Sunday, October 20, 2013

Beloved, Flawed, and Called: A Stewardship Sermon on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Scripture can be found here...

Whether we know it or not, we are in the midst of a mini-series… I’ll name it, the Rise and Fall of the Monarchy! It began last week with the call of the prophet Samuel, the same Samuel we have in our text today, and it ends November 3, with God’s self-revelation to the prophet Elijah. Hmmmm… Stories of kings bookended with the words of prophets. That fact in itself tells us much of what God’s idea of kingship looks like.

Samuel is all grown up now, a man whose first encounter with God took place as a boy, while he served God alongside the priest Eli. In the intervening years, God has relented—that’s the only possibly way of seeing it—God has given in to the persistent desire of the covenant people to have a king. Samuel is the man standing as the mediator between heaven and earth, and he apparently takes it pretty hard, because God sees fit to console Samuel, and to give him some advice: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” God goes on, “Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7, 9). And, oh, Samuel does.

We’ve talked before about God’s laundry list of the things the kings will do. Things like, taking the people’s sons for his armies and daughters for his harems. Taking their crops and their workers and their money, too. Taking, even, their freedom—turning the people into slaves. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Not just some kings. Not just bad kings. All kings. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That is how one 19th century historian put it.[i] Today psychologists might call it “Acquired Situational Narcissism,” often used to make sense of the bizarre behavior of certain celebrities. God created us, after all, and God is well aware of our flaws.

By the time of our passage, there has already been one king—Saul, chosen by God, and anointed by Samuel, and who, in the end, lost God’s favor and anointing. Samuel is grieving over this. The prophet functioned, not only as the one to lift up and anoint the king and affirm God’s blessing on the king, but also as the most trusted advisor—maybe something like the Chief of Staff, or the First Lady. For you “Scandal” fans: think Olivia Pope, without the tawdry affair.

So once again, God is consoling Samuel. Or, really, telling Samuel to get a move on, get over it, because now there is a vacuum, and another king is required to fill it.

God sends Samuel to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, where God promises to name a king from among Jesse’s sons. God also helps Samuel with the anxieties that naturally arise when God is naming another king, but the previous king has not yet gotten the memo. Listen to me, God says, and I will tell you.

Then, notice what happens? The sons of Jesse start their walk down the runway, and Samuel looks at the first one, and in his heart he starts singing, “There he is….!” Only God, keeps speaking. “Not so fast, Sparky.” “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” (1 Samuel 16:7).

And one by one they all pass by, and Samuel keeps on looking, and God keeps on whispering in Samuel’s ear, “Not yet.”

Samuel keeps looking. God wants Samuel to keep listening.

Many of you are aware that I spent eight days last week in the hill country of Texas, about 80 miles northwest of San Antonio, taking part in something called “Presbyterian Credo.” Here’s the Credo Mission:

To provide opportunities for clergy to examine significant areas of their lives and to discern prayerfully the future direction of their vocation as they respond to God's call in a lifelong process of practice and transformation.

The Presbyterian Board of Pensions got the idea for Credo from the Episcopalians: to seek out clergy mid-career, and do a kind of intervention. After we’ve been in the parish a little while, sometimes it helps to take a step back, not only so that we can look; but also so that we can listen—to our hearts, to others who are seeking to serve God in the church, and, of course, to God.

So, for eight days I was one of thirty ministers at Mo Ranch (a Presbyterian conference center), all of us between the ages of 34 and 50, and all of whom have been in the parish at least five years. We had seven faculty members—all Presbyterian, many ministers, all experts in some aspect of four basic areas: Spiritual Health, Physical Health, Vocational Health, and Financial Health.

When my plane took off from Syracuse-Hancock Airport early on October 7, I thought I knew what was in store for me at Mo Ranch. I thought it was going to be all about my physical health. I have struggled all my life with my weight, and you have all had a front row seat to that particular struggle for the last 6 years. I hoped that my time at Mo Ranch would enable me to find the energy and passion to make the changes I need to make to achieve a permanent improvement of my overall health.

