Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
June 17, 2018 10:30 AM Proper 6B
וילך שמואל הרמתה ושאול עלה אל ביתו גבעת שאול: ולא יסף שמואל לראות את שאול עד יום מותו כי התאבל שמואל אל שאול ויהוה נחם כי המליך את שאול על ישראל
Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his home at Givat Shaul; and Samuel didn’t see Saul again until the day of [Saul’s] death, for Samuel mourned over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul to rule over Israel.
They parted ways, sad and disappointed, the prophet trudging back to his home in Ramah and the king, together with his retainers, returning to the hill called by his name, Givat Shaul. Samuel knew now that the LORD had rejected Saul as king, and Samuel had told the king as much; but neither man seemed to know what to do about the prophet’s revelation. What else was there for Saul to do but to continue his rule, continue to lead his militia against Israel’s enemies, knowing all the time that he had made an enemy out of the old prophet who had anointed him. And what could Samuel do but retire to his home overlooking the hills of Benjamin and Ephraim?
Samuel had not wanted a king and had seen no reason to create the political turmoil the Israelites demanded of him by anointing one. But he had done the LORD’s bidding and followed Israel’s desire by choosing Saul as king. And the results had been immediately positive. Saul, reluctant as he was to be king, had performed brilliantly as leader of the Israelites, creating his own militia from among the tribes that moved to and fro throughout the land on a moment’s notice to meet the challenges of the Arameans, the Amalekites, and the Philistines in defense of his people. Saul was a tall, good-looking man, whose take-charge leadership seemed to be just what the Israelites had had in mind when they asked Samuel to appoint them a king. And it was not too strong a thing to say that Samuel had come to love him.
But at last Saul had disappointed Samuel. Perhaps he should have known that no man, no matter how tall and strong, no matter how brilliant in battle or wise in governance, would be able to resist the all-too-human temptations of his kingship. Iron age Palestinian kings in their own minds, at least, were gods, all of them, sons of the gods that had put them on their respective thrones, and Saul, like his contemporaries, could see no difference between his own thoughts and the thoughts of the God who had placed him on the throne. Samuel loved Saul, but he knew the LORD and he saw all too clearly the king’s fatal confusion, the madness that made it impossible for Saul to know the LORD and to obey the true King of Israel.
Saul was likewise bereft: bereft of the prophet’s counsel and support and fearful of the having to rule without either the prophet’s support or that of the prophet’s God. The glorious reign of Israel’s first king had now come down to this this anguished parting of the ways between two disappointed and discouraged men. Saul returned to Givat Shaul, and Samuel returned to Ramah, never to see his protégé in this life again. All the bright prospects of the new Israel, the new kingship, had vanished. Saul would continue to be king, but his coming days would devolve into an ever-worsening dementia and paranoia that would finally bring Israel to its knees outside the walls of Beth-shan in the Valley of Jezreel and bring the king’s life to an ignominious end at the hands of his loyal armor-bearer.
But Saul and Samuel were not the only ones mourning that day. The Lord GOD too was grieving, lamenting over the decision to entrust Saul with the crown. God’s people had demanded a king, and the LORD had found the tall, beautiful man Saul in the hill country of Benjamin to endow with the brilliance and insight necessary to defeat Israel’s enemies; but Saul had become his own god, unable to trust the Holy One of Israel and counting instead on his own supposedly divine judgment. The LORD of Hosts also left the meeting with Samuel disappointed, left, perhaps, to go sit once more on the cherubim on the ark of the covenant, now hidden away in Kiriath-jearim where it languished with no sanctuary to house it and no priests to tend it.
The Bible knows everything about disappointment, discouragement both of the human sort and of the divine sort, the two being very much the same. From personal betrayals to national apostasy, the pages of our ancient holy book are replete with frustrations and anger, discontent and ire at the failings, real and imagined, of its main characters. Jacob defrauds his brother Esau because, well, Esau is just so easy to deceive; and how could Jacob not take advantage of his gullibility? King Hezekiah, bless his well-meaning, pea-picking heart, improved the fortifications of Jerusalem immeasurably by building an underground tunnel to bring water into the middle of the city from a hidden underground spring. Then the clueless monarch celebrated his architectural and military triumph by showing it off to his best buddies from the city of Babylon who would eventually use their knowledge of the tunnel to capture the city—twice. “Disappointing” might be one word to describe this exercise in futility. Our Lord and Savior Jesus died because one of his own inner circle, his own beloved student Judas, sold him out for some pocket change from the Sanhedrin. And the Apostle Paul wrote the lesson we read this morning to Christians in Corinth, who had completely lost patience with Paul’s end-of-the-world message and had decided to try out some this-worldly spirituality mixed with debauchery on their own. The Bible is no stranger to our discouragement, nor is the God of that Bible, who has to contend with an Israel that can’t trust and a church that can’t hope.
Perhaps it surprised Samuel that God didn’t spend much time licking the wounds of divine frustration and was almost immediately prodding the old prophet about how long Samuel was going to mourn over the beloved Saul as though the LORD of Hosts hadn’t also been lamenting the failed king as well. Get up, Samuel, it’s time to try again. It’s time to get involved once more in messy, disappointment-laden life by hiking down to Bethlehem with a sacrificial heifer in tow to start the whole awful business of choosing a king all over again. You get the impression that the recently retired prophet hadn’t even gotten a chance to sleep in the first morning out before the LORD was badgering him to get over his disappointment and get with the program.
Maybe we need to feel some of that nudging too this Sunday as we deal with the latest twists and turns of our search for a new rector and as we ask again what it is that the LORD of Hosts really requires of us here on the end of Main Street. If Samuel could advise us, perhaps he would sympathize with the way in which God does not seem to have much patience with our discouragements and keeps insisting that we get back on the road to Bethlehem because we’re on the Lord’s time, not our own. God has made this parish into a mission-minded community and has no intention of leaving us orphans to lament our size, our median age, or our demographics. Paul reminded the Corinthians that living in faith was not the same as living by sight, by numbers, by statistics or by prejudices. Being Christians in Corinth or in Mt. Airy involves walking in hope, acting on trust, and learning joy through faith, not sight.
Samuel’s road from Ramah to Bethlehem was strewn with Aramean bandits and Philistine blockades, and three thousand years later that same road is almost impassable by reason of roadblocks and a massive separation wall. God’s prophet has it no easier now than he did three millennia ago, but the restless God, who stirred Samuel to try again, still asks the prophets, asks us, to walk that difficult, messy road again—and again—because God’s sadness for us never includes a sabbatical to lick our wounds or feel sorry for ourselves. It is a call.
So, Samuel arose and filled his horn with oil once more, perhaps no more convinced than he was when he went to anoint the first king, that this was going to turn out well. But he went. He went because God called him to go. He may have taken all of his disappointments with him, but he set out, one foot in front of the other to meet the future God had in store for him and for his people. And the call to Trinity Church is no different. We too have a horn to fill with oil and a difficult journey to complete with all the prophets. We call it faith. We call it hope.