Picking up the pieces – 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

A few weeks ago, I ordered a vase – not a priceless ceramic – but big and fairly expensive which I thought would match the rug in the manse lounge room. When it arrived, however, it was shattered. It seems they’d forgotten to pack it properly – there were none of those packing peanut things. But (Aron will be so impressed with this. It’s not like me at all.) I’d paid a little extra – five dollars – for insurance, so I rang the company, sent them the picture and they replaced it. I was going to throw out the box of broken pieces, but I thought, “Aron’s always wanted to make mosaics. This could be the start,” and then I thought, “No, Cecelia will have fun with this.” So, I passed the box of broken pieces to her.

The song we just sang speaks of us, of our lives, as pottery and of God as the potter, and we sang these words:

Take me, mould me, use me, fill me. I give my life to the potter’s hand.

Call me, guide me, lead me, walk beside me. I give my life to the potter’s hand.

But what about those times in our life when it does not feel like we’re being shaped or moulded, utilised usefully or filled? What about those times when we feel shattered?

I love this story from 1 Samuel. We’ve been reading the proceeding chapters at prayers this week and I was very unpopular on Thursday when I chose the New Testament passage instead! “We want to hear the next bit of the story!” everyone said, about Saul being anointed as the first king of Israel. And in today’s reading we hear of the anointing of David; how Jesse, his father, brought to the sacrifice all the sons that mattered and how Samuel went through them one by one by one, passing on all seven, and had to ask, “Do you by any chance, have any other sons?” And with a bit of thought Jesse remembers, “Yes, there is one more. He’s out in the fields, looking after sheep.” And how everyone was made to wait – for the sacrifice and the feast that followed – while David was collected.

But I want to focus this morning on the first part of our reading, on these rather extraordinary verses about Samuel’s grieving and God’s grieving and what God does in that grieving space.

Chapter 15, verse 34: “Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul…”

Samuel grieved over Saul. It’s an ambiguous phrase. It is not clear whether Samuel grieved for Saul because he had failed to be the king God wanted, or whether Samuel grieved because of Saul, because of what had passed between them. And perhaps it is meant to ambiguous. Perhaps Samuel grieved for more than one reason, for both reasons, for Saul’s failure and for their failed relationship. Grief can be complicated, and grief can be profound. “Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death,” the passage says. This grief went very deep.

But then we come to an even more perplexing phrase. “And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.”

How does God – who we understood to be omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing) – arrive at a place where God is sorry…where God grieves? We can explain this by saying it’s the writer’s attempt to show us aspects of a divine God in human terms, in terms we understand. There is only one other place in the whole biblical corpus where there is a similar mention of God grieving or regretting God’s actions, in Genesis 6:7, where God regrets having created humanity and sends a flood to begin the work of creation over again. But perhaps, too, we can read these passages as promises for us that God grieves with us; that when we grieve over wounds that are deep, over hope that seems lost, over lives that have been shattered, our God grieves too.

In chapter 16, verse one, however, there is a shift. The Lord says to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” Again, the exact meaning is ambiguous. Commentator Roger Nam writes, “Is God frustrated with Samuel? Is God angry? Or is God truly trying to comfort Samuel? I believe all of these are true, but…the most natural reading of the question is that God wants to comfort his leader.” God comforts the shattered Samuel, but God is also picking up the pieces and putting them together again. God calls Samuel to fill his horn with oil, to set out, to go to Bethlehem, to find the new king God has already provided, to join God in the work of putting things together again.

Many of you will have heard or seen images of the Japanese art known as kintsugi (金継ぎ, ‘golden joinery’) or kintsukuroi (金繕い, ‘golden repair’) where ceramic objects that have been broken are put back together and the break re-joined with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold or silver. The philosophy is that rather than trying to conceal the breaks, to repair the pot so the cracks and imperfections cannot be seen, the imperfections are highlighted as events in the life of the object; imperfections that add to the object’s beauty.

I am reminded when I think of this, of a night away I had with Aron when the kids were very little. We left the girls with family and went to Newcastle for a wedding and the wedding was lovely, and it was a wonderful reconnection with old friends, and I looked fabulous in a new dress, and we had a night in a hotel and the baby slept right through and everything was perfect. And on the way back to Sydney we had a big fight. One of those, “Pull over. I’m getting out of the car,” fights. And I remember thinking as I walked along the side of the road that the perfect weekend has just been completely shattered. But slowly, the comfort and the grace of God began to creep into the cracks and I realised my search for perfection – was mine – not God’s – that God was putting the pieces back together in a new way – a new way that, though cracked and imperfect, might be more beautiful. As the playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.”

I have thought about this quite a bit over the last 12 to 18 months when it felt like my ministry in this church, my relationship with the church, might also be shattered; that the work of God, the grace of God working in us, is glue, bringing things back together, bringing things back together in a new way.

But it is also related to the experience we have all had over the last 12 to 18 months. When this pandemic started (can you think back to that time?) we imagined there would be five to six months of lockdown and difficulty, and then life would go back to normal. Instead, we are realising Covid is now part of our lives, that vaccinations will become annual events, that movement from country to country will be more difficult for the foreseeable future. And though we have not lived in places where hundreds and thousands have died, it has still had an impact. It has been a grief, deeper for some than for others. We know it has affected older people in significant ways, and yet, according to the Australia Talks survey, it has had an even deeper impact on younger people. I was speaking to Miriam the other day about her 21st birthday in March last year and how she would remember the first 21 years of her life differently from the years afterwards, and she said to me, “Mum, you’ve lived 51 – now 52 -years of your life without Covid. It is going to be part of most of my life. How lucky you are.”

So we are all waiting to see what putting the pieces back together will look like. For many this will take some time. We will need to support and comfort each other as we grieve. And we will need to ask the Spirit of God to fill our horns with oil, our lives with the energy and hope and purpose we need; to send us out to find new ways of caring for our older people and our younger people, new ways of supporting people all over the world, new ways of creating community.

You may have noticed something about our reading this morning. It begins and ends with almost the same words. 15:34: “Then Samuel went to Ramah”, and 16:13 “Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.” This beginning and ending of a section with the same words appears several times in the Old Testament and has a fancy biblical studies term, it is a Wiederaufnahme. What it means is that the story is going off on a tangent for a short time and then the central flow of the story will resume. But just like the Japanese art of kintsugi this tangent is not an aberration. It is – as the narrative goes on – an integral part of the story that is being told. God calling David is part of the new story of Israel. It is like a gold seam now running through, binding, and repairing and making beautiful, what Samuel had thought was a shattered pot.

Some of you will have guessed that giving Cecelia a box of broken pieces would not end there. For my birthday, this week Cecelia presented me with the vase repaired following the kintsugi method. It came with a card saying, “I hope my gift will be an encouragement to you whenever life neglects to give you packing peanuts for your journey!”

Because life does neglect to give us packing peanuts. We break. Relationships break. The world breaks around us. But God gives us glue and grace and gold to mend us, to fill our cracks and imperfections, to take the tangents and make them part of the story, and to call us to the working of making and mending and living again, of being agents of grace and glue.