Sunday, August 19, 2012

Just One Thing

I Kings 3: 1-15
August 19, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

I Kings 3: 1-15
1 Solomon became the son-in-law of Pharaoh, Egypt's king, when he married Pharaoh's daughter. He brought her to David's City until he finished building his royal palace, the LORD's temple, and the wall around Jerusalem. 2 Unfortunately, the people were sacrificing at the shrines because a temple hadn't yet been built for the LORD's name in those days. 3 Now Solomon loved to walk in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines. 4 The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar.

5 The LORD appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, "Ask whatever you wish, and I'll give it to you."

6 Solomon responded, "You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You've kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. 7 And now, LORD my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David's place. But I'm young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. 8 But I'm here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can't be numbered or counted due to its vast size. 9 Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help."

10 It pleased the LORD that Solomon had made this request. 11 God said to him, "Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies—asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment— 12 I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. 13 I now also give you what you didn't ask for: wealth and fame. There won't be a king like you as long as you live. 14 And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life."

15 Solomon awoke and realized it was a dream. He went to Jerusalem and stood before the chest containing the LORD's covenant. Then he offered entirely burned offerings and well-being sacrifices, and held a celebration for all his servants.

I wonder if you’ve ever thought about what you would answer if God came to you in a dream and said, “What would you like to have from me?” I wonder if you’ve ever thought about how you would answer that. It’s akin to being asked what superpower you would like to have. Maybe the Midas touch, to turn things into gold (but not everything) or being able to see the future. A while back there was an informal survey on NPR, asking which superpower people would choose: invisibility or the ability to fly. One commenter suggested that heroes choose flight, and sneaks choose invisibility. Another said that choosing invisibility was a reflection of low self-esteem, and that choosing the ability to fly would indicate a stronger self-image! (Harumph! I think invisibility would be a cool super power!)

In those superpower surveys, however, nobody ever chooses wisdom.
It isn’t even on the list of choices, not like its
a. invisibility
b. flight
c. x-ray vision
d. wisdom.
There isn’t a superhero called “Wisdom-man” or “Wisdom Woman.”

We talked a lot about wisdom in adult Bible study this past Tuesday, and it sounds like it isn’t the sort of thing you just get, like a superpower. Mostly wisdom is something you acquire over time. Wisdom, for most people seems to correlate positively with age. Many of us, when we thought about wise people, thought of parents and grandparents. There were, though, examples of children wise beyond their years, or folks who didn’t have much sense, but every now and then spoke words of great wisdom, almost as if by accident.

There’s a popular saying that “Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.” You could paraphrase that and say “Wisdom comes from experience, and often, experience results from a lack of wisdom.” It is certainly true that much of our wisdom is learned as a result of mistakes, or failures, or challenges.

Not so, apparently, with King Solomon. Here he was, a young king, the son of the great King David. David’s firstborn, Amnon, you’ll recall, was murdered by David’s son Absalom, as revenge for the rape of their sister Tamar. David’s son Absalom then raised a rebellion against him, in an attempt to dethrone David and make Absalom the ruler of all Israel. In the process of putting down the rebellion, David’s general Joab pursued Absalom until Absalom was cornered. Absalom was known for his thick and beautiful hair, and in a twist of narrative irony, the mule he was riding ran under a tree, and Absalom’s hair caught in the branches. As Absalom hung suspended by his hair, Joab ran him through with a spear. Three times.

The next eldest son of David, Adonijah, then mounted his own campaign. David was old and sick by then, on his deathbed. Adonijah enlisted the support of Joab, and had the people shouting, “Long live King Adonijah!” But it would not be that easy.

You may recall that among David’s many wives was the lovely Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. David had taken a stroll on his balcony one night and had seen her bathing. He liked what he saw and proceeded to take her for his own. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David  tried to finagle Uriah into staying home – long enough that it might be possible for Uriah to be the father. But even the orders of the king couldn’t get Uriah back into bed with his own wife, so David arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle, then married Bathsheba. The first child died, but not before the prophet Nathan had confronted David with the evil of his actions. David and Bathsheba’s second son was Solomon.

