August 19, 2018

Pentecost 13   August 19, 2018 (Ps 51, Ps 89) 2 Samuel 11:1-15, 26-12:14

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[BEFORE LAST READING:]

Springtime, the season when kings of old went out to battle. But King David stays home this year. David, most beloved esteemed king of Israel. David, shepherd boy who played on his harp and composed Psalm 23 (the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want) whose words we’ve sung this morning. David, who killed Goliath the giant with just a slingshot and a prayer. David, who led Israel to victory after victory on the battlefield. David, who faithfully served King Saul as military commander and son-in-law, till Saul, in raging paranoid jealousy, began trying to kill him. Even then, David, refused every chance to strike back – and wept for Saul when he died. King David, war hero and charismatic leader who unites the once divided nation.

Now, mid-life or a little after – forty-something, likely, maybe as old as fifty – now David has it all. We’re told the names of seven of his wives and told he had other wives and concubines. He’s a wealthy man living in a grand palace set on the highest point of the city except for the temple. From his private personal rooftop vantage place he can look down on all the city below. Looking farther to the horizon, he can reflect on how nearly all the nearby nations have been conquered by his forces – and he has every reason to trust general Joab and those  fighting with him. From the roof top looking down David finally has time to rest and reflect on all the ways he has paid his dues – fought and won many a battle – earned his vacation from war. Who can blame David for staying home while his troops are fighting the Ammonites yet again. What harm can come from a little mid-life-time-out?

But – Walking on the roof late one afternoon, David spies a beautiful woman bathing. He asks ‘who is she?’ His staff reports: “Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” David knows Uriah is serving with the army, fighting Ammonites. Probably he knows her father too.

But David sends for her, and she comes. He lies her with. David acts quickly and decisively, as he is very used to doing. The king calls, and people respond. The king demands, people obey. If there’s any conversation we don’t get to hear it. But some time later Bathsheba sends word:  “I am pregnant.”

Again David acts quickly and decisively. He sends for Uriah, asks how’s the war going. Tells him ‘go sleep with your wife.’ (David uses an expression. Uriah knows he’s been told – go sleep with your wife.) Does he suspect more than this? We’re not told. Neither are we told David’s inner thoughts. His actions speak for themself, reminding us – those who have practically everything – often think they have to have – something more…

And… Kings and rulers seem to know instinctively – when you’re guilty and don’t want to admit it – first thing to do is establish plausible deniability. Establish plausible paternity for Uriah, even if the birth will look like a very early delivery. In the politics of power as in war – “truth is the first casualty.”

But good soldier Uriah complicates things by not cooperating. He tells David he can’t go home and be with his wife while all the rest of the army’s camping in the fields, doing battle. (The contrast with David, who stays home and sleeps with Uriah’s wife is not very subtle.)

David tries again. Again Uriah won’t take the bait. So David goes to Plan B. He writes a letter to General Joab instructing him to arrange for Uriah’s death in battle – and sends the letter carried by Uriah. (We’re skipping over the details of how the death of Uriah is carried out… Except to note Plan B involves loss of other lives on the battle field, along with Uriah. Collateral damage, however regrettable, is always assumed to be a normal part of the cost of doing business… in the business of the politics of power.)

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Let’s read together 2nd Samuel 11:26-12:14: [READ]

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The wife of Uriah mourns her husband’s death when she hears the news. Notice the biblical narrator still calls her “the wife of Uriah” – a not-very-subtle way of underlining David’s transgression – even as our next verse tells us – when her time of mourning is over David sends for her again and marries her – and she bears him a son. Which might have been the end of the story. Some popular versions of the story retell it as if now David and Bathsheba live happily ever after and probably Uriah wasn’t such a good guy anyways… So just get over it…

A whole lot of Me-too stories down through history have ended much like this…With the Official Story rewritten to make our heroes look like good guys no matter what. That’s one of the big differences between Hollywood and the bible – where we now hear:  “But – the thing that David had done displeased the Lord – and the Lord sent Nathan to David….”

Nathan tells a parable of a rich man who has it all but takes a poor man’s only lamb to feed a guest. David, who once-upon-a-time really was a poor shepherd boy, is outraged. “The man deserves to die. He must repay the poor man four times over,” David says.

“You are the man,” Nathan says.

We’ve met Nathan once before, back in chapter seven, where he’s called the prophet Nathan – though there he sounds more like a pastor than a prophet – enthusiastically encouraging David’s idea to build a temple for the Lord. Later that night, though, Nathan shows his prophetic side – as he hears from God – and passes the word on to David: ‘This is not the time for building a temple. But God is giving you something better than what you asked for. God will make you and your offspring into a house-hold of faith, and a line of kings that will last forever.’ (Psalm 89 that we’ve read part of today recalls that promise.)

