Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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The Lord Looks on the Heart

Category: Discipleship

Speaker: The Rev. Eric O. Springsted

Tags: david, discipleship, heart, leader

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            There are few communities in the world, now or ever, that do not believe that the person who leads them makes a difference in their lives. Most assume, and pretty accurately I might add, that their future rides on who their leader is and what he or she does. This was especially true in the ancient world, when leaders were absolute monarchs. We can see it in the biblical histories of Israel’s and Judah’s kings. It was faithless despots who were the reason, we are told, that the kingdom of Israel was destroyed, and the kingdom of Judah sent into exile for seventy years. As the king went, so did the people. But even now, in constitutional democracies, where power is elected and is not concentrated on a single person but balanced, we get very excited and very concerned about who our leaders are and who they will be. Presidential campaigns, thus, now last nearly as long as the term the one elected will serve. We worry over campaigns saying things like the future of America absolutely rides on our choice. We take every appointed judgeship as leading, without doubt, into civic health or damnation.

            But, given the importance of our leaders to us, how do we choose leaders? Despite our seeing large, extraordinary consequences riding on the choice, we choose them in some very ordinary, unthoughtful ways. A person’s looks are surprisingly important. My brother-in-law once told me that in a study done in his class at Harvard Business School the main feature that had a high correlation to the income of the graduates was height. I suspect that hasn’t changed, even with the addition of more women than in his day. The same thing has tended to be the case in churches. Tall steeple preachers have tended to be tall – and male. Of course, we do look for other signs of merit – schools, degrees, grade point averages, contacts. But even these marks of merit we often are no more imaginative than popular opinion dictates.

            Is this a good way to find an extraordinary leader for extraordinary times, for a time of crisis? I remind you of what the word “crisis” refers to: not just to a chaotic time, but to a point where a judgement needs to be rendered, a road taken and another one forgotten, where the future of the community really does ride on the choice of its leaders to take the right road.

            Well, to answer that question of what is a good way to choose a leader, I invite you to consider the story of how David got to be the king of Israel. It was a time of crisis. Saul, Israel’s first king, was still in place but the Lord had rejected him. The reason was that Saul was inclined to take judgements upon himself, thinking that it was given to him to improve on what God had instructed him to do. In short, he was being pragmatic and willful when what was required was faithfulness. Saul, however, did not just go away, and that was even worse. Abandoned kings who still wield power are dangerous beings. No one knows quite how they will work out their insecurity, but it is not likely to end well. So, in this situation, the prophet Samuel is instructed to go to Bethlehem and call on the house of Jesse to anoint a new king who will replace Saul at his end. Samuel has to do so under the pretense of offering a sacrifice, lest Saul find out what he was up to.

            Once at Jesse’s, Jesse’s sons were brought before him. Samuel was to anoint one of them king of Israel to replace Saul. They were brought out in order of birth. The oldest, Eliab, looked to be a good prospect. He was tall and the oldest, making him a lead candidate. Yet, the Lord told Samuel that this was not the one. None of the other brothers present were the one, either. Now, God gave Samuel a very specific reason why he was not to choose Eliab or the other brothers. It was because, the Lord says, in making this choice, Samuel was not to look on his height, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

            The Lord and Samuel need to make an extraordinary choice, and ordinary means, such as stature, are not going to do it. For the leadership that God envisions, outward appearances will not work. Instead, what makes for the leader that God wants is the heart. So, with this demand, it then turns out that it is only the last brother, the youngest one, David, the one who has been sent out to tend the sheep while his father and brothers tend to adult business, who has the heart to lead God’s people. When he was finally brought to the meeting, Samuel immediately anointed him, and God’s spirit rested on him, in order that he might lead. We know the rest of the story.

            So, what is needed in an extraordinary leader, according to God, is heart. But what exactly is heart? Well, often when we say of someone, particularly of a leader, that he or she has heart, we mean that they are bold, spirited, and courageous. David was, in fact, all of these things. As it turns out, he was also extremely wily, deceptive at times, and even ruthless at others. By such means he was able to save his life when Saul went after him, and by such means he was able to defeat Israel’s enemies, and then unite Israel under his rule when Saul was finally killed in battle.

            But, it wasn’t really any of those things, useful political skills that they might be, that God meant when he said he looked on the heart. All of them really are skills that are part of the outward being. Instead, it was something else that God was looking for, something that would be even more important than any of these other things in David’s future leadership. What that something was, was faithfulness. It was above all faithfulness to God himself that counted. It was faithfulness that God saw when he looked on David’s heart.