Now, with Adonijah attempting to overthrow David, the situation at the palace is tense, and complicated (Just as a side note, when people talk about Biblical family values, presumably they don’t mean the ancestors of Jesus.) Before, Nathan the prophet went to the king about Bathsheba. Now, Nathan holds counsel with Bathsheba about the king.

“Didn’t the king promise you that your boy Solomon would be king after him?”
Well, yes, yes he did.
So Nathan instructed her: “You need to go talk to him, Bathsheba, and confirm that promise. Then ask him, ‘Why then is Adonijah the king?’”
So Bathsheba went to David and reminded him of his promise, then told him about Adonijah’s attempted coup. Her request was unequivocal:
“As for you, my master the king, the eyes of all Israel are upon you to tell them who will follow you on the throne.” (I Kings 1:20)

As pre-arranged, enter Nathan, to confirm the story and remind the king of his promise.
David ordered the immediate coronation of Solomon, complete with the ceremonial ride into the city on the king’s own donkey, an anointing with oil by the prophet, the blowing of the ram’s horn and a public announcement: “He will enter and sit on my throne, and so he will succeed me as king.” Whereupon Adonijah’s men, like soldiers in a Monty Python skit, said to each other, “run away, run away!”

Called to his father’s death bed, Solomon received his instruction:
David said, "I'm following the path that the whole earth takes. Be strong and be a man. Guard what is owed to the LORD your God, walking in his ways and observing his laws, his commands, his judgments, and his testimonies, just as it is written in the Instruction from Moses. In this way you will succeed in whatever you do and wherever you go.” Then David proceeded to instruct Solomon whom to execute in order to clean the place up and consolidate his power, and Solomon claimed the throne of Israel in short order after David’s death.

And so we come to the third chapter of the book of First Kings, and we see the beginning of the legendary reign of King Solomon. The narrative is careful to point out to us, right at the outset, that Solomon is a person who goes often to make sacrifices at the altar of God.
However, he also makes offerings at the altars of other gods, at the high places, which will be an issue between him and God for the remainder of his rule. But for now, Solomon is a man of God’s favor, and God has asked of him – “What shall I grant you?”

Solomon asks for just one thing: wisdom. And because Solomon chose wisdom over wealth or fame or power, God granted him his request, and then also gave him wealth and fame and power. Solomon’s legendary wisdom is illustrated in the text that immediately follows this story: this tale of two people each claiming that a child belongs to them.

I Kings 3: 16-28
16 Sometime later, two prostitutes came and stood before the king. 17 One of them said, "Please, Your Majesty, listen: This woman and I have been living in the same house. I gave birth while she was there. 18 This woman gave birth three days after I did. We stayed together. Apart from the two of us, there was no one else in the house. 19 This woman's son died one night when she rolled over him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She laid him on her chest and laid her dead son on mine. 21 When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the daylight, it turned out that it wasn't my son—not the baby I had birthed." 22 The other woman said, "No! My son is alive! Your son is the dead one." But the first woman objected, "No! Your son is dead! My son is alive!" In this way they argued back and forth in front of the king. 23 The king said, "This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead.' The other one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and my son is alive.' 24 Get me a sword!" They brought a sword to the king. 25 Then the king said, "Cut the living child in two! Give half to one woman and half to the other woman." 26 Then the woman whose son was still alive said to the king, "Please, Your Majesty, give her the living child; please don't kill him," for she had great love for her son. But the other woman said, "If I can't have him, neither will you. Cut the child in half." 27 Then the king answered, "Give the first woman the living newborn. Don't kill him. She is his mother." 28 All Israel heard about the judgment that the king made. Their respect for the king grew because they saw that God's wisdom was in him so he could execute justice.

It appears in folktales the world round, and the wise judgment is dealt out by Buddha, or a medieval Italian King. In every case, the story is told as demonstration of wisdom and the validation of the wise judge. The story is so ubiquitous that the phrase “split the baby”
is used as a kind of legal shorthand for simple, compromise solutions that may or may not be all that helpful.

