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As Mortals See
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
March 23, 2020
1 Samuel 16:1-13
A Reading from the First Book of Samuel
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.” 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.’ 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.” 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?” 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.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 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.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 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.” 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.” 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.
I want to acknowledge up front that reading stories about David is really complicated. David is a really complicated guy. When we meet him, here in this story, he’s young and full of promise, and indeed he will go on to great things: in the next chapter, he’ll take down Goliath; not long after that, he’ll rule in Jerusalem; not long after that, he’ll unify the entire country. David is the transformative figure in the mythic pre-history of Biblical Jerusalem, and as such he looms so large in Israel’s imagination that 1st and 2nd Samuel are almost entirely devoted to tracing the long arc of his life. Nobody in scripture, not even Jesus, gets the sort of prolonged biographical treatment that David gets. And of course, the biography isn’t all great. As you know, David makes some terrible decisions, and he pays some terrible prices. And it may be that for you the decisions that David makes make him totally unsympathetic, and that’s okay. You don’t have to love him. What I need you to know, though, is that scripture LOVES David. These texts love David. And you can’t get far in this text at all without first realizing that the whole thing is just falling-over-itself, at-a-loss-for-words, seventh–grade-crush-style in love with David.
Of course, in this one he’s just a boy. Samuel has been sent out by God to find a new King for Israel, among the sons of Jesse in Bethlehem. And so, Samuel goes to the city and Jesse lines up all his sons and Samuel goes down the row. The first one out of the gate is Eliab, presumably the oldest and the strongest. Eliab must very much look the part, and you can almost hear in the text Samuel presuming that he’s found his guy on the first pass, but the Lord pulls him aside. “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.” The irony, of course, is just a few verses later, when Jesse goes to fetch his youngest son, his littlest son, maybe his scrawniest, son, but the text loves David. I mean, the lesson should sort of writes itself: if the Lord looks on the heart, then David should be the ugliest kid on the block, the wimpiest kid on the block, the most physically unfit for the job kid on the block, so that we could learn our lesson, once and for all, that the lord looks on the heart. But the text loves David. “He was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome,” it says. Love at first sight. And everybody swooned. “Rise and anoint him, for he is the one.”
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” It’s such a beautiful sentiment. And such an evasive one. It’s so evasive the author can’t even finish the paragraph before undoing it. The Lord sees underneath size and shape and strength of muscle and color of skin. It’s such a beautiful sentiment. But what mortals see just keeps coming around again and again and again. Did you know that the Spanish Flu wasn’t Spanish? (I’ve had a lot of time to read the internet this week. I’m not sure I recommend it, on the whole, but you do pick up a few things). There are a variety of theories out there as to where the Spanish Flu originated. There are historians of epidemiology who argue that the disease started in the United Kingdom, whose troops then brought it into the theatre of World War I on French soil. There are also claims that it may have originated in the United States, bolstered by some research that an early wave of the epidemic might have swept through US army camps in 1917, a year before its global debut.
What’s clear is that the Spanish Flu was never from Spain. But of course, viruses also do not judge on outward appearance. They respect neither size nor shape or color of skin. And so, the virus that rampaged through wartime military hospitals eventually jumped across the French border into Spain, and the thing about Spain was that, unlike England and France, it was not censoring its press out of wartime considerations. And so, unlike in London and Paris, the Spanish papers began to tell the true story of how much damage this flu was causing. Spain told the truth, which made everything look worse in Spain. Hence, the Spanish Flu. Of course, it didn’t hurt here in the states that we had just gotten over fighting our own war with Spain not too many years earlier. So, when it came to the states for good. And when it killed more than half a million Americans, just a fraction of the estimated 50 million global casualties. We were all too happy to call that virus that ravaged the world in 1918: the Spanish Flu.
What mortals see just comes around again and again and again.
