(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on June 17, 2018, Proper 6)
This or That
I discovered spicy food at a very early age. I don’t remember the day myself, but my parents tell the story this way. As my mom, dad, and brother were preparing dinner, someone had left the refrigerator door open. I was a toddler at the time and toddled on over to explore what was inside. On the lowest shelf sat a red bottle. I stuck its top in mouth. And for the next hour or so, I was wincing and smacking my lips. I had discovered Tabasco!
As far as I can reconstruct, that’s the day I learned the word “hot”—as opposed to “cold,” which the refrigerator certainly was. And that’s the way we all learn, according to psychologists and linguists. You can’t know one thing until you know its opposite. Hot/cold, up/down, night/day: as children, we begin to make sense of the world by dividing it up into this or that.
As adults, we generally make sense of the world in the same dualistic, divided-up way. And with good reason: these binaries are the basis of our survival, our self-preservation. Without distinctions like poisonous/safe, healthy/unhealthy, predator/prey, friend/enemy, hot/cold, we wouldn’t be here today.
Binaries are the basis of survival. But binaries can also blind us. They limit the world to this or that categories. Instead of seeing a fellow American, we see Republican or Democrat. Instead of seeing a human being created in the image of God, we see man or woman, black or white, straight or gay. Not only do these binaries blind us to deeper realities, they also make us biased. Because binaries are about self-preservation, about keeping order, about keeping things the way they are. In any binary, we prefer the term that preserves our sense of self, whatever preserves the world as we know it.
Saul’s Selective Listening
If you were in a traffic jam, and you heard a random honk behind you, would pay much attention? What if it were a police siren? If you were on the sidewalk, and a stranger in a business suit was politely requesting help, would you approach him? What if it were a homeless person whose voice was slurred?
The problem with Israel’s first king, Saul, was his selective listening: hearing this but not hearing that. Right before today’s scripture, Samuel calls him to account for not precisely following the instructions of God, and Saul replies: “I feared my men and listened to their voice” (15:24). In other words, King Saul was a people-pleaser. He had strayed just a little bit from the command of God in order to please the strong men in his army (cf. 14:52).
If you’ll remember from last week, God had warned Israel that a king spelled trouble. Power would take without asking. It would build itself up at the people’s expense. Power would not ensure the justice of God’s good covenant. It would not look out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, as the covenant endlessly called for. Instead, it would do the opposite. Power—a king of might, a king who would fight—this would take Israel back to its beginning in Egypt. Or as God put it, “You will be…slaves” again (8:17).
Life under Saul did not look exactly like slavery, but in Saul’s selective listening, we catch a glimpse of power’s cold disregard. Saul does not listen to God. Nor, we might imagine, does he listen to the widow, the orphan, or the stranger. Saul listens to the strong men carrying swords and spears. He listens to the people with power, the ones on whom his power rests. What the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or God thinks…well, that can wait.
Samuel’s Selective Looking
In today’s scripture, we discover the outcome of Saul’s selective listening. God has moved on. God has already been scouting for a future king, and God’s found one! Samuel follows God’s prompting and travels to Bethlehem.
What comes next is a celebrated Bible story, a timeless classic that features in every children’s Sunday School curriculum. Samuel invites Jesse to bring his sons before him. First comes Eliab, and he must have had an impressive physique, because Samuel thinks, “Surely this is the one.” But the Lord says to him, essentially, “Don’t look the way humans look, selectively, dividing up and judging by your categories, old/young, tall/short, strong/weak. For God does not see that way. God looks on the heart.” In other words, Samuel was looking for the future king in the same way that Saul trying to stay king. He was dividing the world up into this or that, and he was giving priority to whatever he thought would preserve power. Saul listened first to the mighty men with swords and spears. Samuel looked first for a son who was strong, commanding, and experienced.
Next comes Abinadab, and then Shammah, and then four more sons. Each time, Samuel listens to God and shakes his head. He must be perplexed at this point, because he’s seen all there is to see. Maybe he confused God’s directions. Maybe this is the wrong father and these are the wrong sons. Just to make sure, though, he asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse responds that the youngest isn’t here, but is tending the sheep. So he calls for his son David—who is the least of his sons, the last of his sons, the left-out son. And he, of course, is the one. God chooses him to be king.
More than Survival and Self-Preservation
The book of I Samuel contains within it a tension, a friction between the people of Israel and God. We see it in today’s story, where Samuel anoints the next king, and in the story right before it, where Saul listens first to the voice of his army.
On the one hand, there are the people of Israel grasping for power, power that will sort out their problems inside, power that will secure their borders outside. This power builds quite naturally on divisions, which are a mechanism of survival and self-preservation. This power splits the world up into simple categories, this-or-that, and prefers whatever will preserve things the way they are, whatever will preserve the present order.
On the other hand, there is God whose covenant looks out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, whose dream is change, the lowly lifted up and the powerful laid low. The change of God continually bursts beyond the binaries of Israel. It sees the potential for abundant life not in imposing kings but in a little boy like Samuel and later in Jesse’s left-out son, David.
The power of Israel builds on divisions, but the change of God bursts beyond these binaries. Because God wants more than survival, God wants life! God wants more than the self-preservation of the powerful, God wants beloved community, life for everyone.
The Unity of God’s Love:
From the Most Minor of Minorities
Which is the same thing that Jesus wants, the same thing we see in the Jesus story. Jesus is consistently bursting beyond our binaries, our this-or-that thinking, drawing us beyond these divisions into the unity of God’s love. It is Jesus who sees greatness in the smallest of seeds. It is Jesus who proclaims enemies to be beloved. It is Jesus who lifts high the little children as model citizens of the kingdom. It is Jesus who calls the last first.
In the story of Samuel and Israel, as in the story of Jesus, God does not limit our world according to the divisions that we make, this-or-that. Rather God sees infinite possibility in all things. And thank God for that.
Binaries keep us alive. But they also keep us from life. When we divide the world up into this or that, and we make choices based on survival and self-preservation, the world hardens and closes in on itself. When the powerful act to preserve the present order, to keep things the way they are, the world comes to a standstill. No significant change in history happened because at first a majority voted for it. The change of God that pushes past mere survival and self-preservation, that liberates slaves in Egypt, that looks out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, that transforms enemies into friends, that draws us all beyond this-or-that into the unity of God’s love—this life-giving change of God grows from the most minor of minorities, from the smallest of things. Like a mustard seed. Like a little, left-out boy. Like a convicted criminal on a cross.
Mysterious and merciful God,
Our codes of what is correct,
Our understanding of this-or-that;
Draw us into your holy quest
For more than survival and self-preservation;
Grow within us and our community
The tiny seeds of your kingdom,
In which everything belongs
And is filled with infinite possibility.
In the name of himWhose love obeys no laws, Jesus Christ. Amen.
 According to Baba Metzia 59b, some rabbis counted in the Torah 36 warnings against wronging the sojourner; others counted 46. Cf. Jonathan Sacks, “Mishpatim (5768)—Loving the Stranger,” http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5768-mishpatim-loving-the-stranger/, accessed June 13, 2018.