#BathshebaToo

(sermon 7/29/18)

bathsheba

2 Samuel 11:1-15

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house.

When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”

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It’s one of the scariest moments for anyone who’s ever had a kid, or who has even just been around a kid. You’re just sitting there, minding your own business, when this little one who you love beyond the moon and the stars comes up to you and puts a picture they’ve just drawn in your lap, and they ask “Does this look like a dog?” And you look down at the paper, and what you see bears a striking resemblance to a feed sack with some twigs stuck in it, with a little smiley face at one end. So you say “Oh yeah, that’s a beautiful dog!” And the little child says “Oh – I was trying to draw a cow.”

It’s in that moment that the child has learned an important truth for anyone who creates in any way – painting, sculpture, writing, composing music, designing a building, delivering a sermon – whatever – that you, the creator, only own the meaning of whatever you’ve created until you share it with someone else. Then, your reader or listener or audience is going to experience it from their own vantage point, and apply their own meaning to it, which might be something very different from what you’d intended. And in general, that’s OK; that different meaning can be every bit as valid an interpretation as yours.

I think that to some extent, that same concept comes into play a little bit when we try to draw meaning out of today’s First Reading; that we can find some meaning in the story that the original author hadn’t really intended, but from our vantage point, we can see what he hadn’t . But first, let’s look at the passage overall.

The author of this book starts by mentioning kings and kingdoms going to war in the spring, making it sound so casual that it almost seems like the only reason they go to war is the weather is nice and the kings are just bored. The author makes it sound like it’s just the start of the new baseball season. In this story, the author seems less concerned about the fact that King David has attacked a neighboring kingdom than he is by the fact that David himself isn’t even out there fighting the good fight with them – he’s letting other people do all the fighting, while he’s lying around on his couch living the good life.

Part of that good life, at least in David’s eyes, is apparently the right to just take whatever he wants for himself, and in this case what he wants is Bathsheba. No matter that David is already married. He’ll actually end up with numerous wives; it would have been unthinkable that a man, especially a powerful one like a king, would limit himself to just one lover. That wouldn’t be a concept until several hundred years later. No matter that Bathsheba’s already married, too, to Uriah the Hittite – a valued soldier in David’s army yes, but still a commoner, and a foreigner at that. A foreigner was good enough to serve in David’s army, and risk his life for David, but in the end, as we know, David was still going to treat him like garbage.

After David discovered that he’d gotten Bathsheba pregnant, he needed some cover to prevent a scandal. So as we heard, he summoned Uriah back from the battle. He met with him at the King’s residence, then told him to go on home for the night, get a good meal, and enjoy some alone-time with his wife. But Uriah is such a gung ho, oo-rah soldier of David’s that he refuses to do it – even after David tries to get him liquored up and more pliable – saying as long as his troops are engaged in battle, he won’t go home and enjoy privileges that they can’t have. He’ll just spend the night in a corner somewhere here in the palace. Poor Uriah – trusting, naïve, unquestioning Uriah. The author of this story makes it clear that he was a strong supporter, really a true believer in King David. He would have literally taken a bullet for David, or at least, an arrow, and of course, he does. The great minister and writer Frederick Buechner pointed out that based on the way he’s portrayed in the story, Uriah was such a committed, patriotic, straight arrow committed to David that even if someone had told him that David had raped his wife, maybe even if they showed him 8×10 glossy photos of it, he still would have denied it, and stayed solid in his support for David – and if he did believe it, he’d probably say David’s behavior didn’t matter, supporting him was more important – even while David was playing him for a fool.

The central reality of this story is that David used his position of power to take Bathsheba – just as the prophet Samuel had warned the people years before that kings would do. He raped Bathsheba, and when he learned she was pregnant, and he couldn’t manipulate Uriah into giving him some believable cover story for the pregnancy, he used that same power to have Uriah killed so David could have Bathsheba for himself. The story is ugly, and awful, and evil, from start to finish. Honestly, it seems like a miracle that such a negative story about so beloved a biblical character even survived. It makes us wonder what point the author was really trying to make by documenting this story?

Well, to his credit, he seems to be clearly coming out against David’s casual attitude toward putting his army’s lives at risk while he stayed home. And he’s certainly coming out strongly against David raping Bathsheba, and his collusion with general, Joab, to get Uriah killed.

