By Pastor Monica McDougal
Scripture Text: 1 Samuel 16: 1-13
Good morning, church! It is an honor to be preaching here at Trinity for the first time. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Monica McDougal. I am Pastor of Young Adult Outreach and the office administrator here at Trinity United Methodist Church. It’s such a joy to be here and see all of you and your faces this morning. As you may know, we have been working through a sermon series about leadership inspired by some Superheroes of the Bible, familiar characters you may have learned about in Sunday School who exemplify important leadership qualities. We learned about collaboration through the story of Moses, courage through the story of Joshua, and compassion through the story of Ruth. Today, we will learn about making connections in the midst of transitions through the story of Samuel.
On April 27, 2019, The Kansas City Chiefs drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a then-21-year-old out of Texas Tech University. The world knows Patrick Mahomes as the young, talented quarterback who helped lead the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl appearance and win since 1969. However, if you follow NFL football closely, you know that Patrick Mahomes didn’t go from college football star to Super Bowl MVP overnight. In fact, for most of his rookie season, Mahomes sat on the bench. Why? Well, because the Chiefs already had a quarterback, a pretty good one too, in the form of a then-33-year-old veteran quarterback, Alex Smith.
You see, the season before Alex Smith arrived in Kansas City, the Chiefs record was 2 wins and 14 losses. You don’t have to be a football fan to know that is pretty terrible. But by the end of Smith’s first season with the Chiefs they had 11 wins and 5 losses, a huge improvement. Despite Smith and his teammates’ and coaches’ hard work, the Chiefs still hadn’t reached the Super Bowl and at the age of 33 with Patrick Mahomes entering the draft, the writing was on the wall for Alex Smith. No one knew that more than Smith himself.
In 2019, when Mahomes showed up at training camp Smith was asked by his coaches to help train Mahomes. Can you imagine? “Hey, Alex, do you mind helping us train the kid who’s here to take your job?” If Smith had refused, I don’t think many people would have blamed him. In fact, some athletes would not only refuse but would shun the newbie, choosing to ignore them or harass them. Perhaps even hoping and praying for the competition to fail. However, Smith said yes and took Mahomes under his wing, showing him the ropes of football on the professional level. When asked about this, Smith acknowledged that the press and many fans were pushing a narrative that seemed to want to pit Smith and Mahomes against one another. The two quarterbacks were immediately and incessantly compared to one another and people took sides. But when Smith saw Mahomes play, he knew that Mahomes had, quote, “it.” Mahomes was and would be a better quarterback than Alex Smith. Smith knew it was only a matter of time before the Chiefs traded him to another team. Instead of letting his pride overtake him, Smith accepted the fact that the team's success depended upon each individual player’s success, including his top competition. So, Alex Smith did his part to mentor and guide Mahomes and to this day Patrick Mahomes credits Alex Smith with his early success.
In our passage from 1 Samuel today, the prophet Samuel, for whom the book is named, finds himself in a similar position as Alex Smith. Now, as far as I know, Samuel the Prophet was not a football player, so the comparison I’m making here isn’t a perfect fit. But Samuel, like Alex Smith, found himself at the center of a transition in leadership.
Samuel is a prophet and the last Judge of Israel. When we hear the word judge today we automatically picture someone in a long, black robe presiding over a courtroom, making legal judgements or decisions. However, judges in Ancient Israel served a different purpose. Sure, they probably did occasionally settle legal disputes, but their role was much bigger than that. They were military, political, and social leaders who were meant to help guide Ancient Israel towards a more faithful existence. However, anyone who has read the Book of Judges knows that these leaders weren’t always the strong, moral authorities that God intended them to be. Samuel seems to be one of the rare judges who the people trust and like, but he’s not getting any younger. The men most likely to replace Samuel after his death, Samuel’s own sons, were shady characters who accepted bribes to influence their judgements. The Israelite people facing increasing threats from neighboring nations grew tired of the leadership of judges and demanded that Samuel appoint them a king like the ones of the powerful nations which surrounded them.
For Samuel, his people’s demand for a king is a huge blow. It is essentially a rejection of Samuel and Samuel’s bloodline. It’s embarrassing and hurtful. God tries to comfort Samuel in the face of this rejection telling him in chapter 8, quote, “they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them.” Essentially, God says that the people aren’t turning their backs on Samuel’s leadership but rather they turned their backs on God’s leadership by rejecting God’s vision for them. So, God decides if the people think a king will save them, then a king they’ll get. Enter Saul, stage right.
When we’re introduced to Saul in the 9th chapter of 1 Samuel, he is immediately described as supremely handsome. Saul is known for his physical strength and intimidating physique. He’s a strong military leader. He comes from wealth. On paper, he’s everything that the Israelites thought they needed in a leader. However, once he has the power of a king, Saul’s actions tell a different story. During this sermon series, we’ve been exploring the qualities of a good leader, but if you are curious what the specific qualities of a bad leader are, look no further than King Saul. He’s arrogant, corrupt, selfish, impatient, paranoid, cruel, jealous, and his behavior gets more and more unhinged over time. It begs the question, why on Earth would God choose someone like Saul to lead God’s people?
In our scripture passage this morning from the 16th chapter of 1 Samuel, we are given a hint that it’s not just the Israelite people who are struggling with Saul’s failure. In the opening verse, God asks Samuel, quote, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel.” Essentially, God has noticed that Samuel is pretty upset over Saul’s downfall. It’s easy to understand why. Samuel was reluctant to give Israel a king in the first place, but he was able to push through the embarrassment and hurt to give the people what they wanted. Now, his friend and the first King he’s ever anointed, mentored, and guided has been revealed as possibly Israel’s worst leader yet.
