Sermon preached July 26, 2015
Texts: II Samuel 11:1-15
Baptisms are often such emotionally warm occasions. There are parents, often younger. Most often there are children, cute children dressed so nicely, often infants who bring smiles of joy to our faces and our hearts. Just last Sunday we experienced together a profoundly moving baptism of a grandfather and his two granddaughters. Many of our eyes moistened. Our hearts were moved.
In the midst of this warm emotional stew comes a stark question, seemingly out of place: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? The language is forceful. The words are hard – evil, injustice, oppression. The question brings home to us part of the important reality of baptism, of the church, of Christian faith. The world is not the world we would like it to be. Again this week we are mourning shooting deaths in our county. An ugly form of Islam continues to wreak havoc in the world – ISIS, Boko Haram. We are still trying to figure out how we can live together as human beings and how we can overcome legacies of racism, injustice and oppression.
In Jesus Christ God calls us to work for a newer world, more loving, more compassionate, more just. The church is a community of people who have been touched by God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ and who are seeking to live in such a way, individually and together, that they grow in love of God and others, and witness to the grace of God in Jesus (my definition). We are here in response to God’s love to work with God and each other on God’s dream for a newer world. In baptism we say “yes” to the God who has already said “yes” to us. In baptism we feel the warmth of God’s love in the waters. In baptism, we pledge a new direction for our lives. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
This baptismal question is a central question in this morning’s Scripture reading. The reading would certainly garner a PG-13 rating for sexual references, disturbing plot, and violence. It could easily be rated R depending on how much detail one wanted to show. The story could come with a warning – “some material may not be suitable.” The July 22 issue of The Christian Century reprinted a painting of Bathsheba by Rembrandt. It is not an image I could project this morning. Through it all, questions of the use of freedom and power are pointedly raised.
David has all kinds of power. He is the king, afterall. The biblical prophet and judge, Samuel had warned the people of the power of a king. He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 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. 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 and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtier. 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, and you will be his slaves. (I Samuel 8:11-17)
David is king, with all kinds of power, and the text alludes to that rather lightly. “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…” The text recognizes that’s just what kings do. They have enormous freedom and power. But this year David does not go. The reader is being set up for something, for a misuse of freedom and power. Rather than joining his troops, David hangs back. Walking on his roof he spies a beautiful woman bathing. He sends for her. That is within his power. They spend time together and she becomes pregnant. David conceives a plot to cover up his misuse of freedom and power. He calls her husband Uriah back from the war, hoping that he will be with his wife, Bathsheba, and then he will think he is the father of the child. Uriah, however, uses some of his freedom and power and does not go into his wife. That plot failed, David conceives a more dastardly one. He will put Uriah in the most dangerous part of the battle where he is likely to be killed, and that’s what happens.
The story is old, but it gets replayed throughout history. Those with significant freedom and power misuse and abuse it. History is littered with examples of power and freedom misused – beheadings in ISIS controlled territory, the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the gulags of the Soviet Union, the disappeared in Argentina, the missing in Chile, the African slave trade here in the United States, the shipping of native children to boarding schools. There are certainly differences in degree here, but it does not take long to come up with examples. They can be found almost daily in the news. The powerful are often tempted to misuse their power, and often succumb to the temptation.
In the story, Bathsheba is relatively powerless. At the very least, her power pales in comparison to David’s. The question of her power is difficult to ascertain, but at least in the story as it is told here, she may have had some power. Could she have said “no” somewhere along the way? Was there a degree of consent on her part to this relationship? We should exercise caution here because of the history of males using their relatively greater positions of power against women. Raising the question, however, moves us to consider the possibility that even the less powerful may have some power and some freedom.
The story is of a misuse of power and freedom, a giving in to lust that damages. It is not an anti-sex story, and it is important to say that. Michael Eigen, in his book Lust, a book I never read out in public, Eigen writes: Lust enlarges, enriches, makes life taste good. Lust damages and grows from damage…. Selfish lust stops cold at the wall of the other…. The other as fantasy, as pleasure, part of my will. (1, 103). Desire, even intense desire, is not bad, it is what we do with it. Sharon Salzberg: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires. (Lovingkindness, 175-176). The problem here is not that David notices Bathsheba’s beauty, or feels some stirring, some energy. It is the misdirection of his energy, the abuse of power, the misuse of freedom. The problem is even more acute when he abuses his power to set up the death of Uriah.
Uriah is a study in contrast in the story, a model of using freedom and power well. He is faithful in his duties as a soldier. He is unwilling to enjoy the company of his wife while his fellow soldiers are engaged in battle, a direct contrast to David. It is interesting that the foreigner, Uriah the Hittite, comes across better than the Jewish King David in this story.
So, do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? We are not kings or queens. We do not have that kind of freedom or that kind of power, but we have some freedom and some power, even if limited. I recently read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with the interfaith book group I lead, and I could read that one in public. There is this wonderful line in the story, not found in the movie. When the Lion sees the Wizard for his courage, the Wizard takes a square, green bottle from a shelf and pours its contents into a green-gold dish. He tells the Lion to drink. The Lion asks what it is, to which the Wizard replies: Well, if it were inside of you, it would be courage. You know, of course, that courage is always inside one; so that this really cannot be called courage until you have swallowed it. (L. Frank, Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 162)
You have freedom and power inside of you. It is not unlimited, but it exists. The question always before each of us is will we use our freedom and power well – to resist evil, injustice and oppression, to do good, to create beauty, to do justice, to create peace, to care, to love? David’s story goes on, and we will explore the next chapter next Sunday. For today, the question about using our freedom and power well is enough, and I want to end with a poem that encourages us to do that. http://poetry-fromthehart.blogspot.com/2013/01/sometimes-sheenagh-pugh.html
“Sometimes” Sheenagh Pugh
Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
And sometimes we are part of making the good happen as we use our freedom and power well. May we, by the grace of God, make that happen and happen often. By the grace and power of God – from sometimes to often. Amen.