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"Created Equal" -- 1 Samuel 15:35-16:13 (4th Sunday After Pentecost)


Photo credit: Amy Elting, used with permission via Unsplash





This is the story where God chooses the little guy over his older, bigger, stronger brothers.[1]For all of us who were ever picked last for the team, this is good news. God sees more than the world sees. God sees us – all of us – every bit of us.

        

There’s a danger, though, of seeing this story as part of a pattern where God chooses some and rejects others – as if that’s who God is and what God does. But we know that there’s more complexity than that here.


For one thing, this story is about choosing a king, and we know that in the Hebrew Scriptures, kingship is always problematic. Do you remember? God frees the people from Egypt, leads them through the wilderness. God is present with them in every move – God and God’s people right there together – the way God wants things to be.


But the people clamor for a king. Give us a king; we want to be like all the other nations. God tells the prophet Samuel to tell the people to be careful what they ask for – because we know what kings do. Kings wield power-over: They take your land to increase their own wealth and power; they take your sons and daughters to support their violence and their wars. But the people insist. And God says, “Give them what they want.” And so Saul becomes king – and things don’t go well – he doesn’t follow God, or listen to the prophets. Pretty much like God said.


And so at the start of this morning’s Scripture, God tells Samuel that God is done with King Saul. Saul will no longer be king. We’ll go to Plan B. God sends the prophet Samuel to go and anoint a new king – to try again. Now, Samuel is a little nervous about this because to anoint a new king while there is still an old king is... well, it’s treason.   But God sends Samuel to a small village, to a farming, sheep-herding family – you see, this Jesse has some sons.


So Samuel goes, and tells Jesse to gather his sons so that they can share in a ritual sacrifice, and then Samuel looks the sons up and down, to try and figure out which one God wants to be king. First comes Eliab, the eldest son, the biggest and strongest, and Samuel says, “Oh, this must be the one. This Eliab, he looks like king material.” But God says, “No, remember God does not look at the things humans consider, God doesn’t see as humans see.” So Samuel calls for Abinidab, the next-eldest, the next-strongest. But God says, “No, not him.” And then there is Shammah. And then four others. The same thing each time. Nope. Next. Until there are none left. And Samuel says to Jesse, “Is this it? Have you no more sons?”


And Jesse replies, “There is one other. The youngest. He is in the fields with the sheep.” And Samuel says, “Call him in.” And the youngest comes, and God says to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him. This is the one.” Look where God sends Samuel to find a king – out to a minor village, to “a family of no importance,”[2] to the youngest, littlest son – so unimportant to his own family that they don’t even invite him to the party when a prophet comes to town.[3] Now there’s something a little liberating about the little guy being chosen instead of the big guys who always get chosen first.


But the danger is that we see this story only as a story where God chooses one, and rejects others – as if that’s how God chooses to operate in general – separating us one from the other, some are out and some are in.  But that’s not it. At the heart of the story there’s that bit where God offers Samuel some direction: “Don’t look at outward appearances. God doesn’t look at what humans consider. Humans look at outward appearances. God looks at the heart.” There’s also the danger that we might see God as one who separates out us – each of us – our bodies from our spirit – as if we can be somehow bifurcated. There’s the outward appearances – our bodies – and the inner spirit. There’s a verse in the New Testament: God is not a respecter of bodies – that verse can be twisted all sorts of ways.


So let’s start by affirming this: God loves bodies. All bodies. Every body in this story. And us. God created our bodies – all our bodies – in the image of God “created God them” – eldest, youngest, big, and small – across the broad and rich diversity of gender, and race, and humanity. From the beginning on up until now, God breathes life into our bodies, God’s own spirit into our bodies, the living, breathing image of God. The Psalms celebrate this – God knits us together in our mother’s womb, weaves us together from the depths of the earth. God creates our bodies and never stops loving our bodies. God brings bodies in slavery out into freedom. God seeks out bodies in exile and brings them back home. God feeds bodies. God heals bodies. In Jesus Christ, God lives life in a body. God loves bodies. Every body.


·      Eldest bodies, and youngest bodies, and every age in between.


·      Bodies who move through the world with the help of wheels or walkers, and bodies just learning to walk.