Many of us will find ourselves in a similar place of grief as Samuel. When we’ve invested a lot of time, money, energy, and faith in a person, idea, or belief and that person, idea, or belief fails us, we feel like failures by association. That comes with embarrassment, shame, anger, disappointment, etc. etc. etc. Accepting that failure, admitting defeat, is a very hard thing to do. It requires humility, forgiveness, and hope that there is a person, idea, or belief out there that won’t fail. These instances of “failure,” of “defeat,” are often complicated and messy. Look at Alex Smith, his “defeat” wasn’t caused by his own actions. He was and is by all accounts a talented, intelligent, and hardworking athlete. But he couldn't stop the inevitable changes in his game caused by age. He had to accept that what was best for his team may not have been him after all. That what was best for everyone in the Chiefs organization was for Patrick Mahomes to thrive. Alex Smith could have done what many leaders do and choose what was best for Alex Smith over what was best for his team. However, even if Alex Smith had done that, a change was still coming. Patrick Mahomes would be the next starting quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs. Alex Smith could resist that transition of leadership, dig his heels in, and stubbornly fight against the inevitable OR he could support Mahomes on and off the field to make sure he was ready for his day in the sun.
So, Samuel had a similar dilemma. He could wallow in his grief and hide in shame, but that wouldn’t change the situation. Saul had failed. He was done, and God had a new path for Israel. Change was coming, and God called Samuel on that. God says, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and get going!” But Samuel wasn’t just sad and embarrassed, he was also terrified. He had a front row seat to Saul’s reign of terror. He knew exactly what monster he was dealing with, but he also knew that God had a job for him to do. So, at that moment, Samuel made a choice. He chose to push through the grief and fear, yet again, and help God do something new for God’s people.
Samuel travels to Bethlehem under the guise of paying an animal sacrifice and his entrance into Bethlehem causes a bit of a stir. Samuel is well-known even far away from home in the city of Bethlehem, but due to his association with Saul, he’s feared too. The town elders are nervous, they’re not quite sure what brings Samuel to town. Samuel not only assures them that he’s there in peace, but invites them to join him as he pays sacrifice. He brings them along with him on his search for their next King. Samuel, with elders in tow, finds Jesse and his sons and immediately takes stock of what he sees. He notices Jesse’s eldest son Eliab and probably thinks, “Oh, okay. Yeah, this guy looks like a King. He kind of reminds me of Saul. He’s handsome, tall, and strong. He’d make a formidable military general. This must be the guy God has selected as King.” But God stops Samuel. God says, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” You see, the people were absolutely convinced that they knew exactly what they needed to survive and thrive. They thought they needed a strong, forceful King just like the other nations. But God doesn’t care how strong the man is. God doesn’t care how intimidating he is. Saul was not the one and Eliab was not the one either. He doesn’t have “it.” So, Samuel keeps looking. He takes a look at each of Jesse’s sons, but none of them have that “It Factor.” Finally, Jesse’s youngest son, David, arrives. Sure, he’s good looking but not nearly as handsome as Saul. He’s a shepherd, so he’s probably kind of scrawny and dirty from being out in the heat with the herd. He’s not a strong, intimidating warrior, but he’s the one whom God has chosen to lead God’s people. He’s got “It,” he’s got heart.
Now, it’s important to note that the It Factor that God is looking for does not mean perfection. King David was far from perfect. Spoiler alert: the perfect leader for God’s people will also arrive in Bethlehem, but we haven’t met Him yet in this story.
This passage from 1 Samuel 16 is often used in discussions of leadership, but usually the focus is on comparing David and Saul. However, Samuel’s leadership is just as important for us to pay attention to. Samuel is a transitional leader. He guided Israel through the tumultuous transition of Judge rule to the Kingdom. Now, he’ll guide them through the process of letting go of their own vision and accepting God’s. When we encounter change and transition in life, often we experience anxiety and fear. While change is constant, it’s also unpredictable and uncontrollable. During these times, we look to our leaders for guidance on how to respond and who or what to trust. For the Israelites, Saul’s cruel and erratic behavior has not even reached its worst phase yet. The rest of his reign and David’s rise to power will be fraught with fear and violence. Samuel, as someone who is trusted and respected, will be the one to whom the Israelites take their lead.
Samuel shows us that strong leadership often requires sacrifice. Anointing David as King while Saul still lives killed any friendship Samuel had left with Saul. There would be no going back. Furthermore, pushing past his grief, embarrassment, and shame meant that Samuel had to release his own expectations and dreams. In doing so, Samuel remained open to God’s word and to new possibilities. We are called to do the same.
Change is inevitable. We can try to deny that fact, to dig our heels in, and refuse to move but change is going to happen anyway. Embracing change doesn’t mean that when we step into leadership we should throw out the past and reject where and who we’ve been. Samuel knew the elders of Bethlehem were nervous about his arrival. Instead of pushing them away and invalidating their concerns, he invites them to join him. They become witnesses to David’s anointing. Their involvement, and subsequent endorsement, no doubt helps David as he battles Saul for power. Embracing change requires us to connect our past to our present. It requires us to connect people and stories. Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes embraced one another and remained open to learning from each other. Both of their careers and legacies as athletes were shaped by their ability to put pride and competition aside to work together to ensure the team’s success. As Christian leaders, we are called by God to stay open to God’s word and to help God do new things for God’s people. Now, you may never be asked by God to anoint a new king, but we all have a role in God’s transformation of this world. It starts by staying open to what God is calling you to do, to stay hopeful, to build bridges, to tear down walls. If we push through the grief, fear, embarrassment, shame, or whatever it is that is holding us back from trusting in God’s vision, we might be able to be a part of something bigger and better than any one person, something that connects all of us. Amen.
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