But Credo surprised me. Credo did so much more. If I had to describe the heart of what I heard God whispering last week, it all comes down to one word: Stewardship. Stewardship across all the areas of life. Stewardship is a word that means, according to the dictionary, “overseeing and protecting.” Another way of thinking about that is, “taking care.”

At Mo Ranch I heard God affirm my hopes for better stewardship of my health with a loud, “Yes!” by means of the presence of a terrific doctor on our faculty, who talked with me, and walked with me, and helped me understand what I’m capable of in terms of exercise and increased fitness. It was also affirmed by a terrain in which, somehow, every single building seemed to be uphill from every other building. I swear I walked uphill all week! It was all a part of a wonderful eight days of more physical activity than I’d had in a long time, and it felt great to move. Stewardship of the body God gave me is the first part of my plan of action as I go forward.

Then, to my surprise, my heart was captivated by my concern for the stewardship of this congregation, and our witness of over 190 years here in the Union district of Endicott. This is our stewardship season, of course. Each week we are hearing from members of UPC, telling us how they found themselves at home here, and, either implicitly or explicitly, encouraging you to join in our campaign of giving towards our annual budget. And I want to say a big “Yes!” and “Amen” to all of that!

But the concern that was awakened in me was, not only for this stewardship campaign, in this calendar year, but for our ongoing care of the gifts we have been given for the future.

By now you have all received the beautiful letter sent out by our Finance, Endowment, and Stewardship Committee. That letter contained information about the state of our endowments; more specifically, on the future of our endowments, if our spending patterns don’t change. As our fund manager from Pittsburgh told us at our meeting on Thursday, we are drawing too much from these funds. Well, what’s the harm in that, you might ask. It’s a great question. Isn’t money meant to be spent? Yes, absolutely—and hoarding is no virtue, as the story of the manna revealed to us. But these funds were never intended to be spent down supporting our annual budget. They are rainy day funds, and funds for building maintenance. And, over the past several years, it has rained like crazy, both literally and metaphorically, and we are blessed, blessed, to have been able to lean on the gifts of our predecessors. But it’s time for us to take a fresh look at our spending—thoughtfully, deliberately, prayerfully, and keeping our mission statement ever in the forefront of that effort. It is time for us to begin.

This afternoon, the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley will install me as your pastor, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. I have been grinning ear to ear for months. And it was an incredible gift to me, at Credo, to hear in my heart a prompting that I am pretty sure came from God to look forward with you: forward to many, many happy, and challenging, and busy years together, yes! And also, to look forward to the time beyond my pastorate here, when I will finally have to hang up my spurs at, oh, age 90 or something like that. I want UPC to be here. I want the loving, serving, welcoming witness of this church to the love of God in the world to go beyond my tenure here. I want it to be here for our children, and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren; I want it to be here for the strangers, the wanderers and the wayfarers of generations to come; I want UPC to be here.

God whispered in Samuel’s ear that David was the one—David, who, as it turns out, was a pretty good-looking guy after all. David went from herding sheep to being a shepherd for God’s covenant people, and he had a good long tenure as king—40 years! David was God’s beloved, but he was not perfect. David was God’s beloved, flawed, and called servant, and despite his foibles, his missteps, his sins and his crimes, he remains the most celebrated king of the Hebrew Scriptures.

We too, are God’s beloved, flawed, and called servants. We are called to stewardship in every area of our lives—to care for the bodies God gave us, to care for our spiritual growth by listening for God’s whispers in our hearts, to care for the work God has called us to do, and to care for our own finances and those of the organizations we love. I am so glad to be here. I am committed to working with you to ensure that UPC will be here. I pray that the Spirit of God might come mightily upon us, just as it did upon David, to give us strength and joy for our work together. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902).

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