Anointing Eliab (David’s Older Brother)

Our scripture this morning is I Samuel 16:1-13. I grew up in Sunday School, so of course I heard this story more times than I can count. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known the story, and I’ve known the moral: “Humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” It’s right there in verse 7.

But I didn’t just have that answer, I had all the answers – at least, all the important ones. I could have given people a run-down of all God’s opinions on every important issue, and I often did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m reading from the Common English Bible because the NRSV, your pew Bible, is really good with accuracy but really bad at story-telling. Listen for the word of the Lord in the story of the anointing of King David.


The Lord said to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and get going. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have found my next king among his sons.”

“How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “When Saul hears of it he’ll kill me!”

“Take a heifer with you,” the Lord replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.”

Samuel did what the Lord instructed. When he came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they asked.

“Yes,” Samuel answered. “I’ve come to make a sacrifice to the Lord. Now make yourselves holy, then come with me to the sacrifice.” Samuel made Jesse and his sons holy and invited them to the sacrifice as well.

When they arrived, Samuel looked at David, Jesse’s youngest. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. Samuel thought, That must be the Lord’s anointed right there.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t chosen him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.”

Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The Lord hasn’t chosen this one either.” So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the Lord hasn’t chosen this one.”Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord hasn’t picked any of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

“There is still the oldest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.”

“Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.”

So Jesse sent and brought him in. Eliab was tall and good-looking, and reminded Samuel a little of Saul. He was exactly what Samuel thought a king should look like. The Lord told Samuel, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The Lord’s spirit came over Eliab from that point forward.

Then Samuel left and went to Ramah.


The word of the Lord?

Thanks be to God.

No it’s not. Come on, this is the story of the anointing of David and I just said God rejected David and Samuel anointed Eliab instead! Continue reading

Ash Wednesday Meditation

The lectionary passages for Ash Wednesday are about repentance, and for me as a recovering fundamentalist, especially reading Psalm 51, repentance is all about wallowing in guilt and what Brennan Manning called cultivating ingrown eyeballs, where you try to imagine all the ways you might have offended God and debate whether you’re sufficiently penitent.

I went to a thing called a Prayer Advance once, because Christians don’t retreat, they advance, get it? So at the Prayer Advance, they have this time called “Sweet Hour of Prayer” where you go off into the woods and work your way through this list of things that are… well, I’m pretty sure many of them aren’t actually sins.

“Am I really concerned about revival?” I used to be, back when the problem was other people.

“Am I willing to pay the price for personal revival?” I don’t know. What are personal revivals going for these days?

“Am I sinning the sin of prayerlessness?” Prayerlessness is a sin?

“Do I get angry?” Especially when I read lists like this.

“Have I paid all my debts to others?” You try owing the cost of a college education to Great Lakes Student Loan Servicing, Prayer Advance People.

“Is my home a testimony for Jesus?” Well, we do have that sign that says “No matter who you are, you’re welcome here,” so… yes?”

“Does my pastor KNOW that he can count on me?” Well, first, you misspelled “she,” and second, judging by her helpful reminder emails, I think she knows she can count on me when I reply.

You get the picture. You can’t read through that and take it seriously without starting to think, “You know, I kind of suck.” And that’s the point of it. It’s to make you feel bad so you come back to your home church with this testimony of how you repented and did a soul cleanse and you’re basically sinless. When I came back, I was pretty much perfect by fundamentalist standards for, oh, a good three days at least! Continue reading

How to Choose Life

Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Photo Credit: Kristen Schell

So there were these ancient Jews living in captivity. I don’t know how many there were, or what their names were, but let’s say there were two (there were probably more) and call them Rachel and Eli.

Like most people in unhappy situations, Rachel and Eli had questions – questions like “How did this happen,” “How can I fix it,” and “How can I keep this from happening again?” And like most people with those questions, they started digging through their history looking for clues.

They would have found that their ancestors worshiped a lot of idols, and read about King David and Solomon, who worshiped the God Rachel and Eli worshiped, Yahweh. They would have found that King Rehoboam made some bad decisions and split the kingdom, and his servant Jeroboam, who took the Northern half of the Kingdom, made some worse decisions and set up two golden calves for worship.

Then in 721 BCE, the Assyrians captured Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. Worship Yahweh, Rachel and Eli would have concluded, you get David and Solomon. Worship other gods, you get captured by Assyrians. Continue reading

The Superior Losers

I was privileged to preach this sermon on January 22, 2017, at Waverly Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our scripture comes from I Corinthians 1:9-18.

God is faithful; by whom you were called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The word of the Lord.

“I want you all to be in agreement.” This scripture comes to us after a weekend that showed more painfully than many that our country, and even the church, could not be more visibly divided.

