Link to Audio: The Good News 7/29/2018
11 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.
2 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. 3 David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 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. 5 The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
6 So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7 When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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?” 11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths;[a] 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.” 12 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, 13 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.
14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 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.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Excellent, what an incredibly easy passage to preach on, I think it speaks for itself, don’t you? I think I can just leave now… In all seriousness no Bible passage is easy. You could give me one Bible verse and I can pull for you ten different sermons and interpretations. But I will tell you this one is especially tough. I’ve spent about a week scribbling notes, drawing diagrams and connecting thoughts. I’ve read commentaries, and blog posts, and listened to podcasts. I’ve scratched out all my thoughts and arced the crumpled basketballs into the garbage bin. I’m telling you about my process because you should know ahead of time I won’t hit on every point. I won’t make every connection you are looking for. But I will dive deeply in this with you. Most often the sermon I preach is the one I most need to hear, funny how God works. So, maybe by association you need to hear it too.
We do want to talk about this passage though. Maybe sometimes in hushed tones because well, it’s the Bible, and this story in particular is complex, and sometimes discussing the extra hard passages gives us pause because it challenges our faith. But we are interested in it…Because it’s lurid, because it makes some of us uncomfortable and squeamish, because for others of us despite our discomfort we are curious peeping Toms who want to know. It’s like watching those true crime documentaries , “Disappeared”, “Who the Bleep Did I Marry”, “Fatal Vows”. “Wicked Attraction”. It makes us a little excited, a little scared, and a little anxious. Just enough to want in on the action. For others this may dig a little deeper than our surface anxieties and thrill seeking ways. This passage is above all about abuse; of women, of economic class, of power. It is about rape. And I want to tell you before we dive in, that if this brings something up for you that wracks you with pain, that has hold over you, do not feel trapped by feeling like you need to stay and hear this. The bible and the hearing of the Word on our Sabbath is a tool to challenge us, to push our boundaries, but doing harm is not how God or Jesus want their story to be used. The peace of God always goes with you.
Now, to our text. I do not need to tell you that what David did was really bad. You know that, I know that, and maybe next week if the spirit moves our preacher we learn again later in this chapter that God knows that. I am not preaching this sermon for the Davids among us, letting you know that our sin is redeemable. I’m not going to spend the bulk of my time on David. In this age of “me too” I think we’ve heard enough from the abuser. The most popular interpretations of this passage, after all, focus on David’s web of sin, his rapidly snowballing loss of control of the situation, and his attempt to make himself still look good, his eventual admonishment from God, and his redemption. In the passage we are hearing today it is primarily of David’s cover-up and attempts to hide his indiscretions. Other old Testament books that cover David’s reign don’t even mention this story. I Chronicles writes his history as a just King, a role model, in fact. Some interpretations of this passage would paint Bathsheba as a temptress, purposefully luring him with her ritual bathing. They would say she makes herself available, that her nakedness is the true sin here and is it really David’s fault? He’s a man after all, unable to control his lustfulness.
Sound like a familiar story? Maybe stories?
We do not hear much from Bathsheba; of her experience or her pain. We do not hear her cries into the dark, or if she is afraid, or if she is conflicted, of her preparations for the new life she now bears. According to Lindsay Hardin Freedman, an episcopal priest who gathered all the testimony of women in the bible and compiled it into her book, there are 93 women who speak in the Bible, 49 of whom are named. These women speak a total of 14,056 words collectively — roughly 1.1 percent of the total words in the holy book, We do not get to know Bathsheba’s words beyond these three “I am pregnant”.
Powerful words, those are. Bathsheba’s “me too”, if you will. Three words, perhaps part confession, perhaps part prayer, perhaps her call into the dark that we haven’t heard. We have no way of knowing. But we do know that they set in motion David’s desperate attempts at cover-up. His ordered murder of Uriah, his continued abuse of power to cover up his sin. He is not forced to continue down this road. He chooses it. He chose to use his power to rape Bathsheba, and to continually abuse his power over and over.
The lesson for David is that it is his position, which is beyond the power of ordinary men, makes sin possible where it wouldn’t otherwise be.
This notion; power. It comes up again and again throughout our text. From Adam and Eve in paradise to the revelations of John of Patmos.
