What God Sees, and What We Miss: Sermon for March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13

16:1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

16:2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’

16:3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

16:4 Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

16:5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

16:6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.”

16:7 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.”

16:8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.”

16:10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.”

16:11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

16:12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

David Anointed by Samuel, from a synagogue in Syria, 15th Century. (This image is in the public domain.)

When I was growing up, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest of all my siblings, by far. The youngest of all my cousins. Most of tine time I was even the youngest in my class. I’ve joked that growing up I had a permanent reservation at the children’s table.

I think that’s why I like this story so much. It is a quintessential youngest kid story. Samuel has been appointed by God to go and anoint the new king. And God tells Samuel that the king will come from among Jesse’s sons.

So Samuel goes to Jesse’s house and says, “I need to meet your sons”. And Jesse’s seven oldest sons are brought in. Now, it’s important to note that in these days seven was a very highlly valued number. Seven was the ideal number, the one that signified perfection. So when Jesse had seven sons, that was something to be especially proud of in his society.

But the thing is, Jesse also had an eighth son. David. David was the youngest, and the smallest, the unexpected one, and no one really expected much out of him. So when Samuel came to anoint the new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him into the house. They just left him out in the field to watch the sheep.

But when Samuel starts to look at Jesse’s sons, God makes it clear that none of them is the king. The first one comes, and Samuel thinks, this has to be the king. But it’s not. And then the second. And then the third. Again and again until none of David’s brothers has been chosen. And that’s when Samuel asks, “Are these all your sons?”

And Jesse tells him about David. And someone went out to the fields to get him, and as soon as Samuel sees David, he knows. This is the king.

I’ve always liked underdogs. When I watch football games I almost always root for the underdog. And this story is about an underdog. In fact, David wasn’t even really an underdog because he wasn’t even considered as a possibility. And yet, he was the only one for the job.

This story reminds me that sometimes we have preconceptions about how God works. We expect that God is going to choose someone who looks a certain way or acts a certain way to do God’s will. And when you think about it, why wouldn’t it be David’s brothers? Older, bigger, stronger…it just makes sense.

But God tells Samuel, “don’t look at their outward appearance…look at the heart.”

And David’s heart was strong. This is the one who would defeat Goliath with just a slingshot. The one who would reign as king. The one who is even an ancestor of Jesus.

What if Samuel had never asked Jesse, “are you sure you don’t have another son”? What if they had left David out in the field tending the sheep? What if Samuel had tried to settle for anything less than what God wanted? My guess is that the entire Biblical story would be very different.

It makes me ask, who are we leaving out in the fields today? Some of you read the story of the eight year old girl in Virginia who was pressured out of her Christian school because she was too much of a tomboy. The school told her grandparents that she couldn’t keep cutting her hair short, or wearing the clothes she wanted to wear. They told them that she had to learn to accept her place as a girl and to be more feminine. Thankfully, her grandparents decided that they weren’t going to subject her to that anymore, but they shouldn’t have ever been forced to make that choice.

This was a Christian school. This is a school that says they want to teach children what the Bible teaches. And that’s what this child of God has learned about Jesus…that he doesn’t like the way she dresses. And when you think about it, that is so different than what God tells Samuel in today’s Scripture: don’t look at the outward appearance…look at the heart.

But the thing is, things like this happen all of the time. Sometimes in ways as blatant as the child in Virginia, but other times in more subtle ways. We stop listening to someone’s voice. We dismiss it because they are too young or too new or too old or too…whatever it is that we can’t wrap our heads around. And slowly, we push them out into the fields.

Have you ever wondered who’s out there? And have you ever wondered what they can offer?

What are we missing out on? Whose voices are not being heard? Who is not sitting at our table? It’s a question we as the church have to ask ourselves every time we make a decision. Not just “what do we want or what do we need” but “what do the people who are outside the wall of this church need”?

Last year a family came to the church for help making ends meet. And we have a pastor’s discretionary fund which lets me help our neighbors who are having a hard time, on behalf of our whole church.

The family sent me a thank you email, and I wrote them back and said we were glad to do it. And I also said, “you know…you would always be welcome at our church if you ever want to attend. No pressure, but the invitation is there.”

The email back said, “Thank you…not every church lets just anyone come.”

It was heartbreaking. Because that’s what some people think that church is; a club that one has to be deserving enough to join. And even though you and I know that we welcome anyone who comes through that doors, the reality is some people truly do believe that that’s what church is about. They believe that the church puts people out in the fields, the same way David was left out in the fields.

You really can’t blame folks for believing that though. Because sometimes Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting our message out there.

This is part of why we voted to become an Open and Affirming church. It’s part of why we decided to go on record as being the sort of place where we can honestly say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. And, no, that won’t make the front page of the papers, or the news rotation on CNN, but it’s every bit as important a piece of news.

People need to hear that church is where you are not judged on worldly things, but you are welcomed because of your heart.

We all need to hear that. Because there’s another piece to this too. And that is, have you ever left yourselves out in the fields? Have you ever thought maybe there’s nothing about you that God can use? Maybe at some level you don’t feel like you really belong. Maybe you think your voice is not important.

But it is.

That’s especially true in church. Because church is not somewhere you go…it’s who you are. You are the church. And church is not a spectator sport. It requires more than one hour on Sunday morning. It requires your heart.

