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I want to wish a very happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers. I have nothing but praise for what you do. Especially at this time in our world as we see firsthand the great risks that many parents take in order to protect and preserve the lives of their children. May our own joy at celebrating our fathers today be the catalyst for us to consider together how best to work to resolve the issues at our borders according to our own baptismal promises.
Indeed, every parent carries the pain of things we wish had turned out differently or that we would’ve done differently. And add to that the agony of what can seem like a failed relationship with someone we love.
Beginning with Laura’s sermon three weeks ago about the tendency we have to “sort” ourselves into categories, and to Stuart’s sermon last week about looking at family connections through the device of something called a “genogram”, we arrive today – by happy coincidence on Father’s Day — at one of the most poignant and frequently overlooked passages in the biblical narrative: The prophet Samuel’s complicated relationship with Israel’s first king, a complicated man named Saul.
“Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. The Lord said to Samuel ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel.’”
Harsh words. Much like Jesus’ harsh words last week when in response to the Blessed Mother’s request for him to come home to his family, Jesus answered “Who is my family? Who are my mother and my brothers? These who do the will of God! They are my mothers and my brothers!” Ouch.
To get the full impact of the Samuel passage, we need to back up from the first word “Then…” and read what had just transpired.
Saul was officially only king for a few days, although for some months or maybe even years he refused to acknowledge that he was no longer king. God directed Samuel the prophet to anoint Saul king for the express purpose of authorizing him to lead a mission to destroy the Amalekites. The reason for this destruction was based in the Amalekites’ inhospitality to Israel when they wanted to cross through Amalekite territory on their way out of Egypt and going to the Promised Land of Canaan. Just to be clear, all of those inhospitable Amalekites who had been alive at that time are long dead, so this vengeance is being visited on their descendants.
Nevertheless, Saul carried out the mission, destroying virtually everything about the Amalekite culture but sparing all that was good in it – cattle and other livestock and its king Agag – determining that the livestock would be used as sacrificial fuel to a holy offering to God; and, as was the custom in those days, the king of the conquered people would be presented to the conquering people to serve out the remainder of his days as a perpetual prisoner.
This, however, was not the way the mission was stated. And, when Samuel the prophet confronted Saul the king about Saul’s failure to obey God’s specific orders, Saul repented. His repentance was not enough to spare his crown, however, and Samuel told him so before executing the Amalekite King, Agag, in front of Saul, finishing what Saul had only started.
It is immediately following this grisly act that our passage begins: “THEN Samuel went his way and Saul went his way.” They will never see each other alive again. Samuel as we see goes on to anoint the new king David whose crimes seem to me to be self-centered, having a faithful soldier in his army killed in order to keep him from finding out that David had had an affair with the man’s wife. Whereas Saul’s crimes seem to me to be attempts at mercy. And yet David will be known as a man after God’s own heart.
But, until the day he dies, the prophet Samuel will be thinking about Saul – the man who would be king. The text says he would “grieve” him, but the word is stronger. It means to have a crushed heart over someone.
Remember those lines that connect the boxes on our family genograms? How Stuart said that three lines between two boxes indicate a strong connection or influence and that jagged lines indicate an unsettling relationship? I would say that between Saul and Samuel’s boxes would be three jagged lines AND three straight lines.
And God’s question to Samuel “Why do you keep thinking about Saul?” is surely something we can identify with as we consider the jagged lines between our lives and the lives of people in our sphere. We may well agree that the person is a mess, and perhaps a great disappointment. The only consistent thing about them may be that they always let us down. And as Samuel had to finish what Saul started, we may spend our time cleaning up someone else’s messes.
And all our friends — and maybe even our priest or therapist – ask us why we continue?
The theme is evergreen throughout literature, even throughout biblical literature. Consider the man who had two sons – a literary trope that always tells us something is about to go wrong – and one stayed at home and helped his father and never gave him a moment’s trouble and the other disrespected his father, squandered his inheritance, and then got a big party when he finally came back home not because he was sorry but because he’d run out of money.
What about the parable of the two sons and one readily agrees to obey his father, but then becomes distracted and doesn’t follow through and the other son who disrespects his father and says he will not do as asked, then later decides that he will. And HE is the “good son”!
Consider your own children. The ones that never give you a moment’s trouble and the ones that make you want to scream. We expect the one to continue to do well, but we absolutely rejoice when the other shows even a modicum of improvement.
It’s not logical. Some would say it’s not even healthy.
But, actually, I believe it is a trace of the divine that marks our creation in the image of God who IS love, giving us a capacity for steadfast lovingkindness that persists without any hope of reciprocity.
Perhaps this perspective affords us another way of understanding the passage from the second reading to the Corinthians:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”
From a human point of view, we act toward others generally in response to how they act toward us. Of course, we are encouraged to treat others as we would like to be treated. But, the truth is that too often we turn into a practice what is really a momentary reaction to an injury. That is, we permanently break off relations with someone who hurts us over and over because we get so tired of putting ourselves in the position to be hurt.
But, a decision that has to do with our psychological or physical welfare, however, does not always reach down to the tap root grounded in our hearts, those three jagged lines that connect us to the person. We may never see them again and maybe for good reason, but that doesn’t mean that a day doesn’t pass when we don’t think of them.
So, where’s the good news in that truth?
Maybe it’s hard to see the good news because it isn’t about good news for us. It’s about that person. In fact, the good news for that person may come at great cost to us, someone who doesn’t even know it is receiving prayers and attention every single day of their lives.
Even if we do see them again, we do we don’t expect that the relationship will ever be what it once was or what we might hope it will be. In other words, someone who doesn’t know or might not appreciate it is being remembered to God every day through our prayerful connection to God that draws from the thoughts that lie on our hearts.
What do we get out of that? The chance to see another person the way that God sees us: willful, stubborn, pig-headed, and very likely going down the wrong path — and, beloved, in spite ourselves.
Saul’s finest moment may have been that misguided attempt at mercy for the Amalekite king. Saul’s life does not improve. In fact, he will show clear signs of severe mental illness until his own death. And all things considered David will be a better king, though far from perfect.
What we will see in the narrative arc that began with God’s call to the young boy Samuel on through Samuel’s own prophetic career and influence over the royal household shows us so clearly that our selfish choices have consequences that outlive us; in fact, consequences disproportionately greater than the size of their causes, much like that tiny mustard seed. But, the grace of God is that the same physics also hold true for our choices to love.
So, be here next week when we will follow what comes next for this very human family and their place in the story of God’s love for the whole world, a story that continues with many of the same themes into our own kitchens.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
June 17, 2018 Year B