Our Best and Our Worst

Passage: 2 Samuel 11:1-9, 14-17, 12:1-13a
Date: November 17, 2019
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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When have we used our power in a way that honors and cares for others? And when have we been at our worst? 

Let me hear what you will speak when I turn to You in my heart. . . (Let us hear. . .)

In 2010, I had the gift of a sabbatical grant to travel with my family to Italy. We spent time in Florence. One of the memorable moments was standing with a throng of tourists, circling around the tall statue of Michelangelo’s David. It is an iconic image. David has an alert gaze, standing with grace and strength, before confronting the giant Goliath. Being in the presence of this masterpiece is breathtaking. At seventeen feet tall, in gleaming, white marble, this David celebrates some of the best in humanity: beauty, courage, strength, heroism. That image is in contrast with the image we have of David from today’s passage.

Today’s reading is an abridged version of the story from 2 Samuel. Some parts were omitted, mostly for brevity and time’s sake. (Believe me, I thought of at least five different issues to preach from on this passage, but those sermons will have to wait for another time.) Reading the Bible, we are often challenged by our limited understanding the ancient world from which the scripture emerged. The world radically changes over centuries, making it tough to hear the message for us today. 

But sometimes, we are even more challenged by the way the world has NOT changed! Moral dilemmas presented in scripture are sometimes all too relevant. Reformed theologian Karl Barth said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

As I thought of Bathsheba’s part in this story, I wanted to subtitle the sermon #beforeMeToo. Today’s scripture shows us a ruler who has an inordinate amount of power. He is portrayed as a hero and also as a man with great weakness and corruption. He is backed by a cadre of men who loyally do his bidding, and at times, do his dirty work. This leader transgresses sexually with a woman not his wife, despite his hero status given by devout people. In other parts of the story David and his men are responsible for the deaths of thousands, as they battle over land, driven by obtaining and keeping power. 

We don’t fight with swords anymore. But we do struggle with the damage done by people with too much power. And we weep over the deaths of more children, gunned down in school this week.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”—From William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats wrote that poem following World War I. The carnage of that war was so horrific, that people hoped it was the final war. Sometimes, it’s helpful to remember that there have been other times when we’ve taken notice of our worst.

In the time of David and Solomon, the court historian who composed the story of David, which became the nucleus of our Bible, showed us the best and the worst of a man who became King of Israel and Judah. In this story, we see both the greedy, corrupt king, and the remorseful, penitent man. 

There are some background things we should note about this passage.

First, in much of the ancient world, including the people of Israel and Judah, women were the property of their fathers and husbands. Perhaps they were dearly beloved property, but they were still in the possession of men and at their mercy. So, contrary to what we may have seen in movies and imagined, the encounter with David and Bathsheba was not a love story but a theft. The description of David sending messengers (plural) to “get” Bathsheba suggests that she needed to be coerced into seeing the king. Certainly, this was not a relationship between two equal and consenting adults. David’s sin extends from “theft” to murder as he arranges for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to die at the front of battle. Some of David’s worst …

Today, even, it’s actually not difficult to look at public figures and see their worst. It’s far more difficult to look in our own lives and to recognize how we use the power that we have. When have we used our power in a way that hurts others? Who called it to our attention? Whose voice was it that called us back to ourselves?

Because, really, the point of this story is that Yahweh (God) doesn’t let go of David, no matter how ruthlessly he behaved, no matter how he used his power for harm. God spoke through Nathan to correct David and to set things as right as possible. This story should be titled: David, Bathsheba, and Nathan. 

Through the prophet Nathan, God called David out on his greed and murder. When David realized the harm he had done, he was stricken with remorse. Through the Bible and through history, the prophetic voice is often how corruption gets exposed, stopped, and sometimes, redeemed. To hear what God is saying to us today, we should be asking ourselves: who are the prophets in our time? Who are the prophetic voices in our lives? 

In March 2018, my sons, Alex and Aaron, and I participated in the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. This demonstration was led by students in support of legislation to prevent gun violence. Just one month earlier, the school shooting in Parkdale, Florida, spurred young people to action. Turnout was estimated to be between 1.2 and 2 million people in the U.S., making it one of the largest protests in American history. At one point, an eleven-year-old girl, a child, spoke in a very soft and high-pitched voice about the horrors she had experienced. The crowd of over a million were eerily hushed as she spoke with power and quiet dignity.

When I think of the prophets I have known, I always think of Ann Huntwork. Ann died in September of 2017. She had been a member at Westminster for 43 years. She was well known in the Portland community for her activism. She was a consistent and strong voice for peace, over decades, marching against war and for civil rights. She spoke up for the homeless and marched in the Pride Parade (even when “marching” meant being pushed in a wheelchair). I want to tell you just one of the changes she led here at Westminster.

It was autumn of 2005. At that time, the PC(USA) had a policy that barred ordination to deacon, elder, or minister to anyone who was identified as lesbian, gay, or transgender, no matter how qualified and faithful they were. Ann came to me with her concerns. Two of their adult children were gay. Though they had been raised in the Presbyterian church, they would never participate in the life of the church because of the unwelcome message that was conveyed by the exclusion. (Now, others of you were speaking a similar concern, also prophetic. Thank you for your leadership!)

Ann helped me organize a small group of parents of lesbians and gays. That group gathered in February of 2006. It was amazing to see how people who had known each other for years in church discover with surprise how they shared a parallel concern for their kids because the issue had been pretty much “in the closet.” Quickly, those parents of the LGBTQ community became a prophetic voice at Westminster. Our own John Barker came out during a moment for mission, another prophetic and gentle voice. Through education and relationship-building, the Session voted for Westminster to join the Community of Welcoming Congregations, and we put up a signboard to welcome people. Then, with the help of Kelly Coyne from our welcome committee, we put up a rainbow flag on the signboard.

Hearing the demands of those people who call out our worst and push us is difficult! Not everyone understands and agrees. We were never far enough ahead of things for Ann Huntwork, but she loved Westminster, the people and the church. Her prophetic voice was part of our relationship. By showing us our worst, she brought out our best! 

That’s what we do for each other as a community of faith. Together, as the body of Christ, we grow, together, into wholeness. It’s why we are talking about legislation and guns in our bulletin today. It’s why when we disagree on this issues, we trust that God’s Holy Spirit is with us, holding us together and moving us on. Because, like David, we are sometimes at our worst, not caring enough about how our power affects others. And, like David, sometimes we are at our best. 

Many people considered President Jimmy Carter as one of the weakest of U.S. Presidents. But since he left office, he has shown us his best, energetically building homes for Habitat for Humanity and preaching monthly in his church, Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Georgia. He recently delivered these thoughts on power: “Wouldn’t it be nice if the United States of America could be a superpower in maintaining peace? Suppose the United States was a superpower of environmental policy. Suppose the United States was a superpower in treating people equally. See, that’s the kind of superpower I’d like to have.”

Who are the people and the situations in our life with whom we’ve been our worst? Who calls us back? Who inspired us to serve? To write poetry and dance? To heal and to share? To give of ourselves?

What would the world be like if we listened more carefully to the prophetic voice, calling us back to justice, to humility, to love? What would we be like, what would the world be like, then?