What lies behind the story?
This week's musing is another guest contribution: the reflection offered at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, this past Sunday, by Rev Lezley Stewart. We heard these passages from the Sacred Story: 1 Sam 16:1-13, Ps 23, John 9:1-12
I wonder when you are reading a newspaper or catching up online – when you read reports from at home and abroad, reports about politics, about issues in health care or security, stories of local interest and stories of random celebrities – do you sometimes want to know and understand more of what lies behind the often brief reports that come in bitesized chunks? I want to more of what lies behind things so I can more accurately understanding things as they impact in the here and now. If I’m honest I chose during the week to access news in this bitesized format – I don’t find the time to linger long over a newspaper with indepth articles and analysis – that gets reserved for the weekend – and then that doesn’t always happen either! Another thing to place on the list of things I hope to do in my retirement it seems!
I find myself often asking the same questions when it comes to Scripture – you know we follow the lectionary week by week which gives set readings for each week and helps us to be exposed to most of the key texts in the Bible over a 3 year cycle. But then sometimes what this type of selection does, is uproot the text from its wider context – and then of course it becomes the task of the preacher to try and say something of what surrounds these words. It’s why there are so many biblical commentaries around that folks like me are meant to consult, so that I’m not just taking things out of a context – but rather understanding the words we read and hear in the wider canon of Scripture. Of course there are other ways of preaching and choosing readings – in my church when I was growing up we used to go through books of the Bible – famously I remember my minister taking 12 weeks to explore just 6 short verses from Ephesians – that said – I remember it pretty well!
So what I want to do today is take a brief look at each of our readings – say something about what lies behind each, or ask some questions of what might lie behind the words and the wisdom – so that we find the connecting point for today – where Scripture finds its contact point in the here and now.
So how does one go about choosing a king? In our own monarchy this is a hereditary transition that only happens on the death of a monarch or on abdication – but in the case of 1 Samuel – it’s all a bit more messy than that. Lying behind the choosing of the shepherd boy to be the new King of Israel is a rather uncomfortable saga where Saul, Samuel and God don’t really come off all that well! God has rejected Saul as King, whom Samuel had previously chosen in God’s name. God regrets choosing Saul because of his subsequent disobedience, Samuel is pretty cut up about the whole thing and mourns for Saul but God now asks him again to choose a new king of Israel.
It’s perhaps reassuring to know that leadership wasn’t any easier in OT times – here we have leadership that has failed and a new beginning being sought – the times are full of turmoil – but there is only one things to do, and that is move forwards and embrace a new beginning, and so we have this well known story of Samuel coming to choose from the sons of Jesse – from childhood I can remember pictures of this story – all the tall, proud, strong and Disney like hero sons being paraded, while off in the distance there’s another nameless one tending the sheep – too young, to insignificant to even be mentioned. David isn’t named until he is anointed as the one. Of course you might, or might not be wondering if Jesse had any daughters? He did – we know this from another passage in the OT – 2 daughters – Zeruiah and Abigail – a step too far in those days to even be considered of course.
And within all this are the wonderful words about how we select and choose people, and how God looks at things in a different way. What lies behind is a different understanding of what good leadership might actually be – and the qualities aren’t always the external and obvious and they certainly shouldn’t be about outward appearance. There’s also the recognition that leadership isn’t just one type of mode – David will undoubtedly model a different way of being a King than Saul before him - and the irony is, he is already shepherding when he is chosen – but shepherding sheep rather than people.
Leadership today has some of the same questions at heart – that it shouldn’t be external circumstances that dictate who looks like a leader or who has the access to being a leader – and there are different ways to lead. Money often comes into play in leadership today in a way that might ask hard questions and consider what it is again that God asks and seeks. Inner integrity and an ability to embrace humility, vulnerability, honesty, discernment and wisdom are what God requires of those he calls to lead.
And this shepherd King David, who inspired so many songs and Psalms – and of course this most famous and familiar Psalm 23 – what lies behind this? Well first of all it, like most other Psalms, is not necessarily a Psalm of David – but a Psalm for David, in respect of David, and as a way of honouring David. But there is this most poignant connection between the shepherd being called to be a King, and this strong metaphor of God as a shepherd – the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
In some ways, I think this Psalm is losing its connection with people so far removed from agriculture – most of us do not really understand all that shepherding requires in the ways that would have been naturally understood in the desert places of the OT. I often wonder what the metaphor might be for today if this Psalm was to be reimagined. If you have any thoughts – please let me know!
