can we picture God's Kin-dom?
Second Sunday after Pentecost - Year B
June 14, 2009
Let us pray: O God, you remind us that your ways are not always our ways. May we be open to your spirit, bringing hope and imagination and leading us to be a community of your people. Amen.
In looking over the passages that were assigned to this week in the church calendar I was struck by two things. The first was in the passage we heard from Samuel.
The story of the choosing of David as king is a typical example of biblical theology. It is typical because it tells a story with a surprise ending. Popular wisdom might suggest that the oldest and best looking of Jesse's son would succeed to the throne after Saul, but no, it is not the oldest but the youngest son that is chosen. In fact, the story is so typical in its surprise ending that it should almost be unremarkable. In the story cycles of the pentateuch - the first five chapters of the Hebrew Bible - it is always the underdog, the unexpected person that gets chosen. They get chosen in a variety of ways with a variety of reputable and disreputable maneuvers, but the clear message of the books of Moses - those same five chapters, is that we should expect the unexpected. It's a refreshing and exciting message about outsiders and insiders, about disrupting the common for something uncommon, about seeing past the customs and traditions and the traditional methods of determining success and capability.
However, that theme in the Hebrew Bible is so common that I wasn't particularly struck by it when I read it this week. In other words, I've gotten used to that theological principle. It's part of my understanding of the way in which God works in and among us. It's a great message, continually calling us to re-examine our own ways and how they might exclude or dismiss people.
No, what piqued my interest this week was the little bit of the old way of thinking that sneaked its way back into the story. Here's a brief summary of the way the story goes. Samuel is sent to visit Jesse with an awesome task before him. It's up to Samuel to choose a successor to Saul - who has recently not done himself proud as a monarch, and who will soon need to be replaced. Samuel feels a certain amount of guilt and responsibility for the imminent end of Saul's reign. Added to this, Samuel has the weight of choosing a successor with no particular idea of how that might happen. He knows that it will be a son of Jesse, but the only other criteria seems to be the directive that when the right one appears before him that he'll just know that that's the one!
And so the story unfolds. Eliab the oldest and good looking son of Jesse is presented to Samuel. But Samuel gets the message that tall and handsome is not the right stuff for this job. And so the choosing continues, each of Jesse's sons - oldest to youngest is not suitable for the job until it seems that all the possibilities have been exhausted except for oh, yeah that youngest one - the one that was almost forgotten - the one who was out in the fields looking after his father's sheep. Well, you know what happens. But did you notice the description of David - my translation says: bright eyed, good looking. So, looks aren't everything - we learned that with the rejection of Eliab - but they obviously count for something.
I've never really noticed that little contribution before - the part about David being good looking despite the fact that he was the smallest, youngest and almost disregarded son. I wondered about it. It could just be a subtle reminder to the reader that beauty is more than just outward appearances - that there was something about this poet/shepherd that spoke beauty that was more than stature and pleasant features. A case could be made for that being the meaning of the text, but there is also another option. As much as we want to believe that God sees differently than humans it won't hurt to put a little bit of the human value system in there as well. I mean how could we do with a leader who is not good looking? That's what I think about this little reference to David's looks. The monarchy league as I call them - the group of people who felt that monarchy was the only viable form of governance for the Hebrew people, and the group of people who felt that David was the person who would make it work after the troubling reign of Saul had to make sure that David was acceptable in human terms as well as God's terms.
And so, it wasn't the important story about unexpected choices and surprising endings that caught my attention this week. Instead it was that little lapse back into human value systems that somehow slipped back into the text. It amused me more than anything, but then when I considered the gospel reading, it got me thinking a bit more, and that led to the second insight.
Jesus was a great story teller. He used stories to illustrate his point in ways that were both instructive and enigmatic. He would tell a story and you would see at once the point he wanted to make and at the same time you would be intrigued by the mystery - who were the characters meant to represent, just exactly what did the story have to tell us. Still today, scholars and bible study groups read his parables and continue to come up with more and more layers of meaning.
I think this mixture of meaning and enigma is brilliant in the way that it points to the presence of God among us. If we were to summarise Jesus' message to his followers it might be something like this: God is here now and yet to come. Live your life as if God's way is the norm, and live your life as if God's way will become apparent just around the corner.
A case in point are the stories from this week's reading. Mystery and promise are both there in the first one. A seed is planted, it germinates, grows and ripens and how it all happens is a mystery, but there will be a harvest. Something small - a mustard seed, a pine nut - you could name many other different possibilities - something small falls on the ground and something large results.
That's God's value system.
In the translation I was reading this week, Jesus tells the story about the seed and then he says: How can we picture God's kingdom? What kjnd of story can we use? I felt the challenge of that question, and wondered what other ways we could use - what pictures we could imagine.
One way is to tell stories like the one we heard from the Hebrew Bible - about how God chooses differently from us. Another is to modify our language so that it better suits a value system that we see as being from God. You may have noticed one of those changes already. I've suggested this before, but what if we replaced kingdom with kin-dom. An even better word I think is commonwealth. I use it sometimes, but more recently I've tried to substitute community for kingdom instead. And of course we always need to be open to the helpful corrective - the insight that reveals ways in which our value system is not consistent with that of God's. I mean if it could creep into a story as ancient as the one we heard today about the choosing of David, then certainly our own stories are worth re-consideration.
Of course, the point is the same as Jesus wants to make with his story - here now and yet to come. We are living in the community of God - it's all around us, but sometimes we don't notice, and it is also yet to come. There are always ways in which we are being called to paint a picture with word and action of just what it means to be a community of God's people in this world. May we dream and act with courage, insight and wonder. Amen.