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>.

 

 

 

Being Where We Are Supposed To Be

A sermon for Proper 12; 2 Samuel 11:1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21

When Samuel grows old Israel tells him “You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways” (1 Samuel 8:5), which is a reminder of Eli’s disastrous sons. The elders ask Samuel to appoint a “king to govern us, like other nations.” Samuel seeks God’s guidance. God tells him to solemnly warn them, about ways of the kings. Samuel tells them “The king who will reign over you:

  • will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots;
  • he will appoint for himself commanders and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.
  • he will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
  • he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards
  • he will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards
  • he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.
  • he will take one-tenth of your flocks You shall be his slaves. (1 Samuel 8:5-19)

The people didn’t care so the Lord tells Samuel, “…set a king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:22). Saul is anointed; it begins well enough, but it ends badly. David is anointed as Saul’s successor and after a brutal civil war becomes king over all Israel. In the last few weeks, we have heard about David’s success in establishing Israel, Jerusalem, and himself.

You have seen those string of firecrackers where one fuse is twisted around the next, so when it goes bang, it lights the next fuse which goes bang and so on. Well, there is a firecracker string effect in the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba (Bratt).

David is not where he should be (Brooks). It is spring, the typical time for military campaigning in the ancient Near East. While kings did not always go it is customary for them to accompany their armies (Keener and Walton). David does not go to the siege of Rabbah (Birch), so he is at home and sees Bathsheba, he rapes her, then he involves his commander in the murder of her husband, to cover up his sin. Bathsheba is in her rightful place. The ritual bath David sees is required by Levitical law as part of a ritual cleansing rite in order to return to temple worship (Brooks; Keener and Walton). It is unlikely that David does not know her (Keener and Walton). David is solely responsible for his actions. Bathsheba is powerless against the king (Harrelson). There is no justification, no scapegoats, no rationale, no romance, the king simply does what the king wants to do (Birch). In the only words she speaks Bathsheba reveals she is pregnant (Harrelson). We know the rape takes place at the end of her purification bath, following her period, so there is no question, David is the father (Birch). 

David schemes to cover up his rape. He calls for Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, one of his long-time faithful warriors, to bring him a report about the progress about the war. He asks only a few general questions, which may have raised Uriah’s curiosity (Gaventa and Petersen). Then David tells him to go home. Uriah does not, he stays faithful to his fellow soldiers and the Ark, and sleeps in the doorway, with the rest of David servants. The next day David tries again, this time with the addition of a little, no ~ a lot of wine. Uriah stays faithful. Not to be deterred, David sends Uriah back to the front with orders for Joab, to put Uriah in the front of the most dangerous place so he will be killed. Now the second firecracker goes off, David is successful in killing Uriah. The third goes off, at almost the same time, because Joab is now involved in David’s growing sin.

The effects of David’s sin continue. Among David’s adult children are Absalom, and Tamar by Maacah and Amnon by Ahinoam (1 Chronicles 3). Amnon falls in love with his sister and following in his father’s footsteps, takes Tamar (Birch). Bang – the next firecracker. Her brother Absalom kills Amnon in revenge; bang. Later he leads a revolt (2 Samuel 15) and Ahithophel, Bathsheba’s grandfather, betrays David in favor of Absalom’s conspiracy; bang (Keener and Walton). The revolt is put down; but, Absalom is killed; bang, bang.

It gets more complex; because all this contributes to Solomon becoming king. And yes, he is said to be the smartest man in the world; however, he splits God’s Kingdom, in two, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah. This results in civil war; many bangs. The weakened kingdoms are more vulnerable to the war campaigns of neighboring kingdoms. This results in the Northern kingdom being defeated, exiled, and is gone forever; bang, well ten bangs for the ten lost tribes. The Southern Kingdom is also defeated, sent into exile; she returns, but is never again an independent kingdom; she is finally destroyed by Rome in 77 AD. Bang, bang, bang, bang, are we running out of firecrackers?

The rape and dehumanization of Bathsheba and Tamar are horrific stories. They are the story of women and men everywhere who disappear as their stories go untold, or unbelieved (Brooks). They, and how they are seen in today’s world, deserve a deeper study of their own. They are part of the story of the arrogant misuse of power for personal whim, and strip bear the illusion that the powerful are in control of their own destiny and can define the terms of the morality that governs their actions (Birch). These stories demonstrate that kings everywhere will do what kings will do; and how lies, deceit, and murder follow in attempts to cover their offenses.