But there still seems to be a blind spot or two in the author’s original intent, which we might be able to fill in. He seems to see the rape of Bathsheba more as a violation of Uriah’s rights – his property rights – than as any big violation of Bathsheba and her own personal human dignity.

From our vantage point, we can look at the picture that the author has created, and we can add our own layers of understanding to it. We can see this story as a strong statement against unnecessary war, and rape, and murder, and the abuse of power; as well as it being a statement against men thinking they can exploit and subjugate women, and demean their dignity, and cheapen the reality of their having been equally created in God’s image.

Bathsheba wasn’t able to say much at the time of this story. But because her tragic story was preserved, she’s been speaking out to the ages ever since, against injustice against women perpetrated by men in positions of power.

And there, in that point, is where I can finally find some good news – some gospel, some grace – in this story. In protecting and allowing this terribly negative story about David to survive, and to speak across time, we can see that God cared about Bathsheba, and all the Bathshebas of the world; that God shows a special preference for them, and for all who are victims, over the powerful, the abusers. the victimizers. Good news that we can have hope, and comfort, that when we find ourselves being victimized and abused by others in positions of power over us, that God is walking our journey with us, and is on our side.

That, to me, is our good news. It’s also a confirmation to us of where, as people of the Kingdom of God, our own priorities need to be, whenever we see others being victimized. This story is our call to be a voice for, to be supporters of, all the Bathshebas of our time, and the Uriahs of our time. This story reminds us that we’ve been called to stand up, and to speak truth to power, wherever the realities of our time have not painted a very pretty picture.

Thanks be to God.

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The Tiny Dog Now…

(sermon 7/22/18)

doug the pug
Just for the record, this sermon actually has nothing to do with dogs.

Mark 6:30-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” If you grew up primarily speaking and writing English, and you’re older than, say, 25 or so, you probably know that sentence. You know it because when you were learning to write cursive, you likely had to write that sentence over and over again, because it contains every letter in the English alphabet. It’s a silly, maybe even absurd statement, but it’s a useful device that helps us to understand or remember something; it’s a means to an end. We use those kinds of devices in a number of aspects of our lives. We remember the names of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES – for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. In music, we remember the lines of the Treble staff by remembering Every Good Boy Does Fine; or the Bass staff lines, Good Boys Do Fine Always.

Today, I’m going to very briefly introduce you to another one of those devices, one that many preachers have been taught as a tool to help them organize and structure and stay on point as they develop a sermon. There are all sorts of ways to prepare a sermon, but this is one common tool. It’s the sentence “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine.” TTDNIM. Here’s what those initials represent:

The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine

Today, I want to focus on the “N” in that list – what existential human need does the text speak to, both within the story itself, and by extension, in our own lives?

We heard in this gospel story that Jesus and the disciples had been working hard, and they were being besieged by people coming to hear Jesus, and to be healed by him. As the story begins, Jesus tells his disciples that they all needed to get away for a bit to enjoy a little bit of downtime – similar to a text we looked at a few weeks ago. But the people still followed them, and we end up with this story of Jesus feeding the multitude with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. A lot of people get caught up in the miraculous aspect of the story, and in all honesty, it is a curiosity to wonder about, how it all happened. I suppose if it had happened here, around this time of year, it might have been a lot more believable if instead of fish, they’d started out with a few zucchini, since those seem to just multiply beyond all human comprehension this time of year.

Putting the miraculous aspect aside though, at least for today, can we focus on Jesus, and the disciples and all those who had gathered to be there with Jesus, and see what’s going on here as a model for the church, in this sense: Like us, they all had gathered in that place, coming with different backgrounds, different motivations, different thoughts, different energy levels; bringing all of their own particular problems and stresses and needs. And there’s the key word – they’d all arrived with their own particular needs. And together, in that time, in that place, their particular needs were being addressed, being spoken to. They were being taught. They were hearing God’s good news that they were loved. They were being healed. They were being fed. They were being reassured that they mattered to God, in a world that often told them they didn’t.

And ironically, considering that Jesus and the disciples had originally intended to escape from the crowds, maybe their existential needs were being addressed, too. Maybe in that moment, when they were feeling exhausted, and worn down, they had begun to wonder if they were really making a difference in anyone’s life at all. If they were making a dent. If it was all worth it. Now, in this moment, this existential need of their own, to know that they really were making a difference in people’s lives, was being addressed, too, when they saw how these people’s lives were being affected in this dramatic, truly miraculous way. Maybe their existential need at the moment was validation, and they definitely got that in a big way.

