Benny, or Booker.

That’s the way dad was, the way he is. But there’s another side to this story. My dad is blind in one eye – all of his life he has had weak back. One my lasting images of him will be of him bent double, hobbling in the house, nearly crippled by pain. The blindness and the weakness in his back isn’t mysterious – he had polio when he was kid – the boy in the bed next to him died in an iron lung.

He seldom talked about that experience – mostly, what I know came from others. But I wonder if, when we went looking for a puppy, he wasn’t telling me something about life, about the gesture of providential grace in a world too taken by the determinisms of power.

These stories exist. We exist. We are such a story. The church, we are born of such a story – Paul says to us, “Not many of you were wise, not many well born, not many strong by the world standards – but God chose you so that none might boast apart from him.”

Maybe the grace of this text to us is twofold: on the one hand, to remind us that our weaknesses may actually be the mirror image where we see gentleness. Those who have known hurt make for strong shoulders to lean on.

On the other hand, these stories, and Christ’s story, push us to go beyond the status quo. You have more than a vote to cast in this electoral cycle. In a sense, we are all in the business of “electing” a new community. But often, our electing looks no different than the world’s electing – we go for the pedigree.

In fact, we build walls to fence other options out. A former student gave me a nativity scene. A wood sculpture of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus. But the wise men from the east can’t visit them – a wall has been built to exclude them from the congregation of Christ.

That’s a warning, I guess. Or alternatively, a challenge to climb the wall – or dig under it. God continues with us, underground — or over the fence — as God continued with Samuel.

Could it be that God’s work of electing takes us to people and neighborhoods we don’t see or imagine? This text moves us and our electing activity to consider unlikely candidates – we look at the pool of possibilities presented to us. But perhaps we should look with the eyes of the heart.

With the eye sight of the heart, I see Christ at the rescue shelters of this world – I see Christ at women’s shelters. I see Christ under the bridge. I see Christ in an underfunded public school. I see Christ . . . where perhaps, apart from God’s electing, I would only see our fear of failure.

Where do you see Christ? In whom do you pray that you will see Christ? Do you think we could become collaborators with an underground, jumping-the-fence sort of God?

Perhaps, by God’s grace, we already are.





[i] Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[ii] Robert Siegel interview with Yuval Levin, ‘The Fractured Republic’ Explores How Nostalgia Led To Polarized Politics” on National Public Radio (7 June 2016), accessed at http://www.npr.org/2016/06/07/481137357/the-fractured-republic-explores-how-nostalgia-led-to-polarized-politics on April 1, 2017.

[iii] Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel: Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010),  167.

[iv] Bruce C. Birch, 1 Samuel: New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon Press, 1998), 1099-1100.

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