Living in Transitions

We are spending a few weeks here at Zion thinking about transitions. Fall is a transitional season. As a congregation we are preparing to transition back to regular indoor worship. The world continues to be in a season of transition with the Covid-19 pandemic: the numbers are going down here in the US and booster vaccines are available so maybe we are transitioning to yet another mode of living with this virus. Transitions. Many of you are experiencing transitions in your personal life: in your relationships, in your jobs, in your housing situations, in school, in health. Transitions. Things are changing. We wonder what’s ahead. When we are in transition, the future feels uncertain. Really the future is always uncertain, it’s just that sometimes we’re more aware of it. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Transitions. 

Last week Pastor Kara shared with us a story of God calling the name of a young boy, calling his name and calling him to be a prophet. She reminded us that God knows us even when we don’t yet know God, and that we can help each other recognize God’s calling in our lives. I’ll add to that this morning that God knows where we are going even when we don’t know where this transition will lead us, and that we can help each other through these transitions. 

This morning we are going to read a story of transition from the Old Testament and just pull a few concepts out of it that I hope will comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable this morning. 

Last week we heard God calling to the child Samuel. Samuel grew up to be a trustworthy prophet who revealed God’s word to the people, and so the people began to recognize that they needed a more formal leader. They asked for a king. Samuel reminded them that God was their king, and a human king would inevitably go wrong, but they insisted, and God agreed, anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the country, and he was handsome and charismatic. Unfortunately, he also chose political expediency over faithfulness to God’s way, and when waiting for God and Samuel to give their blessing in the midst of a military situation became too difficult, he took matters into his own hands. As a result, Samuel told him that God would choose another king to take his place. We pick up the story today in 1st Samuel chapter 16, when Saul is still on the throne but has just heard from God that his days as king are numbered. I am reading from the Common English Bible.

The Lord said to Samuel, “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. I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have seen my next king among his sons.”

“How can I do that?” Samuel asked. “When Saul hears of it he’ll kill me!”

“Take a heifer with you,” the Lord replied, “and say, ‘I have come to make a sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will make clear to you what you should do. You will anoint for me the person I point out to you.”

Samuel did what the Lord instructed. When he came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they asked.

“Yes,” Samuel answered. “I’ve come to make a sacrifice to the Lord. Now make yourselves holy, then come with me to the sacrifice.” Samuel made Jesse and his sons holy and invited them to the sacrifice as well.

When they arrived, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, That must be the Lord’s anointed right in front.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “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.”

Next Jesse called for Abinadab, who presented himself to Samuel, but he said, “The Lord hasn’t chosen this one either.” So Jesse presented Shammah, but Samuel said, “No, the Lord hasn’t chosen this one.” Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord hasn’t picked any of these.” Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

“There is still the youngest one,” Jesse answered, “but he’s out keeping the sheep.”

“Send for him,” Samuel told Jesse, “because we can’t proceed until he gets here.”

So Jesse sent and brought him in. He was reddish brown, had beautiful eyes, and was good-looking. The Lord said, “That’s the one. Go anoint him.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him right there in front of his brothers. The Lord’s spirit came over David from that point forward.

Then Samuel left and went to Ramah.

1 Samuel 16:1-13

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

A story of transition. For Samuel, for the nation of Israel (although they don’t know it yet), and for David. As we consider our own transitions this morning, personally, congregationally, and globally, here are some things that stuck out to me.

The first is that we have to let go of the old thing in order to embrace the new thing. Israel could not have two kings. Now there’s a weird in-between period where Saul is still king but David has been anointed, but they don’t really have two kings. Saul has to leave the throne before David can assume the throne. We have to let go of the old thing in order to embrace the new thing, and that’s true even if God gave us the old thing! Saul was God’s anointed king. But not everything that God gives us is meant to last. Sometimes we mess it up with our own choices and sometimes it just runs its course. Some of us are wired for security. I am. I want stability. I want tradition. I want to figure something out and then just keep doing it that way. But that’s not the way life works, really, for any of us. Nothing lasts forever, even the things that we are sure were given to us by God. And if we try to hold on to them past their expiration date, it’s going to bring us pain. We have to let go of the old thing in order to embrace the new thing.

Which leads to our second observation: it’s natural to grieve for the old thing. The story starts with Samuel grieving over the end of Saul’s kingship. Samuel knows the new thing is coming. God has already told him. But he loved the old thing. And so he grieves. Samuel doesn’t see Saul again until the day of Saul’s death, but he grieves over the loss of his protégé and his king. Often when we are in transition and this is especially true when the transition is the loss of a loved one, we expect to “get over it.” Sometimes people even tell us to get over it. But there are some losses and some transitions that we don’t really get over, meaning we don’t care that they happened. But we can learn to live with them, and there’s a difference. In time, with the love of a community and by the grace of God, we can learn to live with it. In transition, it’s natural to grieve over the old thing, but we also must learn to live with the new thing. 