So does this idea that this story can be seen in at least one way as an illustration of what the church is like hold water? Personally, I think it does. We all come here with our own stuff and stresses. We all come here with our own needs, not wants, and for the most part, not material needs, but rather, emotional and spiritual needs. Maybe we have concerns about our health – a troubling diagnosis, or a long recovery. Or maybe we have concerns at work – maybe the boss is a jerk, or maybe they can’t keep their foot out of their own mouth, and that’s going to create instability and stress. Or maybe we’re dealing with a strained family relationship. Or we’re battling loneliness, or we’re feeling like we’re insignificant, that the world has passed us by. Or we’re just burned out and exhausted by the chaotic, divisive nature of our public discourse these days, and you just want to get away from it all.

All these things, and so many other examples we could come up with, create deep, existential need within us. And in most of the examples I could think of, they all seem to boil down to the need to know these core, essential Christian truths:  a.) That the God who created all this, and us, too, is really present and caring for us, even when it’s hard to see or feel that presence; b.) That we’re loved by that God and by others around us; and c.) That our lives matter to that God, and others around us. 

A part of our Presbyterian Constitution, part of our Book of Order, is a list of the six “Great Ends of the Church” – what the Church is supposed to be all about. One of those “Great Ends” is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” We the Church, were established to be the original “safe space” for people. We haven’t always lived up to that, but we can, and sometimes do. We were established to be a literal “sanctuary” where we can sometimes get away from all the craziness and negativity and hopelessness and uncertainty outside our walls, and where this existential need of ours is answered by proclaiming, and reminding, and reinforcing those three truths: God is present and caring for us even when it doesn’t feel like it. We are loved. We matter.

And like the gospel story we heard this morning, together, we help to meet that existential need for one another – bringing all of our own stuff and stress and baggage, along with our goodness, along for the journey, and somehow, with God’s help, melding ourselves into a community who has committed to love and accept and support one another through it all, and to let one another know just how loved and important they are. We make this happen, together, when we truly are a “safe space” for one another. While we can’t, and we aren’t supposed to, just ignore what’s going on in the world outside of these walls – some of those other “Great Ends of the Church” make that clear – we need to be able, sometimes, to set all that outside stuff, and craziness, aside and simply enjoy the fellowship that we have here, among ourselves. To provide one another with the kind of love, and acceptance, that maybe isn’t possible anywhere else throughout our week. We need to be what the Church always is when it’s at its best – a real, genuine, intentional, mostly non-biological family.

We love one another not in spite of, but because of, our differences and diversity, instead of hating and mistrusting one another because of them, the way so much of the world seems to be geared right now. Here, inside these walls, we recognize one another as God’s people – all different, all flawed, all in our own way a little weird and funky and half-baked – and if you think you aren’t, you’re mistaken – your friends are just keeping a secret from you; trust me, we all fit the pattern. But that’s OK, because we’ve all committed to loving one another, with God’s help, just as we are; and because God already loves us, just as we are.

That’s a different way to live than the world says is normal. It’s a strange way. Some would say it’s an absurd way. And maybe it is absurd – maybe it’s as absurd as a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. But by living that way, absurd though it may be, we end up seeing the face of God in everyone around us – and maybe, if we’re lucky, in ourselves, too.

Thanks be to God.

Hearing Jairus

(sermon 7/1/18)

Jairus daughter

“The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus,” detail, painting by Jeremy Winborg

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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This is a story of three people who have become locked together in time – three people, forever connected by the way the writer of Mark’s gospel tells the stories of their meeting with Jesus. Each one of them very different, each one encountering Jesus from a different vantage point, each one being an important part of this whole story for the ages.

Mark’s story begins with Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in their boat. They did this an awful lot in the gospels, moving back and forth from one place to another along its shoreline. Sometimes they crossed over in order to go *to* somewhere, to do something over there – but many times they’re doing it to get *away* from somewhere, to be able to relax and enjoy their own time in peace. Word had spread about Jesus pretty quickly; everyone had heard about his powerful words of hope, of good news – and especially abut his healing powers. So wherever he went, countless people who were suffering from all sorts of situations swarmed him in the hopes that in Jesus, they would find a chance at a better life. In at least one of these boat trips, Jesus and the disciples seem run down, feeling like all these people who keep thronging around them are preventing them from taking care of heir own needs and self-preservation – and they still kept coming, crossing the sea or taking the longer, more circuitous land route around the sea’s edge just to get to Jesus.

