Baring It All

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March 30, 2014

Baring It All

Passage: 1 Samuel 16:1-10

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

The Bible is filled with a breadth of authors, genres and stories.  It is a mini library of books to satisfy those craving poetry, mysteries, wisdom literature, collections of letters and lots and lots of history.

Our lectionary reading for today is from the first of a 2-part series of the early history of the Israelite people becoming a nation.  Moses had led them out of slavery and settled in the Promised Land where the people were led by judges – more like tribal leaders.  God commanded them to serve only God and not look for a king or single leader.  But the Promised Land was not an Eden, quite the opposite.  Hostile forces surrounded them.  The Israelites cried out for a leader, someone to unite them, someone to be their leader.

The chief priest and prophet of the time, Samuel, was told by God to anoint a king and did so under God’s guidance – King Saul.  In one of the oddest stories of the Bible, Saul becomes king – a story that includes runaway donkeys and a special, sacred cooked thigh bone, and Saul hiding amidst the luggage. Who needs Game of Thrones when you have the Old Testament?

Saul was chosen but proves he is not capable of being a leader.  He may look the part, but his heart is not aligned with God’s call.

So God decided to try again – God is going to take a second chance. The text begins this week with God talking Samuel into trying again. Stop mourning Saul. Let’s move on. Let’s cut our losses. Let’s go find a leader who does have the intestinal fortitude, the heart of a hero.

Listen for God’s word as I read from 1st Samuel 16:1-10

“THE OLD NAVY-BLUE SPORT JACKET comes off first, then the dress shoes, except that now there is not the famous sweater or the famous sneakers to replace them, and so after the shoes he’s on to the dark socks, peeling them off and showing the blanched skin of his narrow feet”…The narrative continues of a man disrobing and I’ll cut out the minute details to get to the final phrase of the paragraph…. “Mister Rogers has no clothes on.”

You may remember growing up with Mister Rogers on TV. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood first aired in 1968, teaching kids for several generations until the last episode in 2001.  The article continues:

Nearly every morning of his life, Mister Rogers has gone swimming, and now, here he is, standing in a locker room, seventy years old and as white as the Easter Bunny, rimed with frost wherever he has hair, gnawed pink in the spots where his dry skin has gone to flaking, slightly wattled at the neck, slightly stooped at the shoulder, slightly sunken in the chest, slightly curvy at the hips, slightly pigeoned at the toes… and yet when he speaks, it is in that voice, his voice, the famous one, the unmistakable one, the televised one, the voice dressed in sweater and sneakers, the soft one, the reassuring one, the curious and expository one, the sly voice that sounds adult to the ears of children and childish to the ears of adults, and what he says, in the midst of all his nudity, is as understated as it is obvious: “Well, Tom,  I guess you’ve already gotten a deeper glimpse into my daily routine than most people have.”

This passage was from a fine essay by Tom Junod published by Esquire Magazine in as part of a series on American heroes and was included in The Best Spiritual Writings of 1999.

When the Women’s Reading Group read this article, several of us winced at the notion of our beloved Mister Rogers standing naked.  He is always to be clad in the zipped cardigan sweater along with deck shoes.  The article was aptly titled Can You Say Hero?  Mister Rogers was a hero for many of us and a hero for our children.

As often as Esquire Magazine may have gratuitous, sexy photos or articles with edgy content, I don’t think Junod sought out or fabricated this encounter over the many months of research and interviews with Fred Rogers.  After reading the entire article, which paints a beautifully human portrait, you grow to realize it might have been Mister Rogers who invited Junod to witness him in all facets of life – to see his nakedness, the rhythm of his day, learn his family history, watch behind the scenes the crafting of his TV show – to completely expose his life, his flesh and blood humanity.

I wonder if Mister Rogers were to pitch his TV show today, would there be any interest in a 143 pound, kindly gentleman who loves kids and wants to lead our kids into loving themselves and one another?  Our current culture seems to thirst for super heroes, victors equipped beyond the power of any mere mortal.  Or, we crave tragic Hollywood icons whose lifestyles are the opposite of humble or concerned.  We live in a People magazine culture that celebrates those who are self-interested.

We can lament our culture’s obsession on appearances and pedigrees as unique – but we are not. In light of the lectionary passage from 1st Samuel, we seem to share in the same mindset as the ancient Near East and the prophet Samuel when it comes to selecting leaders and recognizing our heroes.

Saul was the first, unifying leader of the Israelites after they arrived in the Promised Land.  He was a towering figure of strength and courage, leading the battle against those who threatened life.  He had been selected by the priest Samuel and was at first, pleasing in God’s eyes.  But, he lacked fidelity to God, and the inner strength that trusts in God rather than himself.  He became a self-defining leader, one who presumes to be more than God created and crafting his appearances, is rejected.

God sent Samuel to anoint the leader who God knows is capable of leading the Israelites.

Going to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, God guides Samuel to overlook the logical, reasonable sons presented by Jesse.  God speaks directly to Samuel “do not look on appearance or on the height…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”.  God challenges our ideas about human potential as well as our weaknesses for vanity.

Pastor and scholar, Donald P. Olsen explicates this statement even further by defining the word heart.  “Heart was not the center of emotions for the ancients, although that was included.  Heart was the center of one’s being:  emotion, intelligence, discernment, wisdom, commitment, and character were all elements of heart – perhaps what we call soul.” (Donald P. Olsen.  Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, 100)

It is the last, the youngest, and the smallest son that God chooses – David.  God did not just choose him, scripture tells us “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David”, a divine gift to lift him up.