But now Nathan is in full prophetic-mode as he unloads God’s indictment – telling  a perfect parable that gets David to convict himself – then telling David: for taking Uriah’s wife and killing Uriah you and your descendants whom God has so richly blessed, are now cursed. The wrong you’ve done to others will come back to you a hundred times over through the hands of others…

If David was a certain-type-of-king he’d have Nathan summarily executed. (Think King Herod and John the Baptist.) Your average Israelite king would banish Nathan or put him in jail (remember the prophets Amos and Jeremiah). Some rulers would at the very least invent an alibi and try to discredit Nathan on social media.

But David, horrendously awfully despicable as he has been in this incident –  is not beyond shame or redemption – as David declares decisively –  “I have sinned against the Lord.”

And Nathan declares – the death sentence David has called down on himself – has now been lifted – his sin has now been put away.

Still there will be consequences. Endless consequences…Till the pattern of abuse is broken.

The child Bathsheba bears to him will die. (Scripture tells us elsewhere the sins of parents are not passed on to their children. Not by God anyway. But what children experience in the presence of their parents does of course affect children profoundly.  Perhaps this child has absorbed so much of Bathsheba’s emotional trauma – as she has been taken by force – that the child does not want to live… in the house of David. Whatever the mix of reasons – the death of this child is only the beginning… As… from here on… The book of Samuel and the book of Kings that follows is one long sad song of truth and consequences… As what David has done continues to plague him and his descendants…

The blessing God promised David and his descendants is still in force forever. But so also God’s promise – that when we disregard the Lord we reap the fruit of what we’ve sown… In this case till the patterns of abuse of power and privilege are broken… And God’s pattern of grace and truth… becomes our way of life.

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In this Me Too era it’s easy to be cynical – and hear the story of David and Bathsheba as just another in the endless chain of stories of the fall of once-admired heroes and icons – role models and people we once admired (or whose work we at least sometimes appreciated) – people in entertainment – media – politics – academia – and yes, the church – people, who, like David, seemed to have it all – falling like David, into thinking they can have all they want… without consequences.

It’s easy to let cynicism keep me from hearing all the story. Easy to think the story’s only about the life style of the rich and famous. It surely is about privileged lifestyle and the abuse thereof. The prophet says God’s anger is because of David taking Bathsheba by force – stealing her from defenseless husband – and killing innocent Uriah.  The prophet’s indictment is all about abuse of power. Sexual lust is a secondary factor. A symptom of a deeper disease.

But that’s not all there is to hear in the story… And thinking about applications this week, I’ve been noticing my tendency to avoid or downplay certain aspects of the story… I’m willing to plead guilty to many a sin, but… I notice I keep thinking (as if to avoid other deeper thoughts) – it’s not as if we all have the same obsessive compulsive disorders as David –and even if most men probably do have issues with lust – most men I know never come close to having the power to do what David did. (Though I suppose most of us do have a lot more power than Bathsheba and Uriah ever had.) And though I can’t imagine many women can identify much with David here – it’s obviously true that way-too-many women can identify all-too-well with Bathsheba….

Still, my default tendency is to hear selectively – hear today’s episode as a tragic story – but not my story….So how come…

I can still hear God say –“You are the man…”

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[Silence…]

Maybe it’s because I hear our Thought for the Week from Ephesians saying – “speak the truth in love.”

Maybe it’s because too often I am the man who fails to speak the truth in love. Playing it safe. Not risking speaking truth to power – not risking speaking truth about power – and the ways power works for the powerful – at the cost of keeping many a Bathsheba, many a Uriah… many a potential Nathan the prophet…  quiet… and out of sight…

So – I guess the challenge for me is to listen – and let the word of God sink in and penetrate deeper – to where I can hear all the places where I need to confess – “I am the man” – confess to whatever the word of God indicts me of, any given day. Then press on to hear again with gratitude – the Lord’s gracious word –  “Your sin is put away.” But not to stop there – but to press on again – asking God to use me – use us – in whatever ways are good in God’s sight – to change what Dorothy Day called “this filthy rotten system” – meaning all human systems in which women,  children, and men are dehumanized and treated as objects rather than human beings.

What I hear God asking – is for me to be a different kind of man – for us to be a different kind of men and women – women and men who press on in prayer and worship and service and study and more prayer. Press on to remake the world around us into the world of justice and peace and love that God desires. A world in which everyone is treated as a human being made in the image of God…

So – May we press on to this goal – and be men and women and children of God who speak the truth in love – confessing our failures – but never letting failure be the end of the story – as we press on together in truth and love by the grace of God. Till God’s kingdom comes on earth.

May this be our prayer, in Jesus’ name.

Amen.