Holy Trinity Episcopal Church


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    Jul 29, 2018

    The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

    Passage: 2 Samuel 11:1-15

    Preacher: The Rev. Ken Massey

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Category: Pentecost


    Some Things Never Change                            2 Samuel 11:1-15

                   What do you do, as a preacher, with a sizzling R-rated text like David and Bathsheba? I know what I do. I invite a guest preacher.

                   We have two stories before us this morning; deeply contrasting stories about power; a gospel story about the divine power to feed and to bless. And an ancient story about the power to bend the world to our will, regardless of the impact on others.

                  A little girl was visiting her grandmother in west Texas, where she saw one of those prairie sunsets for the first time. Not the kind you see peeking out from behind trees, but the kind you see from the very curvature of the earth, all the way over to the early evening stars in the east. The colors were as vivid as a Blue Ridge Mountain Fall, cloud and sky blazing with oranges, reds, lavenders and yellows. 

                  Of course the grandmother, being very religious, made sure that her granddaughter knew that The Almighty has painted that sunset. The little girl nodded and said, And God did it left-handed, too. And how would you know that, asked the grandmother? The young one said, Because, we learned in Sunday School that Jesus is sitting on God’s right hand.

                 Wait. That’s actually insightful. In antiquity, the right hand position was the position of power; the might to rule, enforce and destroy. Martin Luther spoke of God’s power revealed in Jesus as left-handed power; a power that empties self, takes on the form of a servant and looks to the world like weakness; the power of love. But we need to face the reality of right-handed power today, and David shows us.

                   David was the second king of Israel and Scripture calls him a man after God’s own heart. Imagine if this story had come to us by way of the royal communications department? In the official version, David the devout king would have saved the damsel in distress, Bathsheba, from the ogre, Uriah, and there would have been no hint of impropriety.

                   Yet this story doesn’t bear the marks of a propaganda piece. What we have is an unvarnished and surprising admission that God’s wonder boy had clay feet…all the way up to his waist. It’s truly amazing that we have candor rather than cover-up.

                   David was supposed to be off fighting with his army, but he stayed in the city. All the other young men and husbands were out with the army. David wasn’t some frustrated nerd who couldn’t get a date. He already had a harem, so this is not a story about sex. David summoned the lovely Bathsheba and used her like a commodity. Could she have said “no” to the king? “NO.”

                   Let me frame the story and complete it beyond our reading. Bathsheba became pregnant by the king. To hide his adultery, David sent for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, who was off fighting and brought him back to Jerusalem. He needed to get them in bed together so there was a good explanation for a child, even if the timing wasn’t exactly right. David ordered Uriah to go spend some quality time with his wife but he refused because his brother soldiers were away fighting. So David got Uriah drunk, but he kept his honor even in that state. David saw the scandalous train wreck coming and ordered Uriah’s commander to put Uriah on the front line, and then to abandon him to the enemy so he would be struck down, which made Bathsheba a widow. David then married her and made her sign a non-disclosure agreement.

                   Then David felt that powerful sense of relief you feel after you’ve covered up something, but before you realize that it’s not going to stay covered up. The relief was short-lived. The prophet Nathan showed up and told the king a story; the story of a rich man who had many sheep and cattle, but had a visitor and wanted to serve him a fine meal. But instead of making this feast from his own flock, he stole a lamb that was a pet to a poor man and slaughtered that animal to feed his guest. David was incensed at the story and said that wretched man deserved to die and should pay back four-fold what he took. And the prophet replied to the king with his immortal phrase, “thou art the man.” David confessed and repented, but he didn’t resign; Uriah was still dead and Bathsheba never had a voice.

                   Is this just another story of men behaving badly and women being victimized? Is it just an ancient tabloid version of Harvey Weinstein or Bill O’Reilly and the list keeps growing? It’s easy to be cynical. No. It’s much more than that.

                   It’s a 3000 year old story. Not surprisingly there is no rendering of Bathsheba’s experience or perspective. I wonder if she loved her husband? I wonder how much she hated being used by the king. I wonder how much she blamed herself, as victims often do. I wonder how she grieved her husband’s death. How could she live with the man who orchestrated his murder? What was it like to move from being the wife of one husband, to being part of a harem? In the silence, we have to imagine so she has a voice.