·      God loves black bodies, brown bodies, Asian bodies, Caucasian bodies.


·      God loves bodies across the vibrant and beautiful spectrum of Gender – female, non-binary, male bodies.


·      God loves queer bodies, straight bodies, trans bodies.

God loves bodies. Every body.


This story is not about God rejecting bodies – rejecting some bodies over other bodies. What God is rejecting here are the systems that separate out our bodies and treat different bodies differently. God is rejecting the systems that oppress bodies. God is rejecting the systems that hoard all the resources of the family and give them to the eldest son, leaving the youngest vulnerable, out in the field with the sheep – and the women in the family even more vulnerable than that. God is rejecting the systems that give most of the resources to a privileged few, at the expense of everyone else. God is rejecting the systems that privilege the powerful, the strong, those who can wield the most violence as a way of lifting themselves up, while keeping everyone else down.


God is rejecting those systems, and affirming once again the equality of all bodies – bodies, not bound by systems that differentiate and demean, but free. What Samuel doesn’t know, as he’s so immersed in their world of power over, is that the new king just might be the youngest, littlest guy, out watching the sheep in the field. And that’s no small thing.


Remember a few weeks ago, when we talked about M. Shawn Copeland’s work Enfleshing Freedom – and the centrality of bodies in our experience of the world and our work for freedom.[4] Bodies are the place where we experience the world, each other, and God. They are the place where we have agency, and where we live out our humanity. Systems that differentiate and demean bodies distort our humanity, the image of God that we bear in those bodies, and God’s will for the freedom of all bodies.[5]


God loves bodies, and what God is doing here is rejecting the systems that harm bodies. And we know what those systems look like. We don’t have to go scouring through ancient texts to find them. We know them in our own world.


And if we forget, Juneteenth calls on us to remember. Juneteenth is a national observance that calls us to remember and celebrate freedom and liberation, but that also insists that we remember slavery and its continuing impact on our world today. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas with news that those held in slavery had been set free.[6] This news came to Black Texans two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 6 months after the end of the Civil War. (One suspects that White Texans might have already known, but not mentioned it.)


Slavery is one of the most brutal and pernicious systems for differentiating and demeaning human bodies and human beings.[7] In the 1500s and 1600s, European powers – with the help of the Church – created a construct of race and a concept of whiteness that helped them then subjugate people with darker skin, and deny their full humanity. Those powers (and ultimately American powers too) enacted laws that purported to allow some human beings to own other human beings – to enslave them, and sell them, and lease them out. Those laws denied them citizenship, and the vote, and education, and the right to defend themselves against violence, the right to raise and nurture a family without the fear – nearly every basic human right.[8] And they weren’t just local laws, we know that the United States Constitution was written to protect the institution of slavery in what has been aptly called this nation’s original sin.[9]


When Union troops rode into Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, they came with a decree – backed by the force of law – that proclaimed the end of slavery, the freedom of those who had been enslaved, and the equality of all human bodies, all human beings. That decree affirmed what should have been obvious, because it had been promised from the very beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”


And folks began to celebrate that Juneteenth moment when word of freedom finally arrived – at first Black Texans, and down through the years, communities across the country. We talked about that history a good bit last Juneteenth.


This year, I want to talk about Opal Lee – who is lovingly known as “the grandmother of Juneteenth.”[10]


Photo credit: White House, public domain


Opal Lee grew up in Texas – she knew the story of Juneteenth, and she also knew the realities of the Jim Crow south: When she was a child, her family’s home was burned to the ground by a racist mob. Opal Lee grew up in Texas, raised a family, taught school and worked nights to make ends meet, and in her retirement she had some time to think. And she came up with the thought – that Juneteenth ought to be a national observance – a national celebration of freedom, a lifting up of the equality of all people, and a reminder of the work that this nation still has to do.


And, to bring this idea to the attention of the nation, Opal Lee decided that she would go to Washington, DC -- that she would walk to Washington, DC. So at age 89, Opal Lee set out, walking 2.5 miles per day – 2.5 signifying the 2.5 years that Black Texans had to wait for word of their emancipation.


