Immediately following the death of Saul, David becomes king of Judah, the southern part of Israel. In our pericope this morning, the northern tribes of Israel came to David in hopes that he would become their king, too, therefore unifying the whole kingdom of Israel, previously divided by Saul’s not-so-suave reign.
In my reading of this text, I was struck by the tenderness, by the yearning of the still-grieving and yet still-hopeful northern tribes. They said to David, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. 2For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’ They’re almost pleading with David as if David has forgotten his anointing from Samuel, as if David has forgotten his long tenure serving the kingdom of Israel, serving the people. The Hebrew is emphatic, the repetition of "you" acting as a rhetoric, the desire and dedication of a nation dripping off the tongues of these tribal spokespeople. They refer to David as being of their bone and flesh as if to say: you are of our strength – bone – and our weakness – flesh. You have been with us in the thick of it and there we want you to remain.
But then, then there’s the line that gets marred by our English translation. Allegedly quoting God, the tribes said in verse 2, "You who shall be ruler over Israel." In English, we might feel inclined to interpret "ruler" as king since David did in fact become king in the subsequent verses. In Hebrew, however, we hear the true or true-r intent of both God’s anointing and the tribes’ request: that David become the nagid or the "prince" of Israel. Nagid is neither Hebrew for king nor master but for prince, captain, leader. The tribes avoid using the word "king" with David, making a theological and political statement, separate yet intertwined. Calling David "nagid" and quoting God in their moniker-making is a move to place God and God alone as king, as melek in Hebrew, as the ultimate leader. David is not unimportant but instead is, as they said earlier, the shepherd, the leader, the prince. On the precipice of a new, hope-filled era in Israel and yet ever mindful of their political past, the tribes are quick to name David as a leader and not as one who might become a "royal monster."1 They know too well what it looks like when one person holds the power and instead, are pleading with David to form a covenant, an intimate relationship based in their mutuality, in their bone and flesh, not in an exchange of power and forced acquiescence.
Isn’t this what we want, too? That our leaders might be of our own bone and flesh, know of our strengths and weaknesses, tending to us as a shepherd tends her flock, living through the power of God, not misusing power to their own ends? It has already begun – the incessant barrage of political malarky, flooding the airwaves and screens and newspaper headlines. People positioning for the power of the next presidency, putting their agendas at the fore of their actions rather than the people whom they claim to serve. I guess that’s how it’s done, how a race is won, but I wonder – no, I hope – that there might be a better way this time around. That instead of putting on the farce of being a shepherd, of being a servant leader, of a wolf wearing sheep’s clothing, we might be surrounded by possibilities of politicians who take their lead from David and from the tribes of Israel – a leader bound in covenant to the promise that only God is King and earthly leaders are meant to be shepherds, servants, of our own bone and flesh.
At its best, the church is the stronghold in the storm of modern day power battles. We seek not to overpower the all mighty powerful God but to live as shepherds of God’s Good News. We seek not to put forth our own agendas but to live as a community, as a covenant-bound people. At its best, the church embodies an eschatological response to the world as we know it – a response of hope, of faith in a day when God’s desire for us will be fulfilled and a new heaven will come. At its best, the church counters the current culture with what the tribes of Israel said so long ago: a leader – even the most politically-powerful one – is meant to be a servant leader, serving God first and leading the people with humility and compassion.
This week, I saw the continuation of David’s reign, of the church at its best. I saw our youth and adults be servant leaders, be shepherds. Last Sunday, we gathered in the courtyard to bless about fifty missionaries headed to Rutherford County, North Carolina with Appalachia Service Project and to Asheville with Asheville Youth Mission, a Presbyterian mission site. We worked our hands and hearts until they hurt. We played until the second the lights went out. We learned from one another and from those we served. We delighted in the gifts of the mountains God wrought in our beautiful state. But most of all, we were servant leaders, led by God, inspired by Christ, held fast by the Spirit.
Whether it was building a garden bed at a Title 1 Elementary School in Asheville so that students could take home fresh vegetables, throwing a 4th of July party for adults with disabilities, playing games with veterans, or making a produce stand for a day center that serves people without homes, our middle school youth served Asheville and Buncombe County with endless streams of hope this week.