Clever on its surface, the story is fraught with peril. How does Solomon know that the real mother is the kind one? Couldn’t the merciful woman have been the impostor, but clever enough to see the sense in conceding in order to win? Why doesn’t he ask for witnesses?
Why doesn’t he ask more questions? Jewish scholars have solved this dilemma with a Midrash that concludes the two women are related, and the one who says “Split the baby” stands to gain from that if she cannot have the child as her own. Without benefit of Jewish sources, we Christians are simply left with the story. Solomon hears the testimony and makes the decision. But he makes the decision based on the insight and knowledge
granted to him by the God of Israel.

When he was offered just one thing to be granted from God, the gift that he named was well chosen. It would serve him well throughout his reign. Many of the proverbs, and the apocryphal book of Wisdom are attributed to him. His name is fairly synonymous with wisdom.

But that was a long time ago, and wisdom seems in short supply these days. You may be interested to know that the University of Chicago is in the midst of a two million dollar project studying wisdom. They say “it is difficult to imagine a subject more central to the human enterprise and whose exploration holds greater promise in shedding light and opening up creative possibilities for human flourishing.”[1] They’re discovering some interesting truths. They’ve looked for a correlation between maturity and wisdom – surprise!, there is one, and a strong one. They’ve examined the power of wisdom in old age, and report that those who have integrity, strong identity, and wisdom are less likely to have a sense of despair or hopelessness as they confront the challenges of aging.

They’ve held thoughtful discussions on the nature of wisdom, its sources and how people acquire it. One of the more interesting conversations concerns their agreement that for many, the gaining of wisdom involves some personal humility, experiences of setback or suffering, and the acknowledgement that we are not in control of the world.

Perhaps the most interesting findings were in a piece on politics and faith. In an article in the New York Times, anthropologist T. M. Luhrman posits that if secular Democrats want to understand evangelical conservatives, they should grasp that the evangelical conservatives
understand themselves as being called by God to improve themselves, to become better people, while secular Democrats are interested in improving the world -- making the world a better place.[2]

I confess that I struggle to place myself in this dichotomy. It seems to me to be about as useful as “splitting the baby.” It divides the world of politics in a way I don’t understand – as if Democrats are secular people who don’t care about God, and conservatives are all evangelicals who don’t care about others. In my observation, neither of those descriptions is true, and in fact, many faithful people across the political spectrum are committed to following the words of Jesus when he gave us the greatest commandment.

In the first chapter of the book of Wisdom, the writer, reputed to be Solomon, says:
“Wisdom is a spirit that wants only what is best for humans.” This builds on the same wisdom that King David gave to Solomon: Guard what is owed to the LORD your God, walking in his ways and observing his laws, his commands, his judgments, and his testimonies.

When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he responded in much the same way, with one important addition: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 26: 37-39 CEB)

Nobody I know is getting a dream visit from God inquiring what one thing is desired, but most people I know would appreciate a good dose of wisdom. And every one of us who is of voting age, which is most of us, is going to be faced with making some significant decisions when we go to mark our ballots this fall.

Of course no pastor in their right mind would tell you who to vote for, and I may be a little crazy, but it is a demonstration of my own wisdom that I won’t advise you which presidential candidate to support. But I will pray that each one of us will make a decision that emerges not from our self-interest, or from our biases, or fears, or anger, but from our deep desire to choose the path of wisdom.

If God came to us in a dream tonight and offered us just one thing, we wouldn’t ask to be able to fly, or for invisibility.
We might ask to be more faithful, or for greater compassion.
We might seek to know Christ more fully, in order that our lives would bring glory to God. And we might do well to ask for wisdom.

What is amazing, and wonderful and true
is that God is already granting us this even now,
always ready to teach us,
to strengthen our faith,
expand our love
and guide us in the way of wisdom.

With those gifts,
we can be the visible signs of invisible grace,
and with that kind of faith, our souls can fly.



