Not unlike today, in Samuel’s day, people mistook the “real world “as the one ruled by those wielding the most power. Mark’s day was not much different, with the Romans firmly in command of the “real world.” When I listen to rhetoric about what people call the “real world” today, I hear that little has changed. Military prowess, awesome affluence, and superior weaponry are still key to the definition. In the “real world” of people’s imagining, some simply end up on the short end of life, while others are born on top. The “real world” is tough, and especially so if you are poor, illiterate, hungry, or a refugee.
Both Samuel and Mark invite us to look again at what we consider the “real world.” Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “I do not watch television . . . because the commercials work so well on me. If I see a trim Samsung cell phone flying gracefully through the clouds five times in one hour, then I will have to have one. If I hear the symptoms of depression described even half that often, then I will remember the name of the pill that promises to restore me to my old self. I do not watch television because the world on the screen is not the world I want to live in. It is not the real world, but if I spend enough time watching it I know I will forget that” (“What’s New” in The Christian Century).
Samuel and Mark invite us to look again at what we too often mistake for the “real world.” Their stories play off of a long human tendency to render judgments chiefly on the basis of appearance. When told to look for a king to dethrone Saul, Samuel goes looking for someone just like Saul, a distinguished figure from a wealthy, prominent family. After all, who else could be the King of Israel but someone wealthy and prominent and with lots of connections? Samuel totes his king-anointing-oil along with him to the far reaches of the kingdom and to the most unlikely family – a bunch of stinking shepherds in the boonies of Bethlehem with way too many mouths to feed.
The first son that Samuel sees is obviously God’s new choice for king – he is the eldest, a strapping lad, and the natural son to inherit the father’s wealth. But this story is not about what is obvious to Samuel; it is about what is apparent to God. In a comic sequence, Samuel is baffled time and again after he examines Jesse’s seven sons, each of them “real world” ready to be the new king. After none of the seven sons suit God to be the new king, Samuel asks Jesse, “Are there any other kids in your family?” Jesse then sends for the runt of the family – the last son who, by God’s providence, will be first, the new king of Israel. For seven straight sons, Samuel is satisfied, but for seven straight times, God says, “look again.”
In the Fourth Chapter of Mark, Jesus tells two brief seed stories. The first story highlights how seeds grow even when the sower of the seed sleeps. The second story tells of how the tiniest seed somehow holds within it the potential to become the largest shrub. Both stories suggest that what is obvious to God is not always obvious to us. Both stories are invitations by Jesus to “look again.”
When I was a child, wiggling in the church pew on Sunday morning, whispering to my mom “when will it be over,” and listening to the ancient preacher drone on and on, I knew this to be true about preachers; preachers were old, white, married, and male. Throughout my lifetime, God’s sometimes small, sometimes thunderous voice has cried out to me, “Gary, look again.” For throughout my ministry, I have been surrounded by remarkable preachers and preachers in training who have been young, not all white, not all married, and many not male. As a young boy, I was told the “real world” of the church looked one way and God through Scripture has told me to “look again.”
Initially, Samuel has no desire to “look again.” He is still grieving over what went wrong with Saul, how the powerful can sometimes be corrupted by their own power. Samuel is still trying to “fix” things so that Saul can be the king that he anointed him to be. Even when God goads Samuel to commit political treason by anointing another king while Saul is still on the throne Samuel’s eyesight does not dramatically improve. He still cannot see what God sees. When Samuel heads to Jesse’s house, Samuel looks on physique and privilege, while God looks on the heart.
When Jesus tells the parable of the seed growing almost automatically, you can hear echoes of the prophet Isaiah saying: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty” (Isaiah 55:10-11). When you and I live in fear, despairing at what is becoming of the world, the church, and asking whatever happened to God, this parable is God’s sometimes small, sometimes thunderous voice, crying out, “People of Cove, look again, God is bringing about the real world even as you sleep.”
The second parable that Jesus tells ends with a large shrub as the hospitality center of all the earth. If this shrub is Mark’s shorthand for God’s reign then it suggests that God’s reign begins from the smallest seed of a Galilean teacher, born in Bethlehem, a refugee in Egypt, of the lineage of a runt called David. God’s reign in the world is not and will not be like the Assyrians or Babylonians or Romans. “It will not be a means by which the underdogs overthrow their oppressors and replace the evil empire with one in which they are on top for a change,” writes Sharyn Dowd, “But when God reigns unopposed, the shelter will be large enough to include all who flock to it” (Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark, p. 43).
For anyone who thinks that we join in God’s reign, God’s peaceable kingdom, by building walls, by tearing infants from their nursing mothers, by sending all immigrant sinners south, this second parable is God’s sometimes small, sometimes thunderous voice, crying out, “Look again.”
On days when you wonder why you even bother coming to church or why you take time to visit that friend whose mind has long since left her or why you write your elected leader on behalf of those who have no voice, why you pause at a public meal to give thanks to God for the day’s blessings while others stare at you in disbelief, why you resist closing your eyes to shady ethical decisions with the sorry moral calculus, “Because everybody else does,” then you are stepping foot into the “real world,” God’s world, the world contained in these ancient, tired, dusty stories from Samuel and Mark, stories that really are not so ancient or tired or dusty at all, but are the sometimes small, sometimes thunderous voice of God inviting us to “look again.”
Writing about these same texts from Samuel and Mark, our own Jill Duffield said it beautifully this week. Reflecting on how many people confuse the “real world” with power and the misuse of it, with unabashed meanness, with sharpening the division between “us” and “them,” Jill writes as someone who is ready to cross the threshold into God’s real world. She says, “I refuse to live as if I am a character in a dystopian novel. I am going to lead a mustard seed life until all the birds of the air have a place to make a nest, every single nation supports the poor and hunger is no more and there is a great, beautiful, shaded, lovely place for all to live. That's the story of which I want to be a part.”
Whenever you and I grow tired and weary of living in the faux “real world” of other’s imagining, God invites us with a sometimes small, sometimes thunderous, voice to “look again!” I cannot speak for you, but I am ready to “look again.” I am ready to leap into the living “real world” that God is bringing to pass.