I'm going to ask Karl to put up the map we looked at during Children's Time:




What do you notice about this route from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington DC?


It cuts right through the heart of the Deep South. This is where, up until the Civil War, laws had allowed black bodies to be enslaved. This is where, up until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, laws would have actively limited the movement of Black bodies – Black folks – where they could be denied services, and lodging – where a menacing police power was always a threat. (That’s part of what the Freedom Riders were standing against.)


In 2016, Opal Lee – an 89 year old Black woman – with a growing crowd of others – Black, white – folks who would join her along the way – she walked right through the heart of that – freely. She did, with her body, what those Union troops did on June 19, 1865: She proclaimed the equality and freedom of all people, and all bodies, and said back to those in power – we should celebrate this – we should observe this – we should keep up the work. And in 2021, the President of the United States – with Opal Lee at his side – signed into law a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday – a national observance. And just last month, Opal Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


And as we celebrate and observe that Juneteenth moment of freedom – we know that those systems that differentiate and demean – they’re not completely dismantled. We know that entrenched systems of racism continue to do their harm. We know that those systems persist here in Marin County.


Just about a week ago, I went to the latest “Come to the Table Event” in Marin City. We’ve been announcing those events for the past few months, and you can hear more about them in the Sunday Seminar after worship.[11]  Folks in the Marin City community are working with some folks throughout Marin County to host a monthly meal and panel discussion, where those gathered can get to know each other and learn about the issues facing Marin City. I’ve mentioned my own learning that if we want to be a part of helping our neighbors in Marin City, we have a responsibility first to listen.


Last Saturday’s panel discussion was about health disparities in Marin County – and it featured a Stanford pediatric nephrologist who lives in Marin City, and County Public Health Director Matt Willis. Did you know that the life expectancy for our neighbors in Marin City is 8 years less than the life expectancy for those who live in the rest of the county?  It’s 12 years less than the life-expectancy for those who live in next-door Sausalito.[12] Public health officials attribute that difference to what are called “social determinants of health” – inequalities in the basic things in life that contribute to our health – access to healthcare, access to sources of healthy food, access to open spaces. Studies show that 80% of health is determined by these factor and forces outside the healthcare system. Inequalities in access result in inequal opportunity for better health. When asked “What can we do to help heal these health disparities?,” the doctors on the panel said, “Join the work to eliminate these social inequalities.”


If we are to take seriously the equality of all bodies – of all people – if we really mean it when we say all people are created equal – then we need to take seriously the work of dismantling systems that differentiate, demean, and harm.


In this morning’s Scripture, God rejects those systems, as God chooses the one whom the powers would ignore. On June 19, 1865, federal troops announced the end of one of those systems – what should have been obvious – the equality and freedom of all people.


Juneteenth – thanks to Opal Lee, walking from Texas to DC – 2.5 miles at a time – reminds us of what we say should be self-evident – "All people are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights." That is what we say we believe as a nation and as a people of faith.


May it be so. May we work to make it so in the life we live together.



© 2024 Scott Clark




[1] For general background on this text and 1 & 2 Samuel, see Alphonetta Wines, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-11-2/commentary-on-1-samuel-1534-35-161-13-4  ; Bruce C. Birch, “The Books of First and Second Samuel,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998); and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp.73-75.

[2] NIB, p. 1100.

[3] See Wines, supra; Birch, pp. 1099-1100.

[4] See M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (2d ed.) (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2023) (“In and through embodiment, we human persons grasp and realize our essential freedom through engagement and communion with other embodied selves.”).

[5] See id. pp.14-15.

[6] For a brief summary of the history of Juneteenth, see https://www.nytimes.com/article/juneteenth-day-celebration.html

[7] See Copeland, pp.17-34.

[8] See id.

[9] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011); Derrick A. Bell, Jr., And We Are Not Saved (1987); Scott Clark, “When Wait Means Never: American Tolerance of Racial Injustice,” National Black Law Journal (UCLA ed.), vol. 13, no. 1 (1993).

[11] For more on the Come to the Table events, you can visit the website here: https://www.ctttmarin.org

[12] Statistics are from the Come to the Table presentation, as provided by the Marin County Director of Public Health.

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