Father and Son

2 Samuel 13
August 12, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry
2 Samuel 13, Common English Bible
David's son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David's son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, "O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?"
Amnon said to him, "I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister."
Jonadab said to him, "Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, "Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.' "

So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, "Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand."  Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, "Go to your brother Amnon's house, and prepare food for him." So Tamar went to her brother Amnon's house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, "Send out everyone from me." So everyone went out from him.  Then Amnon said to Tamar, "Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand." So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. 

But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, "Come, lie with me, my sister." She answered him, "No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you." But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, "Get out!" But she said to him, "No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me." But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, "Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her."

(Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her. But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went. Her brother Absalom said to her, "Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart." So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom's house. 

When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar.

After two full years Absalom had sheepshearers at Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king's sons. Absalom came to the king, and said, "Your servant has sheepshearers; will the king and his servants please go with your servant?"
But the king said to Absalom, "No, my son, let us not all go, or else we will be burdensome to you."  He pressed him, but he would not go but gave him his blessing.
Then Absalom said, "If not, please let my brother Amnon go with us."
The king said to him, "Why should he go with you?" But Absalom pressed him until he let Amnon and all the king's sons go with him.

Absalom made a feast like a king's feast. Then Absalom commanded his servants, "Watch when Amnon's heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, "Strike Amnon,' then kill him. Do not be afraid; have I not myself commanded you? Be courageous and valiant."
So the servants of Absalom did to Amnon as Absalom had commanded. Then all the king's sons rose, and each mounted his mule and fled.

While they were on the way, the report came to David that Absalom had killed all the king's sons, and not one of them was left. The king rose, tore his garments, and lay on the ground; and all his servants who were standing by tore their garments. But Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shimeah, said, "Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king's sons; Amnon alone is dead. This has been determined by Absalom from the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar. Now therefore, do not let my lord the king take it to heart, as if all the king's sons were dead; for Amnon alone is dead." But Absalom fled.

When the young man who kept watch looked up, he saw many people coming from the Horonaim road by the side of the mountain. Jonadab said to the king, "See, the king's sons have come; as your servant said, so it has come about." As soon as he had finished speaking, the king's sons arrived, and raised their voices and wept; and the king and all his servants also wept very bitterly.

But Absalom fled, and went to Talmai son of Ammihud, king of Geshur. David mourned for his son day after day. Absalom, having fled to Geshur, stayed there three years. And the heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom; for he was now consoled over the death of Amnon.

I want to tell you this morning about two women you might not have heard of. The first is the wise woman from Tekoa. The woman from Tekoa, whose name is never mentioned, plays an important role in the story you have just heard about David’s children, Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom. This unnamed woman was engaged by David’s general and chief of staff, Joab. She was sent to confront the king about his son, Absalom.

Before I tell you more about her, let’s review the arc of the narrative. David has several wives, and several sons and daughters with those wives. Amnon is David’s first born, with his wife Ahinoam. Tamar and Absalom are the children of David’s wife Maacah, a princess of Geshur. So when Amnon schemed to rape Tamar, he was also planning to commit incest.

David was an unwitting accomplice in the plot, for when the crafty Jonadab cooked up the ruse to get Tamar into Amnon’s room, it was David’s command that brought her there, to make the cakes. Ironically, they were heart-shaped cakes. Tamar, an obedient daughter, went to her brother’s chamber. When he sent everyone away and grabbed her, Tamar said everything she could think of to talk him out of it. She begged. She reasoned with him. She offered to marry him if he would only ask their father. But Amnon, obsessed with having her, raped her. As frequently happens, when he was finished, he despised her.

When Absalom came upon his grief-stricken little sister, he said what he could to comfort her. And when David found out what had happened, “he got very angry, but he refused to punish his son Amnon.” It took Absalom two years to take his revenge, two years in which he must have waited, plotting, grieving as he saw his sister’s shame. Tamar fades out of the story at this point, although we know she went to live with Absalom, and we know that when Absalom had a daughter, he named her Tamar.