And so the questions for this church, the questions for every church, are this: Whose voices are we missing? And is one of them yours?

When they finally called for David, what do you think he was thinking? Do you think he was thinking “finally! They finally know what I am!”? Or maybe was he thinking, “there’s some mistake? It’s got to be one of my brothers”?

But it wasn’t a mistake. And in time, David came to know that.

God can do amazing things through you too. And God can do amazing things through the people we haven’t met yet. So, are you out in the fields? Do you know someone who is? It’s time to call them back. It’s time to come home.

And, by the way, there’s no children’s table back at home…the one God invited us to sit at has enough room for everyone. Even you. Amen.

 

An Open Letter to Sunnie Kahle (and Christian tomboys everywhere)

Dear Sunnie,

You don’t know me, but this morning I read an article about you. (You can read it here: http://www.abc27.com/story/25061872/little-girl-taken-out-of-christian-school-after-told-shes-too-much-like-a-boy  ) Ever since then you keep crossing my mind. As I went around town today in my jeans and button-down shirt and sweater, I thought about you. As I came home from the gym tonight, I prayed for you. And all the while, I wished I could write you a letter…the kind of letter I wish someone had written to me.

This is me when I was a few years younger than you.

This is me when I was a few years younger than you.

I don’t know how to get one to you, though. I thought about trying to send it to your grandparents for them to read to you, but I’m not sure if it would make it there. So instead I’m writing this and posting it on my blog. Maybe somehow these words will find their way to your grandparents and they will share them with you. Or, maybe years from now you’ll find them online, and know that a lot of people were thinking about you today.

I read this morning that Timberlake Christian School, your school, has asked you to leave. The reason why, they say, is that you are not following “Biblical standards”. They say that you should be wearing dresses, and letting your hair grow out, and acting more “like a girl”. And they are saying that unless you do those things, you can’t go to your school anymore.

You are eight years old, and this probably sounds pretty silly to you. Don’t worry; I’m 37 years old and it sounds pretty silly to me too.

I’ll bet that I was a lot like you when I was eight years old. I didn’t like dresses. I liked playing football and collecting baseball cards. My favorite things were airplanes and science kits. And I liked cutting my hair short.

A lot of people called me a tomboy. I think they meant that as an insult, but I actually thought that was pretty neat. Maybe you do too. Or maybe you don’t. Which is okay, because if you don’t you can call yourself whatever you want. You get that choice, just like you get to choose what kind of clothes you wear, and what hobbies you like.

But here’s what bothers me most of all, Sunnie. These people who are saying you can’t go back to school with your friends are telling you that Jesus is the reason. Like you I was raised in the South. I spent the first part of my life in Virginia, just like you. And my parents always taught me to respect adults. But I was lucky because my parents also would tell me that sometimes adults are wrong.

Sunnie, the adults that told you that Jesus doesn’t like the way you dress, or that Jesus wants you to act “more like a girl”? They’re wrong.

Jesus does love you, Sunnie. You know how I know? Because Jesus loves me too. And Jesus loves everyone like us, who grows up preferring shorts to skirts, and jeans to dresses. Jesus loves us when we cut our hair short. Jesus loves us when we out hit the boys in baseball. And Jesus loves us when we don’t want to wear a pink bow in our hair.

The pastors at your school may disagree. That’s okay. Tell them that there are pastors out there who think that they are wrong about Jesus. I’m one of those pastors. And if you came to my church, or the churches of a lot of my friends, no one would say a word about what you were wearing or what your hair looked like. (Actually, we might…we might tell you we like your sneakers or your t-shirt…but that’s it.)

Sunnie, I don’t know who you’ll grow up to be in ten years. I don’t know who you will love, or what you will be like then. And that stuff doesn’t matter right now. Know why? Because you’re eight, and you have plenty of time to figure it out on your own time. No one else gets to do that for you.

So, Sunnie. I hope you keep being you. I hope your grandparents keep being incredible. And I hope your friends’ parents tell them that you had to leave school not because you did anything wrong, but because the school did something wrong.

But most of all, Sunnie, I hope you know that God loves you. God loves you so much, and God loves you exactly as you are now, and exactly as you will be. Never doubt that, no matter what people say or do to you. Just like they don’t get to tell you how to dress, they don’t get to take Jesus away from you either.

Keep being awesome, Sunnie.

Pastor Emily C. Heath

 

Update 3/26/14: Within about two hours of this blog post’s publication it found its way to Sunnie’s family and it was read to Sunnie. To those who made that happen, thank you.

Additionally, a number of people have commented or emailed saying the “true story” hasn’t come out. There have been both insinuations and outright assertions about Sunnie and Sunnie’s gender identity. Of course no evidence that their assertions are true has been presented. But, even if it were, here’s my question: Why does it matter?

If Sunnie, or any child for that matter, is trying to figure out who they are, why wouldn’t Christians want to support them? I think people have expected me to say, “Oh…well in that case…throw Sunnie out!” Really all I can say is clearly that school, a school that could not support Sunnie the way Sunnie needed to be supported, does not deserve to get to claim someone as brave as Sunnie as a student.

I believe Jesus said, “suffer the little children to come onto me” and not “suffer the little children to come onto me…but only if they are gender conforming”. I think a school that truly sought to follow him would do the same. But, that’s just my opinion. And, really, this has always just been about supporting Sunnie.