David’s story reveals the tragic consequences of not being where you are supposed to be.

In John’s Gospel story this morning Jesus is where Jesus should be, among God’s people. Jesus sees the large crowd, and asks the disciples “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5) Philip answers with the very practical observation “Six months wages wouldn’t do it.” Given the remote location, it is unlikely that the surrounding villages would have enough bread even if there is been enough money (Keener and Walton). Andrew observes “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9) Another rational observation (Harrelson). Jesus has the crowd sit down on the grassy field. Then, Jesus becomes the host who welcomes and invites the community to share in God’s hospitality. Following Jewish tradition, he takes the food, gives thanks for it, perhaps using a blessing something like, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth” (Keener and Walton; Birch). Then Jesus gives it to the people, as much as anyone wants (Birch). After they are done, Jesus has the leftovers gathered up; there are 12 baskets! The crowd recognizes the similarity to Elisha miraculous feeding in 2 Kings (chapter 4), and the Moses telling the people not to leave any extra manna (Exod. 16:19) and realize Jesus is a powerful prophet (Birch; Hylen; Keener and Walton). They want to make Jesus King. Sound familiar.

However, Jesus knows better, he does not want to be made a king who will just keep producing more wonder bread (Hoezee). So, he withdraws to the mountaintop to show them, and anyone else who hears the story, including us, that he will not be held to the world’s expectations of him. (Harrelson).

That evening, although it is a bit odd, the disciples leave for Capernaum on the other side of the lake, without Jesus. A strong wind comes up; however, John says nothing about them being at risk (Hoezee). When they are a good way across the lake, they see Jesus walking on the sea and coming near their boat, and then they are terrified. (John 6:19) They are not afraid of Jesus, they do not mistake him for a ghost (Hylen). They realize who he is, they know they are witnessing a theophany, a revelation of God and fear is an appropriate response (Hylen; O’Day). Jesus says to them “I am, ~ do not be afraid.” This is the first of Jesus’ “I am” statement in John, which connect Jesus to Moses, and to Yahweh, the Great I Am of Israel (Hoezee; Gaventa and Petersen; O’Day). In perhaps the strangest verse in all scripture immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going (John 6:21). This is a theophany in itself; it shows that Jesus shares in God’s work and identity; it reveals that God provides the safe passage to those in distress (O’Day). It reminds us [that] when you’re in the presence of God, you are always right where you should have been all along and where you will always want to be from then on (Hoezee).

Jesus’ retreat to the mountaintop shows how difficult it is to receive Jesus’ gifts on his terms and not immediately translate them into our own model for life. To do so risks twisting divine grace into existing false systems of power and authority, that destroyed it. The glory, revealed in both stories, is lost if one does not recognize its presence in the quiet places of Jesus’ grace (O’Day).

We have seen, in David’s story, how being in the wrong place leads to sinful actions that have consequences beyond any expectations. We have seen, in Jesus story, how being where you are supposed to be, leads to grace and glory meeting our needs for food, and rescue from danger (O’Day).

Being where you are supposed to be, is a result of knowing who you are, which leads to how you decide what’s decided. David is in the wrong place in part because he has forgotten whose he is, God’s servant, and he acts from kingly power, as we understand power, and we have heard the tragic consequences. Jesus is where he is supposed to be, proclaiming the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the crowd. He avoids the earthly powers of a king’s crown, so he is able, again, to be where he is supposed to be, walking across the lake which reveals who he is.

Today we are where we are supposed to be, together ~ in community, sharing God’s word, sharing Eucharist (in a minute), in thanksgiving for the week just done, and getting ready for the week to come by reconnecting with the divine glory, and sharing grace that sends us back into the world to continue Jesus’ mission – sharing the presence of the kingdom of God – healing the sick, and – feeding the people. Tomorrow, we will have to decide how to treat those we meet, which is in part determined by our deciding where to be. And it helps to know that we are God’s people; that God is always with us to feed us, to get us where we ought to be, and to remind us I am is I am where ever we are.

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.

Bratt, Doug. 2 Samuel 11 B(12). 29 7 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. “Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-15.” 29 7 2018. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3020&gt;.

Cox, Jason. “Take, Bless, Break, Give, Pentecost 10 (B).” 29 7 2018. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 7 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.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 6:1-21. 29 7 2018.

Hylen, Susan. Commentary on John 6:1-21. 29 7 2018.

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.

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

The Living Church. More than Forgiveness. 29 7 2018. <livingchurch.org>.