But have you ever considered what’s behind this Psalm and it’s deep spirituality? I often find myself wondering if it was written looking back, or looking forward, or somewhere in between. Is the Psalmist saying God has been this wonderful Shepherd – these things have happened and he is secure and at peace – or is the Psalmist in the middle of something difficult and calling to mind the faithfulness of God to see him through – or is the Psalmist away to embark on something and offers this Psalm as with hope and faith in what God will do?
Like most Scriptures that connect with us, we read and hear these words often through the lens of where we are ourselves. We might find something deeper within these words when we are going through the dark valleys ourselves – or we might find it helps us look back or look forward as we reflect where we find ourselves. And there is power in this being both a personal Psalm and a communal one – it is deeply personal, but communicates a shared experience and reassurance.
Not many of us are able to see into the future – not many of us can know what lies ahead. The tragic events of this week in London bring home to us that no matter what plans and preparations are put in place to secure human life in the face of attack, there are things beyond our control. Day by day, people begin their days and find something changes by the end of that day – in small ways – in dramatic ways – in ways that make us question and leave us shaken. And it is sometimes only in looking forward in hope that we find resolve, and sometimes only looking back in reflection that we find peace. But ultimately in all things in life, faith and in the complex and shifting life of the world, we can only begin from here. There will always be so many “what if’s” in life, that we, like the Psalmist need to seek to instill the wisdom and peace of God within, so that in faith we can traverse the valleys and the peaks and find that we are held secure by God in his ways and in his wisdom.
And of course, sometimes it is just difficult to see a pathway ahead – to be able to discern what it right and what decisions one must make, and what God requires. I do not want to use the Gospel passage about the blind man being healed simply as a metaphor for spiritual blindness, because what lies behind this text is a person – a man born blind – and if we make it just about the message then we forget the individual – and there is an important message in that.
And what lies behind this unnamed man’s story is the prejudice of the time that presumed he or his parents had sinned to cause his blindness, and the arrogance to think that one like him did not matter. Yet rather within this story, we find a wake up notice – to pay attention to this man – because he is the one speaking the truth about Jesus. He is not hiding from the religious authorities who want to condemn Jesus as a sinner and blasphemer – but he is not scared to speak out. As the story unfolds his parents are too scared to answer the Pharisees questions – but he stands up and speak for himself – This is I know – I was blind but now I see – I have told you, but you will not listen – why do you want to hear it again? – you don’t even know where he came from and yet he opened my eyes”! …..and to this they replied – you were steeped in sin at birth – how dare you lecture us – and they threw him out.
Here is one who does not bow down to the usual pressures and speaks truth without compromise. I wonder how often we seek to silence the uncomfortable voices we hear? Rather than this being about what we do not see – what about the things we do not hear….or the voices and opinions we are not willing to hear? What lies behind our own inability to change and be changed is often a closed mindset that only wants to hear our own opinions reflected back to us.
In this story it is a combination of tradition, legalism and jealousy that bars the way to listening, to hearing and to understanding – I wonder how these same things impact on how we listen and hear today?
And so there is an awful lot that lies behind these Scriptures – they ask more questions of us than provide answers – but that is the life of faith – to be open to the Spirit and the wisdom of God which is active in and through the Word of God and the people of God, as we take our place and our part in this unfolding story, generation by generation.
But it is not something we do alone – we live with the questions, we contemplate the wisdom, we seek the gentle nudge and the vigorous shake of the Spirit, and in all of this we have Christ – God’s chosen Son, our example and our Lord.
And what lies behind this communion we share together – in faith, in prayer, in wondering and in participating in these gifts of bread and wine- is the joining in with wat God has already done in Christ, and in what God is already doing in us and the world. In Christ we have the model of leadership we are called to follow and mirror – we have the reassurance of the God who accompanies us through life like a Shepherd, and the echoing call - to hear, to listen and to respond.
What lies behind these gifts of grace, offered new every day, are an eternal promise, purpose and peace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.