July 20, 2014

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


I Samuel 16:1-13

The tradition of a farewell address goes clear back to George Washington.  Most of our presidents, not all, have since followed this tradition.  And several of them have made reference to something that is at the heart of who we are as Americans.  President Carter may have said it best back in 1981:  “In a few days I will lay down

my official responsibilities in this office — to take up once more the only title in our democracy superior to that of president, the title of citizen.”

The first three words of the United States Constitution are, “We the people.”   “We the people” rule in this country.  Not a royal family or a ruling class.  The common people.  Our president really has only one boss.  We are his boss.  He works for us.

It goes back to the Declaration of Independence,  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  All people, men and women, are equal in God’s eyes.  None higher.  None lower.  We are different in many ways.  Different really in every way, except one:  No one in this country is superior or inferior to anyone else.

We have a saying:  “Anyone can grow up to be president.”  That Brooks & Dunn song captures this.  It opens with the story of a school bus driver caught in a traffic jam.  So he has a moment to take his eyes off the road and study his rear view mirror.  He’s looking into the faces of the children he is transporting.  “One kid dreams of fame and fortune.  One kid helps pay the rent.  One could end up going to prison.  One just might be president.”  You never know.  The one dreaming of fame and fortune might be the one in prison.  And the one helping pay the bills at home might be the one in the White House.  Or vice versa.  Only in America.

Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin.  It was about as humble a birth and as humble an upbringing as could be imagined.  Abraham Lincoln was as common as common can be.  And yet he grew up to be president.  Not just president but perhaps the greatest president we have ever had.  Whether he really said it or not, he is the perfect one to have said it:  “God must love the common people, He made so many of them.”

In England they have common people, too.  But they also have royalty.  They have a House of Commons in their Parliament.  But they also have a House of Lords.  They are “class conscious” in England.  Not everyone can grow up to be Queen.  Or King.  It doesn’t matter how talented you are or how hard you work.  If you aren’t born to the right parents, you’re out of luck.

Tuesday will be the first birthday of Prince George.  You may remember when he was born.  I don’t know how you could not.  It was all “royal baby” news all the time.  It was like there was nothing else going on in the world.  About the only media outlet that didn’t go wall to wall with royal baby news was Rush Limbaugh.  He had one of his classic lines.  “We fought a war for independence so we wouldn’t have to care about the royal baby.”

This quaint old idea that one person is just as good as any other person and that all persons should have a chance to do whatever they want to do and be whatever they want to be is a big part of who we are as Americans.  It’s also big in the Bible.

There are kings in the Bible.  And queens.  There is class consciousness all through the Bible.  And, yes, there is slavery.  But there is also every indication that none of this is God’s will.  God’s will is expressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatians:  “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

We find this also in the scripture we read for today from

I Samuel.  It’s the story of David the shepherd being chosen by Samuel the prophet to become David the king.

The first king hadn’t worked out so well.  King Saul was impressive at first.  He showed a lot of potential.  But he pretty well ended up a homicidal maniac.  There is a lot of interesting material in the Bible before Saul was chosen to be king that reveals many misgivings over whether it was God’s will for them to have a king at all.  So when Saul flames out, there was a fair amount of “I told you so” going on.

And it’s a little surprising that God wants to try again.  The first king didn’t work out so now it’s time for a second king.  Except not Saul’s son.  Not the royal bloodline thing that is still the way they do it in England.  It’s the way they would later do it in the Bible.  But here God is interested in the best qualified person for the job.  And so God sends Samuel to Jesse.  “Because”, God says, “I have chosen one of his sons to be king” (I Samuel 16:1).

God doesn’t say which one.  Not in advance anyway.  But Samuel figures he can figure it out.  He knows what kings are supposed to look like.  And sure enough the eldest son, Eliab, looks exactly like a king.  He’s tall.  He’s handsome.  He has to be the one.  This didn’t take long.  This was easy.  Except Samuel was mistaken.  He had the wrong one.  God says, “Do not look at his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (16:7).

We are impressed by appearances.  Or who your parents are.  Or your social status.  Or where you live.  Or how you talk.  Or any other of a number of superficial, surface level qualities.  Appearance is everything to us.  But appearance means nothing to God.

imagesHere is Rudy Rasmus.  He was one of our speakers at the Northwest Leadership Institute last March.  He is a pastor from Houston, Texas.  He is Beyonce’s pastor.  I knew that would impress some of you.  The first thing he said when he spoke to us for the first time was this:  “I know what you are wondering.”  Then he took hold of the braids he was wearing on his beard, each of the three with something metal on the end.  He said, “You are wondering what these are.”  Then he told us.  “These are judgmental people detectors.”

