I grew up in a family of readers. Books were floating around the house, on the shelves, given as gifts, and shared with family and friends. I still enjoy a well-written story, an articulate argument, a creative character. I found while I was in Seminary though, in the midst of reading all those heavy and thought-provoking books, that sometimes I want something short, easy, get in, get out. This is how I continue to read what the professionals call “young adult” novels. Not all of them are shallow, some even deal with hard issues, create dystopic worlds, plunge deep into all the emotions.
One of the staples of YA literature is the “outsider.” It could be someone who is a little different, whose family functions in a counter to expected way, who loves differently, who pushes up against the cultural expectations of the world they are part of. It might be related to class, financial, racial, abilities, gender, attraction. Sometimes they are just not included in small ways and other times there are life and death consequences. Sometimes it’s a minor inconvenience and sometimes the person is made a pariah.
And we get it. Most young people, middle school, high school, have felt on the outside of friends, school, team, social events, sometimes even one’s family.
And between you and me, I thought being an adult would mean a lot of things that it turns out, I was mistaken about. One of those is that that feeling would go away, that you would just find your people and be comfortable wherever you go and with who you are. Maybe that comes at 40…
The thing about these stories. Whether they are YA novels or traditional “adult” novels or movies or TV shows, where this trope shows up, is that there is usually some trajectory where the outcast becomes welcomed. We like them because we hope that it will be true for us too.
Our theme for fall has been God Provides, but we are seeing that God is often providing by calling some, giving them a mission, a purpose, a cause, giving them their place in the world. God called Abraham to begin the family that would be a nation. God called Jacob to carry forward that call through his lacrosse team worth of children. (12). God called Moses to free the people called Israel and organize their journey to the promised land. Samuel was called to be the last judge of Israel and usher them through their time of transition to having a king. What we see through the call stories is the unlikeliness of the calling on these folks’ lives. Abraham, an aging nomad to have a legacy? Jacob, the second born to have the blessing? Moses, essentially a foster kid to become the leader of thousands. Samuel, his kinda makes sense.
But Samuel is old. He did his job, he oversaw the tabernacle, he raised his sons thinking they would be part of a dynasty. They weren’t. He and God did what the people of Israel wanted: he anointed a King, Saul, over Israel, to protect them from their enemies, to unify them, to give them direction. Saul was a tall, buff man, stood shoulders over everyone else. He looked like a king. And just before our reading for today two things happened that made it Saul would not remain king. First: they were getting ready to battle their great enemy, the Philistines, and Samuel told Saul to wait 7 days, then Samuel would perform the sacrifice to God and the battle would begin. Saul waited 7 days, with the enemy there, and his army planning a coup over here. So Saul decides to do the sacrifice himself and the moment he lit the fire, out pops Samuel from behind some tree to tell him he was supposed to wait. The second had to do with Saul was supposed to destroy a city, a people. And Samuel interprets it as destroying every person, everything, every animal, to salt the earth of their existence as it were. Saul did not interpret it that way and thought they could have a really big sacrifice to God with all the animals they capture. It might be a flimsy excuse to increase one’s holdings, but they also seem like flimsy excuses to destroy a person.
So, Samuel gets pulled out of retirement to anoint a new king, the one that God has seen for Godself among Jesse’s sons. This is where we get the runway walking of all of Jesse’s sons. And the description of Saul had been that he LOOKED like what you would think a king would look like. And Samuel looked at Jesse’s first sons and thought–this guy. And God was speaking to Samuel saying: No, listen! You’re not seeing what I’m seeing so you need to listen.
God saw something in David’s heart that was different from what was in Saul’s heart and different from what was in David’s brother’s hearts. David didn’t look like a king, he was probably pretty young, maybe was kinda small. But we are told by the writer in other places that David pursued the heart of God. When God looked at the heart of David, God saw all the potential good that David could do, that David might do, that is possible. When at his best, David did what he was called to do, followed the God of his ancestors, and allowed that to be the guiding force in the kingdom, where Saul did what he thought was right for the kingdom.
Here’s the thing, David is going to mess up, several times. Badly. The Psalm read today is attributed to David after he, look, some people are going to call it an affair, I’m not, written after he raped Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover up the resulting pregnancy. David was found out, reprimanded by God and the prophet Nathan, and punished. David cries out forgiveness, asks for a clean heart. We’re told Saul just explains away what he was doing.
Look, I have struggled with this story because I struggle with David. We’re told he this great king, the greatest king! And yet we have these stories of him being a complete mess. and not just a mess but a terrible person. And we can hope that some of it is stories, hyperbolic, exaggerated narratives of a nobody, an outsider, one relegated to the fields because he was of no consequence, having value and purpose and a calling, and then learning to live into what that means with the pressures of the world, the complications of leading, the struggles of losing one’s pursuit of what is good and right and holy. The reality of failing.
And here’s the thing. This is still how God works in the world. We are called. Sometimes God calls people to something you might not think they would be called to. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes openly about her history with addiction, talks about the times she wasn’t a great person, how sometimes those 2 things were not related. I’m sure when she walked into her first meeting with the leadership o the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America as she pursued her Masters of Divinity, ordination in their denomination, and starting a whole new church, they looked at her tattoos, and they questioned her language, and yet, from the places on the outside, God called Nadia. She started a church for outsiders, outcasts, for those who had failed, who had caused pain in their lives and the lives of those around them. And yet, they are called. God saw each of their hearts and all the potential to love and called them.
From the perspective of many years and several hundred miles and well-crafted narratives, it seems like it was a charmed calling for Nadia, for the church she had led, but I’m sure for those present, if they were to write the narrative from within, it would be filled with stories of failings and forgiveness, like all our stories.
God doesn’t call us because we’re perfect or because has some idea that we will never mess up–in fact, I would argue God doesn’t know exactly what we are doing to do but all the potential futures, all the potential results of our choices, all the ones that bring more love into the world and the ones that don’t. We are called to pursue love, that is the call on our lives. That possibility is what God sees in each of our hearts.
It’s not going to be perfect, and I don’t think it should be, that’s not the point. The point is: it doesn’t matter the number of tattoos you have, the cut of your hair, your gender or gender identity, who or who you love. It doesn’t matter if you have never done anything wrong or you have done it all. It doesn’t matter if you were the cool kid growing up or the weird kid; or if you are the weird adult or the center of all the attention. It doesn’t matter if you’re the outsider, on the margins, on the edge of society, or not, You are called. God knows your heart. Knows all the love housed within in. God’s criteria for who is called isn’t who looks the best or is flawless or perfect or never going to fail–God calls all those who are made in God’s image, who are filled with the potential of great love.
It’s Brene Brown’s work that says courage is about being vulnerable, being honest, being willing to fail, knowing that we’ll fail, and doing it anyway. She pulled from a traditional prayer of confession and calls this way of living, wholeheartedly. We live wholeheartedly, wholly in the heart God has placed in our chests, wholly in the call placed on our lives. wholly into the risk. She quotes Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts;
not the one who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends themselves in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly,
so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Living a calling on our hearts, living the love that is given to us, that is placed there, it is a risk. My guess is that some of David’s greatest failings were because he stopped living in the love he was given, he stopped living wholeheartedly. We’ll mess up. we’ll miss the mark, we’ll hurt people we didn’t mean to and we’ll fail to live wholeheartedly. We’ll not live up to our own expectations, we’ll be imperfect. But perfection isn’t the calling of God. The calling is love. The love we have been given and the love we give away.
And so, with all that great love and all that calling, may we be people who choose love, who pursue God, who seek reconciliation and restoration and forgiveness. May we be people of the calling of love.