Not too long before our current passage, in 1 Samuel 8 (10-22), we hear this daunting mountainous premonition about Kings and power: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[a] and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Granted Samuel is primarily referring to Saul in that particular passage, but this is a larger warning that applies to the power of kingship. The Israelites in this earlier Samuel passage want a King because they think that power will solve their problems, that having a governor over their affairs and someone to fight their battles will make them better, stronger. Samuel gives them a pretty epic spoiler alert that eventually comes true. And through this he reminds them that they are begging for a structure and a system that is easily corruptible, that puts everything in the hands of one, or at most a few people. It feels easy because it is. It lets us take the responsibility off of us and place it on something else.
I took this class recently, intended for workers in social services, that was trying to teach us how to be more effective through flipping the notion of traditional social work on its head. Traditional social work being that when someone comes in looking for services, or is legally ordered to work with you, that your job was to determine what was wrong with them and force them to work through your prescribed plan to fix them. Essentially viewing people as problems. One of our first lessons was to acknowledge how our power operates in two ways. Personal v.s. positional. Personal power is the power that comes from inside us, your personality, if people like you, if they respond to you, your own skill set. Positional power is power granted to you based upon your position in an organization, or within society. It’s your authority.
We are uncomfortable with the story of Bathsheba’s rape and Uriah’s murder because it confronts us with the corruption of personal and positional power to cover up the abuse of women in order to protect politics and institutions.
The current statistics go like this. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in the US in their lifetime. As noted by our story, abuse of this power is an ancient problem. We abuse through our wants.
Even though we’ve discussed our characters of David and Bathsheba, and briefly Uriah, there is a fourth character (or characters) that I am interested in here. Let me read you some excerpts again.
David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 So David sent messengers to get her.
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.
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. 10 When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,”
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab
So who are our last characters? Any ideas? Well, we have Joab, the nephew of King David and commander of his army. We also have the servants who reported to him, and with who Uriah slept while visiting Jerusalem. We also have the person who David sent to inquire about Bathsheba. The witnesses.
Because, while we have dissected David and Bethsheba it’s the witnesses to all of this who aren’t really talked about. The seemingly minor players in our drama. All with varying degrees of power. The servants are unlikely to have much to offer right? But do they warn Uriah that King David has asked about him? Do they maybe whisper in his ear? Not that we are told, and by the end of this passage Uriah is dead. But Joab, mentioned a few times here, had the ear of David. He was the commander of his armies, and seemingly, he follows the commands without question. David was surrounded by advisors and prophets who stood by while he took wives and plundered lands. While Davide stayed behind in his castle while his men were out fighting. While he ordered murders because it was convenient and easy because HE WAS KING. They stood by afraid, unquestioning. Watching this happen.
It’s not only the sin of rape and corruption of power at work in this passage. It’s the sin of standing by.
When I think about power, and injustice, and those who fought against it, my obvious go-to is the Civil Rights movement. When I was in elementary school I learned the sanitized Dr. King. The peaceful middleman, the one who “did it differently” and won the battle for Civil Rights. His death, a clear national tragedy, performed by a crazed mad man, not the majority opinion, not the powerful voices. I did not read this piece of Letter From Birmingham Jail, I didn’t see the pictures of the police and our own national armed forces dousing people with hoses and beating them into the ground. I did not see the pictures of white people throwing rocks at black children just because they wanted to go to school. Because the 90’s was the time of “post-racialized society” colorblindness. Injustice was over after Brown v.s. Board, and definitely over by 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. There was no fighting left to do. Just Kumbaya My Lord.
You know it’s funny how we look at that song, isn’t it. It’s as if it does not beg for the Lord to “come by here” in times of sorrow, while someone is down on their aching knees praying because they don’t know what else to do, or come by here lord in joy and laughter. As if there aren’t conflicting emotions happening in that song all at once. But somehow we’ve taken it to represent some kind of colloquial peace and harmony like we’ve solved all the problems and can just sing together. Just seems really funny to me, that’s what we’ve watered down this song to mean.
Anyway, the MLK I knew, the 90’s whitewashed peacemaker. Not conflicted, not also corruptible by power, barely even a human being. Certainly not the man who wrote these words from the Birmingham Jail to white clergy who called him an “outside agitator”:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
A 1966 Gallup poll, which, according to Newsweek, found that almost two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Dr. King and a third had a positive opinion, a 26 point unfavorable rate increase from 1963. Other Gallup polls from that era show the only person more despised than King was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
But now we see Dr. King as a hero. Politicians quote him every time people head to the streets. While folks stood in the middle of the parkway East not far from here screaming the name of Antwon Rose and lamenting the life lost those powerful voices said “King would not approve”. When football players use their personal and political power to quietly kneel in protest of inequality we tell them “Not here, not now, only where we approve. Wait for a more convenient season”
The lure of power and corruption is not only in doing the act, in committing the rape, in ordering the murder. It is in standing by and watching it happen. It is when I am too tired from my job that I watch the protest on TV instead of joining. It is when I consider my work done so I go to sleep at night while police and politicians and clergy and bosses continue to commit acts of harm under my watch that is my sin.
