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9. Sunday After Pentecost, 08/02/2009

Sermon on 2. Samuel 11:26-12,13, by David Hoster

 

[The scripture on which this sermon on based is a continuation of the previous Sunday's RCL reading from 2 Samuel 11:1-15]

When the wife of Uriah 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.

But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him." Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."

Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun." David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." [NRSV]

One of the inventors of the modern social sciences, Emile Durkheim, is credited with introducing the term anonomie into the lexicon. Writing in the late 19th century, he found this term useful in trying to understand the consequences of urbanization in French society. Anonomie describes the anonymity that exists between people who do not share the common ties of religion and social culture that are imprinted on people by village life. When city people are anonymous to one another at a spiritual level, all sorts of behaviors become possible between them that would not have happened back in the countryside.

In the space age, we like to think of ourselves as blazing brand new trails in human progress, so it might come as a bit of a jolt that we didn't actually invent the issue of urban progressivism vs. rural family values conservatism. A Frenchman did a hundred and thirty years ago. However, I have an even greater shock in store. We see exactly the same issues detailed three thousand years ago in the story of David, Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite and Nathan the Prophet.

As I have said several times in recent weeks while we have traced the history of ancient Israel in the new Revised Common Lectionary readings, God's Chosen People were undergoing a transition from rural, tribal society to an urban, economically and culturally progressive society-in a word, from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. Last week we saw some of the tension that came in King David's transition from living in tents to living in a palace built of more permanent materials. Today, we get a deeper look into the crisis of values of the transition from old to new worlds.

David lives in a palace with a buffer of guards and servants all around him. He is cut off from his fellow citizens in a way that no tribal chieftain, separated from his people by only a thin sheet of canvas, could ever have been. David has leisure time to prowl the palace and drop down into his unconscious wishes and wants.

Lacking an adequate home entertainment center with a remote channel flipper, David did the next best thing. He climbed up onto the roof of his palace, which was a good level or two higher than anybody else's, and spied on what other people were up to. That was when he saw Bathsheba sunbathing on her roof, instantly surrendered to his imperial impulses, sent his guards to bring her over to his palace and, as they say, had his kingly way with her.

It could never have happened that way back in the old days. Not only could it never have been covered up with everybody living next to each other in tents. Even more, to mess with somebody else's wife or unmarried daughter would have necessitated clan retaliation and blood feud.

Immediately, there are huge consequences for David. Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David is the father. He has her husband brought home and tries mightily to manipulate the ever-faithful Uriah to go back to his house and have a romp with Bathsheba so he'll believe the child is his. David lies, wheedles, pressures, manipulates and becomes a person thoroughly alienated from his own best self. He is scarcely the man God anointed to be king over Israel. Saul, the first king of Israel, went insane because of power and jealousy. David went nuts over power and self-indulgence. In the end, David will cold-bloodedly manipulate innocent Uriah's death.

None of this would have surprised Emile Durkheim. None of it should come as a surprise to us. Whether the greatest king of Israel or the modern urban dweller, urban anonymity brings complex moral temptations and challenges. The issue for us, however, is not whether urbanization is a good thing or a bad thing. The issue is how to deal with it.

I can imagine, for instance, some voices in our modern religious communities who would tell King David that what's missing are the good old ways from the good old days. They would tell him he needs to stop subscribing to those Egyptian porno scrolls and cut out the dancing and declare a war on wine. People should be made to pray a lot more and go to the Temple and take all the ancient scrolls literally. If these voices got really extreme, they might even tell the king to follow the example of Chairman Mao and declare a Cultural Revolution where the urban dwellers were sent back to the countryside for re-education. I can imagine all of those contemporary conservative voices trying to correct the king's behavior toward Uriah and Bathsheba.

But that's not what God did. God did not hand down a new set of rules to recreate the form and structure of village accountability through some sort of moral thought police. Instead, God sent David's old advisor, the prophet Nathan who gave the king not throwback rules but a story. Nathan tells David about a man who exploited and killed another man to take his prize sheep.

As king, what would you do about that? Nathan asks.

I'd put that guy to death, David shouts in a rage.

Well, ‘that guy' is you, Nathan snaps. You just did exactly that to Uriah.

Think about what God just did to the errant urban king. God made the situation personal. God didn't restore the rules of tribal life. God restored the personal connectedness. Uriah was no longer anonymous to David. He was a human being, a soul, a child of God, whom the king had greedily and mercilessly robbed and killed. God overcame Durkheim's anonomie by making David experience personal responsibility for his thoughtless, unspiritual actions.

These are spiritual realities that contemporary Christians would do well to remember as we confront an urban landscape that give each of us the latitude of an ancient king. When we are stressed and distressed by moral drift and lack of accountability in modern life, the easiest reaction is to reach back for a set of clear rules that recreates the simpler world of bygone days in rural, small-town America. I recall from my childhood in the ‘fifties in Taylor, Texas that gays were so deeply closeted that we didn't know who they were, whites lived on the north side of the tracks with African-Americans and Hispanics on the south, and the Bible was taken literally, at least by First Baptist Church across the street from St. James Episcopal. There were no locked doors in homes and people never lost their car keys because they were always right there in the ignition. I'm not saying it was a world without problems, but it was the sort of nice, mythological past that conservative urban dwellers at the front end of the 21st century yearn to recapture.

 

he bad news in the story of David and Bathsheba is that ordering the restoration of that world with rules against same-gender marriage, Biblical orthodoxy and wars on drugs won't bring it back. It's entirely possible to say your prayers every day, take the Bible literally and never let an iota of drugs or alcohol cross your lips and still keep others as anonymous to you as the city ever made them. You will not, in a word, overcome Durkheim's problem of anonomie and the irresponsibility that flows from it.

 

The only real solution, the solution of the prophet Nathan and the solution of Jesus whose final commandment was that we love one another as he loved us, is personal engagement. The Uriahs of the world must become personal to us, just as the Bathshebas we would exploit. Indeed, we ourselves must become real to ourselves as human beings, children of God, people with souls, rather than consumers identified by the wants and needs our urban world tells us that we must satisfy.

 

Personal relationship, not blind obedience to rules, is God's solution and God's way, yet God's solution and God's way has a long way to go. We spend vastly more time talking about divisions in our society than unity. We talk about the divide between the races, male and female, gay and straight, the rich and poor, those with health and insurance and those without, Republicans and Democrats, citizens and immigrants, college-educated and blue collar, liberal and conservative, Episcopal and Anglican. The more we see ourselves in terms that make us unsympathetic, uncaring, anonymous, even dangerous to one another, the less able we will be to hear the prophetic words of God challenging us to be persons once again to one another.

The final word about prophetic storytelling, however, is not an easy one to hear. Nathan does far more than simply lecture David on the need for relationships. God would never settle for merely telling us to be nice to one another. Nathan convicts David for the brutal consequences of his lack of caring knowledge about other human souls. Such prophecies are always hard to hear.

A modern day Nathan might well tell a story that convicts suburban white flight society for its abandonment of the inner city to crime and gangs, or tell a story that convicts us for distancing ourselves from the plight of the homeless, or even tell a story that convicts progressive Episcopalians for their alienation from conservatives for decade over decade of making issues more important than people.

Is there some hard word that you need to hear that convicts you of alienation from somebody for whom you really do hold spiritual responsibility as a child of God? What anonymities do you maintain through unwillingness to look at your real motives? What relationships do you need to restore in order to travel the high road of love that takes us back to the God who made us all?

 



The Rev. David Hoster
Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Austin, Texas, USA
E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com

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