Franklin Graham, the son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, spent the last few days celebrating the inauguration of our new president.

Famous Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber marched in the women’s march in Denver, my wife Kristen marched in DC, and I marched in Pittsburgh.

So what does it mean for Paul to say he wants all the Corinthian Christians to be in agreement? Does he want Stepford Christians, who all smile politely and agree with each other on literally everything? Granted, that would be kinda nice, but the entire history of the church is opposite of that.

So is Paul being unrealistic here? Or is there something more going on? Continue reading

Herod Wishes You a Merry Christmas

Our scripture this morning comes from Matthew chapter 2, verses, 13-23.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,

“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The word of the Lord.

The war on Christmas is apparently a thing. Herod started it. Seriously, how paranoid do you have to be to commit infanticide “just in case.”

From what I understand, the war on Christmas got revived in recent years. There have been attacks on all fronts. Two years ago, it got so bad that Christian actor Kirk Cameron, best known for his role in Growing Pains and a whole slew of overly long sermons badly disguised as movies, produced an abomination called Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. It has 1.5 out of 10 stars on the Internet Movie Database, where it currently ranks at #2 on their list of the top 100 worst films of all time. It used to be #1, but apparently 2015’s Code Name: K.O.Z. was really, really bad. Anyway, I watched Saving Christmas so you don’t have to. I took that bullet for you. You’re welcome.

Kirk Cameron was worried because some Christians didn’t like Santa Claus, or thought candy canes, Christmas trees, and presents weren’t 100% all about Jesus, so he wasted an hour of my life trying to explain how setting up a pine tree in your house is definitely about Jesus because there were trees in Eden and Jesus died on a cross, which some Bible translations call… wait for it… a tree. Also, there’s a tree in the new Jerusalem in Revelation, so of course Christmas trees are all about Jesus.

That’s not a joke, he was serious.

Delighted that he had saved Christmas, Kirk Cameron engaged in a 10-minute dance party that I can never un-see.

During the movie, though, a few minor characters referenced the slightly-better-known “war on Christmas.” Apparently, in an attempt to be inclusive and recognize that (gasp!) not everyone is a Christian and celebrates Christmas, some stores started telling their employees to say “Happy Holidays,” and that apparently constituted a war. If you believe some of the recent commentary, Christmas is now winning the war on it, but I’m not so sure that’s the right war, or that Christmas is winning the right one.

That war on Christmas, too, appears to be failing. On December 15, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly declared that the “War on Christmas” was over and pronounced Christmas the winner because many stores that had stopped using the word “Christmas” re-introduced it.

Five days before Christmas day, my grandmother posted a video with the caption “People are losing their minds over Trump’s lack of political correctness saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘God Bless You.'”

I commented with a link to a video on Slate.com, a compilation of a bunch of times President Obama has also said “Merry Christmas,” without causing people to “lose their minds.”

But as Kristen and I were driving home from celebrating Christmas with her family, I kept hearing people in my NPR podcasts say “Happy Holidays” and I got to thinking: What does it mean for people to wish us a Merry Christmas? What does it mean for a president or president-elect of the United States, or a department store employee, to wish us a merry Christmas? Continue reading

The Peaceable Kingdom is Still Coming

I had the privilege of preaching this sermon on December 4, 2016, at Waverly Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our scripture reading comes from Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

The word of the Lord.

The world described in Isaiah 11 is not our world. I want to live in this world, but this is not our world. This is literally a counter-vision of our world. If you doubt that, go back on Facebook for thirty seconds. After the service. Or turn on Fox News, or CNN, or open the Post-Gazette.

This is not the world we live in. We live in a world of snap judgments, of angry Facebook reactions and shares of stories that may not even be true just because they make us angry. We are so quick to judge by what our eyes see and what our ears hear.

Our politicans judge the rich with unrighteousness and decide with firm in-equity against the meek of the earth. Our hearts are inundated with news of the innocent being killed as the breath of their mouths are stolen by those in authority. Finding a righteous and faithful politician isn’t unlike unicorn hunting. And this business about predators and prey living in harmony sounds like something out of Zootopia. Everyone thinks vegetarian lions and bears are a good idea… except the lions and bears.

They will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain for sure, but just as surely, this world is not God’s holy mountain, and God’s holy mountain is not to be found on earth, and earth is painfully not filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Earth is filled with the knowledge of the tragic ways of the world. It is filled with politicians who compromise what they know will do the most good for the most people because they know congress won’t approve it, or their constituents will vote them out at the next election. It is filled with people who vote for the less-evil candidate because the good candidate cannot possibly win. We know our clothing and electronics and chocolate are made by unpaid or underpaid workers, but this is the way the world works.

