Too big to fail. You remember the mantra from the great economic meltdown of 2008? Some banks got in trouble that were so big that if we didn’t bail them out might threaten the whole U.S. economy.
A fascinating concept, don’t you think? If you get big enough, we’ve got no choice but to save your bacon. Troubled banks buy up smaller banks in an effort to get big—too big to let fail. Kind of incentivizes bigness, doesn’t it?
An economy that assumes bigness as the gold standard—important, successful, too big to fail. What could go wrong?
But we don’t really need any incentive to be big in our culture. If you go through the drive-thru at just about any fast food restaurant, what’s the first question they ask you after you place your order? Would you like to super-, biggie-, up-size that?
A gulp is no longer sufficient for us under-hydrated folks; we need a Super Big Gulp. Everything is extra, mega, gigantically ginormous.
You know what I'm talking about, right? I got the mail not long ago only to find a scratch off card in it that said I'd won . . . all I'd have to do would be to go to Sam Swope Honda to claim my prize. No telling how much I might might rake in.
But you know what happens, right? You show up to claim your prize . . . no purchase necessary—purchase doesn't enhance chances of winning . . . but then somebody with really straight white teeth and a friendly demeanor sees you. And like a Predator Drone, there’s a sudden radar lock on your position.
"What kind of car are you looking for?"
"I'm actually not looking for a car. I'm looking for my prize."
"Well, yes, of course. We’ll get that for you in a minute. But as long as you're here . . . what kind of car are you driving right now?"
"A 2006 Chrysler minivan."
"How many miles?"
"Wow, that's bound to have been a great car for you! Of course, it's not going to last forever. Have you thought about what you're going to do when that one's no longer serviceable?"
"Not much, no."
"Well, the new Honda Oddyssey is a great vehicle. Rides like a dream. Plus, it's got all kinds of room. Much bigger."
And he's off . . .
So, I find it easier (and considerably less expensive) to have that conversation in my mind rather than to have it in Sam Swope's parking lot. Easier just to stay home—and forgo my “prize.”
But can you hear the assumptions at work? What you've got is insufficient for your needs. You're going to want something better. Bigger. It’s right there—the automatic assumption that if you have a chance to get something bigger and better, you’re an idiot to refuse.
The church isn’t immune to this way of perceiving the world. It’s hard for us to admit out loud, but deep down it’s easy to believe that big is always preferable, that big equals success.
Huge churches seem to be the standard against which the rest of us are measured. The whole “if-they’re-big-they’ve-got-to-be-doing-something-right” mentality.
The flip side’s even harder to think about, and it wakes most ministers in the middle of the night in a cold sweat: If big equals success, then small equals failure.
If your church is small, it’s because God is displeased with you, or because the people you pay just don’t know the mysterious secret, which lies hidden like the DaVinci Code somewhere in Southern California, and is zealously guarded by hip young gurus with shaved heads, goatees, and skinny jeans—who can guarantee your church will get gargantuan if you’ll just follow these “eight easy steps.” But no matter how you slice it, small generally means failure in our culture.
It’s hard not to think that way. Big can be good. Small isn’t necessarily more virtuous. The point is, big isn’t automatically a good thing. Think tumors, tax debt, or sink holes in your back yard.
Ministers face the same temptations as everybody else. “Attendance is up, giving is up. We just added three new staff, a Swedish masseuse, and a hot tub in the family life center. How are things going at your church? Didn’t you guys just get a new mimeograph machine or something? How’s that working for you?”
It’s hard. Ministers want people to think we’re successful, too. We want to go back to our high school reunions with a little spring in the step, not slinking through a side door and hanging out by the punchbowl hoping no one asks what we do, and if so, is our church like that one they saw on TV that meets in an old basketball arena and has six jumbo-trons and it’s own zip code.
We’re conditioned, socialized to the see the world through lenses that magnify everything. Ministers often keep score the way everyone else does.
What we rarely stop to ask ourselves is if, in all our scorekeeping and advanced measure-taking, whether we’re keeping score of the right things, measuring the stuff that really matters.
But the Bible calls to us in the midst of our self obsession, seeking to reorient our vision—clergy and laity alike. God apparently has a different metric for success, a different lens through which to view the world, a different method of keeping score—where bigger isn’t necessarily better.
Take our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance. The Israelites, after complaining that God isn’t a good enough ruler, beg for a king. They see how the world’s shaped, and they don’t want to be left out. All the other successful countries have a king and a military parade.
So God, with Samuel as the emissary, relents—which is how Saul came to be the first king of Israel.
But Saul doesn’t live up to God’s expectations. In the passage just prior to our text, he disappoints God by refusing to obey God’s commandment to execute all the sheep and cattle of the Amalekites . . . whom Israel has just defeated in battle. Instead, Saul saves the best sheep and cattle; and when Samuel calls him on his disobedience, Saul throws up his hands and says, “Hey, I didn’t keep them for myself, you understand. I kept them to make sacrifice to the God of Israel. I mean, this is totally not about me.”
Nice try, bub. God’s not having it.
Now, setting aside the weird and inexplicable fact that the author says God wanted to lay waste to a bunch of farm animals, God has been disobeyed and is determined to find a new king—presumably, one who’ll follow orders—which is how we find ourselves this morning accompanying Samuel to Jesse’s house way out in the county in search of a replacement for Saul.
