The Confidence to Be Good
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
2 Corinthians 5:6-10
My kids don’t go to church. They are professionally successful, well-adjusted adults with good marriages. Anna and her husband are stellar parents of two young sons, and Emily and her wife parent a three-year-old Golden Lab with more attention than I gave my first-born child. The dog has its own room. They are caring friends and have strong moral and political convictions. They are still mourning Prince.
But they don’t go to church.
I took them to church with me until they were about 12. There was hardly any programming there for kids or teenagers; I was a single parent, working as a deacon many Sundays, and it got overwhelmingly complicated.
I think now that my kids sensed a certain lack of confidence I had then in the church and in the faith. They felt my tentativeness, my ambivalence about key teachings and my unwillingness to push anything at them. I had left the conservative Lutheran Church ten years earlier and was a fairly new Episcopalian, and they could tell that I was still working out a lot of stuff about Jesus, atonement, the validity of other religions, and the relationship between belief and doubt. Today I know exactly what I should have said. But they are loving, kind people and are finding their way.
The theme of confidence appears in our Epistle today and is also the main idea for this sermon: “Be confident” …. though “we walk by faith not by sight.”
I confess I’m doing an old preacher trick of also talking about the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, even though I have to kind of wedge into the them of confidence because it’s such a fun lesson and has contemporary overtones, including a kind of man pageant!
The lesson from Samuel, then, is about the search for a leader.
There were high standards for a Jewish king, as set out in Deuteronomy: “The king shall not have too many horses for himself…And he shall not have too many wives… and he shall not greatly increase silver and gold for himself… He must keep all the words of the Torah…so that his heart does not become haughty…” (Deut. 17: 16-20).
Using these criteria, Saul is anointed the first king of Israel by the prophet Samuel. It doesn’t work out for a variety of reasons so God decides that Saul has to go, and sends Samuel out to find a new king. It’s a covert operation because Saul can’t find out about it, so Samuel travels with a heifer because if he is asked any questions he will simply say, “Just going to church. See the cow? Sacrifice.”
So Samuel is sent by God to meet with Jesse and see his sons and find a king. Jesse must have felt some excitement about one of his sons being considered for this powerful role. But God is guiding Samuel’s decision, looking into the heart of each possible choice.
“Okay bring ‘em out, Jesse.” Samuel says.
“This is Eliab. He’s tall and always dresses….”
“And here’s Abinadab. He’s known for….”
“Are you kidding me?”
“And Raddai. ‘Probably my personal favorite…”
“Not going to happen, Jesse.”
“Don’t you have anybody else?”
And Jesse sends for the youngest, David, “who was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”
“That one That’s the guy!” says Samuel, and David is anointed and goes on to become Israel’s greatest king. God -and Samuel – are confident of the choice. (See what I did there?) And from this paternal line, Jesus is descended.
Confidence means trust. You can have confidence in a person or a group, in an idea, in a system, in God, or in yourself. Today I want to look at three aspects of confidence: confidence and anxiety; confidence and love, confidence and the church.
My confidence in the world drops and my anxiety increases whenever I look at the paper or watch the news because I see a country so politically polarized that we scarcely speak the same language. A niece and the rest of my family have not spoken since the election.
I see politicians rejecting the conclusions of 99% of scientists who all say that the planet is warming and the window for action is closing; I see rates of suicide and depression skyrocketing. I am sick with waiting for another school shooting to happen and worry about my school-age grandsons.
Those of us on social media are seduced into an ever-bigger diet of news. If you work at a computer especially and things aren’t going well with the work, you take a little break and check out Facebook and weather the latest blast of news horror then find yourself clicking on to “Famous Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions”” or “Ten Secrets of Amish Life That Will Make Your Skin Crawl.” Okay, I checked out the Amish one and the most shocking secret was that at weddings instead of flowers they have celery! They eat it! It’s considered good luck!
News-induced anxiety can certainly erode confidence that all will be well.
I must make a comment on the Attorney General’s statement last Friday, using a verse from the Bible to defend separating children from their parents at our border. I’m not dragging politics into church here; this time the Church is being dragged into politics.
In defense of the policy put on the books by this president which has separated 2000 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border in the past six weeks, Jeff Sessions cites Romans 13: “Obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
I wonder if there was anyone who knew anything about the Bible when they picked this verse because this is the same passage used at various time by the defenders of slavery, by some European church leaders to encourage submission to Hitler, and by White Christians in South Africa to defend Apartheid. This, besides the fact that Jesus spoke out continually against the unjust laws of the Roman oppressors. Some things are morally wrong and the church needs to say so. I bid a prayerful response from each one of you.