The sad knowledge of the world is that drones and bombs and missiles and assault rifles are the only way to make peace. Most people I know of who buy guns buy them for self-defense, because it is painfully clear that the world imagined in Isaiah 11 is not the world we live in, and because earth is filled with the knowledge of the tragic ways of the world, and not filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the seas.

So what do we do with Isaiah 11? What good is it? Is it just a beautiful fantasy that doesn’t connect at all with the world we live in today? Is “peace,” the theme of this second Sunday of Advent, just a tragic joke? Are we who live in hope of this coming peaceable kingdom doomed to the fate of the magazine “The Christian Century,” so named because they thought the 1900s were going to be the time when people finally got it right and lived in Christian charity, only to find the 20th century the setting for the first world war, and the second one, and the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, and countless others.

Calling the 20th century “The Christian Century” was more than a little optimistic. Is hope the same as optimism, a “glass-half-full” state of mind? No! For Isaiah, the glass is not half-full. Isaiah’s glass is all but completely empty, and what’s left of the contents is on fire. He just finished prophesying that the kingdom of Assyria is going to come and crush his country. Isaiah’s hope for peace is not a different way of thinking about reality. It doesn’t “depend how you look at it;” from all angles, the situation is objectively terrible.

All angles, that is, except one: the angle of the eye of faith. For Isaiah, as surely as the King of Assyria is coming to destroy Israel, the King of Assyria will himself be destroyed. Isaiah knows that the King of Assyria’s coming violence has an expiration date – not because of term limits, but because of divine limits.

Isaiah knew the future because Isaiah knew his history. Isaiah was steeped in the Exodus, because it was part of the Passover celebration his people commemorated every. single. year. Egypt held Israel captive, God broke their power. And we have access to even more history than he did.

We know Assyria defeated the northern kingdom and attacked the very gates of Jerusalem… but Assyria fell.

Babylon ultimately did haul Israel off into captivity, but Babylon fell.

Babylon was defeated by Persia, which continued to rule over the people of God, but Persia fell.

Persia was defeated by Greece, which then took over Israel, but Greece fell – first to the Maccabees, and then to Rome.

Rome executed Jesus, but Jesus was resurrected.

Rome persecuted the early church, and tried to destroy it, but Rome fell.

And in the twentieth century, as surely as the Third Reich built concentration camps and killed the innocent, the Third Reich fell.

The Soviet Union fell.

The Berlin wall fell.

Proverbs 29:16 says,

When the wicked are in authority, transgression increases,
    but the righteous will look upon their downfall.

Psalm 37 reminds us that the day of the wicked is coming, and it will not be long.

The people of God can take heart from the words of Isaiah 11, because Isaiah 11 is the next episode of the story of this world.

When I was younger, I used to read the Hardy Boys Mystery Series. Sometimes, those stories got just a little too scary for me to handle. Our eternally-young heroes Frank and Joe get captured, and the bad guys tie them up and throw them into a van and set the van to drive off a cliff into the ocean. When you’re eleven years old, that’s pretty scary. I would always pull myself out of the story for a minute and remember: Frank and Joe have to survive, because there’s another story after this one, and they’re in it. Then I returned to the story with courage.

That’s what Isaiah 11 is about. Isaiah 11 is the sequel. No matter how much trouble our world is in, as Christians, we can pull ourselves out of the story for a minute and remember; we can look with hope at Isaiah 11 and say, “I know the bad guys have our world tied up and thrown in a van that’s set to drive off a cliff into the ocean, but THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM IS STILL COMING!

And from where Isaiah sits, all the bad guys and rope and vans and cliffs and oceans in the universe cannot do a thing to stop it. They can slow it down, but it. is. still. coming.

But right now, we live in the middle of the story. We live between the world restored, and the world tied up and thrown in a van set to drive off a cliff into the ocean. Which is to say, we live in advent. We live in waiting to see how we get from here to there.

Now, just as surely as Frank and Joe have to pull off some clever tricks or get rescued by their friend Chet and the police, we still have our part to play, but while we’re doing it, we can remember: there’s another story that’s coming after the one we’re in now. And in that story,

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

They will not hurt or destroy
on all God’s holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

That is the sequel.

Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom

==Benediction==

Go out into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Be patiently impatient.

And when you see our world
tied up in a van
that’s about to drive off a cliff
into the ocean,
may God remind you
that this story has a sequel,
and if the Bible is to be believed at all,
you’re in it.

Now may the love of God,
the Light of Christ,
and the power and communion of the Holy Spirit
be with us all.
Go in peace.

Amen.