Cathedral News, March 26, 2017
At first glance, one may think that the method of choosing a king of Israel that is outlined for us in the Old Testament reading today is archaic and counter-intuitive. After all, a king should be the strongest and most intelligent, thus insuring the safety of people and realm from attack and intrigue. That the youngest and smallest was chosen by God to be ruler of his people would seem a bit strange to us, particularly if we didn’t know the rest of the story. With an ancient example, it demonstrates to us the verity of the saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
We know, however, that people do judge books by their covers, both literally and metaphorically. Many is the time that I have ventured into a used book store without any idea of what I was looking for. I would simply peruse the aisles, either looking for titles that struck my fancy or, to be honest, looking for intriguing covers. I have come across many excellent books this way; there have also been some real stinkers, but that just goes to prove the rule, doesn’t it? From an evolutionary point of view, judging books by their covers is an important skill, for it enables a quick assessment of danger from an approaching stranger or when in the midst of a never-before-encountered situation. As culture moves further and further away from the realm of instinctual survival, the need to accumulate data before decisions are made grows. I dare say that Warren Buffet doesn’t make his investment decisions by looking only at the “covers” of companies.
Given that we still look at outward marks to make decisions about inward realities, and granted that God’s method of choosing David as king smacks of divination (pun intended), we might ask ourselves if there is an example in the Church today of a similar practice. It turns out that there is. Our method of selecting bishops is strikingly reminiscent of Samuel going through the ranks of Jesse’s sons until he concludes that David is the chosen. Candidates are selected according to various criteria, and then the “dog and pony show” ensues, more usually called “the walk-about.”
In the walk-about, it is the outward manifestation that is most closely examined. Yes, to be sure, there is time devoted to the analysis of a candidate’s theological views and spiritual opinions, but the process itself is weighted toward external characteristics. How well does a person work the room? Does he have a good sense of humour? Is he wearing a nice suit? Are her shoes shined? Is she interested in people and have a connection to their concerns? Within the brief hour or two when people get to interact with the candidates, these questions are answered, not by an in-depth analysis but by cursory data and intuitive response. In short, we determine for ourselves if the person is “ruddy…and handsome,” as the lesson for today describes David.
The amazing thing is, even with its eccentricities, the process works as often as it does. Why is that? The immediate answer is that it is, we pray, filled with the Holy Spirit. Just as the selection of David as the monarch of God’s chosen people was Spirit-filled, so should the Church’s election of her bishops be. Most fruitfully, there is frequent and open communication with God, seeking his guidance in the choice of an overseer for a diocese. In the case of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, I believe the Spirit to have been present and God to have been faithful in leading us in our choice of bishop, and I pray that the same will be true as we begin our search for our new Bishop. In some instances, unfortunately, dioceses come to question whether the process truly was being led by Holy Spirit rather than by more mundane influences. But, then, wasn’t that also true for the people of Israel, when the king was anointed without seeking God’s inspiration and guidance?
During this season of Lent, we ask God to lead us in our choices, as we seek to place first things first in our lives. We want to be ruled by those principals and motives that will lead us closer and closer to God. We are in the position of making those choices, and we do so with prayerful anticipation that the Holy Spirit is at the heart of them. Quite often, the outward appearance of a choice looks most appealing, and we have to question whether the cover by which we are judging the book is reality, or not. As with the choice of David, it is sometimes the most counter-intuitive choice that is the right one, moving us onward in our quest to be in closer communion with God.