By the Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple
Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it is hard to see what God is up to. If our ways are not God’s ways, what we see in a moment of joy, a moment of disappointment, a moment of terror, a moment of uncertainty, may not be what God sees.
When the prophet Samuel shows up in Bethlehem, the residents see the King’s man. And if the King’s right hand man is in town, it is more than likely bad news. Taxes or conscription may follow. The prophet must be seeking something or plans to take something.
Jesse, the father of seven hale and hearty sons as well as a prominent local businessman, is also worried. It is just so hard to see what’s going on. Though Samuel is ostensibly in the neighborhood to offer sacrifices at this auspicious shrine, yet he asks to see each of Jesse’s sons. Each son is brought to the prophet for some kind of discernment process. After six sons are brought before the prophet, Jesse remembers the youngest boy off doing the lowliest work: watching the sheep. It is almost an afterthought.
But Samuel is actually on an undercover operation. He comes to Bethal at God’s behest, not King Saul’s. He is trying to scout for a new king without the current king, Saul, finding out. This puts Samuel in a precarious position.
He is a prophet of God but he is also the King’s man. God has decided King Saul is not up to the job. Saul – though loved by God and Samuel – has lost God’s confidence. King Saul has become lost in the inscrutable and cruel world of mental illness, consumed with jealously and paranoia.
This situation is a continuation of Israel’s leadership crisis. Remember, Saul was Israel’s first king. The people has become unhappy with the former system of Judges, and begged the Lord God for a king so that they could be like other nations. Samuel had warned the people about the dangers of kingship. The devolution of Saul as the first king seems proof of the adage to be careful what you pray for.
Samuel grieves Saul’s devolution. He is also rightly nervous about any action on his part that could be seen as undermining the authority of the current king. Samuel obeys God’s instructions to move by faith into the future and go to Bethlehem. Yet, even Samuel has a hard time seeing what God is up to. Samuel looks upon the exterior qualities of each of the young men brought before him. It is God who sees in young shepherd the hidden potential and the unrivaled accomplishments of a future king.
At all times and especially in the most distressing times, when whose who have been given earthly responsibilities don’t appear to quite have a handle of the presenting situation, at all times, let’s remember: God is Good. God is Good? [All the time] All the time? [God is Good.] Samuel may not be clear about what God is up to; but Samuel is clear about whom he serves.
As is always the case, God is working in ways beyond our human comprehension. Samuel asks to “see” each brother. God helps Samuel see below the surface and begin to trust that God is up to something redemptive, liberating, life-giving. And even when the people of God are prevented from seeing one another in person, our God, though the power of worship (and the wonders of technology) is giving us the knowledge that we can still love one another, serve one another, connect with one another in marvelous ways.
For people of faith, believing is not so much knowing, as it is trusting. There is a lot we don’t know about the ultimate impacts of the Covid 19 virus. For those who trust in God, even when we can’t see what’s happening, even when we feel like we are flying blind, we put our trust in the LORD. And we pay attention to the wisest health officials we find trustworthy.
Even in Lent we still have Easter knowledge that the ultimate victory is won. Even when the winds blow, the waters rise, our eyes are watching God, as author Zora Neal Hurston puts it. Even when a deadly pestilence is spreading across the lands, we will take refuge under God’s almighty wings as Psalm 19 put it.
In first century of the common era, the time of Jesus, Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire. The Jews had another king behaving badly. Herod Antipas was a front man for Caesar and despised by ordinary Jews for his debauchery. The Sadducees were running the religious show in an unholy alliance with the Roman proconsul. The Pharisees, meanwhile, often at odds with the chief priest of the temple, had their own power elite as well as their own agenda.
The power structure of civil and religious elites ascribed their loyalties in ways that protected and expanded their own power. So, naturally, any threat to their power could be described as an enemy. Into this literal palace and temple intrigue enters a prophet rumored to be a new king of the Jews, albeit a highly unlikely candidate. This rabbi from Galilee was rumored to be the one anointed by God to set God’s people free. Just as the prophet Samuel had anointed young David to replace the Saul, this Jesus of Nazareth was perhaps the anointed one, the Son of David predicted to cast out the old and bring forth a renewed covenant with God.
