From the First Book of Samuel, “… the Lord does not see as mortals see; (we) look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.
When I first moved to the South almost 20 years ago now, I was mesmerized by the lushness of this region’s plants. And while I was quick to learn just how dense and how large poison ivy leaves and vines tend to be down here – we have nothing that big in New England – there was one plant that I thought beautiful. It seemed to grow everywhere and, as a vine, often covered up dead trees and shrubs turning what was once lifeless into something beautiful. Of course, I am talking about “Kudzu” – a plant that has plagued gardeners and farmers, and the entire South for many years. Kudzu’s outward beauty and healthy green color hides the reality that it is a malicious vine that slowly chokes the life out of everything in its path.
Kudzu affirms that old adage that “Looks can be deceiving”. On the one hand, sometimes what we think is beautiful is actually dangerous. On the other hand, we tend to overlook something because we think it too plain or insignificant and, in so doing, miss out on something profound. Looks can be deceiving.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we find a broken-hearted Samuel who has grown disgusted with King Saul. We might remember last Sunday’s reading told the story of how Saul was chosen to be the first King of Israel. Everyone, including Samuel, was taken in by Saul’s outward appearance. He was rich, handsome, and taller than anyone else. Surely that’s the kind of guy you want to be king; he just looks good! And so, Saul became King and just as God predicted, Saul was a disaster. In today’s particular reading, the years have passed, and Saul has revealed himself to be a tyrant. So much so, all Israel fears him, and Samuel grieves deeply because he is the one who anointed Saul as God’s chosen leader and now, he doesn’t know what to do. God tells Samuel it is time to anoint a new king and leads him to Jesse of Bethlehem with the promise that one of Jesse’s sons will become the next king of Israel.
Just as before however, Samuel – and I find this typical of human nature – is tempted to anoint the person who seems physically attractive enough to be king. But this time God intervenes and tells Samuel, “Don’t pay attention to anyone’s appearance for the Lord does not see as mortals see; (we) look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Now, the Hebrew text here actually reads that God looks to the heart or with the heart. And in Hebrew, the heart means the mind. God looks with the mind. In other words, God discerns; God thinks ahead. God tells Samuel – and all of us really – use your head: think about the choices you make. Do not base decisions upon appearances alone, but rather, discern and judge the right choice because looks can be deceiving. Then our lesson goes on and after meeting all of Jesse’s sons and turning each one down, the youngest or smallest son – which is interesting given that Saul was selected because he was the tallest – but now, the smallest son, David, is brought in from the fields. God instructs Samuel to anoint him as the new king. Our text tells us that David “had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” Now, wait a minute! Didn’t God just say that we’re not supposed to judge based upon outward appearances? That is correct. The point is that David’s outward appearance doesn’t disqualify him; rather, it just doesn’t dictate how a decision will be made. Like Kudzu, outside beauty does not guarantee a healthy selection. It’s what’s inside that counts and we, as people of God, must learn to perceive, to understand, to discern that which is right regardless of outward appearances. But discernment is often difficult for us because we live in a culture that says outward image is everything, it is what matters most. Yes, we know that God looks on the heart; looks with the mind. God judges us by our hearts – by what we think and how we act - not on our outward appearance, but how on earth are we to discern that which is the right thing to do; to know if something is beautiful inside or if it is Kudzu slowly choking us to death?
St. Paul, in today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians, echoes the words we heard in First Samuel. The Church at Corinth was incredibly successful. You name it and they had it: A budget that would set your mind spinning; Programs to meet every need; and their members included the “who’s who” of Corinthian society. But for all their outward appearance of success, on the inside that church was torn apart by elitism and arguing that demonstrated incredible spiritual immaturity. Looks aren’t everything. Just because a church has extensive programs and budgets does not mean its members love God and their neighbor more each day. Bill Hybels, former Senior Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church – the mega-church in Chicago –says he came to a sudden realization one day that his congregation of twenty thousand people lacked spiritual depth, maturity or, for that matter, character. He said, “We made a mistake by being overly dependent upon our programs at the expense of age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and relationships.” At Willow Creek, programs about Christianity had actually replaced practicingChristianity as a way of life – as a walk by faith. The result? A big building with lots of people, but little spiritual depth.” (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 162)
St. Paul reminds us that looks aren’t everything. That’s why people of God walk by faith, not by sight. Practicing our faith is not about looking good, or judging others by their physical appearance, but rather, practicing our faith is about choosing to see Christ in each other. It is about using our heads and choosing to see one another as Christ – as God sees them – with the mind, with the heart – and recognizing that regardless of whom we might have been in the past, each and every one of us has become a new creation in Christ. Walking by faith is a choice each of us has to make and as Samuel learned, it requires us to think about what we are doing and saying; it requires us to think about how we live. Our salvation, our restored wholeness, St. Paul says, is in Christ and because of Christ and Christ alone, not because of what we have or don’t have, or because of who we know or don’t know, or how we look. God’s people walk by faith, not by sight.
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark, our Lord describes the Kingdom of God as a mustard seed: A seed so small that because of its appearance, it is easily overlooked, ignored, considered insignificant, and having no purpose, no meaning for us. And yet, that planted seed can grow into a tree so large, Jesus says, that birds build their homes in its branches. Looks aren’t everything. That which appears insignificant might be the very thing that we are looking for.
You know, there was a time in my life when I envied colleagues who faced life’s challenges with seemingly endless confidence in God’s providence. I wished I could be like them. And then one day it hit me: each of us has received the same measure of faith – that same tiny mustard seed of faith that was planted in our hearts and minds at our baptism. But that faith can either remain a tiny seed or grow and become a place of support for others. Like any seed, we have to work the soil, water it, protect it and nurture it. So it is with faith. If we will make time for prayer and Bible study; if we will make time to build meaningful relationships that go beyond socializing; if we are willing to walk by faith and not by sight, pray and study together, we can move into a place of even deeper care and love for one another and our neighbor. But that requires being intentional, it requires thinking and then choosing. Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity after Religion, writes, “People who intentionally engage spiritual practices grow in their understanding and awareness of God, and they get better at prayer, forgiveness, discernment, hospitality, and stewardship” (Bass, p. 166).
We have entered a new chapter in ministry together. Certainly by outward appearances, we look very different than before: we wear masks, and while some folks have decided to worship elsewhere, several newcomers have inquired about becoming a part of this community. We are changing. The question posed for us this morning is do we see these changes as a type of Kudzu choking and obscuring our future, or God’s urging us to look deeper and more intentionally, look beyond appearances, to see God’s new creation at work in us, to see and nurture all those mustard seeds among us that are easily discounted and overlooked; mustard seeds aching to sprout forth and offer new life, new opportunities never imagined before, new ways to support one another and the greater community and in so doing, be an even more effective witness to the redemptive grace of God to the world in Christ Jesus?
The Prophet Samuel said, “(we) look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” May God grant us the grace and the wisdom to look with the heart, the mind, especially right now, and by choosing together to walk by faith, not only see those mustard seeds around us, but lift them up and nurture them. For in so doing beloved, we will find new life: abundant life; eternal life. How do I know? That is the promise of God. Amen.