            From what we know of David, and it is actually a lot, it is really faithfulness that distinguishes him. David is the author of many of the psalms, and it is clear from them how much he laid all of himself open to God. He rejoiced in the Lord, he complained mightily to the Lord, he implored the Lord’s help and consolation, he confessed his sins to the Lord, and there were more than a few of those. He said that the Lord was his shepherd, the one who restored his soul and made him walk in paths of righteousness. When he became king and united once again the northern and southern tribes of Israel, one of the first things he did was to make sure that the Ark of the Covenant was brought to his new capital, Jerusalem, and he danced in front of it the whole way. When he erred, he accepted his punishment as long as it was from the Lord, and not from the hands of men.

            Now, the thing about a leader like this is not just that he makes good choices. He didn’t always, as it turns out. But, because of his faithfulness, there was a quality of life in Israel that they never had afterwards, even though at times their military and material prosperity were greater. David taught them what it meant to live as a people whose life came from God, because that was how he lived and how he saw things. His faithfulness then extended to the people. Unlike most of his sons and grandsons, he was not a despot. He had once been a shepherd of sheep; as king, he was shepherd of a people, caring for their welfare, instead of plundering them. As a result, the biblical histories lead us to believe that the people were at their most faithful, too. They responded well to him. They, too, at least for awhile, seemed to look upon the heart, instead of to outer things. They understood what was most important, and they treasured that in their hearts. As a great leader is supposed to do, he made the people better.

            Now, that, of course, did not last. As the story of the healing of the man born blind from our Gospel lesson makes clear, many of Israel’s leaders when looking upon Jesus and what he was doing, could not see his heart or the heart of what he was doing. They had no idea what it meant to look on the heart. They could only judge by outward appearances. But that was because they lacked the qualities of heart that could respond to a good heart. So, it is really no surprise that they didn’t recognize who they were dealing with, although a man born blind could. They, as a result, made some really bad and catastrophic choices for their community.

            Now, this kind of leadership is the sort that any number of communities--political, civic, religious--really need. You can draw the conclusions as you will in this time of judgement with respect to the political. What I want us to think about instead is this community as it chooses a new leader. What sort of leader should you look for?

            Well, I suppose someone who will make good choices that will give this church a good future. But a lot of what will ever count as good choices is a function of something much deeper than pulpit presence, business savvy, or any number of things that really are outward. What will count more than anything else is the heart. That is what this church, what any church needs, especially in times such as these. It is the person with heart that will let you be a community that lives up to the name of the church of Jesus Christ and that shows you what your mission is. That is the only sort of leader who could ever possibly lead you in paths of righteousness.

            What does it mean in this case to be a person of heart? Like David, it means to be faithful. It means being someone who is on the pilgrimage that you need to be on and one who therefore can be a guide. That means, I think, that this should be a person who will make you better. Some of that will be in good choices on your behalf. But it mainly comes in working with you, and not just for you and especially not as your proxy. No one gets better by simply vicariously experiencing someone else’s goodness, which is how too many people treat their relations with their pastors and all they expect of that relation. As I have said many, many times, the healthy functioning of any church in the Reformed tradition depends upon our recognizing that the living church is a matter of shared vocations – ministers, elders, deacons, every single person who has a sense of life’s purpose in Jesus Christ. A leader with a good heart will help you with your vocation and help you live out your calling. You need to do the same in return. You are called to a mission of personal renewal and witness to transcendent purpose in a world that is becoming increasingly incoherent and insensitive to transcendence. All that is a matter of the heart. It is a matter of your heart as well as your leader’s heart.

            In saying this, I am not saying anything particularly new. We have plenty of examples of what leadership and followership like this looks like. David is obviously a prime example. But we have seen it here, too. A hundred years ago this congregation became a people truly inspired under the leadership of Henry Sloane Coffin. But as the authors of the history of that time make very clear, it wasn’t just Coffin. It wasn’t his preaching, or just his reaching out to some folk. It wasn’t one big donor. It was a matter also of his co-pastor and his assistant pastors, and the literally hundreds of members who called on people in this neighborhood and all the way to the East River, and who taught Sunday School classes for children and adults. The living church was a matter of everybody thinking that the gospel needs to be lived and to be shared.

            You can be a church like that. But to do so, you need to look on the heart. You need to know that the heart takes time to develop. And you need to know that you have to be a people who themselves want to have heart. So, be good to yourselves. Be a witness to a witless world. Choose what is in the heart.