Of course, such a thing presented a great threat to the existing order of things.
Jesus was both seen AND unrecognized by the powerful. Jesus, like the young shepherd boy David, would prove have the necessary strength to slay the giant, though in Jesus’s case it will be the giants of sin and death. Jesus, the itinerant rabbi with powers to heal, is far more that what he appears to be. While his closest followers know he has no military might, his adversaries perhaps understand better than his own disciples that Jesus is an existential threat to the status quo of their power.
And as is typical in Biblical narratives, the mighty will fall and the lowly will be lifted up. Real power is not as it appears to be in the so-called real world. The real presence and power of God will often present itself in the most unexpected of times and ways.
In the gospel lesson, we see this same reversal when Jesus heals the man born blind. Forget social distancing: this man has lived his whole life in the shadows of social shunning!
The Pharisees think the blind man is a sinner because he was born blind. They think Jesus is a sinner because he has healed on the Sabbath. Yet it is the Pharisees who can’t see the forest for the trees. They are blind to God’s anointed one, the Messiah, because they are so caught up in seeing the world in a way that protects their status, their privilege and their power.
It is rich irony that the man who was blind and NOW sees, is the one who sees what others can’t see. He is the one who has the courage to say “I was blind but now I see.”
The man doesn’t just gain sight. He gains insight. He gains clarity. Not only does he see Jesus for who Jesus is, he sees himself differently. He knows that he is free from his “sin.” He is a new creation. He is free. But a costly freedom, right?
Because disciples of Jesus know that it is both amazing and dangerous to be a friend of Jesus. Healed and set free, the man dares to give his testimony to the power and authority of Jesus to change his life, and is therefore cast out of his previous community.
After he is thrown out, when he is exiled from the way of the world, the world’s way of knowing, Jesus reappears. In earthly terms, the last continue to look like they are still coming in last. But the man formerly blind, the new man understands he belongs in the beloved community of Jesus, forgiven, loved and freed.
When we are baptized into the Body of Christ we die to the old ways of seeing and rise as part of a new creation with a new way of seeing the word. Even as liberating as that is, like the man healed by Jesus, we also remain part of this world, living in a kind of exile.
That is why, at such times as these, when we find ourselves cut off from the usual forms being in community, it is essential to remember that nothing, nothing separates us from the love of God. Neither heights, nor depths, nor powers, nor principalities, nor covid-19 separates us from the love of God.
There is no question that the physical distancing we must observe is causing pain, grief and even anxiety. We have family and neighbors, grandchildren and elderly parents that we long to embrace. Funerals, weddings, baptisms we long to attend.
So it is important to remember we are always joined to one another through the mystical the Body of Christ and therefore nothing can prevent us from remaining connected to one another through the grace of God. Amazing grace! Contagious grace. Infectious grace. And power of such grace gives us that peace that passes all understanding.
These are strange days. I suspect more difficult days are ahead. A dear friend who is also a doctor in a hospital says he feels like he is watching the tide be sucked out just before the tsunami arrives. It is likely things will get worse before they begin to get better.
I don’t say this to cause any more fear. Just to urge you to keep vigilant about physical distancing. Keep focused on exploring new ways, highly social ways, perhaps social media ways, to stay connected to your neighbors. My ninety-year-old mother who lives in Dallas, Texas had her first every Zoom meeting with some of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchild yesterday. What wondrous love (and technology) is this!
We have a king. “The King of Love my shepherd is. I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever,” says the hymn’s paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm. The Good Shepherd shows us the path and reveals a place of safety and comfort =even in the most dangerous valleys. The question is, are we ready, willing, and able to be to follow this voice, to trust in God’s amazing, contagious and healing grace? Seeing is not just believing. Seeing is saying “yes, we will follow you, through the most dangerous valleys, knowing we will arrive at the brightest of days.” Amen.