We see superficial things like braids on a beard.  God doesn’t even notice.  God sees right past what we get stuck on.  God sees the heart.  God sees the real you.  The real me.  God sees what we are capable of if we are given the chance to show what we’ve got.

Jesse had other sons, too.  They, too, looked pretty good.  But one by one God makes it clear to Samuel that they aren’t it.  After the last of the seven, we have a problem.  God said it would be one of Jesse’s sons.  But Samuel has now seen each of the sons and each time God has said no.  So Samuel asks a tentative question:  “Do you have any more sons?”  And sure enough, there is one more.  The baby of the family.  The one least likely to succeed.  His name is David.  He’s out tending sheep.  He is considered such an unlikely candidate, his father didn’t even mention him until he was asked.  But, you know the rest of the story.  “The LORD said to Samuel, ‘This is the one — anoint him!'” (16:12)  This is the one who will one day be king.  The most common one of them all.

If you have what it takes, if you show what you’ve got, if you believe in yourself, even if nobody else does, you have a chance.   That’s the way the Bible says it should be.   And in America, that’s the way it is.  Or at least that’s the way we all believe it should be.

That’s our ideal that we are working hard to make reality.  And we’ve come about as close to making it reality here as anywhere else on earth.

I love the story of George Ray Fleener.  You’ve never heard of him, I know.  That’s because he is a common man if ever there was one.  Yet George Ray Fleener was given a great honor that was well-deserved.

He was a school teacher in Brown County, Indiana.  I can’t tell you which grade he taught, because he taught every grade.  He had five teaching assignments in his 44 years of teaching, every one of them in a one-room schoolhouse.  He was a good teacher, and he knew he was a good teacher.  Not many others knew because his career path was so obscure.   He never got any official recognition, which he figured was an oversight.  So after he retired, he applied for an award.  Since he had taught for 44 years, he figured “teacher of the year” hardly would do.  So he wrote the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. and nominated himself as “teacher of the century”.

They wrote him a polite letter, informing him that there was no such award.  So George Ray Fleener said, “I decided to name myself ‘teacher of the century’ and let them fight it out.”  So he did.  He put up a sign at the entrance to his driveway:  “George Ray Fleener, Teacher of the Century”.

People noticed that sign.  They thought it was pretty cool.  So the BrownCountySchool District started getting calls asking about it.  They said, “We never gave it to him.”  The callers said, “Why not?”  The calls kept coming in.  It was getting embarrassing.  So the School Board decided they had may as well make it official.  In a unanimous vote, George Ray Fleener was named “Brown County Teacher of the Century.”

In America we have heroes most people have never heard of.  You don’t have to be president.  You don’t have to be noteworthy.  You don’t even have to have a name that comes up on Google.  If you are a citizen, you hold our nation’s highest office.  And if you love God and love your country and if you live your life in a manner consistent with the highest and the best that you know, you’re as good as anyone and you’re better than most.  You are a hero.

Six days after Jimmy Carter gave his farewell address — the one in which he said there is no title in our country higher than

citizen — another citizen became President of the United States.  In Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address, January 20, 1981, he talked about heroes.

Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look.  You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates.  Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and the world beyond.  You meet heroes across a counter — and they are on both sides of that counter.  They are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity.  They are individuals and families whose taxes support the Government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education.  Their patriotism is quiet but deep.

He closed his speech by telling of one such hero.  One no one had heard of until he was made famous by being mentioned by the new president.  His name was Martin Treptow.

Martin Treptow was 24 years old when he left his job as a small-town barber and enlisted in the Iowa National Guard.  It was 1917.  We had just entered the Great War, which would one day be known as World War I.  Martin Treptow soon found himself on his way to France where he was fighting in a terrible war.

His Rainbow Division had won an important battle against the Germans.  A messenger was needed to carry a message to another platoon.  Martin Treptow volunteered.  As he carried that message, he was cut down by enemy fire.

He was carrying a diary.  On the flyleaf under the heading, “My Pledge”, he had written these words:

America must win this war.  Therefore I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.

That’s an American hero.  And that’s one great thing about America.  Some of our greatest heroes you have never heard of.  America works when each one of us takes the title of citizen seriously and lives as if it all depends on each one of us alone.

Dear God, there are no small roles in this drama of life.  Each of us has a huge role to play, a role no one else can play.  Thank you for this land of opportunity.  Thank you for this land where nobody is better than anybody else and everybody can reach his or her fullest potential.  And God, while we thank you for all this country has meant to us, remind us that part of being thankful is working hard to keep these doors of opportunity open.  There is much work to do, for these doors are closing to many.  Guide us in our work, dear God, that America might continue to be a land where anyone can be president and where everyone can be a hero.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.