Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
29 July 2012
Day Texts: 2 Samuel 11.1-15 (Semi-continuous)
(Audio available at end of sermon text)
"But do we want to know ourselves when once we have glimpses of the demonic in the sudden flashes of hatred and rage that also on occasion have swept over us, when we have seen the blind hatred and rage of others which we would not see so clearly if it were not a reflection of something in ourselves."
-Diary of Dorothy Day, April 28, 1968
-Hallelujah, there is a God! My daughter Abigail has finally moved on from Disney Princesses…to Disney Fairies. Now, granted, Tinker Bell is not exactly Tolstoy. But if it’s a choice between idolizing vapid commercialized objectified versions of feminity, or delighting in magical beings who operate their own household industries and dress up in leaves and flower petals, I’ll take the fairies any day.
-In light of recent developments in my daughter’s literary tastes, I was surprised this week when she refused to read her new fairy story. Wherefore? I inquired. “Because,” I was informed, “there’s those pages with the shadows, and they are scary, and so I just don’t want to read that scary story anymore. Maybe we should just not read those scary parts.”
-I wanted to be the good Lutheran pastor-father and tell her, “look honey, you can’t really have a realistic plot or a good story unless there’s a conflict. You can’t know the light unless you’ve confessed the shadow.” And so forth. Except I realized two things. First: she’d have absolutely no clue what I was talking about. And second: my daughter was giving voice to what I suspect is a preference of the vast majority of humanity.
-Now, I know ambiguous anti-heroes and relatable villains are all the rage in much of modern story-telling. But in general, like Abby, I wonder if we also dislike stories with too many shadows haunting their pages. Or, if we do allow the darkness to enter in, it’s generally something we either get to defeat, or that dwells some place far off, like the Soviet Union or Mordor or the political party that we don’t belong to. And of course, we are always hobbits and wizards, good folks with just enough foibles to make us relatable. We are never the villains, never orcs or storm trooper #1156. Certainly never a Sauron or a Voldemort.
-No, we prefer the feel-good story of loaves and fishes to the darkness and deceit of King David. Which is why, to me, the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament are so bad-ass. And so disturbing. Because over and over again, the people of Israel refuse to pull any punches in telling their story. They are not afraid to confess that, yes, God has chosen them from among the nations to be a holy people, a royal priesthood, yada yada. And they’re not shy about confessing how regularly and how absolutely they manage to screw it up.
-Take today’s Old Testament lesson about King David. When I was growing up, David was always presented as a role model. He could kill Goliath, write the psalms, and was not above shamelessly dancing naked in public. Kind of like John Lennon, Jack Black, and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter all rolled into one. He was the complete package, or, as the Bible puts it, “a man after God’s own heart.”
-And yet, in today’s lesson, we witness Mr. Man-After-God’s-Own-Heart breaking the heart of His God. Despite what you may have heard in Sunday School about David being a great guy who, like all of us, is human and made a mistake, here’s what actually goes down.
-In “the season when Kings go out to battle,” here’s the king, lazily shirking his responsibilities, sunbathing on his roof. He notices a naked woman bathing on another roof. And while this scene has been romanticized as a scene of love at first sight, the truth is, she’s just had her period and is ritually cleaning herself. So this David, who already has a handful of wives, is lusting after a menstruating, unclean woman – someone else’s wife - fulfilling her religious duties. Creepy.
-Then we’re told he gets her pregnant. We may want the story of the handsome king who falls tragically in love with the beautiful woman who is torn between him and her commoner husband. We want Twilight, Team Uriah vs Team David. David was king, and when the king comes knocking, a common soldier’s wife is in no position to refuse. Back then, it was just what kings did. Today, we’d call that sexual harassment. Or statutory rape.