Jairus was one of those people. A leader in the synagogue, a respected person, and educated person, someone with position and some measure of power – the only person in this story whose name is considered worth remembering. And yet, despite the position and his ability in most settings to be in control of things, now he finds himself helpless and desperate, because his twelve year-old daughter is gravely ill, near death, and no one around him can help to save her. So, filled with desperation and hope, Jairus left his home and came to Jesus.

The next person in this story is just about the exact opposite of Jairus. This woman is an ordinary person without any position of respect or authority. It’s just her, by herself, struggling to find health and the acceptance of the community around her, a culture that considered her ritually unclean and literally untouchable because of her medical condition. She was as good as dead to them, and Mark’s author tells us this had gone on for twelve years. So, in desperation, hoping for a new beginning, a new life, she left her home that day and came to Jesus, hoping just to be able to touch the hem of his garment, which she knew would be enough to save her, just hoping for the slightest bit of mercy from him.

Finally, we meet the third person in this story – Jairus’ sick daughter, on her deathbed. Surely she’s the most helpless, the most in need of compassion of anyone in the story. Not in control of anything in her life – subject to the decisions of her parents in everything; what she could or couldn’t do; where she could or couldn’t go – wherever they decided to go, and do, she had to follow along. And now, not even in control of her own care in her illness. It was her father’s decision, not hers, even to go to Jesus to help her.

Despite the fact that Jesus had trekked across the Sea of Galilee, recognizing that he and the disciples needed to take time to take care of themselves and put their own needs first for a bit, when Jairus came to him, Jesus looked into his face, heard his words, saw his need, and he still set out immediately to help. And when he encountered the unnamed, suffering woman along the way, terrified, afraid to even speak to him, seeking healing, acceptance, life, he looked into her face, heard her words, saw her need, and he helped her.

We know from the story that Jairus’ daughter died before they could arrive, so we don’t hear any words from her. As helpless in death as she was in life, Jesus went into her room, looked into her face, felt compassion for her, and he provided all the words that were needed – Talitha cum; little girl, get up.

Jesus was undoubtedly tired, and in all likelihood feeling some burnout and “compassion fatigue” with all the huddled masses trying to get to him for an improved life, but in the end, he looked into these three faces, and heard their stories, and knew their suffering, and he must have thought to himself, “How can I *not* help?”

There’s an interesting sidebar that happens in this story. Mark’s author seems to be making an intentional parallel between the fact that the little girl was twelve years old, and that the woman had been suffering for twelve years. When something good, the girl’s birth, happened, some corresponding bad, the woman’s illness, occurred – and twelve years later, seemingly the moment that something good happened to the woman – she was healed, and given a new life – the little girl dies. It seems to project this common thought at the time the gospel was written, and which continues in some quarters even today, that in order for something good to happen somewhere, to someone, some corresponding loss has to happen somewhere, to someone else – it’s the idea that the universe is essentially a big zero-sum game, where helping someone in need is going to cause one’s self some cost or loss.

But in this instance, Mark seems to be intentionally making the point that Jesus blows that idea out of the water, by saving both the woman *and* the little girl, showing that goodness, that compassion – that *life* – is not a zero-sum game. That helping others in need doesn’t result in a net loss, but is actually a net gain.

Jesus looked into these three people’s faces and heard them, and he worked miracles to help them. This same Jesus, our Lord, has looked into each of our faces, too, and heard us, and has worked wonders in our lives every bit as miraculous. And this same Jesus calls us, out of gratitude for the good news he’s brought to us, the new life that he’s given to us, to look into the faces of others – and to use the immense resources that we have been given, living in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world, to work miracles every bit as real as Jesus’, in the lives of those people whose faces we see. Jesus calls us to look into the faces of men, women, and children, who desperately need help, and hope, and new life every bit as much as Jairus, and the suffering, unnamed woman, and the helpless little girl. As a core, fundamental issue of our Christian faith, we’re called to look into those faces – and having seen them, to ask, “How can we not help?”

How can we not?

Amen.