Sermon: Walking the path of righteousness
Text: I Samuel 16:1-13
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, on 3-26-2017)
In our recent move, I ran across my parents’ high school senior yearbook. In it, there are several pages devoted to special students – “Best Athlete,” “Best Dressed.” “Best Student.” The one that caught my eye, though, was “The Most Likely to Succeed.” Beneath the title was a handsome, shaved, buff, All-American looking young man – someone whose appearance leaves no doubt that he is heading down the highway of fame and fortune.
The text for today is written for those of us who are easily seduced by appearance – be it the clean-cut chap voted “The Most Likely to Succeed” or the obstreperous teen with rings and tattoos adorning every conceivable body part. At its heart, this biblical story suggests that our eagle eyes and initial impressions are not nearly as foolproof as we often assume.
In this classic tale of surprise, the wise and venerable prophet Samuel visually inspects the children of Jesse, one by one. Each son is pleasing to the eye and as each son parades past Samuel, the prophet is sure that “this must be the one that God has chosen to be king!” The parade of sons ends though and not one of Jesse’s sons is the one chosen by God to be king. Samuel judges on appearance only and as a result, he misjudges God’s intention. It is not until the young, ruddy, runt David is summoned that Samuel finds the son chosen by God – a choice that Samuel himself would never have made in a thousand years.
Each of Jesse’s older sons had the customary appearance of a king, but looks in this particular story, as is so often the case in life, were absolutely deceiving. Confounded by how God could not choose one of these fine looking boys to be the next king of Israel, God informs Samuel: “the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." Samuel’s judgment was flawed on repeated attempts, because he failed to understand that you never know a person until you have looked beyond initial appearance and have seen their heart.
What would you say if you were asked: “Who is Gary Charles?” Some might answer, “He’s a Presbyterian pastor, the new pastor at Cove.” “He’s Jennell’s husband and Erin and Josh’s dad.” “He’s the guy who has way too many opinions and never hesitates to share them in the pulpit.” All of those statements are true, but they are not worth the breath used to speak them, until you have seen my heart.
The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Doesn’t that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing that God does not judge us by outer appearance, but by the quality of our heart?
Before answering that loaded question, think twice. Do we really want God to see the inner recesses of our heart, see greed masquerading as concern for an aging parent? See racism dressed up as civic virtue as we protest that we are just trying to keep our neighborhood “safe.” Is it good when God sees our hearts turned stone cold, keeping an excel spreadsheet on every slight done to us or when God sees us playing fast and quick with the truth while lamely excusing it as a “white lie”?
It can be a terrible thing when God looks only on the heart. Had God looked only on David’s heartfelt lust for Bathsheba, he would never have remained king. Had God looked only on David’s heart as he conspired to get rid of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, David could well have lost more than his kingship.
God does look on the heart, but not in order to entrap us and to condemn us, but to restore us to the image in which you and I were created in the first place. God looks on young David’s heart through eyes of grace and is able to see a king, is able to see beyond the ways David will break God’s own heart. As John says it so well in his Gospel, “God did not send God’s Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” When God looks at our hearts, God no doubt sees our scars and wounds, sees the horrors that we do to ourselves and to others, but God also sees something in us far beyond a broken and damaged heart.
What do you suppose other people see when they look at Cove Presbyterian Church? That is what I was trying to find out last year before I accepted the call to be your pastor. I had driven by the church many times on my trips from Atlanta to Waynesboro. Driving along at 60 or 70 mph on Route 29, Cove struck me as one of the countless charming 18th century brick sanctuaries that can be found throughout Virginia. I even wondered aloud on occasion if this church was still open. You see, the tiny signs for Cove on 29N and 29S do not tell you much; first impressions rarely do.
The far more important question is: “What does God see when God looks on the heart of Cove Presbyterian Church?” It was not until a very cold early winter night a year ago that I first began to uncover the answer to that question. On that night, I met with the Pastor Nominating Committee for the first time, with Renee and Fran, Will and Susan and Beth Neville. I soon learned that my first impressions of Cove were woefully inadequate. I began to see the heart of Cove as I listened to members of the PNC share their stories. Then, we walked into this holy sanctuary and I felt the faith of not only the members of the PNC, but of the countless members and pastors and musicians who have come before us.
When I asked members in presbytery for impressions about Cove, they cautioned me that Cove has not called a full time pastor in years and some wondered aloud if it were wise to do so now. Some even suggested that Cove should find another small, struggling congregation and together share a pastor. Clearly, these presbytery members knew something about Cove, had some definite first impressions, but they knew Cove mainly from outward appearance and as a result, they had a poor read on Cove’s heart. In fairness to them, though, that is what we mortals are apt to, to render judgment on first impressions, but God looks directly on the heart. And, God knows that the heart of this church is so much larger than any person could ever see from the street or know from afar.
I am convinced that when God looks on the heart of Cove, God sees the strength of longtime members who have persevered and provided perspective through troubled transitions and challenging times. God sees the courage of Cove to choose welcome in a time when many are choosing to withdraw or close doors. God sees Cove’s passion for mission, from housing a fine preschool for children on the grounds to building homes with partners in Habitat, from supporting mission workers in Haiti to laboring in new construction in Reynosa, Mexico, from keeping the Food Bank supplied with food to exploring how we might host refugee families. God beams with pride looking on the hearts of members caring for the well-being of each other, with wood delivered and food prepared, hospital visits made and prayers offered.
My strong hunch is that when God looks at Cove Presbyterian Church, God sees a living, lively, loving, sometimes quirky, always opinionated, definitely inquisitive, abundantly generous, body of Christ, a company of flawed and fabulous hearts that surely have made and will continue to make glad the heart of God.