-When David finds out she’s pregnant, he freaks out. And invites Bethsheba’s husband to the palace for some wining-and-dining. “Uriah,” he says, slapping the man he’s cuckolded on the back, “you’re a good guy, I like you, so here’s some cash, some wine, and a free night of paid leave to go, you know, spend some time with that looker of a woman of yours.” Translated: if you sleep with her, then it will look like you got her pregnant. He tries it twice. But of course, Uriah, being a good man and loyal soldier, refuses to take an unfair advantage over his comrades in arms. Much to David’s consternation, who promptly orders Uriah’s commanding officer to place him at the front lines, where he is sure to be subsequently slaughtered.
-This is Israel’s legendary king, their example of “a man after God’s own heart.” He is a poet and a warrior. And he is also a coward, a liar, a manipulator, an adulterer, a rapist, a murderer, and an abuser of his office and his subjects. No wonder my Sunday School teachers opted for a much sunnier story of a good man who made mistakes.
-But the writers of the Old Testament want the whole story told. Because they know, as well as we do, that if King David can fall his far, than none of us is safe. They are not willing for us to somehow believe that we are “good people with a few flaws.” They want us to realize that we are people God loves very deeply. We are people with whom God has chosen to dwell. We are people to whom God shows grace and mercy and favor and forgiveness, time and again. And in spite of all of that, whether as bit players or mighty warlords, we are people who build a Mordor in Zion.
-David’s story is all of our stories. I get the feeling it disturbs us so deeply because, if we’re honest, the shadow in us recognizes the shadow in him. We are a people who, even at our best, are no better than the murderers, liars, manipulators, and various other villains who dominate the headlines and facebook feeds, and who also dwell in our midst. We’re all part of the damage. Whether its all over the news, or tucked secretly between the unread pages of our hearts. As my brother-in-law quipped recently, the church, like Israel, is disappointing, since it doesn’t really present a significant mark-up over the rest of general humanity.
-But here’s the thing. Yes, God wants us to be people who can honestly look our own evil in the face. But even more so, God wants us to be people who are able to look God in the face. And in this sense, I wonder if perhaps Abby was on to something in wanting to get to the good parts of the story, and not linger in the shadows.
-See, in today’s Gospel, Jesus does not tell the approaching hordes of miracle-hungry people to sit and stew in their own darkness. He tells them, first and foremost, to sit down on the fresh green grass, on a mountainside overlooking a beautiful lake. And he takes a few loaves and fishes, and blesses and breaks them, and then gives them for all to eat. There’s no sermon. No call to confession. Just the invitation. There’s that lovely little miracle - almost a fairy story - of a child’s simple gift multiplied into abundance for all. And there’s plenty left over. And all are satisfied.
-And if any of that sounds familiar to you, it should. Because today, at the table, Pr. Justin is going to take bread, and bless it, and break it, and give it to us to eat. Us murderers. Us liars. Us manipulators. Us cowards. We who have caused damage, and we who have been damaged. There is grace enough for all gathered here, for all the world, for all the villains and sinners as well as the heroes and saints. There is grace, not just for “good people with little flaws,” but for the most terrible among us, the most shadowy within us. Because grace is either for everyone – or it is no longer grace. First comes the feast – first we are given to look God in the face. It’s the only way we can truly face the darkness afterwards.
-Now look, looking God in the face, receiving God’s food, living in God’s story, it doesn’t take away the shadows. It doesn’t in any way excuse, condone, or ignore the damage. The miracle of the loaves is followed by a storm at sea. King David had to face the fall-out of his actions. We do too.
-But did you catch that bit at the end of the story? Where Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the fragments of food, so that “nothing may be lost?” That’s the radical depths of this dark story of God and humanity. It is the beginning of knowing the full story, in all its depths of tragedy, breadth of damage, lengths of mercy, and soaring heights of love. Nothing will be left behind. Nothing out of which God cannot make something new. No one will be left unclaimed by grace. In Christ, everyone will get to look God in the face. Everyone will be guilty. And everyone will be set free. That’s the fairy tale ending of the story. But it’s also the beginning.