Now, Imagine yourself in Samuel’s shoes, he just risked his life, going to Bethlehem, where he was not welcomed, behind Saul’s back and what does he have to bring to the Israelites – a shepherd-boy, not a skilled warrior but one who performs menial labor. This is like much of our scriptural history, God does not choose the one with the birthright, or the fertile, or the visibly strong, no God constantly does not choose what we expect, what we think we are entitled to have.

Was it unreasonable for the Israelites to want to follow someone strong, with the solid track record, with unquestionable potential?  No one wants to feel weak.

Legend tells us later on, when David faced the giant enemy, Goliath, he was initially dressed in Saul’s armor.  It was so big, it was a handicap.  He could pursue Goliath pretending to be someone he was not.  Instead, using his wits, he dumped the armor, played to his strengths and picked up five small stones and his slingshot.  He went to battle an armed giant with almost nothing.  This David stands forever immortalized in Florence under Michelangelo’s skillful vision of what he looked like as a young man, ready to face any enemy with what God blessed him.

David became the most brilliant king Israel has ever had.  He united the tribes, conquered the enemies, and built a kingdom in Jerusalem.  David rescued the Israelites from death from wars and starvation.

History tells us he was far from perfect, being anointed did not make him holy, but he remained aware of his strengths and limits, inspired followers, and always sought to be led by God.

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – so how do we measure the potential for a good leader?  More importantly, how do we develop our own capabilities to lead?  Within the fellowship of this congregation we are blessed with some talented and respected public leaders.  We also have those who would shy away from shouldering any aspect of formal leadership responsibility or the spotlight, but we cannot abdicate the responsibility we each have to live with authenticity in sharing our talents and gifts and in being able to discern for ourselves how we are to lead our lives.

Growing and grooming leaders is a multi-billion dollar market.  Public companies recognize the cost of poor leadership in missed opportunities or deteriorating market capitalization and are, therefore, willing to invest in leadership training.   Incompetent leadership in our schools, among public servants and our faith communities wreaks havoc both immediately and in future generations.  We all have a vested interest in becoming good stewards of the leaders around us and of ourselves as a leader.

The academy and elite consulting firms are prime sources for research and methodologies for cultivating leaders or you can find custom programs by industry, or boutiques.  There are some that will apply military leadership principles to wealth management. Or, there is the iconic Harvard Business Review article of leadership techniques that served an orchestra conductor which enlighten those who lead creative professionals in a common goal.

However any leadership development program may profess a unique insight or coaching methods, I will assert among those, which endure, profess the fundamental prescription for each leader to know his or her heart, and I am referring to heart in the biblical sense of character, wisdom, intelligence and emotions.  You don’t just put on the mantle of leadership or adopt the top five or seven tips.  Discerning how to lead begins with an honest self-awareness of vulnerabilities, a realization of strengths and weaknesses, and a willingness to nurture unique gifts and not just the common attributes defined by culture.

In Hebrew Scripture we find a repeated pattern of unlikely people becoming leaders. Ruth, a Moabite, was led by God to care for Naomi and became the grandmother to David.  God sought out a small boy, David to triumph over Goliath, then Saul and all the enemies within Israel. Jeremiah pushed back saying “I am only a boy” the first time God called him and became a prophet.  Amos was also a shepherd, reluctantly becoming a voice of God in a hostile world.

When we come to Christian scriptures, the primary actors are those who are least likely from social stature; several fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, and farmers.  There were also those of wealth and power, respected by Rome and the people – those who stepped out with great risk.  All of these people were most likely to excel in leadership for one reason:  they knew themselves as created and loved by God, and from trusting; they followed a plan that was larger than their lives.

Then there is the humble, itinerant carpenter and teacher from Galilee, Jesus, a man who shunned power, but stood up to authorities.  A man, who lived a fully human life and was tempted, yet stayed true to his heart.  A man, who was able to see into the hearts of those around him and willingly forgave and accepted all – regardless of how far some had strayed.  He was not a superhero, able to defy pain and suffering.  In the end, when he was stripped of all human possessions, completely bare, hanging on a cross, he was still at one with God.

Here is the risk:  to be a leader of a corporation or institution AND be a follower of Christ does not offer any guarantee of success as defined by culture.  That was part of Saul’s problem – he became distracted in achieving success that satisfied the Israelites and his own agenda, and in doing so ignored God’s call.  To trust and lead a life in concert with God, may be lonely.  It may not feed our sense of worth as measured in the eyes of others – including those we love.  Leadership is often lonely, even when you are not professing to be a Christian in all facets of your life. Yet, to be a leader, who is a follower of Christ, is the one way to proclaim a message that endures and draws others to a purpose and a heart much bigger than a single person or annual report.

Tom Junod’s article, “Can You Say Hero?” was re-published last month in Esquire online and I commend it to you.  Perhaps it resurfaced for its excellent journalism, but I believe, the message is vital for us today who seek to know of a real, human hero, a man who lived life as God called and was confident in his heart of who he was, the talents gifted by God.  In all humility, Mister Rogers knew his heart and was always a follower of Christ, caring for children, upholding the broken and seeking not personal gain but to build up everyone.

Legend tells us David was the author of our beloved twenty-third Psalm, which we read today.  It makes sense, that one who knew the task and responsibility of shepherding sheep, off alone and exposed to danger, or in sitting on a throne of power over Israel, is one who would turn to God for shelter and to restore his soul.

When we lose much of what we had thought important, or get past all of the stuff we hold onto, it is in those times that we are faced with the bare facts of our lives.  Who are we and who takes care of our lives…then we can say with confidence; “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”