which king? – a sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

preachinga sermon, based on 2 Samuel 11.1-15 and John 6.1-21, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on Sunday, July 26, 2015

My staunch Baptist grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts, was a walking, talking ever-flowing fountain of aphorisms. Her always economically worded, sometimes tersely stated opinions, she made clear, were to be understood by me as gospel truth! Among many things, she often said, “Everything that feels good, looks good, smells goods, sounds good, and tastes good is not good for you!”

I accept the view of the late, great French paleontologist and philosopher, Jesuit priest and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that we are not human beings in search of spirit, but spiritual beings, created by God who is Spirit, immersed in human experience. I also acknowledge the obvious. In our embodiment in this flesh and in historical time and space, we are sensate creatures. In the course of daily living, much of our perception of reality, much of what we know or think that we know comes via our physical senses, which can deceive us (think of the optical illusion of something appearing not as it really is or the taste of something sweet or savory that proves poisonous).

David und Batheseba by Lucas Cranach der Ältere (the Elder), 1526So, with King David deluded, the faithful course of his kingship derailed by an attractive vision. David espies the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of Uriah. As the king who can demand anything, anyone he desires, he commands that she, doubtless with no regard for her consent, be brought to his house. A child is conceived. What began with the lust of the eyes continues with David’s decision and determination to conceal his paternity. First, he summons Uriah from the battlefield, urging that he “go down to (his) house” to be with his wife, intimately, sexually. The pious soldier, forsaking pleasure while his comrades remain in battle, declines. Then David contrives to induce Uriah to go down to his house, getting him drunk. Still, he refuses. David, now desperate, conspires to eliminate his dilemma, sending the unwitting and doomed Uriah back into battle bearing in hand his own death warrant, a message to Joab the commander of David’s armies, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, then retreat so that he may be struck down and die.” Private misbehavior leads to a premeditated, public, and bloody murder.

There is a lesson here conspicuous in its historical, demonstrable repeatability. Many are the reminders, one generation to another, that the pleasures promised by the physical senses can yield the cost of misconduct in high places; be it of royalty, politicians, clergy, or the stars of film and stage and sports.

As an aside, for those of us and perhaps for that part of each of us that craves the righteous recompense of an exacting justice for wrongdoing, the story continues. Uriah dies. Bathsheba grieves. David takes her as his wife. Their child is born. The prophet Nathan, sent by God, tells David a parable of a rich man who took the prized possession of a poor man. David, as king, thus judge over his people, in anger cries, “As the Lord lives, that man deserves death!” Nathan declares, “You, David, are the man!” The judgment rendered, the sentence is announced. The sword of conflict shall ne’er depart from David’s kingdom and the child will die. So, here, let us always be aware and beware whene’er our hearts yearn for justice. For none, if not God, surely never we can wield the gavel of righteousness in a way that spares the innocent.

Back to the story. If all the David-saga teaches or re-teaches us is that our human sensibilities are subject to error and that each of us is complicated and conflicted, a cosmic admixture of angelic and demonic desirings and that we, in our inescapable humanness, tend to act on each, then where does that leave us other than where we already are with what we already know?

The story of Jesus helps me.

At first glance, I saw little connection between David’s duplicity and Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. The most I could conjure up was a tale of two kings; one who feasts on others, serving only himself and one who feeds, serves others. Rather simplistic and shallow. Yet, the more I thought and prayed, this remains for me a tale of two kings and two conceptions of power. (Recall three Sundays ago when I defined power as “that capacity to do something, to have an affect on a person or thing so to yield an effect.”[1])

The Feeding of the Multitude, Abraham Bloemaert, 1628

A large hungry crowd came to Jesus. He asked Philip, “Where shall we buy enough bread for the people?” His question was only a test, for Jesus already knew what he would do.

How did Jesus feed the people? Was it literally a miracle of multiplication? Or were the people, amazed by Jesus’ generosity in giving away what little he had, moved to share what they had until all were fed? I don’t know. And I don’t think it matters. The point, I believe, is this: each of us (no matter how small we feel in stature, no matter how few we perceive our gifts, as with a little boy amid a massive hungry crowd holding in his hands the laughably miniscule provisions of five barley loaves and two fish) has power, the capacity to do something. Question. What is the desire of our hearts that compels our exercise of the power we possess? Is it like David? To reach out with an open hand to grasp and close our fingers around what we want for ourselves? Or is it like Jesus – a king who refuses to be made a worldly king, whose kingship is a kinship for he is the lover of all, whose justice is merciful forgiveness, whose power is his submission in service and sacrifice – reaching out with an open hand on which rests what we offer to others that they may have life and have it more abundantly? Which king do we, do I, do you follow?

I answer by referring to what is for me one of the most beautifully descriptive spiritual journeys in literature: Nikos Kazantzakis’s semi-autobiographical Report To Greco. In a particular passage, Kazantzakis describes a conversation with his grandfather, a noted painter; truly a moment of listening as his grandfather in impassioned soliloquy pours out the secrets of his spiritual struggle:

“There are three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers.

One: I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Draw me lest I rot.

Two: Do not overdraw me lest I break.

Three: Overdraw me, I care not that I break, but only that I may be used to accomplish your purpose.

Choose!”[2]

Which bow are you, am I? By our answer, we declare which king we follow. Choose!

Illustrations: David und Batheseba by Lucas Cranach der Ältere (the Elder), 1526. The Feeding of the Multitude, Abraham Bloemaert, 1628

[1] From the sermon, Going Home, July 5, 2015

[2] Paraphrased and adapted by this author

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2 thoughts on “which king? – a sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Paul,

    Two main parts of the sermon jumped out to me….

    1) Given that “each of us is complicated and conflicted,,,, we, tend to act on each, then where does that leave us other than where we already are with what we already know?” I hope that we learn from what we’ve acted upon so that we don’t remain where we are with what we already know, I hope that we GROW … stronger and less apt to act in a way that would disappoint Jesus.

    2) “this remains for me a tale of two kings and two conceptions of power.” The two conceptions of power is so important because how we all choose our actions says everything about who we are, AND who we hope to become (as we learn how to deal with the power we have!). I appreciate you leaving us with such a powerful prayer. You leave us guessing about which bow you are… which is really an awesome way to end a sermon. As for me, I feel I’m prayer number three, particularly in the last couple of years. I feel overdrawn and overwhelmed at times, YET I feel it’s also how things are supposed to be for me!! Thanks for your words!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Loretta. As always, I appreciate your comments. Yes, I do hope and pray that we grow. For me, at least in the words of this sermon, the more than “what we already know” is that we, each and all, have power. Thus, the question: what motivates our use of the power we possess? What is our intent in its use? To get and gain for ourselves? To sacrifice in service of others? My answer to that constant question — that, knowing my complexity and conflictedness, is never, CAN never be purely one or the other, but rather a mix of both (hence, the question becomes one of the primary, fundamental, core motivation or intent) — reflects which king I follow. Again, thanks.

    Like

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