                 Another surprise. In biblical times, women were punished for adultery more than men, and yet there is no blame assigned to Bathsheba. No self-righteous scribe added the phrase, that woman shouldn’t have been bathing on the rooftop. David is not excused because SHE tempted him. There is no appeal that boys will be boys. No deference to the male libido. Even in this world of high patriarchy and divine right, the only culpable figure in the story is David, the man God chose to be king. Surprising.

                On this past July 4th, right before the opening of our latest General Convention, clergy and lay delegates took part in a liturgy of listening. It was a service of confession and lamentation over the church’s failure to deal redemptively and honestly with sexual harassment and abuse in our church. I encourage you to go to the diocesan website and watch the service. We all need to hear the truth.

                   It’s easy to get over-focused on David or Bathsheba or the sexual nature of their encounter. But the story is not about them in the same way the Exodus story is not about Moses. What we discover is that the catalyst of this catastrophe is all too familiar. It’s power, especially the imbalance of power. The prophet Nathan knew this, so he told a story about power, not the inappropriate use of sex.

                   If we just see victims, or if we just scapegoat perpetrators, we never address the real problem, which is power. And by power, I mean the capacity for humans to bend the world toward their desires. I mean the power to force your will upon the world. Right-handed power.

                   Abe Lincoln once wrote, If you want to test a man’s character, give him power. With all due respect, let’s not. Everyone thinks THEY can handle power, but we fail the test over and over; not because of our nature, but because of the nature of power. We see this comically in the movie Bruce Almighty. We can’t handle too much power. Even God refuses it because it corrupts those who hold it.

                   Don’t believe me? Imagine this. You just received power to unilaterally fire one politician of your choice and remove that person from office forever with merely a text or tweet from your phone. If you had that power, you would not even be able to wait for the end of this sermon before using it, and I wouldn’t either. I would push the button and keep talking. But minus the power, we’re mostly bluster and bravado.

                   Take away David’s power to summon whomever he wants and this story never happens. Timothy McVey was an unstable veteran in need of help. If you take away his power; the truck loaded with ammonium nitrate, that OKC bombing doesn’t happen. Lots of people rail about illegal immigration, but when you give them power, they can actually separate young children from their mothers to deter people from crossing the border. Without the power, they couldn’t do it.

                   Regulating and limiting power is American genius. We put it in our Constitution. We have checks and balances. We put a civilian in charge of our military. We regulate all kinds of power, especially the ones that can abuse. And the principle that has worked pretty well in our nation is this: the greater the power, the greater the limits and the oversight. So as guns get more powerful, it is consistent with the principles of our democracy to regulate them more. Our gun debate needs to be a debate about too much power in the hands of humans.

                   I did a funeral recently for a woman whose husband abused her with words; that’s a right-handed power we’ve all used. He abused her by slapping her; a power he held because he was physically stronger. And all that was bad enough. But then came the gun. So when she came to get her stuff to move out, with the police pulling up in front of the house to make sure nothing bad happened, he shot and killed his wife in front of their two children. We try to limit power so we can limit the damage of those who cannot constrain themselves.

                   David thought the power of God was his to use as a divine right. We have to stop see and using power like David and start being a conduit for God’s power like Jesus, and that’s a dramatic shift; a shift in perspective and practice.

                   Several years ago when Mark White was governor of Texas, he and his wife were on a road trip that took them to the town where Mrs. White had grown up. They pulled into a full service gas station, and when the attendant came out, it was obvious he knew the governor’s wife. There was awkwardness to their greeting that let the governor know that this must be a former romantic interest of his wife’s.

                   After they left the station, Mrs. White was unusually quiet and the governor let her have some time. But after driving for half an hour, he finally said, “So I guess you were once involved with that man back at the station.” “Yes,” his wife said. “And you’re probably just needing some quiet time to reflect,” the governor added. Yes. You’re probably wondering what your life would be like if you were married to a gas station manager. Well no, Mrs. White said. Actually I was imagining what it would be like if he were governor of Texas.

                   We have some serious shifting to do in how we relate to power. Those of us who have power need to listen to those who don’t so we can be honest about how our power impacts others. We have to resist and limit the right-handed power of David so we can live more fully into the left-handed power of Jesus, whose power blessed and never used. If you listen, you will hear Jesus call you to reject the love of power and embrace the power of love.