Frankly, this whole story confuses me a bit. I mean, for the most part, Saul did what God wanted—with the exception of one indiscretion—and Saul won. Right? Ultimately, Saul won. He routed the Amalekites, which is what God wanted (again, a troubling picture of God here, I’ll grant you).
But Saul cuts a few corners. So what?
He won right? Isn’t that the final measure of success . . . namely, succeeding?
But winners aren’t what God’s looking for. God wants faithfulness, apparently, not a good box score. Saul’s the Jewish Bryce Harper: not really a guy you root for on general principle, but still the guy you want batting third down the stretch when championship’s on the line.
Not God, though. God sends the scouts out in search of a light-hitting utility infielder, who’ll pay attention to the manager.
How else can we explain Samuel’s quest? He shows up, asking to see Jesse’s sons. He takes their measure—seven of them—and none of them stack up; which, to be honest, is mystifying. They’re all big strapping boys, obvious choices as candidates for Saul’s successor. Anyone of them should do.
But God revises the HR profile after Samuel checks out the first of Jesse’s boys: “Do not look on his appearance or 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” (16:7).
Seven times Samuel goes through this kabuki dance, all with the same outcome. Finally, exasperated, Samuel says, “Are you sure this is everybody?”
Jesse says, “Well, there’s the kid, but you don’t want him. He’s out tending the sheep.”
“Bring him in. Let’s have a look at him.”
So, David shows up. He’s a good-looking boy—no question. But there’s a problem. He’s the youngest and the smallest. And, in a culture that practices primogeniture—that is, the right of the firstborn male to inherit—the idea of passing over males with claims to seniority is scandalous.
This is line jumping of an outrageous sort. You start letting the youngest climb over their elders and it’s going to be chaos. Resentment. Jealousy. The fabric of the social order may not be able to handle this kind of revolutionary show of favor.
How do you think the older brothers must feel being overlooked, when, by all the social customs they know, they’re clearly more qualified because of their privilege? Apparently, God values privilege and measures qualifications differently.
So, is this story good news or bad news? I guess it depends on where you happen to be standing when you hear it.
If you’re at the top of the heap in life, if you’ve managed to acquire what our culture prizes, if you’re big and successful, this probably isn’t good news. If you’re a job creator, or whatever other euphemism we decide to employ instead of saying “rich and powerful,” the story the Bible tells is going to sound like a threat, like some kind of revolution.
If you happen to believe that immigrant kids ought to get back in their cages and stop making outrageous claims about just wanting “to be with their parents,” that they need to get in line like good law abiding folks to have the privilege of mingling with us—if you’re one of those who think the whole idea of a line is a necessary part of the way the universe is structured, a line you’ve benefitted from yourself since time immemorial—then this story about little David leapfrogging over those more “qualified” is going to sound troublingly subversive. Again, though, apparently God keeps score differently from the privileged older brothers.
But if you’ve been used to leftovers your whole life, if you’ve lived on the margins, if you’ve always been the last one picked in the game of life, then this story has got to sound pretty good, doesn’t it?
If you have to go to the emergency room when your baby gets the flu instead of your family doctor, if you’ve been told your whole life that the love you share with your beloved is “unnatural” or an “abomination,’ if the only bailout you ever got came at seven o’clock in the morning because you’re black and because there was a joint in the glove compartment, if the whole system is set up to warehouse people like you in jails and prisons, then this story about life in the economy of God maybe carries some promise.
Because in the economy of God, it’s the little ones, the forgotten ones, the passed-over ones who wind up at the front of the line.
In the economy of God, a new reign gets established by the powerless, the stepped-on, the least likely candidates for Who’s Who. In a strange and seemingly indefensible administrative move, God throws out the HR manual and starts employing the people who show up to the interview in flip-flops and shorts.
And it’s almost never flashy, but it can leave ripples in the pond that go on forever.
Lidia Schafer, an Ethiopian woman who works in a beauty shop in Washington D.C., was aware of the hardship of attending school in her homeland. But it was after she learned about a nine year-old girl who was killed by a hyena on her 3 hour walk him from school that she decided to do something about it.
She saved her tips, sold her house and her car, and raised $258,000 over 10 years—enough money to build an 8 building school in Ethiopia—which today educates more than 1,500 kids.
She’s not a CEO. She’s never going to star in a Hollywood movie. Lidia Schafer’s just a woman who works in a beauty shop for tips.
Small. Meaningless. Just a drop in the bucket.
There are thousands of Ethiopian kids who say otherwise. They’re foolish enough to think she’s big, successful.
It all depends on where you’re standing, doesn’t it?
And here we are, tucked back in behind the bank in the Douglass Loop—just a handful of folks trying to keep body and soul together, under the shadow of the big and the successful.
But the way I’ve got it figured, this place looks a lot like the kind of place God might choose to do some interesting things. They may not be big, successful, Jumbo-tron kinds of things—but then again, we follow a criminal executed by the big and successful . . . so we’re much less impressed by them.
Because in the economy of God, it doesn’t take much—just a few people willing to be faithful and a little bit can go a long way.