July 29, 2018

Staying with Bathsheba's Grief

Sermon for Year B, Proper 12
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 29, 2018
St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Lawrence, Kansas

From now through the end of August,
 With the exception of one Sunday, you’re going to get your fill of bread. Bread, bread, bread.
Gospel lesson after Gospel lesson about bread.
By the time you get to September,
 Father Charles will have run out of things to say about bread.
There won’t be any more words. No more metaphors.
Instead, he’ll just lift the host in the Eucharist, and it’ll be plain enough, what Jesus intended.
Jesus is the Bread of Life; come to him, and don’t hunger.

So I’m going to let that one be. Let Father Charles have more words for later on.
Jesus has a lot of interesting things to say about the bread,
 And him being the bread, and us being the bread, and what a scandal it is,
   But we’re going to let it go this time.

Instead, what I’d like to point out is this first lesson, from Second Samuel.
If you aren’t familiar with the story of David and Bathsheba, here it is in broad strokes.

David is Israel’s great king.
Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah.
Uriah fights in David’s army,
 And in fact he’s out fighting the day that David first sees Bathsheba.
He’s napping out on the rooftop of his palace, and he wakes up and he sees her.
She’s taking a bath.
He’s enraptured, and so he breaks the Tenth Commandment,
 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
He immediately starts to plot out how he can have her,
 And eventually he does so, breaking the Seventh Commandment,
 “You shall not commit adultery.”
Then she turns up pregnant,
 And the writer takes pains to show that no one but David could be the father.
Yet David tries to get Uriah to take responsibility for Bathsheba’s pregnancy,
 Thereby breaking – you may have already guessed – the Ninth Commandment,
 “You shall not lie.”

It gets worse.
Uriah is too righteous and honorable to fall for David’s trickery.
So David directs that in the next battle
 Uriah should be placed “in the forefront of the hardest fighting,”
 And that all the troops around him should withdraw, leaving him headed for certain death.
That’s exactly what happens.
So David has now effectively broken the Sixth Commandment,
 “You shall not kill.”

Bathsheba laments and bewails the loss of Uriah.
Then David sends for her, and he takes her as his wife .... Takes.

Does the story of David and Bathsheba bother you?
I hope so!
Israel’s greatest king exploits every privilege he can muster
 In order to have dominance over another human being,
   All because he likes what he sees?
Looks, covets, lies, kills, covers up – all to get what he wants?
Abuses the divine power that has been entrusted to him?
That had better bother us.

So far, it’s a very human drama.
A predictable story about seeing and wanting and having,
 And doing whatever it takes to get what we want.
So far? With David? Human drama, with a sickening payoff:
 Desire leading to lies and murder, and to what we today might call human trafficking.
And at the head of it all: the great king, the inspired leader of his people,
 The crafter of psalms; the anointed, righteous David,
   Who brought the ark to Jerusalem and committed the enemies of God to the dust.

How, then, can this be?
Where, then, is the justice of God?

And this must be a careful moment for us.
Because right about here it would be too easy to run on into those aspects of the story
 Where we actually can see God’s justice let loose upon the world, a bit later on.
It would be too easy, and too fast.
Let me then give you these two haunting verses that finish out the first half of the story:
 “When [Bathsheba] heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him.
   When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house,
     And she became his wife, and bore him a son.”

Be careful with those words. Don’t run on to supposed happy endings.
Hear the weeping and wailing of Bathsheba;
 Hear the notes of a bottomless darkness and lamentation and grief;
   Don’t run on to good feelings or leave this moment prematurely
   Simply because it’s emotionally painful to remain here.
Rather, stay and watch and cry with Bathsheba at this incalculable human selfishness
 That has rendered her a widow, and another man’s property.
Do not turn away; remain in the grief of the moment, if you can. This is a good and holy work.
I recently served as a deputy from this diocese to the General Convention in Austin, Texas.
It was two grueling and wonderful weeks of deliberation and discussion and decision.
We pondered and prayed over things that took a lot of work to come together
 And that required much in the way of personal and corporate sacrifice,
   When “doing the right thing” comes at a cost.

Along the way I heard the voices of lots of different folk.
I heard from women who’d been sexually abused within the walls of the church.
I heard from Native Americans who saw the planet despoiled.
I heard from people of color who’d been victims of violence.
And I learned something from each one of these contacts:
 I learned, over and over, that you can’t have justice until you tell the truth,
 And you can’t tell the truth until you’ve been given an opportunity to properly mourn.

Our Bible is no stranger to such concepts.
After all, we have a Book of Lamentations.
If you’ve not read it lately, I can assure you:
 The author understands what it means to stand absolutely desolated before God:
 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
   Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me,
     Which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
   From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones;
     He spread a net for my feet; he turned me back;
       He has left me stunned, faint all day long.
   My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together;
     They weigh on my neck, sapping my strength;
       The Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot withstand.”
It goes on like that.
The end of the book isn’t a happy tying-together of theologies; it’s a gut-punch:
 “You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.
   Why have you forgotten us completely?
   Why have you forsaken us these many days?
   Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
     Renew our days as of old –
       Unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.”
And that, in our own holy writ.

What I mean to say is,
 In the face of terrible suffering, it is not wrong or unfaithful to God –
   It is not unchristian, if we cry or mourn or shake our fists at God and ask Why?
It is not wrong to ask God where our portion of justice has gone.
It is not wrong to ask whether we are forsaken forever.
Just because God’s “throne endures to all generations”
 Does not mean that human beings don’t get to wonder about what that is supposed to look like.
God won’t punish you for asking questions or crying-out.
We need to stay with Bathsheba, if we are to do the work that God is calling us to do,
 To exercise the ministry of reconciliation through Christ that we have been given.

It may be the strangest thing, not tied up in a bow,
 But it will be real -- staying up with people in great pain,
   Listening to people in great pain --
     And it will make us stronger and more capable.
This deep watching and listening, in the hardest moments, it’s the right thing to do,
 In a world unaccustomed to slowing down or paying attention to the other.

Amen. May it be so.

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