6/24/18: Looking Upon the Heart, 1 Samuel 15:35-16:13
Looking Upon the Heart
Fourth in the series: Holy, Broken Hallelujah
First Lesson: Psalm 20
Second Lesson: 1 Samuel 15:35-16:13
Rev. Scott Dickison
We’re at the halfway point of this extended look at the story of Israel’s rise as told in 1 and 2 Samuel and the star of our story has finally arrived. But much has happened in the story since we last met.
Last week we read how the people of Israel, from their state of insecurity, demand that Samuel anoint for them a king—just the latest example in a history where Israel reveals its discomfort with its peculiar relationship with God. God offers the people a direct line of covenant love, inviting them to be partners in the unfolding of God’s dream for the world, guiding them to live in true and whole community with each other, with creation, and with God… but the people brush it aside. They want to be like all the other nations, we’re told. They want a king. And so a king they were given.
Samuel relents and anoints for them Saul—a strapping lad, a king if you ever saw one. In fact, scripture can’t help itself describing Saul’s physical beauty. “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he,” it says, “he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”
Saul is the Prince Charming you know from Disney movies. He’s the Prince Harry you know from royal weddings. The cameras love him. He’s tall and handsome and comes from a wealthy, prominent family—the made-for-TV special almost writes itself. Saul has all the trappings of royalty. And yet it soon becomes clear that while Saul was the obvious choice to be God’s anointed for the people, God’s choice is almost never the obvious one. And so we find ourselves here in Bethlehem.
Now for us today as 21st century Christians, Bethlehem might appear to be at the center of things, after all, it was the birthplace of Jesus, with the manger and the animals and the star, the hopes and fears of all the years and so forth. But Bethlehem was about as far from the center of things in Israel as one could get. Bethlehem, both in the time of Jesus and David all these many generations before, was on the margins.Which, one gets the feeling, is precisely why God looked there. God has found a new king in a new, unexpected place. Not only is it the tiny town of Bethlehem, but in the house of a modest sheep herdsman named Jesse. There are no credentials to be found here in this living room, as his sons are paraded in front of the man of God, mysteriously and alarmingly calling on them that day.
Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab comes down, and, just like Saul, he is tall and kinglike, and Samuel again is smitten. But we can imagine how as he reaches for his anointing oil, the voice of the Lord comes to him and delivers a truth about the ways and means and heart and eyes of God that extends far beyond this Bethlehem living room, out through the whole of scripture: Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And yes, the story continues—you’ve heard it before—each of the sons come by, and each are passed over. Samuel asks if there are any more and Jesse tells him just the youngest who’s out in the fields, almost an afterthought in the family it seems, to not be called in with the rest. He’s sent for, and when the young man appears, the voice of God is clear to Samuel, telling him: that’s the one—this is where my blessing for the people will be revealed.
But the center of this story—the heart of this story you could say—is this insight into the heart of God, which is that God doesn’t see how we see.
God doesn’t see how we see.
In fact, the Hebrew is a little more direct than that. It literally says God doesn’t look at the things we look at.
It’s not so much that God has better vision, that God is able to see what we cannot, but rather that God knows where to look. And this changes things.
You know where we look: at the outward appearance—of people, of course, but more than that, the outward appearance of things, of the world, of life. We look at the surface of things. What seems obvious and common sense. What “looks good on paper.” We look for “The quick profit, the annual raise,” as Wendell Berry puts it, “Vacation with pay”—self-protection, the sure thing. This is where we look, and when we do, the world usually rewards us for it.
But that’s not where God looks.
God looks a little deeper. God looks a little wider. God looks a little closer. God squints a little bit.
God looks to the heart.
The heart of people.
The heart of things, the heart of life. To what’s beating just below the surface, what’s really at stake for our life, for the life of the world. Who’s suffering. Who’s been forgotten. Who’s story matters.
It’s not just that God seesdifferently than us—because if that’s all it is then we might be tempted to let ourselves off the hook and say that’s for God to see and not us, but that’s not it. It’s not so much that God sees differently than us, but that God looks in different places. And if that’s the case, then it opens up the possibility that we can too. It opens up the possibility that we might one day—through practice and intention and not just a little bit of failure and embarrassment and shame and disappointment begin to look where God looks. We might break our tendency, our impulse, to look only at the surface of things—of people, of our lives, of the world, of this current moment—and learn to look instead to the heart of things. To what’s beating below the surface. And even before that, to first expand our view to look and see what’s happening out there on the margins, out away from the safety and security of the center, whose story is always told and in such a way to assume it’s the only story worth telling. Seeing how God sees begins with looking where God looks, and that’s usually the last place you would expect. Or maybe the last place you’d want to look.
It’s looking at the neighborhoods your parents told you never to drive through, or even the one’s they didn’t have to. It’s looking at the schools you wouldn’t send your kids to. And asking why its okay that others don’t have that choice.
It’s listening to and even seeking out the stories of people who don’t look like you—authors of a different race or nationality or language. One of the more unsettling truths I’ve had pointed out to me recently about the racial dynamics of our country is how most white folks haven’t read many authors of color. Not many are assigned in school, maybe a token one here or there, and so we don’t know the history and culture and perspective—the heart—of the African-American community or the Latino community or any other minority group, largely because we don’t know their stories. And isn’t this how empathy is grown within us: by sharing in another’s story, seeing what they see, looking where they look? It’s much easier to brush aside someone’s concerns or perspective when we haven’t taken time to see what they see.
And of course, at the present moment, looking where God looks (which is at the most vulnerable among us) means looking down along the border and asking what God is seeing down there. I have to confess it took me three days after first seeing the image of the little girl in the pink jacket screaming before I could bring myself to read the story that came with it.
I don’t do well with pictures like that.
And it doesn’t much matter to me if that little girl was separated from her mother or not, plenty others were. And isn’t this about a single photograph or policy or approach to this crisis—cruel as it may be. So much of the crisis on the border is our collective decision not to look. Not to look where God is surely looking for some time.
It’s hard to look. But for the love of Christ, don’t we have to?
The poet Rumi wrote,
Don’t turn your head; keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s what the light enters you.
I pray that we will.
I pray that it’s true.
The Lord doesn’t look where we look, we’re told.
We look at the surface of things as they appear there before us.
God looks at the heart that’s all around us, that’s just outside our view.
And tells us: this, this is the one. Here is where my blessing is revealed.
Walter Brueggemann, 1 and Second Samuel, Interpretationseries, 120
Wendell Berry: Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. https://www.context.org/iclib/ic30/berry/