Holy Surprises

Last Sunday in an excellent sermon by retired Minister Brian Brown we heard again the surprising ending to the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan. But before that ending there was a question from a lawyer. “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” Then came the story. And remember that the crucial part of the story was the surprise ending. It was not the lawyer or the Minister who stopped to help the Jewish man in the ditch. It was the hated Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans loathed each other. Although the lawyer who asked the question, as well as you and I here today, may prefer simple questions with simple answers that is not how God reveals truth.

And when it comes to the books of the Bible we call the Old Testament we are even more certain that we know what is going on. Witness the Ten Commandments, do this, don’t do that, consequences arise. Writer and pastor John Holbert says, “The story of Saul, Samuel and David have too often been reduced to flannel board simplicity. Samuel, God's prophet, is good; Saul, Israel's first king, is bad; and David, a man after God's own heart, is very good. A careful reading of the long story, however, calls into question each of those too simple claims.”

The story itself is complex and somewhat troubling. Samuel the prophet has commanded that Saul annihilate the Amalekites, because of their opposition to Israel. Saul spares the king along with the very best of his livestock in order to make a sacrifice to God. Nevertheless Saul is deposed. Samuel is commanded to fill his sacred horn with the oil of anointing and to go to Bethlehem, a tiny place just south ofJerusalem, because God has found a new king there among the sons of Jesse. Samuel takes one look at Jesse's oldest boy and decides that surely this is God’s chosen one. But the voice of God quickly begs to differ. "Do not look on his appearance, or on the height of his stature." Instead God tells Samuel "I do not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, while I look at the heart" (vs. 7).

After God has whispered to Samuel that each of the succeding sons are not whom God is looking for Samuel says, “Are there any more sons?" "One more," answers the old man, "the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep" (vs. 11). And we know the rest of that story, that Samuel annoints David and he becomes King, leading Israel to great glory and in high devotion to God. Except of course for the shadow side of the story, namely David’s sordid affair with Bathsheba, the subsequent cowardly murder of her husband, Uriah, and his deathbed command for Solomon to seek revenge on one of David's old and helpless enemies.

I like how John Holbert sums up this strange tale, “Perhaps it could be said that human beings often go their own way—make choices merely by what their eyes see—rather than opening themselves up to the real possibility that God's actions in the world may still be significant, however hard it is for us tolook on the heart, and however hard it is for us to understand in what ways God also looks on the heart. And finally we can say that the lives we attempt to fashion in the sight of God are not always so easy to create, whether on our own or even in consort with that God. Such humility, both religiously and humanly, is, I think, a very good thing.” 

I think humility is a very good thing. Just because something makes sense in our eyes, in your eyes, in my eyes, does not make it God’s way. If we are open to surprises God’s grace and blessings will surprise us.

In this season of Lent we’ve heard about how the Confuser tries to move us away from our true path, we’ve heard about how what we think is normal is not what God imagines for our lives and how new people from new places can bring something to our communities that sameness cannot. What all of these messages have in common is waiting on, and being faithful to, God’s way. God’s path is not our path and we need to be open and resolute in how we find and live that way.

Personally I can identify with the story of David, I was once young and arrogant and ambitious and full of faith. I did some of my best work then, I look back with some satisfaction that God used me to bless others. But I also know that as I carried out this ministry I was also carrying some of the world’s definition of success, too often looking at the external at the expense of what laid underneath. There came moments of brokenness that brought with them humility which in turn broke open the surprises God had in store for me. Now I do ministry somewhat differently and I have less arrogance and worldly ambitions. And as a result I am a different pastor. I don’t think I am better or worse but I am different and the humility has definitely brought with it amazing surprises.

When I was young Bethany was a big deal. But you know that. Bethany could afford several Ministers, the most beautiful building, the best of everything. Bethany could have what other churches could not. But over time there were challenges and wilderness years and heartache. Those of you who were around then know the story. Sure there were beautiful moments then too, good ministry happened. I look out and see my colleague Vince who cared for the sick and the lonely in a most profound way. I see members of the Muffin Club who cared for each other in good times and bad. I see Shawn who injected the Spirit time and time again when the Spirt was desperately needed.

But in some ways that feeling of being a “big deal” died and with it came an openness to a different path. Did you hear on Anniversary Sunday Glenn MacLean tell us that as a Minister from an older generation he found it so hard to be cared for when we was trained to be the caregiver? And yet when he and his partner adopted their grandchildren as their own children he needed the church family and St. James was there. When Ewen got sick you were there to care for him. When we are taken down from our pedestal and broken we are suddenly open to surprises in our lives. And we discover new meaning.

King David was an amazing leader of his peoples. He did great things, many in devotion and fidelty to his God. But his arrogance also caused him to lose his way and only when he admitted this did he gain insight to God’s surprising grace. When I was a young Minister I used to love to read the Gospel stories of healing, when someone from her/his power would give to someone who had no power. I still have satisfaction from those Gospel stories and personal memories. But later I find myself reading the Psalms with their cycle of certainty, brokenness, openness, surprises and new life. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Or as one of my heroes says it, “Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else. I've felt that many times. My hope for all of us is that the miles we go before we sleep will be filled with all the feelings that come from deep caring - delight, sadness, joy, wisdom - and that in all the endings of our life, we will be able to see the new beginnings.”

On this Annual General Meeting Sunday may we see how God has restored our soul, led us to right paths, and filled us with feelings of deep caring, delight, sadness, joy and wisdom. May we see this new beginning. Amen.