2 Samuel 11:1-15
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
If you’ve been around me lately you may have heard me grumbling about Sunday attendance here at Grace. I even went so far as to mention this last Sunday from the pulpit when I admitted my concern about low attendance. But quickly I added that this parish needs to recreate, and “re-create” and rest a bit after a couple of tough years. So, before you start pulling your toes up under the pew, I’m not here to start stomping on them!
But I have been hoping our attendance will level out after all the summer vacations and some rest that has been due us here at Grace.
There are a couple of reasons I long for more regular attendance and it’s all about the spiritual formation and growth of this parish as a community - as part of the Body of Christ. If you miss a Sunday, you might think it’s no big deal but it is. The rest of us miss you when you’re not here. But moreover, I’m working on a series of teaching sermons that will miss the mark if only half the people hear only half of the message. So, while I can repeat these themes each week and you can read the sermons later on the web site and you can catch up on the announcements there too - we still miss you if you’re not here and you miss the essence of this time we set aside for our common prayer.
Clearly I’m preaching to the choir, as the saying goes, because you are here. And I don’t want to overemphasize this stuff about attendance. I just don’t want you, and all those who are part of our community who are not hear today, to miss out. And it turns out we are in the middle of a sermon series, though I did not start out for it to be a series, apparently the Spirit has lead me into one.
So, let’s tune in and see what’s up in these readings.
The first half of the summer we have been slogging our way through the story of King David’s rise to the throne and also St. Mark’s version of the beginning of the Gospel story of Jesus. We have embraced themes around our identity as Christians. I’ve been talking a lot about what it means to be the church and what it means to do church. And I’ve been lifting up the attitudes we Christians must strive for like patience, forgiveness and faith in a mysterious God.
Summertime is Ordinary Time in the church. It is that period of time in the Christian calendar when we work on our discipleship so if you’re not here much you miss out on the opportunities of digging into these Bible stories and reflecting on being better Christians. It’s that simple.
Now, as we follow the stories of David’s rise to power we also follow the somewhat different power of Jesus. The first followers of Jesus thought he would rise like David or some new King and build an army and fight a war against the oppressive Romans and all their other enemies and set things straight for the Jews. Jesus, instead offered a very different type of power and a very different form of religion as well.
So, we move today from St. Mark to St. John and next week we finish up the story of David and move to Solomon. And we will be faced every Sunday for the next four Sundays with one foundational teaching of Jesus from the Gospel of John - about Jesus as the Bread of Life.
But today I want to talk about power.
King David got in trouble again and again in his struggle with power and Jesus shows us a different sort of power. This week we get to enjoy the miracle stories that got skipped over in last week’s reading from Mark. Jesus fed 5000 and then he walked on water.
We like these stories because Jesus is, like I said last week, sort of like Superman. He’s like a super hero who wins the day. We’ve always read these stories that way. But that’s not what they are about.
St. John tells the story differently from Matthew, Mark and Luke and the feeding of the 5000 and walking on the water are placed in the telling in a way that emphasizes Jesus as the bread of life. This is John’s version of what we have come to call “The Last Supper.” It takes place at the time of the Passover and is reminiscent of the first Passover story from Genesis.
Like Moses, Jesus crosses over the sea only instead of parting it he walks on top of it. Like Moses Jesus goes up on a mountain. Like the story from Moses when the people were fed manna Jesus feeds the hungry when they are anxious about having enough to eat.
These miracles show the disciples then and now that Jesus is a powerful prophet. He can provide for his flock through miraculous acts and his life giving love is abundant. But he is more lowly shepherd than Superman.
David got more than he asked for. He was a lowly shepherd who was the runt of his family but he rose to power and wealth through the many blessings God bestowed on him. His first response to all of these blessings was to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the people - to bring God home in a way. And he danced and celebrated all of the abundance of God’s love and prosperity that had been poured on him and on the people.
But now, later in the story, he has sent others out to fight his battles, he has stayed in Jerusalem and he has sat on his couch instead of joining his army and he seems to have gotten lazy and neglectful, and greedy - and lustful.
David not only neglected his military, he took Bathsheba from Uriah, one of his closest followers and had Uriah killed so that he could have Uriah’s wife.
(Now, I could talk all day about treating women as objects to be possessed, but let’s just stick to power abuse for now.)
Friday night Joe and I went with some friends to see a play at the Blackfriars Playhouse, the Shakespearean theatre in Staunton. We scheduled this when all our crazy schedules could come together and so we saw, not my choice “As You Like It” which is running this summer, but “Richard III” because it fit our schedules.
