Common Core

March 26, 2017

Series: April 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Tags: scripture reading & sermon begin at 34:18

Common Core

Someone who has taken it upon himself to read the Bible in its entirety upon reaching a particularly challenging passage reached out to me and said, “This is strange.” 

My theologically trained response was, “Yes, strange.” It’s hard to deny.  Did you know there are giants in the Bible, half God half human?  They’re called the Nephilim and they’re in Genesis 6.  There’s a story of a woman named Jael, who feigns hospitality in order to trap an enemy commander and then when he’s sleeping she drives a tent peg through his head, Judges 4.  Then, there’s 2 Kings 2 in which the prophet Elisha is performing miracles only to have a bunch of kids come by and make fun of him (that is the moment you know you’re old).  They literally say to him, “Go away baldy!”  Well, they picked the wrong prophet with male pattern baldness to mock because Elisha curses them after which, “two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.”

Why do we return this book, collection of books, time and again?  It’s a worthwhile question to ask considering its antiquity and apparently closed status.  I was asked a form of this very question when part of a panel discussion for the Marin Interfaith Council last year.  The questioner was a pagan woman.  As someone who came from a non-textual tradition, she wanted to know what it meant to have a shared sacred writing, such as the Bible or the Quran.  I spoke about how I thought for many Christians I’ve encountered the place of the Bible was a more open question than one might assume.  People don’t swallow literal interpretation or heavy-handed dogma; they like to think for themselves.  I posited that for many the Bible is not an automatic referent or authority, and that increasingly experience was occupying a central place in the Christian’s sense of the divine and how to navigate the world. 

Over time, the question about the Bible stayed with me and I realized I had given only half an answer, and I spent a fair bit of time composing the other half, which I had the chance to give several months later.  Among other things, an agreed upon sacred text, with all its challenges, holds the community and its participants accountable.  Even if we resist simplistic interpretations, the text gives us ground to look at troubling things in the world and say to one another, “This is not right!” or, “Here is what love can look like.”  It gives us a common set of teachers to whom to return for guidance on the human condition and how to navigate it in light of the revealed wisdom of God.  It is a glimpse of God that we see in the tangible form of Jesus.

Nevertheless, I once raised the question of a closed canon, the notion that the Bible’s contents are set, with a colleague.  In response, he quoted New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson saying, “We can either have an open canon with closed interpretation or we can have a closed canon with open interpretation.”  In other words, without a canon we tend to create our own, which tends to be far narrower (or so infinite it amounts to nothing).  Or, or we can take a finite set of documents and engage them expansively, even playfully, leading, ironically, to a far broader perspective, all because we are continually drawn back, drawn back to a starting place – a set of stories, some interpreted history, some poems, some wisdom teachings, some letters, and some dreams.  Together these call us back home, they pull on us spiritually, but also socially, economically, even politically—we like to excise that one, but the gospel speaks to our whole life—all of us gets pulled back if not always to an easy answer, than at least to some common questions we have been asking since every book in this divine collection of books has been written:  Who is my neighbor?  What does God want from us and for us?  How shall we live together in the midst of difference?

The book of 1 Samuel is no exception.  The context for today’s story is of a prophet who has been desperately trying to hold the people accountable as they stray from God’s will.  As the book opens, the people are obsessed with having a king rule over them, and Samuel warns them:

‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day’” (1 Sam 8:11-18)

When today’s portion of the story picks up, the people are onto the selection process for a successor to king Saul, whose tenure, not surprisingly, did not go well.  Samuel goes to Jesse and asks him to bring out his sons so that he might see who is fitting.  Seven sons pass by in this audition procession, but none of them suffice, until an eighth son, not even seen as worthy to compete is brought forward, eight being a special number, the number of completion plus one (creation plus one, the same number used for circumcision).  That one is David, about whom more is written than any other figure in the Older Testament. 

The story is indeed prophetic, challenging cultural standards, ignoring typical attributes of beauty or strength.  “The LORD,” it says, instructed Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature,” regarding an earlier more likely candidate (1 Sam. 16:7).  God “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v. 7).  As one commentator puts it, “The election of David is now presented as an exercise in right ‘seeing.’”[1]  That’s a familiar lesson enough for many of us, that we should not judge by appearances, instead by character.  The commentator reminds us that “God ‘sees’ possibilities when others do not” and points to Paul’s New Testament reminder that God choose unlikely characters to challenge what the world values.[2]  Indeed, a far-reaching theme of the tradition is the literally challenging relationship between God’s way and the world’s.  In his famous Christ & Culture, H. Richard Nieburh’s advocates for an ethic that recognizes that Christ doesn’t ultimately stand against culture or accommodate it, or stand above it, or even sit in paradox with it.  Ultimately, Christ transforms culture.  Niebuhr calls for a “conversion of existent society…a radical revolution.”[3]

This radical change of culture seems to be happening in our story when the unlikely King David is chosen, the standards have been changed, but here’s where our story gets strange.  When David appears, he too is described in terms of physical beauty, “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (v. 12).  After all that.  After an “exercise of right seeing,” we’re back to appearances?  What’s going on?

I don’t know.  Knowing is such a strong term, but I wonder.  I wonder if there is an understanding of God’s comment about looking at the heart beyond simply not “judging a book by its cover.”  I wonder if there’s a conversion of the entire construct of judging, of meritocracy, of separation.  What if what separated David from the other brothers was not about what separated him at all?  What if it wasn’t that David’s heart made him different from everyone else, it’s that having a heart (without other extraordinary characteristics) makes David like everyone else?  This may sound heretical, questioning the reason for David’s chosenness, but remember, “closed canon, open interpretation.” 

Before you dismiss this notion, consider this great king, about whom more is written than any other figure in the Older Testament, about whom Psalms are attributed.  This beloved one of God broke every one of the 10 Commandments, all of them.  If David was chosen because his heart was more pure, I’d love to know what kind of fun, I mean trouble, his brothers go into.  No, what if God choosing to look at the heart is God’s way of choosing to look first at that which everyone everyone has.  This strange story of distinction might at its heart be about commonality, our common core.

 When our starting point is our common core, when looking at people means recognizing they have at the center of them beating a heart that is an echo of the pulse that began the universe, our interactions change.  I saw a fascinating interview with Glenn Beck this week.  I’m not sure Glenn Beck has ever figured into one of my sermon illustrations before.  If you’ve followed him over the last couple of years, however, you will have observed quite a transformation, some might say a conversion, not entirely politically, but certainly tonally, and I would say theologically.  He was on with Tavis Smiley from PBS and talking about the world he played a part in creating, one in which we so demonize one another, has so forgotten the fundamental truth that we are neighbors.  I so love that image, that of being neighbors, because it does not deny or diminish difference—that’s a comfort move by the powerful to minimize the legitimate different experience of the disempowered.  No, neighborliness recognizes distinction and places it in a context of shared fate and what is ultimately a common project. 

This collection of books feels strange because it is strange when compared to a world that doesn’t always recognize when it has wandered too far from home.  This lent, let us let it pull us back.  Amen.


[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 2. p. 1097.

[2] Ibid, 1099.

[3] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ & Culture (San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 2001) p., liv.