Such echoed true in Rutherford with our senior high youth. Without fail, our youth put in 100% of their heart and bodies in the work of repairing homes in Appalachia. Three crews served three families – one crew put in new floors in a bathroom and bedroom of a trailer home, rotted through by weather. Another crew built a porch for Karen and Myrtle, two long-time friends who share a home. Another crew put up insulation and siding on a house that sat on the property of the Dodson family, property that housed multiple members of the family for over 100 years.
While our youth put in hours of sweat and service, our adults did the same, tenfold. I had the privilege of visiting our Appalachia Service Project sites in Rutherford County the first three days, stopping in to help each crew, to bring important items like fresh lemonade from Mimi’s Dairy-O and popsicles to soothe the summer heat. Each and every time I came to a site, I saw the most beautiful thing a youth pastor can see – adults standing side-by-side with youth, empowering and teaching youth, emanating patience upon patience, and speaking only words of encouragement. Nothing says true servant leadership like teaching a person how to swing a hammer or use a level or let the handsaw do the work rather than simply doing it yourself, doing it faster and likely more efficiently. Nothing says church better than an adult living into the baptismal vows they made so long ago to these youth, walking side-by-side, putting God first, serving, serving, serving with their bones, flesh, and heart.
Nothing says church like the Dodson Family, like Rita and Mike. The last two days of our time in Rutherford, I joined the crew at Mike and Rita’s house, the house with the insulation and siding. I met Rita and Mike earlier in the week, their constant banter and wit kept me in stitches each visit. Their two sons – Shane and Jamey – also lived on the property in separate trailers. A group from Wilmington repaired part of Shane’s roof and interior that week, too, so the property was full all the time – full of youth, full of adults, full of fun. The Dodsons constantly kept us company, offering us popsicles, food. Rita even pulled some plants for some of the women from the Wilmington crew to take back to their own gardens.
Thursday afternoon, after a long day of measuring insulation, cutting siding, and ladder climbing, Rita and Mike invited us in to their home for a visit. Ellis Toms, Daniel Falkovic, Anne Beckwith and I sat in their living room for an hour, hearing stories of how Mike’s family has been on the land for over a century. Their living room was sparse – a loveseat and a chair, an upright bass that belonged to Mike, and a collection of guitars and banjos that belonged to the children and grandchildren. A single wall decoration – a wooden cross – hung above the kitchen chairs Mike and Rita pulled up to sit on during our visit. Eventually, their sons Shane and Jamey came in, along with Jamey’s wife Stacey and their daughter Leslie. We laughed and laughed as Rita tried to bribe Daniel to let her adopt him, as Shane told stories of acting up in church as a boy.
Somehow, maybe in the conversation about church, we got to talking about mission trips, about serving others. Sweat caked to our foreheads, our shoes tracking in dirt on their old, soft floors, our arms weary from putting up insulation on a house older than our crew’s combined ages so that Mike and Rita would finally be warm in the winter, the Dodsons told us of their life of mission. It turns out that while we were feeling pretty good about our own service to them, the Dodsons were busy saving their gas money to drive down to Atlanta and serve meals to the homeless families that live under the highway overpasses as they had done for the last several years. None of us could really find the words to respond, our breath taken away and our eyes fighting back tears. It seemed to hit us all at once, like a ton of bricks: servant leadership is not just about a week of mission but of a life of dedication, a life of constantly giving so that others might have, a life of shepherding and of making choices that daily reflect to whom you belong and whom alone you serve.
We got up a few minutes after that, still a little shaken by the Spirit’s whirl of emotion, and walked through Rita’s kitchen only to see it overflowing with food for the next day when she would feed the twenty or so volunteers. Food made by her own hands, bought with love, buttered to perfection. Rita hugged us as we left and looked each of us in the eye, giving us a knowing smile. As I crossed the threshold of her kitchen door, the floor below me sagging from age and rot, I looked up and saw a wooden plaque, worn from years of hanging above a well-loved stove. It read, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." There has never been a truer word.
May we serve God with fullness of bone and flesh, serve God as shepherds of the Good News, serve God with humility that knows no bounds. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Borrowed this phrasing from Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel.