Text: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
We like labels. They make life easier.
If a jar says poison, it can quickly save my life. If it says gluten-free, then it is safe for some people. Labels help us make quick decisions about certain things, and that is good.
The problem is that we like to slap labels on people.
Many of you know that I began my adult career as a caricature artist. I drew at the Great America amusement park in Chicago and then ran the business at the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas for six years.
During those years I drew at hundreds of parties. It was always interesting to observe how people sized me up and slapped a label on me. Many times they would ask, with condescension in their eyes, “So, is this what you do for a living?” Implying that no one would actually do that.
An interesting thing happened to me during those years. I was called into ministry and became a pastor. Pastors don’t make great money, so I had to keep drawing at parties to help make ends meet.
Sometimes I was feeling a little feisty, and when people would ask, “so is this all you do?” I would smile and say, “actually…I’m a pastor.”
I wish I had snapshots of the looks on those faces. You would think I threw a skunk in the room. You could almost hear the peeling sound as they ripped one label off of me and slapped another on. Suddenly they treated me differently. They would apologize for something they had said. “Oh, I’m sorry, Father,” they’d say. I always loved that one.
Isn’t strange how quickly we label someone and then behave according to our understanding of that label?
Our story deals with this. We are going to look at the life of David, one of the greatest characters of all time, and see how his story cries out, “Don’t Label Me!”
We have three texts in our lectionary this week. Each one of them tells us one reason that labels, and labeling people, are dangerous.
The first thing we learn is that labels reduce people to objects.
Let’s look at the text in 1 Samuel 16:1-13.
This is the story of how David is chosen to be the next King of Israel. If you are paying attention to the bigger story, then you might be wondering, “Next King? The last time we talked there was no king in Israel!”
Let’s fill in the gaps from last week.
When we last met our hero, Samuel was a boy who lived with his mentor Eli, and heard the voice of God. He grew up and things got bad in Israel. The people respected Samuel, but they did not like his sons. Eventually the people cried out, ““You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” (1 Samuel 8:5).
God said to Samuel, “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7)
The people chose a king. He was a tall, strong, warrior type guy named Saul. I like to call him Tall Saul. He turned out to be a bad king with a bad attitude, and the nation needed a new king.
That’s where our story starts today. God sent Samuel to find a new king.
God said to Samuel, “I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” (1 Samuel 16:1)
Bethlehem. Not the typical place to find a king. Normally, a high position like this would go the first born son of a prominent man. Jesse lived in Bethlehem, a small town.
Samuel gets to Jesse’s house and Jesse lines up his seven sons. Samuel looks at the first one and says, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:6–8, NRSV)
You see, when Samuel looked at Eliab, he saw the picture of what he thinks a king looks like. In our minds, when we label people, we reduce them to the objects that will serve a particular purpose in our life.
Some labels are useful.
You are a teacher, you will teach my children.
You are a doctor, you will heal my sickness.
You are a police officer, you will protect me.
You are a plumber, you will fix my pipes.
Some labels work like this:
You are pretty, you make me feel good.
You are popular, you will make me look good.
You are powerful, you will help me get what I want.
Some labels work like this:
You are lazy, you don’t deserve help.
You are different, you should be cast out.
You are the enemy, you should be eliminated.
Samuel said, “You are tall and strong, you will make a great king.”
What is consistent throughout all these labels is that each person is reduced to an object that can be used and manipulated.
David’s story continues and we see another dangerous thing about labels. Labels are static, but people are in process.
David defied the labels that Samuel had for king. Jesse had his first seven sons stand before Samuel. Samuel got through them all and said, “Do you have any more.”
“Well,” Jesse scratched his head, “there is one more, but he’s off watching sheep.”
“I’ll wait,” Samuel said.
Enter this young shepherd boy, named David. He was the last thing you would expect.
You probably know some of David’s story. He’s the guy who defeated Goliath, remember.
Let’s look at this picture for a second. This shows the major points of David’s life as it is told throughout the book of 2 Samuel.
He starts out as this young, energetic, courageous, righteous young man who is able to defeat the warrior Goliath with a sling shot.
He is a humble man. Even though he knows that God has chosen him, he will not rebel against King Saul or force himself upon the throne.
He is a mighty leader who leads his people into victory and peace.
If you were to take a snapshot of David right now, and label him, what would you write? Humble? Courageous? Godly?
His story continues, however. This same David looks out across the yard one day and sees a beautiful woman. She is married to the captain of David’s army. That doesn’t stop David. He seduces her, gets her pregnant, and then has her husband murdered.
How would you label him now? Adulterer? Murderer? Cheater? Sinner?
Then we come to our second scripture. Psalm 51 says, “Create in me a clean heart…” This Psalm was written after David was busted for doing what he did to Bathsheba.
How would you label him now? Repentant? Busted? Two-Faced? Authentic?
Here’s the thing about labels. They are static. They are flat snapshots that only tell one small piece of a large, unfolding process that is taking place in a person’s life.
There is a third problem with labels that we see. Labels are on the surface, but truth is in the heart.
Look what Jesus says about this in the Gospel text. Jesus has been accused of being a lawbreaker because he healed people on the Sabbath day, the day that you weren’t supposed to do any work.
What is Jesus’ response? “If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”” (John 7:23–24, NRSV)
Think about this. Jesus was a homeless man who was considered to be a lawbreaker by the influential people in the community. If that type of person were to come to our church, how would we receive him?
I often wonder if Jesus were in the flesh today, would he be allowed in most churches?
What do we do with this? How do we stop labeling people. Let’s be honest. Labeling is easy to do, and it actually makes life much easier.
I think we find the answer to that question in our main text from 1 Samuel.
The way to stop labeling is:
To stop looking and start listening.
Do you remember what God said to Samuel? He told Samuel to go to Jesse’s house, and when Samuel met the new King, God would tell him.
What did Samuel do? It says, “when he saw Eliab, he figured he was the one.” He looked at him, and labeled him. He didn’t listen to God.
Listening is at the heart of God.
Some of you are involved in the Dinner with Jesus experience that we’re doing right now. The purpose of this experience is to learn how to listen. To listen to God as God speaks through the text, but also how God speaks through the other people in the room.
Over the next few weeks you will hear me talk about the research project I will be leading next year. I plan to gather a small group of people from Grace, from Zion Lutheran in Anoka, and a congregation in Coon Rapids, and we are going to spend several months learning how to listen to God and try to discern what God is doing in this area.
This week, as you move through the sea of people, I have a challenge for you. Try not to look at the surface. Put your marker away and don’t label. Try to listen to that person, or listen to what God might be saying.
You never know, you just might be talking to the next king?