Richard III was a King of England from 1483 to 1485 when he was killed in battle. He was the last English king to be killed in battle. Though Shakespeare’s portrayal of him is seen by most scholars as demeaning a bit, maybe even farcical mockery, Richard III apparently really was a pretty nasty fellow. He desperately wanted to be King but he was not next in line so when Edward V died, Richard III played all sorts of treacherous and murderous tricks to get himself crowned. Apparently, he really did have some folks killed, including children. His greed for power would let nothing get in his way.
At least that was the synopsis I read. To tell you the truth, I had a hard time following all that in the 3 hour long Shakespeare version! My mind, I admit, began to wander and I was having trouble keeping up and I found myself thinking about other things and just enjoying the amazing medieval costumes and amazing actors.
But then I began to think about the many power hungry, power abusing kings and so-called leaders throughout history. I thought about King David. I I remembered the difference with David was that he kept going to God in repentance and staying in relationship with God and turning it all back over to God. True power abusers are not able nor willing to repent and try again.
(The following is adapted from a sermon by Stuart Higginbotham, Rector, Grace Episcopal Church, Gainsville, GA.)
Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline says: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
Foster goes on in this book to lay out what he thinks is a response to this crisis of superficiality, this urgent need for “deep people.” He invites us to see the necessity of a deeper practice of prayer: “Though it may sound strange to modern ears,” he says, “we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.”
We are invited to realize that we are called to a depth of awareness of God’s presence that will transform our existence. Foster is echoing St. Paul from this morning’s reading from Ephesians: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
This is our call as disciples of Jesus, not to consider following Jesus to be on the external level of following a rule book that can be so easily used as a weapon to judge and categorize, but to so follow Jesus, to pattern our lives after Him, that we “grow into the full stature of Christ,” as our Baptismal Liturgy reminds us.
St. Paul pours his heart and soul into this prayer for the people at Ephesus—and for us today. He sees the signs all around him in his own time, like that of Richard III, rampant abuse of power, people seeing each other as objects in opposition, and a shallow understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. Out of this deep heart concern, he invites the people, in the face of despair, to depth.
In our own day and time, I think we experience this shallowness in terms of a perception of scarcity. The shallowness in our own existence leads us to grasp for power and control. This is an enormous problem, and Jesus faced it head on.
We se it in this story of the the feeding of the 5,000. Here we have: An enormous group of people; fearful and anxious disciples; calm Jesus; a young child with apparently limited resources; blessing, breaking, giving, and eating; recognition of abundance. A trajectory of transformation. The Good Shepherd asking his flock to rest in the grass feeds them with this abundance. In John this is the first Eucharist.
It’s interesting in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s account, when the disciples act out of their own shallow perception and sense of scarcity, something very important happens.
They immediately turn to Jesus and expect him to be their Superman and fix the situation. Give us a solution that will stop this, one that supports our perception of scarcity. They are blunt in their fearful request: send these people back where they came from, because our resources are limited.
Jesus, instead is grounded in a deeper perspective, a deeper type of power, a perspective of abundance. Rather than yielding to the fears or manipulating the anxieties of the shallow disciples, Jesus invites them all into a deeper awareness and an experience of conversion.
Jesus knows there is enough.
St. John’s account this morning finds the fearful disciples acting out of scarcity and anxiety. But look closely at Jesus. John actually “lets us in” on Jesus’ inner dynamic. There is this line: Jesus asks the disciples, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.
Oh this is so important for us to pay attention to.
The notion of Jesus testing Philip isn’t one of taunting or cruelty. It isn’t hazing. Rather, what Jesus is doing is giving space for Philip’s soul to experience conversion, to move from a posture of scarcity to a posture of accepting abundance, from shallowness to depth. Jesus knows that Philip needs room. His soul needs room to stretch, because his ego has become so entrenched in this narrative of grasping and scarcity that it is going to cost him to be transformed.
This is so important for us to see.
I think Richard Foster is spot on, the world needs more deep people. And I think St. Paul and Jesus are saying, guess what, we are meant to be these deep people. This is our call, and we need to start realizing this.
We can only truly live together as brothers and sisters in Christ as “deep people.”
And to do this, to have this level of relationship, we need to look to Jesus’ experience with his disciples: we need to make sure to give one another space to actually be transformed rather than making anyone feel shamed or guilty. We need to resist the urge we have to respond out of anger and despair, to yield to the impulse of scarcity.
We are a people who believe, in our heart, that God is a God of abundance and grace, and we need to live out of this belief in how we treat one another.
See if you can speak from the heart, from this space of greater breadth, length, height, and depth within yourself. We engage this space through the practice of prayer. In silence, with deep listening, from the heart. We need to resist throwing barbs and instead engage in deeper listening, to the presence of God within the heart of one another.
What is of the Spirit will let itself be known.