That’s what God tells Samuel to do. God says, “How long will you grieve over Saul? Get up. It’s time to move forward.” So even though it’s natural to grieve in a transition, it is possible to grieve for too long. There is a condition called pathological grief which is characterized by severe and persistent grief reactions long beyond (we’re talking several years) beyond a loss. Interestingly enough this often happens when someone does not properly grieve when they first experience the loss. Eventually that loss begins to dominate their whole life and they don’t learn to live with it; it controls them. It is possible to grieve for too long. God wants to help us acknowledge the transition, grieve for what we have lost, and then move forward into what God is offering us next.

A fourth observation is that in transition we should expect the unexpected. This king selection story reads like a reality TV show, with excellent candidates coming forward only to be rejected. People who heard this story would have expected the oldest son to be selected, or the tallest one. After all, King Saul was tall and strong and handsome. That’s what we expect in a king. But God subverts the social expectations. The one to be anointed king is the youngest one (although the story still makes a point of how good-looking he is, which is just funny!). The one to be anointed king is the one his father didn’t even bother to call in from the pastures! The one with the low-class job. God anoints the one everyone else overlooks. When God is bringing about a transition in our lives, we should expect the unexpected. 

And finally, when we are in transition, we need to pay attention to what God is really doing. This story is hard to stage, like where is everyone and what is actually happening, and does anyone ever cotton on to the fact that David is being anointed as king? The story is rather vague on this point. But it seems that Saul anoints David as king during a ritual sacrifice. So, people from the town have assembled: the elders of the city, and Jesse and his sons, and probably other families and they are celebrating a religious ritual, sacrificing to God. And in the midst of that, Samuel anoints David as king, the story says, “In the presence of his brothers.” But it doesn’t tell us that anyone made a very big deal out of this. And so I wonder if perhaps everyone else is paying attention to the religious ritual, and right in the midst of it, this other really significant thing is happening. 

Our worship is significant. Gathering for worship matters. We’ve talked about this. But when we gather, our liturgy and our songs and our prayers and the sermon, this stuff is the framework. This is how we create the environment. The significant thing is not the framework. The significant thing is what happens to us, among us, between us and God, within this framework. Our corporate worship creates an environment within which God works, often in ways that have nothing to do with what we are doing in the moment. My prayer for all of us is that when we come to worship we experience God, individually and corporately. The worship planning team does our best to write meaningful liturgy and prayers and select meaningful music, but that stuff is the shell; the meat of divine connection is what happens within that shell. The structure of our worship is the spark; our experience of God is the flame. As a church, it is very tempting for us to be distracted by the framework, by our particular traditions and the way we’ve always done it or what we think we should do. But when we are in transition, we need to pay attention to what God is really doing.

And like I said at the beginning, we are in transition. This congregation is in transition. On November 7 we are going to fully return to indoor worship. That’s actually a pretty significant transition for us because we haven’t really officially deliberately worshipped together in that building since March of 2020. Who we are has changed since then. So we are once again in transition, figuring out who we will be. On that day we will another half-dozen new members join us. That is a transition because we don’t ask them to come and simply assimilate. We welcome them and know that we will be changed by them.

We have more focus than we have had at least in as long as I’ve been here. We know what our mission is: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. We know what our four core ministries are: worship, outreach and mission, member care, and Christian education. We can clearly articulate our six spheres of service, the areas where you individually can be part of carrying out our four core ministries. We are experimenting with monthly community breakfasts and weekly Bible studies at Delaware County Jail. We are getting more involved with the Habitat for Humanity apostles build, including some fundraising next year. 

We are in transition. We may not yet know who we are but we have a sense of who we are becoming, who God is calling us to be. Remember at the beginning I said that we can help each other through the transitions? That’s true. This is not the Reverend Beth Gedert Show. This is a church. Together we discern who God is calling us to be and together we commit to it. We spent several weeks talking about GenerUSity and I am so grateful to all of you who shared your commitments for the coming year. Being a member at Zion means committing to make this church a healthy and safe place for everyone. Some of you haven’t turned in commitments yet and I know you are still thinking about it. We would still be happy to receive those. We did not land where we hoped to, which means we may have to make some hard choices next year. Council has committed to caring for our staff, which specifically means bringing my compensation up to the amount recommeded by the UCC Heartland Conference and increasing Brian’s salary. But there are other things we want to do as well and so far the numbers don’t show we can do it all. So either we have to discern all together again what God actually wants from us or we need to step forward into what we think God is calling us to do. For some of us that means committing to faithful attendance. For some of us that means turning our faithful attendance into consistent participation on a team. And for some of us that means moving from sporadic giving to regular giving and making that commitment known to the finance team. 

I don’t think we’ve heard wrong. I think God is leading us through a transition to a new era in the life of Zion United Church of Christ. We have had good things in the past. Some things will inevitably change and it is natural for us to grieve for those. But we have to let go of the old things in order to embrace the new things. We need to pay attention to what God is really doing and expect the unexpected. Because with this transition, I fully believe our best days are ahead of us. Amen. 

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