It is watching my neighborhood gentrify and not worrying because right now I can still afford the rent while bulldozers roll over the homes of my neighbors, crushing bricks into dust and they are forced to move to the suburbs that is my sin. It is in my ego, my perceived levels of exhaustion. “I’m too tired today. I will fight for justice tomorrow” It is in not bothering because my body and my child’s body are not the ones on the line. It is in getting to make the choice of whether I speak out against racism and not fearing for my job if I do.
It is the sin of convenience. The sin of “it doesn’t affect me”. The sin of “I’m scared”. It is the sin of a Facebook status without follow up, it is the sin of standing by because this time it isn’t me, it is the sin of “I’m sorry, but I don’t have power here.”
It is the sin of
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There is a hymn I have loved for a long time. One of the verses goes like this.
Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has brought me life –
I know that it is finished.
The lure of sin is being in with that throng. It is the sin of selling out your friend for gold, not just because you are greedy, but because it’s easier to do that and have the money to do “more good” than to not betray your friend. It is the sin of having a sign that says “Love thy neighbor, no exceptions” but really, there are exceptions. It’s in not practicing what you preach, it’s in saying one thing and doing another. It is when the faces of your neighborhood are changing and you are saying nothing, it is when you become more concerned with the bottom line, than the person.
A few days ago I went to see the Mr. Rogers documentary. If you are interested in crying for an hour and a half, I sincerely recommend it. One of the things that struck me the most was the assertion that Fred Rogers was extremely serious about what he was doing. That he thought the most important thing he could do was let people know that they were special. They talked a lot about his transformation through this beloved characters while he was on the show. His beginning as Daniel Tiger, the meek and questioning Tiger who was often afraid and insecure. To King Friday, the very seriously voiced figure of power, authority, and self-assuredness who wanted the best for the people around him even when it was difficult to achieve and even if it was sometimes misguided.
One of the early episodes of Mr. Rogers focused on King Friday’s aversion to change and transformation. Things were changing in the neighborhood, so He has his soldiers build him a wall to keep the change out and the castle safe…
Just this past week I read a story about a six-year-old girl in one of the immigrant detention centers for children separated from their parents at the border. She was sexually abused by an older child. The form she signed with a crooked and squabbly D stated “I understand it is my responsibility to maintain appropriate boundaries with peers/workers”. Six. It is her responsibility…
And then it happened a second time. No one protected her, no one aided her. They stood on the sidelines of her abuse and claimed no responsibility.
When she was finally reunited with her family her mother said she didn’t recognize her, and even now a month later “the trauma of the ordeal lingers. “She is still behaving following the rules of the detention center,” said the mother. “She doesn’t let them touch her, she doesn’t touch them. She wakes up at 6, and bathes and eats. She behaves like she is programmed.”
In the Land of Make Believe, the neighbor’s don’t stand by the King’s foolishness. They attach messages of peace to balloons and send them over the wall to the King. An act of protest in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
In one of Mr. Roger’s last television broadcasts he spoke to the children who had grown up with him in their living rooms. “… I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are. And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe. And to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods. Its such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.”
Often what Mr. Rogers was doing was an act of protest. He spoke of the hard things and the scary things: assassination, divorce, war, terrorism. He never took children or their thoughts or fears or feelings for granted. He believed them, honored them, during times when it was believed children should be seen and not heard. He elevated the voices of those who expressed brokenness and fear, he praised the strength of those who had been through the darkest times.
But he never stood on the sidelines and looked on. He faced those things that were fears, his insecurities, his concerns, his doubts. Even when his deepest and most profound worry was that he wasn’t making a difference he pushed onward.
And that is our role. It’s to take our sin of standing by and move forward. The last verse of that hymn I mentioned earlier goes like this.
I will not boast in anything,
No gifts, no power, no wisdom;
But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
His death and resurrection.
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer;
But this I know with all my heart –
His wounds have paid my ransom.
It does not answer what we gain through the process, but rather it’s the assurance that when we’ve done the sin on standing on the sidelines we are forgiven, we are blessed, and we are told to go and sin no more.