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A Vision of God’s Leaders

david-and-samuel_edited-2.jpg1 Samuel 16:1-13

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘. . .the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Out there on the edge of the little town of Bethlehem, you can see a young king. He does not look like a king? Well, why should he? His father’s family “belongs to the smallest clan of [Judah], the smallest tribe of Israel. [1] This boy who tends a flock of scrubby sheep in the desert sun is Jesse’s eighth son. The baby of the family. A nobody. Even if his family had wealth or power—which they do not—he will never get any of it. Eliab, the oldest, will inherit everything. David is the last to be served dinner. He gets all the hand-me-downs. He gets the dirty jobs no one else wants. So on the day an important prophet shows up, young David is out in the fields, tending sheep.

The prophet Samuel is “part of [King] Saul’s entourage.”[2] So when Samuel appears at the city gates, the children scatter to spread the news. The city elders don their best robes and with fear and trembling, they approach Samuel. “Villagers have learned long ago that the central government only comes to the village to seize something—people, money, produce, or votes. Agents of the government rarely come to give, but to take. The villagers assume Samuel represents [King] Saul,”[3] so the city elders wonder if Samuel has come to make trouble. They ask him nervously if he comes in peace.

God has sent Samuel to anoint a new king out of Jesse’s house. This is dangerous business. King Saul is alive and well on Israel’s throne. And Saul has a violent temper. If King Saul learns that his trusted prophet has anointed the king’s replacement—someone other than his own son Jonathan—Samuel will lose his head. However, God apparently rues the day Saul became king. So God commands Samuel, “Go and find me a new king.” Despite his fears, the prophet obeys God, as he has always done, and he ends up in this little town of Bethlehem, at the home of an old shepherd and his eight sons. The smallest clan of the smallest tribe of Israel. A bunch of nobodies.

Samuel calls Jesse and his boys together to make a sacrifice to God. Then God and Samuel proceed to have this little side conversation. They’re like judges at a beauty pageant, whispering between themselves about each contestant. So what do you think about this one? How about that one? Ah, here’s the oldest, Eliab. He’s tall and good-looking. And Eliab is set to inherit his father’s property and wives. No? Well, here’s Abinadab, the next son. He’s strong. Looks like a good sort. No, not him either? Well, maybe Shammah, the third son. No? And so it goes, this quiet tête-à-tête between God and Samuel, until all seven of Jesse’s boys have paraded by Samuel. God says that one of the mistakes made with Saul was that Saul was tall, handsome and charming. Looked like a good leader. Talked like a good leader. But Saul was not a good leader. God is not making that mistake again. Forget the outside package, God says.  This time, we need to pay attention to what is in a leader’s heart. God wants a leader who will be loyal to God. One who will obey God’s commandments. One who will lead God’s people with courage, faithfulness and vision. God does not want another leader whose head gets turned by power, ego, and a cabinet that sits around the throne room, bleating like a flock of dumb sheep. Yet God has said no to all seven of Jesse’s sons. Samuel starts to wonder if this mission has been in vain.

shepherd.jpgThen, almost as an afterthought, Jesse mentions that there is one more son. He’s out in the fields tending the sheep. Well, someone has to do that job, and he is the baby of the family, after all. So somebody goes to get the young shepherd. When he arrives, the irony is that in the case of Jesse’s youngest, seeing is both what appears to be and what really is. As David approaches, the old prophet sees a handsome young shepherd with beautiful eyes and ruddy cheeks. What his brothers see is the baby of the family, dressed in shabby hand-me-downs and smelling like the sheep he has been tending. What does God see? God sees a leader. God sees David, King of Israel. As young David approaches Samuel, God commands, “Get up. Anoint him, for this is the one.” The old prophet does not understand God’s choice, but he trusts God. So he gets up, picks up his horn of oil, and anoints David right there in front of God, Jesse, and seven older brothers who must be scratching their heads, wondering what is going on.

Yet God is God, and God has chosen. This is the God who scatters the proud and lifts up the humble. This is the God who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. This is a God who causes the last to be first. This is a God who chooses leaders for what is in their heart of hearts, not for what is on their public faces.

What about us—you and me? Do we have God’s keen vision for leaders? When we think about good leaders, do their qualities include an upscale address and designer suits? Is a good leader one with polished rhetorical skills who promises to be everything to everybody? Is a good leader one who has all the answers for all the questions anyone may ever have about anything? Perhaps it is time for us to stop using our own clouded human vision about leadership. Time for us to ask for the eyes and ears of God when it comes to choosing leaders. For when we allow God the space and time to help us choose leaders—whether they are leaders of government, or leaders of the Church—God could make different choices than we would make.

absalom-jones.jpgFor example, would we have seen a courageous leader in Abraham Lincoln when he was just a skinny young lawyer in a backwoods Illinois town? Would we have seen a spiritual leader in Absalom Jones even before he became the first black priest in the Episcopal Church? Would we have seen a visionary leader in Nelson Mandela as he sat in a prison cell in South Africa? And five years ago, how many Episcopalians saw—really saw—a calm, strong leader in Katharine Jefferts-Schori, a quiet, unassuming bishop who flew her own plane all over the Diocese of Nevada to be shepherd to her people?

bpkatharine_edited-1.jpgThank God that God does not choose leaders the way you and I would. Thank God that God does not care about how good-looking we are—or not, what kinds of clothes we wear, our position in political or ecclesiastical hierarchies, or whether we are mainstream or marginal people. Throughout history, God has chosen leaders whose inner strength and power have defined their bearing, their authority, their leadership. People who know they are leaders act like leaders. As time goes on, that sense of who they are in God defines the strength and integrity of their prayers, their politics, their power. This inner authority can even transform their very faces. Yet the irony is that in true leaders, leadership qualities come from inside, as they claim who they are in God’s eyes. True leadership has nothing to do with superficial qualities.

God gives you and me the same responsibility today that God gave the prophet Samuel thousands of years ago. God calls us to identify good, strong and visionary leaders for God’s people, then to nurture and to support those leaders. You can bet that in St. Philips parish, more than one Sunday School teacher is being nurtured. More than one Camp St. Philip’s director is being shaped. More than one community leader is being formed. More than one church musician is already singing in a school chorus or playing in a band or orchestra. More than one priest is being inspired for God’s service. They may not look like leaders right now, but they are. God has already looked deep into their hearts. God knows how much this community, the world, this parish, and the Anglican Communion needs God’s leaders. Do not discount them just because they are not good-looking or popular or even well-behaved. Do not discount them because they are only acolytes or bell-ringers or youth choir members. Most especially, do not discount them just because they sit at your dinner table.

My friends, we are to raise up God’s leaders. God has already chosen many of them. Our job now is to begin to see them through God’s eyes rather than our own. And when we see them, God calls us to follow them. If we do that, the people of God will bring the realm of God and the Shalom of God to earth, just as it is in heaven. Amen.

[1]Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year A, (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International), 169.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV-Year A, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 210.
[3] Ibid., 210-211.

© Text written by the Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Picture of Samuel anointing David from http://kids.christiansunite.com/images/Bible_Stories/039.jpg
Photo of shepherd from http://carpefactum.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/shepherd.jpg
Picture of Absalom Jones from http://www.explorepahistory.com/images/ExplorePAHistory-a0a9z4-a_349.jpg
Picture of PB Katharine Jefferts-Schori from www.media.collegepublisher.com

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