Sunday, August 5, 2012


The following sermon was preached at St. Francis Church for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Biblical text is II Samuel 11:26-12:13a

When it comes to political scandals, that old saw is proven true time and again: “oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Warren G. Harding learned this in the Tea Pot Dome scandal; Richard Nixon learned it after the break-in at the Watergate Hotel; and Bill Clinton learned it after telling the American people that he did not have sexual relations with “…that woman, Ms. Lewinsky…” For King David, in ancient Israel, it was Bathsheba-gate.

If you were in church last weekend, then you heard how it came to pass that David has an affair with Uriah the Hittite’s wife, while the other guy is off fighting his war. “In the springtime of the year, the time when kings go off to battle, King David remained in Jerusalem…” (II Samuel 11:1) David starts ogling his neighbor (who is out bathing on her roof) and then he has her over for drinks one night. (The Hebrew says he “fetches” her.) And then the EPT turns blue, and Bathsheba sends word to David: “I am pregnant.”  

Gasp. Time to bring in the damage control team. David gives Uriah a weekend furlough. His plan is simple: if he can just get Uriah to go home for a conjugal visit, no one will ever know. Unfortunately for David, Uriah is a good Marine who doesn’t take the king up on this opportunity to head home. He tells his commander-in-chief: “my men are still out in the field.” David gets desperate and moves on to Plan B: buying shots of Jagermeister for Uriah in the hopes that he can get him drunk enough to go home to see his wife. But he does not. So when these two plans fail, David comes up with a terrible Plan C: he sends Uriah to the front lines and tells General Joab to have the troops draw back. Uriah is killed in battle. I’m sure David was prepared to honor him with a purple heart.  

David has now broken at least three of the really big commandments, including coveting his neighbor’s wife, committing adultery, and murder. But at last it seems that his mess has been cleaned up. Uriah is dead. Bathsheba goes through a short period of mourning and then marries the king. What’s the big deal that the child born to them apparently didn’t go full-term? 

But as we heard today, this is not yet the end of the story. The thing that David had done displeased the LORD. So God sends Nathan to confront David, to speak truth to power. But Nathan is shrewd, so he doesn’t go in there full force. He goes in with a parable. So he says to the king: 

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.

David can see, when the story is told in the third person, just how terrible this deed really is. In fact, his anger is greatly kindled against such a man who would do such a thing, “because he had no pity.” Isn’t it often that way: we are blind to our own sins, but we can easily spot those same sins in someone else—even in a blatantly obvious parable? That’s when Nathan puts his cards on the table, telling David: You are the man! And then notice what follows. The LORD says:

I anointed… / I rescued… / I gave… / I would have added more
You have struck down… / [you] have taken… / [you] have killed

David has violated his side of the Covenant with God, even as God has remained faithful. But what comes next is extraordinary. David says to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." And that’s where we stopped today.

On the socio-political level, the narrator is making the very point that Samuel tried to make early on about kings: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Notice that the parable isn’t focused on sex, but on the abuse of power. Even this shepherd boy/giant killer is not immune from the temptation to misuse political power once he has it.

I suspect that it wouldn’t seem particularly surprising to us if we were to read a story like this in The Boston Globe. It’s a real world story, for sure. But what is surprising to some is to come to church and find all of this in the Bible. Many of us still carry around an image in our heads of pastel-colored Bible characters: David the shepherd boy or David slaying Goliath. But most Church School curricula doesn’t include this more R-rated material. (Which is probably a good thing, by the way!)

C.S. Lewis once noted that “the same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.” Which is simply to say that the Bible isn’t interested in a sanitized version of pious reality, but in the real, messy world we live in.

When I teach the Bible to undergraduates I always make sure that we cover this story, because by the time they are eighteen or nineteen I want them to know how much richer and more complex the Bible really is than they think it is. Rarely do I have a student who has ever even heard this story beforehand. So I ask them: what is it doing here in the Bible? And I ask you today, what is it doing here on this tenth Sunday after Pentecost? Why are we reading this, and making the faith claim when we do that there is a “Word of the Lord” here for us?

I like texts like this because they challenge our assumptions about what the Bible is and is not, and as Lewis points out they force us to ultimately embrace the scandal of the Incarnation. God not sitting up on some cloud looking down on us like an accountant with a ledger in hand. God is right in the midst of it all; the messiness and confusion and bad choices of our lives, as we struggle with power and justice and human sexuality and temptation. This material from First and Second Samuel challenges our naiveté about the Bible. Do we dare enter into this world that is being created and to hold up the story like a mirror that reflects our own shortcomings?

There are various ways we might find our way into this story, and I suspect we play different roles as we go through life, even if on a smaller stage than King David’s. We might contrast Joab and Nathan: the general who is just following orders given by his commander-in-chief versus the one who dares to speak truth to power. For us it might be in the work place: what do we do when we know that what is happening is wrong? Do we, like Joab, go along to get along? Are there ever times when we are called to speak the truth even to a boss, even if that might prove to be very costly?

Bathsheba doesn’t get a voice in this narrative. Actually, she hardly gets her name. Mostly the narrator refers to her as “the daughter of Eliam” and especially as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (II Sam 11:3) to make it crystal clear that that she’s a married woman. I sometimes wonder how she might tell this story if given a chance to do so? And then I wonder: who are the people we make invisible and silence, the people whose names and dignity are stripped away by the powers-that-be?

What makes King David great (at least according to the narrator of First and Second Samuel) is not that he is morally upstanding. He is, in fact, a very broken and flawed person. But in the end, when confronted by Nathan, he admits that what he did was wrong. He confesses his sin: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Now of course he has also sinned against his neighbor, too: against his wife, Michal, for sure and Uriah the Hittite who is still dead; and Bathsheba and Joab and his people—whom he was entrusted to lead. He has been focusing all of his energy on a cover up and failing to do the job God had given him to do as king.

Even so, in the end, King David doesn’t blame anyone but himself. He owns it. God calls us all, as God called David, to accountability, to justice, to mercy, to self-awareness. And ultimately sin does not get the last word in this story or in our stories as God’s people either.  For where there is sin, God’s grace abound s even more. What does it take for us to follow David’s lead and learn to pray: “I have sinned against the Lord?” Or as we prayed in today’s psalm- those hymns attributed to this same King David... 

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

When we dare to do that, can we then wait for—and then believe and take hold of the words with which God responds: You are forgiven. Life is not over; for I am a God of new beginnings….your sins are forgiven! Or as the preacher put it last weekend:  

[God keeps] gathering up the broken fragments so that nothing may be lost…God in Jesus Christ sees what is possible, sees our futures. Not judging our pasts, God takes us and meets us where we are, and offers us new life. God sees what might yet be, before we can see it ourselves. That is the kind of God we are dealing with, people….
Click here for a link to the full sermon by the Rev. Karen Safstrom

Here, yet again—even in the very heart of the Old Testament—we proclaim the good news that God’s amazing grace is bigger than David’s failings and weaknesses. And bigger than ours, too. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for our bad choices; there most definitely are. We may think that that David deserves worse and ultimately maybe even that we deserve worse when we make a mess of our lives.

But ultimately this narrative, like the Bible from which it comes, is not about human achievement. It is about God’s steadfast love and mercy. It’s about the love of God made known in Jesus. It’s about a God of second chances. That is, indeed, the kind of God we are dealing with, people. 

1 comment:

  1. A friend linked me to this site. Thnx for the resources.
    Stop by my web site - counselling melbourne