On May 11, 1982, the front page of the New York Times Science section included a story about new research being done at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta related to a new affliction whereby, in certain patients, the immune system would seem to weaken opportunistically and advance an otherwise rare type of cancer called Kaposi’s syndrome. The Times noted that the disease had developed in a variety of populations, women and men of varying sexualities, but you have to read a few paragraphs down to get that far. In the first paragraph, it says that the disorder primary affects male homosexuals, hence the name, “Gay-Related Immunodeficiency,” or GRID. Fortunately, this would not remain Times-standard nomenclature for long; by August, the newspaper had switched its conventions, and began referring to the emerging epidemic by a much more familiar name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. Unfortunately, of course, the stage was already set, for a generation’s worth of anti-gay discrimination and violence, for shunning and persecution, in part because the quote-end-quote Gay Cancer was on the loose.
What mortals see just come around again and again and again.
Late this past February, a young man from Singapore named Jonathan Mok was walking down a busy London Street when he was taken on by attackers. The New Yorker reported that “He was kicked and punched in the face, a beating that resulted in a bruised and swollen eye the size of a golf ball.” Mok had been studying at the University of London for two years by this point. Long enough to recognize a racist attack when he experienced one. ““The guy who tried to kick me then said, ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.’”
What mortals see just comes around again and again and again.
It gets closer and closer to home. This past week, a colleague of mine, and woman of Korean American descent reported that her father in California had walked back to his car in a parking lot only to find the tires completely slashed. There was no personal grudge. There was no vendetta. There was only the obvious echo. The obvious refrain. ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.’
What mortals see just comes around again and again and again.
My own senator. Asked this week about whether or not to call COVID-19 “the Chinese Virus,” John Cornyn noted that “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that,” forgetting for a moment that he represents a state where you can eat a rattlesnake-rabbit sausage.
What mortals see just comes around again and again and again. Susan Sontag once wrote that “nothing is more punitive than to give a disease meaning.” It matters what we call a thing. It matters because the moment matters, because the moment calls something out of us, because the moment demands something of us, something better than the old petty racisms and the old petty prejudices and the old petty stereotypes that we can’t quite shake. The moment calls us across borders. The moment calls us across checkpoints. The moment calls us across trenches. Because of course the virus knows no borders. And the virus knows no checkpoints. And the moment calls us to see in the world for a moment not just what mortals see. But to see what the Lord sees.
What do I think God sees right now? I think God sees a country that, in the space of a week, has all but shut itself down — restaurants, conventions, businesses, schools — a country where millions and millions of people have decided, and often even of their own accord — to put their lives on hold, at great cost to themselves, and at great cost to the economy as a whole, in the hope of protecting the most vulnerable among us. I think God sees a country that has jeopardized its own standards of prosperity so that doctors and nurses and emergency personnel can have as much time as we can give them and as much support as we can give them. Of course, we haven’t done it perfectly. Of course, we haven’t done it with as much leadership as we need. But, nonetheless. Two weeks ago, I would have told you that flattening the curve sounded like some kind of weird surfing lingo. Today I understand it to be the most successful call to collective sacrifice in this country since Rosie the Riveter. We don’t yet know what’s coming. We don’t yet know how bad it will be. But the Lord looks on the heart.
I believe we can be the people that God sees. If you can lend your groceries, or your grocery cart, to your neighbor. You can be the people that God sees. If you can lend your supplies or your sewing skills to your local hospital and your local clinic, you can be the people the God sees. If you can get on FaceTime and read a story to a kid bored out of his mind a thousand miles away, you can be the people that God sees. If you can open your church directory and call someone you haven’t heard from, you can be the people that God sees. If you can stay home. If you can stay home, and not put yourself in the path of the virus, and not put anybody else in the path of the virus, and buy us time, and buy us time, and buy us time. You can be the people that God sees. And we can get through all of this. And we will get through all of this. It will get worse. And then it will get better. And we will get to that day that God sees. That day whereupon no more shall the sound of weeping be heard, nor the cry of distress, the Lord tells Isaiah. *
*No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
Thanks be to God.
*Isaiah 65:19b-20; 22b
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