“Second Chance, But Not Second-Rate”
A Sermon on 1st Samuel 15 & 16 (selections) for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached June 14, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
Have you ever pondered what might happen if we chose our elected officials based solely on looks? You know, simply had a procession of the various candidates—like Jesse’s sons passing by Samuel in today’s story—and made a choice simply on their appearance?
Now, the most cynical among us might say it’s worth a shot… because, after all, we hardly could end up much worse off than we already are(!). But in all seriousness, I don’t imagine many of us think we should pick politicians through a pretty parade.
And yet, during the last presidential election cycle, former Washington Post reporter and editor Libby Copeland could write that “Looks do indeed matter.” “But they don’t matter, in exactly the way we thought,” she added; “it’s not attractiveness alone that counts, but a cluster of traits people believe we can read into faces.” Perhaps we have known this for a while. Certainly, at least, since the first televised presidential debate, back in 1960. There, TV viewers were presented with a stark contrast between a sweating, pale, distracted-and-exhausted, recovering-from-the-flu Richard Nixon and a bronzed, energetic, earnest-looking John F. Kennedy. But more recently, too: A 2005 study by a Princeton psychologist shows that voters are drawn to faces that suggest competence; they can even identify specific facial features that make someone look “competent”. A 2007 British study found that people preferred different kinds of facial features depending on the political situation—war-time voters, for example, go for one “look” whereas peace-time voters tend to prefer a different one
Whatever the precise details, our decisions do seem to be affected, in some way or another, by appearances.
Where we pick up the story in today’s scripture reading, a man named Saul reigns over Israel as king. Those of you who were here last week will remember (hopefully) our stop earlier in the story, when the people demand from Samuel that he appoint a king. And eventually, even with his misgivings and his warnings to the people, he does. He appoints Saul, the man whom God had chosen. And really, the only “qualifications” for office Saul has—or at least the only ones the story tells us about—are that he’s son of a wealthy man, he stood “head and shoulders” above everyone else, and that “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he.” In other words, he’s a rich, tall, pretty-boy king.
In due course, things don’t work out so well. It’s not just that that the warning we heard give in last week’s part of the tale comes true—that the king commandeers sons and daughters, wealth and property. No, the more important thing is that Saul can’t seem to obey the clear command of God. That’s where we picked up with the story this morning.
Saul had been commanded to go and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites. Now, I don’t have any good answers about why God would supposedly order such a thing. Whatever we make of such a command—whether it seems palatable to us today or not, even if we might question whether we believe God would truly give such a command—in any event, clearly the point here was that Saul and his commanders were not supposed to siphon off the best of the loot to bring back home for themselves. And yet, that’s what happened.
Saul’s so proud of himself, too, tooting his own horn when he meets up with Samuel. And I love Samuel’s reply: “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?” You think you’re such hot stuff, Saul, but little Miss Lamb Chop standing there right beside you clearly says otherwise. Samuel, as we heard, then declares to Saul that he’s been rejected from being king, and we’re even told that “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.”
We don’t normally think of God having regrets, do we? Regardless of whether you tend to relate to God as distant, unknowable mystery, or a close and intimate friend, powerful and stern autocrat, or gentle and loving presence, I suspect that God being regretful isn’t much a part of the experience.
But this moment in the story of Samuel and Israel’s early kings, it is not the first time the scriptures say God was sorry about something. Way back in Genesis—in the primordial stories that don’t so much tell history and fact as they do truth and meaning—there’s a moment we’re told, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This is, you might remember, how the Noah story begins, before the ark and the animals two-by-two and the flood for forty days. God was regretful because God “saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” In this regret—perhaps even disgust—with humanity, God declares, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created … for I am sorry that I have made them.”
For some reason, I always find this mention of God’s grief and regret a bit surprising in the Noah story. Are some of us surprised by a God who is sorry and regretful, deciding it’s all been a mistake, because we ourselves don’t like to admit our mistakes?
There’s a story told of President John F. Kennedy at a summit meeting with the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, where in a moment of frustration, JFK asks Khrushchev, “Don’t you ever admit a mistake?” “Yes,” was Khrushchev’s reply; “at the 20th Party Congress, I admitted all of Stalin’s mistakes.” Indeed, so much easier to talk about someone else’s mistakes than our own, is it not?
I don’t know what it means, in the end, to worship a regretful God, or perhaps I should say I am still figuring that out… and probably will be for the rest of my journey. But I’m ok with that. I don’t need to have figured everything out about God. In fact, it’s probably better if I don’t, since a god I’ve got all figured out probably isn’t the One True and Living God anyway.
Back in that Noah-and-the-ark story from Genesis, God may have sorry to have made humankind, at least for a moment. But in the end, God doesn’t end up blotting out all of humanity, right? I mean, after all, if God had, how would we be able to teach children the ‘Arky-Arky’ song? No, instead, right after we hear that God wants to get rid of everything and everybody, almost in passing the scripture tells us “But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” And through Noah, God makes for a new way when it seemed there was no way.
When we hear in today’s scripture reading that God was “sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel,” perhaps we are supposed to remember back to where we heard such a thing before, back to that Noah story. And then, perhaps we’re supposed to start wondering how—here too with Saul and Samuel—God will make a way when it seems there is no way. Who will be the one who finds favor in God’s sight? What will be the ark of salvation that will bear the people into a new future?
That, of course, my friends, is what God is always up to: new beginnings out of old endings. A new way out of what seemed like “no way”. New life out of stone-cold death. Even when we wonder if God should have chosen pretty-boy Saul in the first place, already young David is waiting in the wings. Even when we wonder how Jesus could have been subjected to something as dark and deathly as the cross, still Easter morning awaits on the other side of that tomb.
So, my friends, where will you look for God creating a second chance that is anything but second-rate? Where will you watch for the true power of God working in spite of who appears to be in authority—like David anointed king and filled with the Spirit’s power, even though Saul was still on the throne? Where will you be open to God’s leading you beyond your expectations into blessing and hope?
And most importantly, how will you open yourself to God choosing you, despite any regrettable moments of the past, despite any dismal things that seem to rule your days, despite any doubt that says you’re not good enough or strong enough or rich enough or smart enough or powerful enough…?
After all, “the Lord looks on the heart”… and it’s not just our hearts. In embracing you and me, and all of us, God looks on God’s own heart, the heart that made room for us to be created simply to be God’s joy, the heart that in Jesus loved us above all, even to the end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Libby Copeland, “How Much Do Looks Matter in Presidential Politics?”, Slate.com, 25 January 2012, accessed 13 June 2015 at http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/01/mitt_romney_vs_newt_gingrich_how_much_do_looks_matter_in_presidential_politics_.html
 Copeland, ibid. Study available (as of 13 June 2015) at http://tlab.princeton.edu/publication_files/Todorov_Science2005.pdf.
 Copeland, ibid. Study available (as of 13 June 2015) at http://www.scraigroberts.com/uploads/1/5/0/4/15042548/2007_ehb_politicians.pdf
 Genesis 6:6.
 Genesis 6:5.
 Genesis 6:7.
 Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard, eds., Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, 1st rev. ed. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000), s.v. “Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeyevich”, #3.
 Genesis 6:8.