Happy Father’s Day! Our first reading today from 1 Samuel 15 has a very important father named Jesse in it, and a situation that I bet hardly any fathers we know have had to deal with.
Samuel is planning with God how to select the next king of Israel, because it turned out the first choice of Saul didn’t turn out so hot. (We heard in the first reading last week about this--God did not even want the Israelites to have an earthly king, but they insisted so much they had to have one to be like everyone else around them that he agreed reluctantly to it.) This time God told Samuel to have all of Jesse’s sons pass before the Lord’s presence with Jesse and Samuel, and they all are deemed unsatisfactory to be the next king. Samuel asked Jesse if there were any other sons. Jesse said, “Yes!”, and the last one was summoned—he was David, the youngest, hardly even a man yet. God picked this youngest one David to be the next king, he was anointed by Samuel in front of all his brothers, God set his Spirit on David from that day forward, and he ultimately became a great, although not perfect Israelite king.
A couple of things I think are really interesting about this story. One, in this and in many Old Testament stories, God carries on conversations with people like he is in the room with them. Can they see him, or do they just hear this voice, and is it booming out or just forcefully quiet? How do they know it is God? And, second, why did Samuel ask if there were any other sons? Since God did not choose any of these first sons, and God said he was going to pick one of Jesse’s sons, then there had to be another one. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, so he would already know there was another son. Was he just testing Samuel to see if he truly believed in God?
Can you imagine today selecting a leader for our country in this way? Remember, this writing talks about a time over 3000 years ago; for the people involved then a much simpler time—no TV, no cell phones, no internet, no news media, no microwaves, or all the other complexities with work, leisure, and life that we face now (or whatever we have placed on ourselves to deal with). That time also meant a much harder life for most people, mainly herders and farmers, and it was a time in which those faithful to God believed that God acted in everything in their lives. So it only made sense to them that God would select their king.
There are people today who essentially believe this is how our government leaders should be chosen, while others say that religion should not be a part of this process at all. Some of these candidates believe they have been hand-picked/called or talked to by God to run for office, and many of their supporters (including some with official religious connections) support them with their endorsements. On the other hand, many say that there is no way that God has somehow singled out any person as his representative for government and they strongly rebuke this notion.
So, how can we select leaders using either of these ways? The answer is given to us by God in this reading today: God does not want this to be done EITHER way!
“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.”” God’s formula for selecting leaders focuses on a person’s heart--their conscience and their caring for others over themselves, not their strength or appearance (or whatever interest groups back them, or how wealthy they are). We are not God, but perhaps we should think more in these terms when selecting our leaders. I know in today’s crazy, self interested political culture it seems no one fits these criteria, but I believe there are people who measure up and who we can confidently look to as leaders.
Our New Testament reading from 2 Corinthians 5 continues this theme of living a life with a good heart and conscience, and looking at everyone else in a more Christ-like way. ”From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” When we believe in Christ, we no longer have to rely on ourselves alone to deal with everything in life. We are given the Holy Spirit to help us, and we can be confident, but not pushy or judgmental of others, in walking with Christ for the rest of our earthly lives.
Our Gospel reading from Mark 4 is well known to us all—the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
From my trusty standby source, Wikipedia: “A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or (sometimes) a normative principle. It is a type of analogy. The word "parable" actually comes from the Greek (parabolē), meaning "comparison, illustration, analogy". Though the meaning of a parable is often not explicitly stated, the meaning is not usually intended to be hidden or secret but on the contrary quite straightforward and obvious. Parables teach an abstract argument, using a concrete narrative which is more easily grasped.” (Someone tell Jesus that!)
“In all times in their history the Jews were familiar with teaching by means of parables, as a number of parables existed in their Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. The use of parables by Jesus was a natural teaching method that fit into the tradition of his time. In Western civilization, these parables of Jesus form the prototype for the term parable and in the modern age, even among those who know little of the Bible, the parables of Jesus remain some of the best known stories in the world.” (Oh, so the Jews get them, but not us!)
Comparing the Kingdom of God and mustard seeds doesn’t seem to make any sense. Mustard is an herb with medicinal properties and one that is useful for flavoring and preserving food. But, the mustard bush, that grows from the mustard seed, is a vegetation pest (kind of like scotch broom). No one would sow it on purpose, would they? (they did scotch broom!) It grows all too easily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over the area. How is this like God's reign in this story, and how could it be good news for Mark's church and for us?
Jesus reveals to us the reign of God in mustard seeds, bushes, and birds. It is a kingdom which begins with the small and insignificant, and forgotten, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders, the left out, the other, for the multicolored robins and finches beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Jesus reveals to us a kingdom for the birds.
Jesus is saying that our belief and faith in God works in this same way--even though as an individual being so small, or for us at St. Mark’s, being such a small group of believers, we can still make a huge difference in this community around us. We may be small, but we are powerful in Christ. Our heart-filled and caring influence with those we meet and do normal everyday things in our lives, those who come to our church building for community meetings, those who meet us in our annual church events—Pancake Day, the Rummage Sale, Bless Your Pets Sunday—all who participate are influenced and shown the loving God we know.
I think there is a common theme in play in all of these readings today. First, we are introduced to the idea of the value of a true heart and good conscience being the way to recognize good people and great leaders. Then, we are shown how anyone who believes in Christ is provided the Holy Spirit and is made new to work with this good heart to confidently but compassionately lead a good life, for oneself and in leading others to Christ. Last, with a good heart and a true faith in God and using the Holy Spirit, although it can seem like our influence is but a small thing, we can be huge Christians in the world around us. Let’s do it!!