[Sermon preached on Sunday, August 5, 2018 (Proper 13, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church – Minneapolis, Minnesota].
There are times when responding to the reading of scripture with “thanks be to God” can prove to be incredibly challenging. Today’s reading, the second part of the saga of David and Bathsheba, is one of those times. After hearing about King David’s horrific violation of Bathsheba, what is there to be thankful for? Perhaps “thanksgiving” is found, not in the events as the unfold in our text, but in what we can learn from them.
Today’s reading from II Samuel is an exploration of power, how it can be misused to harm people and how God opposes such abuses of power. And when we place this reading alongside our Gospel, we see how in giving God’s self to us in Jesus Christ, we see a vision of how power, rightly ordered, points us to the Kingdom of God right here on Earth. To get to the Kingdom of God here on earth, we might start at the beginning, the very beginning, the “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the Earth” beginning.
As the story of Creation recalls, after God sung the whole of Creation into being and unfurled the variegated carpet of the Earth into the luminous darkness of space, God decided to do one more thing, to create the human race to share in God’s work of Creation. “Let us make humankind in our image,” God says, “and let them have dominion over Creation.”
What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Perhaps it means more than one thing. Perhaps the metaphor is full of possibilities. And perhaps, being created in the image of God could mean power, the ability to share in creation to steward and care for the abundance God richly bestowed upon us.
But along with that power came free-will, the ability to choose how we use the power God gave to us. Do we use it for good, to betterment of others, to the stewardship of Creation? Or do we use it for evil, to selfish ends, to the abuse and exploitation of others?
King David chose the former. It should also be noted that, as a king of an Iron Age kingdom, he had considerably more power than average human beings. When he summoned Bathsheba, she could not refuse. His power over her made consent impossible.
What took place was assault – and there is simply no way around that. When the prophet Nathan confronts David, he does so boldly, using his knowledge of God to oppose David’s abuse and exploitation of Bathsheba. Far from being the national hero who defeated Goliath, David has fallen prey to the delusions of power.
He is not unlike many our own heroes who have fallen from grace because of sexual harassment and assault. What each of these stories speak to is a larger, almost invisible, system of misogyny that affects women negatively. This system is built on the assumption that men are superior to women, and that women can be exploited by men with impunity.
This manifests in a sinful misuse of power, power that is used to exploit, harass, objectify, and take. Such a system must be challenged if we are to live in the Beloved Community – the community of justice and peace, of compassion and mercy – in which God desires for us to live.
At an individual level, each of us must remain constantly vigilant against the allure of power. Free-will means that we can choose to give or to take, to dominate or to serve, to love or to hate. We may not wield absolute power of be Iron Age kings like David, but we are susceptible to power and its ability to be misused.
Between the 10th and 11th grades, I grew several inches, thinned out a bit, and began hanging out with the more popular kids in my high school. Prior to this, I was unpopular. Like, exceedingly unpopular. For this kid who had once been bullied, the opportunity to be among the popular kids was a dream come true.
My high school was divided into the three wings corresponding with the three academies – one for engineering, one for computer science, and one for medical science. Because I was in the engineering academy, my locker was way up in the C-wing, but all the popular kids seemed to hang around the B-wing. So, each morning before class, I would make the long trek to B-hall to hang out with my new friends before returning to C-hall for homeroom.
One morning, a young girl walked past us. She was dressed in a blue blouse, and colorful skirt, and she wore her long, frizzy hair down and relatively unstyled. She had worn that same outfit for a few days. As she walked past my cluster of friends trying to make herself invisible her head down, some of my friends began to make fun of her. Soon more joined in. Before long, all of them were ridiculing her, shouting names at her, as she disappeared around the corner.
I said nothing.
This same humiliating ritual happened each morning. One day, sensing the need to prove that I belonged, I joined in. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “aren’t you supposed to be Christian?”
She knew something I had forgotten in my desire for high school power and popularity – followers of Jesus are supposed to be compassionate. We aren’t supposed to use our power to exploit and abuse others. We are supposed to use our power to stand up for others, to support others, to show mercy and kindness for others.
By the time we encounter Jesus in today’s Gospel, he has already shown himself to be a person of great power. John’s Gospel begins with that magnificent hymn “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” This hymn is like Jesus’ theme music. It sets Jesus up, out the gate, as someone of inestimable power.
Throughout the first part of John’s Gospel, Jesus turns water into wine and feeds a hungry multitude. Seems great, but to be honest, these aren’t anything special. The Bible itself is chock full with miracle workers and traveling magicians were all-the-rage in Jesus’ time. It is what Jesus says in the John 6 that sets him apart. He isn’t magician, a sorcerer, or even just a sage or a prophet. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus not only provides bread for people who are hungry, he is that bread.
Rather than use his immense power to exploit and dominate people, Jesus sets a clear precedent here: power in the Kingdom of God is not characterized by domination and abuse. Power in the Kingdom of God looks like acts of compassion. It looks like justice and mercy. It looks like self-sacrifice. “The Son of Man came, not to be served,” our Lord says in Mark’s Gospel,“but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Everything Jesus does has this in view. The Kingdom of Heaven, the overarching, super-reality of God, is eternity, it is our fundamental destiny. When Jesus steps onto the scene, he comes proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is coming and is already here.
It is not waiting to be constructed, it is not waiting for any earthly power to bring it into reality. It already is. It is more real than reality itself. Like waves on the seashore, the Kingdom of Heaven is constantly adventing upon us like a relentless tide.
This Kingdom is like nothing this world has ever seen.
Whereas some earthly nations are based on military might, God’s Kingdom is a place where weapons are melted down into gardening tools.
Whereas some earthly nations are based on wealth, God’s Kingdom is a place where sharing and daily bread are the laws of the land.
Whereas some earthly nations are based on narratives of racial superiority, God’s Kingdom is a place where everyone has a place, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity.
Whereas some earthly nations put themselves first at the expense of the rest of the world, God’s Kingdom is a place where sacrifice and giving are most important, even to the point of death.
You and I, those who follow Jesus, are representatives of that sovereignty. This church is an embassy of the Kingdom of God. God’s law reigns supreme here. We are ambassadors of God’s commonwealth. How we use our power in this world should reflect the will of our Risen Lord.
Even when tempted to do otherwise by fear, or worry, we must always strive to use our power to protect not abuse, to repair not to destroy, to understand not to confuse, to restore and reconcile not to divide.
I, for one, am glad that the Kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world.
I am glad that, because of his loving sacrifice, I have a glimpse into a world where power is compassionate and giving.
I am glad that, because of his resurrection, death is destroyed forever and I have access to that land where joy is complete, where tears are dried, and where all are welcome, celebrated, and honored.
To that, I can say, “thanks be to God.”
 Genesis 1:26 (NRSV)
 John 6:35
 Mark 10:45