Speaking Truth to Authority

A sermon for Proper 13; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a, Psalm 51:1-13, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35 

In a land reasonably far away, in a time farther and farther ago, I was part of the sales support team for a computer company. We had a well-respected local store system. We were introducing a larger system for large multiple store businesses, or warehouse businesses. We closed a deal with a mid-size multiple store operation. There was an implication that our multi-store / warehouse system would be available soon and they could upgrade getting almost full credit for the system they purchased. In the beginning, I was at the store every day. As they put each part of the software package into use and mastered its subtleties, I spent fewer days per week. After about a year or so, I would go see them about every two or three weeks.

Have you ever walked into a room, and sensed that something was wrong? As soon as I got in the door I knew trouble was in the air. The service counter staff, always friendly to anyone who came in the door, quietly made their way into the parts shelves. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a technician pulling some-sort of cable into all the front offices. When I saw the president, he waved me into his office. In a calm voice, he explained that they were exercising their option to return the entire system. I was confused; I believed everything was going well. It was – mostly. It turns out, the president had lost faith in the sales representative’s promises about the availability of the new multi-store / warehouse system. There was a difficult, but respectful conversation about some of those details. I did my best to confirm the installation in process was what they expected, and got assurances yes, those expectations were being well fulfilled. We said our goodbyes, and I left.

That night I decided I had to call not my sales partner, but our boss. I recounted the entire conversation. I included the customer’s saying he no longer believed the sales representative was reliable. After the date to uninstall the system was confirmed the conversation ended uncomfortably.

Later that night I got a call from my boss’s boss. To say he was not happy would be an understatement. He fired off several yes or no questions about the current status of the existing system, and what the customer had said to me. Then he lit into me about challenging the veracity of the sales rep. Not being able to interrupt the diatribe, I just listened. When it was over, I tried to explain all I sought to do, was to convey what the customer told me. There were a few more lines of unpleasantness, and the conversation came to an uncomfortable disrespectful end. I was glad the conversation was over. I was not happy. I did not feel secure. I knew I had done the right thing, but I didn’t feel good about it.

Speaking the truth to authority can be risky business. I did not set out to do so, nevertheless, I had. However, as uncomfortable as I was, I never felt as if I were in any danger.

I am not sure the same thing can be said about Nathan, God’s prophet serving David. Nathan knows how dangerous David can be. David had just raped the wife of one of his most loyal commanders. Then killed him after when the effort to cover up the tryst failed.

As you know, last week’s reading was the rape of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, her husband. This morning we hear how David adds to the sin by marrying Bathsheba, for no other reason than to cover up his abhorrent act. You get a sense of what David is thinking because the story never calls Bathsheba by name, she is only “the wife of Uriah.” (Brooks). We also hear that David’s behavior displeases the Lord, the language used to describe Saul’s behavior, that leads to God’s decision to replace him as King over Israel. Nathan tells the parable story of a rich man with many flocks and herds taking a poor man’s sheep to feed a guest. The rich man takes the sheep just as David takes Bathsheba, from the one who loves her (Gaventa and Petersen). The rich man adds to his sin, by abusing the expected norms of hospitality, in offering the stolen lamb to his guest (Keener and Walton). David’s response is swift and harsh, though within the prescribed law. He does not yet understand that he is the rich man, that he is the king Samuel warned Israel about when they first asked God to give them a king (1 Samuel 8:11-19).

It is amazing how few words it takes to speak the truth. Nathen’s simple words You are that man. reveals a divine justice by which royalty and the powerful are judged; reveals a justice that values the powerless as much as royalty and the powerful (Birch). What follows describes the consequences of David’s sinful actions.

We are so used to thinking of prophets as foretelling the future, that, that is all we hear. A basic knowledge of Bible stories and last week’s sermon confirms that Nathan’s prophetic voice gets the future right. What we too often miss is Nathan’s courage in standing up to David’s power. Predicting the future is relatively easy. Speaking the unvarnished truth of evil in the service of power is risky. We must never discount Nathan’s risk.

We, as individuals, the church, and a society, must never discount the possibility that the speaking of truth to power will not be costly (Birch). There are many national martyrs, church saints, and people whose life story reminds us so.

David’s story does not end here. The transition to what is to come begins with a confession I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13). As prophets called to speak dangerously inconvenient truth, our goal is not judgment and condemnation, our hope is that by confession and repentance, life is possible in the face of death unleashed by sin (Birch).

We all have or will have the opportunity to speak the truth to authority, perhaps not the King, but to someone who has some sort of authority over you. We should remember authority is not always formal, it can express itself in the form of a relationship you value, such as belonging to the in-group it is advantageous to be accepted by, or a person you’d like to like you. The call to speak truth to authority is not a fight night card of the wholly righteous versus the un-redeemably wicked. In speaking the truth we must also be prepared to hear and acknowledge judgment of our own thoughts, words and deeds, done and not done, that contribute to taking, lying, murder, daring hypocrisy, insincere hospitality, or any anything else that contributes to breaking relationships between each other, as individuals or communities, between ourselves and creation, or between ourselves and God (Birch). We will have to decide what is more valuable, the truth or the authoritarian relationship.

Psalm 51 is often understood as David’s lament for his sin. The last three verses:

11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, * and renew a right spirit within me.

12 Cast me not away from your presence * and take not your holy Spirit from me.

13 Give me the joy of your saving help again * and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

present a sort of plea for grace. This morning’s Gospel is an assurance of this grace. We have heard Jesus refer to himself as the source of living water (John4:1-26). We have heard Jesus call himself “I am” a connection to the unique God of Sinai (John 6:20). We have heard Jesus say “I am the bread of Life.”

When faced with speaking an inconvenient truth, we can be assured that living bread, water and the glory of God through the presence Jesus is with us always.


References

Birch, Bruce C. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Frist and Second Books of Samuel. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. X vols. OliveTree App.

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a. 5 8 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 5 8 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hylen, Susan. Commentary on John 6:24-35. 5 8 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Richter, Amy. “Contentment, Pentecost 11 (B).” 5 8 2018. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Church. A Parable of Truth. 5 8 2018. <livingchurch.org>.

 

 

 

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