Now what about the relationship between confidence and love — that kind of love Christians call agape’, that is the love God expects us to have for other humans.
We all know that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached at the Royal Wedding a few weeks ago and talked about love. He said many fine things and called on everyone to unleash the power of love.”
At the risk of heresy here, I wish his words had gone a little farther, and probed some basic questions about love for our fellow beings such as: What makes some people do a good deed, sign up for a cause, donate blood, cook for the homeless, write a check, embrace the stranger, while others don’t? Does it depend on personality type or income or free time or religious conviction? Is it a gift from God?
Actually, I think that “love” is a word that has lost force in our culture. Oprah “loves” the guest on her show; we “love” our SUV or our new shoes. We celebrate romantic love, yet half of married people get divorced. We “love” the brave raccoon climbing a building, but can’t summon up the same emotion for the starving children in Yemen.
The great theologian Frederick Buechener says this: ‘“You can make yourself moral. You can make yourself religious. But you can’t make yourself love.” He says that love is usually a response to something, not a cozy emotion to be activated at will.
Let’s get real about why we do good things. It may be because of fear or self-interest or because we get to do something we’re good at or because it reduces our loneliness or because we think it’s a cool cause. But there are certain things that can hold us back.
Three or four weeks ago I was at a funeral at Fort Snelling for Christopher Plummer, a son of this parish who had died. l was there partly because I was writing an article for the next Evangelist about him and his family. When I got home I ran across a phrase I just loved in my notes. So I called Susan, who presided at the funeral, and told her I couldn’t find the words in the Burial Liturgy and what was the context in which she said it.
“They’re not in the Burial Liturgy and I know I didn’t say them either.”
“But I have them written down and circled… in my notebook. My official notebook’
“Well, an angel must have whispered them in your ear.”
Well maybe, because the phrase was this: “Be confident in your goodness.”
Lack of confidence can paralyze us. We’re Minnesotans, for one thing, so we fear that we’ll say or do the wrong thing, that we’ll look foolish, that we’ll be intruding, that people don’t want our help, that we don’t know what to do, that we won’t make any difference anyway. Yet I call you to be confident in your goodness; that you have it, and that you should be confident using it.
I use this next statement all the time but it’s a favorite from the rabbi Harold Kushner: He says that when God commanded the Israelites to bring sacrifices to the temple in Jerusalem, it wasn’t because the meat would be given to the poor although that was important, but also because it put people in touch with their better nature.
I was in the waiting room in Roseville last week, waiting to get my car washed and there was a Somali family in traditional dress with two darling little kids. I’m pretty introverted but mustering my confidence I said to the parents, “You are a beautiful family.”
The parents beaned and thanked me, and the whole climate in that room changed in an instant. Everyone waiting for their cars was smiling, the kids were coming up to me with their toys, there were heartfelt good-byes and waves when they left. A connection had been made and, I was really in touch with my own power and ability to create good.
There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this land if you look. Maybe a counterpoint to the outrageous behavior and incivility and disrespect shown by our highest leaders. I see it many places such as when parents are as delighted with a report card describing their kid as kind and caring as smart and hardworking.
I still wish my kids went to church. I have great confidence in what the Church has to offer.
I wish they went to church to hear the great stories of Scripture and find themselves in them; to her the music that injects hope into your veins.
I wish they went to church because the community would wrap them in love, especially at the hard times. One person wrote that the average Brit between 18 and 30 has 237 FB friends. When asked how many of them they could rely on in an emergency, the average answer was two. There would be a lot more than that in any church I’ve ever visited.
And I wish they went to church because it’s a great place to ask the big questions…to wrestle with them along with other people instead of cobbling together what I call an “emergency room faith” in a dark hour when their hearts are breaking.
And I wish they went to church to learn what they do believe instead of knowing only what they don’t.
And if you can’t think of anything to offer today, if you’re too old, too young, too busy, too sad, too angry, too distracted, be inspired by this: Near my home, a five-year-old boy has been setting up shop to raise money for the Red Cross. His mother sits in a chair, ways away, reading. He wears a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and has a little guitar—which he plays. The sign on the table says: “25 cents for a song.” You pay your money and, in a strong, confident voice he sings a cowboy song for you.
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
I’ve been back three times.
I don’t know about the angel – although things like that have happened to me — but now I’m whispering the words in your ear: Be confident in your goodness.