What If It All Ends Badly? — 30 July 2023

Pastor Adrianne Meier
30 July 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

What If It All Ends Badly?

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1 Samuel 9:1-3, 15-21, 10:1a 

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the Israelites more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else. 

Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, had strayed. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the young men with you; go and look for the donkeys.” Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed to Samuel: “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be ruler over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines, for I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me.” 

When Samuel saw Saul, the LORD told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you. He it is who shall rule over my people.” Then Saul approached Samuel inside the gate and said, “Tell me, please, where is the house of the seer?” Samuel answered Saul, “I am the seer; go up before me to the shrine, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, give no further thought to them, for they have been found. And on whom is all Israel’s desire fixed, if not on you and on all your ancestral house?” 

Saul answered, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him; he said, “The LORD has anointed you ruler over God’s people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the LORD, and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around.”

Spoiler alert: this story about Saul, now King Saul…it ends badly. It ends in ignorance, uncertainty, poor leadership, revenge, and rejection. I debated whether or not to tell it, in case you didn’t know already. But First Samuel is a history book, like a book about the American Revolution or the Civil War, and I have to believe that the author of the books of Samuel assumes you know how it ended. And it ends badly. I just wanted you to know.

To be human is to know all the ways that things end badly, even tragically. We set out with great hopes only to have them dashed in the end: childhood friends take their lives and never taste adulthood, hoped-for babies never take a breath, friendships end in a spectacular blow up, politicians we do not trust win elections,everything worked for is lost in a flood or a fire or a tornado, goals go unachieved, promotions to others,opportunities missed. If we know that if might all end badly, how do we even set out? How do we start when so much uncertainty looms before us? We set out in faith, and we trust the ending to God.

Our earliest prediction is that the books of Samuel were written 2-3 generations after Saul was anointed the first king of Israel. More likely, an editor pulled together stories of the ancient monarchy from a variety of stories,which would make its dating even later, perhaps as late as the Babylonian exile. The author, then, as he or she compiles this history, looks at the monarchy as a failed experiment and asks, how did we end up here? And, could it have been otherwise? And, should we have known this would end badly? And, should we have ever even started off on this path? And as Saul moves toward Samuel, who was in the land of Zuph for a sacrifice,we are torn between falling for Saul, the handsome boy, achieving his destiny, and praying that the stupid runaway donkeys would just show up and Saul would just go home, never seeing the seer in those parts. Save the troubles of the monarchy for a different day.

Saul’s beginning is deeply ambiguous. He ends up anointed not because he was already a respected leader in Israel, but because of some lost donkeys, and a servant with enough money for an offering, and some fast-talking women at a well, and a washed up seer with one real vision left in him. Even though Saul is head-and-shoulders (literally) above the other men of Israel, he doesn’t start out strong. After Samuel anoints Saul, he tells Saul he’s going to call the leaders together, and to meet him at Mizpah, and when everyone’s finally assembled, Saul’s missing. He’s hiding among the luggage. All the indicators are there that Saul will be a weak leader,consumed first by self-doubt and then by revenge. But maybe…maybe the point is that Saul is someone with almost as many foibles and failures as me. If it ends badly for him, how can any of us succeed?

But the truth is, a calling, a vocation is not really about how it ends. It isn’t about how successful you were, or how your measurements of effectiveness stack against your colleagues. It isn’t about how many books or articles you wrote to achieve tenure or get a positive review, how many patients you healed this year, how clean your house this weekend, nor how well-rounded your kids before they go to college. A call is not, really, actually, future-oriented. A call is a deeply present thing. A few years ago, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas recorded a conversation for the Christian Century. The two scholars are known for being boundary-pushers and not everyone loved what they had to say about the truth-telling to which Christians, and specifically pastors, are sometimes called. But in their conversations, Willimon tells the story of a parishioner he visited in the hospital.The parishioner said, “I’m lying in this bed, not sure if I’m going to make it out of this alive, frightened and worried, and Jesus has the nerve to waltz in here and suggest that I ought to single-handedly fund the church’s food ministry? As sick as I am, I thought, others should be looking after me, not me looking after them.” And Willimon asked her how Jesus responded, and she said, “As far as I can tell, he said, ‘I don’t care. What did you think you were getting into when you were baptized?’” (Note 1)

In truth, we miss the boat when we think we are called to something… to some specific end goal. Barbara Brown Taylor points out that, when it came to Jesus, the whole point was just being a person in the world. She writes, “When people wanted him to tell them what God’s realm was like, he told them stories about their own lives. When people wanted him to tell them God’s truth about something, he asked them what they thought. With all kinds of opportunities to tell people what to think, he told them what to do instead. Wash feet. Give your stuff away.   Share your food. Favor reprobates. Pray for those who are out to get you. Be the first to say, “I’m sorry.”  For those who took him as their model, being fully human became a full-time job. It became a vocation in itself, no matter what they happened to do for a living.”  (Note 2)

We get so tied up in thinking that what we’re supposed to do looks like a job or a hobby or a particular decision, but our true vocation is a call to be human…to be human now. Unfortunately, we all know how this particularly vocation is going to end. And depending on your thoughts on that end, you could say it ends badly.It ends in sorrow and grief. Jesus told us, after all, that it would end at a cross. The question then, about our vocations, including the most dear vocation of being a human being, it isn’t should we even start out? The question is, how do we set out in faith?

In his famous prayer, the one that begins with the confession, “I have no idea where I am going,” Thomas Merton says to God, “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” And Merton ends, of course, saying, “for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Beloved, if we begin with the end in mind, we do so only in order to entrust the end to God.

August has become the new New Year, in a way: school starts, students return, a different rhythm begins to take hold. How do we set out in this time, in faith, with a desire to hear and head God’s call where we are? All I can think about is Saul, following after some donkeys, with a curious servant, and some chatty girls at a well, and a washed up seer, and somehow the presence of God infused in all that. That despite his timidity, and how badly it all would end, he was still called by God— who promises to be with us always, even until the end of age.Amen.

(Note 1) The dangers of providing pastoral care, The Christian Century, August 11, 2021

(Note 2) From An Altar in the World.