After Absalom killed Amnon, he fled to Geshur, his mother’s homeland. He had been there three years when the woman of Tekoa gained permission to speak to King David. She must have been a woman of great courage, and the scripture account in 2 Samuel 14 says she was a wise woman. The woman of Tekoa, sent by Joab, went to confront the King about his son, Absalom.

David had been grieving over the loss of Amnon, and then over the loss of Absalom in his self-imposed exile. Like Nathan the prophet had before her, she told the King a story. She told how she and her husband had two sons. One son killed the other, and left the country. Now, she said, the whole family wants to bring the other son home, the only surviving heir of the family, and execute him as punishment for the murder of his brother.

David declares that she must bring the son home, and guarantees his safe passage, saying,
“As surely as the Lord lives, not one of your son’s hairs will fall to the ground.”
Then the woman from Tekoa, being given permission to speak, draws the parallel to the king’s own family and the banishment of David’s son Absalom. She points out that everyone must die, “we’re like water spilled out on the ground that can’t be gathered up again. But God doesn’t take life away; instead he makes plans so those banished from him don’t stay that way.”

David sees the logic in her argument, and gives the order for Absalom to come home – not into the king’s presence, but back to Jerusalem. It was only a matter of time before Absalom,  who was next in line for the throne now that Amnon was dead, would raise a rebellion and attempt a coup that would unseat David and make Absalom king. It was in the course of that rebellion that Absalom was killed, inspiring a lament from David that even today rings out with pain: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Who knows whether David later looked back on this decision with regret – but in this moment, with the woman of Tekoa, David’s one thought is for his son to be restored to him.
She has been courageous, this woman of Tekoa, in confronting a powerful man, and speaking the truth to him. She has shown him, through a story, the importance of reconciling with his son Absalom. She is a wise woman indeed, this woman of Tekoa. That’s one of the women you might not have heard of.

The second is a woman named Vicky Triponey. I hadn’t heard of her until the last week of July, when the report of Louis Freeh came out, the report about Penn State. Freeh’s report revealed a culture at Penn State that was probably a surprise to no one,  a culture of power and influence for Joe Paterno, and the Penn State football program, creating a culture that most certainly contributed to the cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s repeated crimes.

Vicky Triponey, Vice President of Student Affairs, had confronted that culture more than once, and to no avail. She ended up quitting her job, under great pressure, and thought her career was over.

“It all came to a head, she said, after a major incident in April 2007. More than two dozen Penn State football players forced their way into an off-campus party. What resulted were criminal charges against six players and convictions for two. None of the players ever missed a game. "It was the most manipulated discipline case I've ever experienced in my 30 years of higher education," Triponey said. Manipulated by whom? "Senior leadership of the place," Triponey said. "… It would have been the president, the athletic director, the attorney, and the football coach."[1]

What makes it worse is that when Triponey quit Penn State, under duress, she found that she was a pariah in the community. Colleagues and co-workers wouldn’t speak to her in the grocery store.
It makes you wonder what might have happened, way back in 2005, if someone had listened to Triponey. It makes you wonder whether something might have shifted in the Penn State power structure, something that might have spared those boys who were victimized by Jerry Sandusky. It makes you wonder.

I know that these subjects are unpleasant to hear about. I know that we’d prefer to believe that such things do not happen, and we prefer not to have to think too much about the horror experienced by victims of rape and molestation. We feel a sense of revulsion, disgust as we imagine those scenes, a brother raping his sister, a trusted older man forcing himself on a helpless boy.

It is shocking, and heartbreaking, to know that every year in this country, more than 200,000 people are victims of sexual assault. Nearly half of them are under the age of 30.
Nine out of ten are women. More than 90 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker. Victims of sexual assault are
3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.[2]

Those numbers horrify me. Just writing this gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
So why would I want to talk about this in church, of all places? Because we are God’s people. And it is because we are God’s people that we need to talk about these issues. Because it is here that we learn the human stories, our stories, and here that we learn God’s story. Because it is here that we begin to understand how God’s story changes our story.
In God’s story, the wounded find healing.
In God’s story, the banished son comes home.
In God’s story, justice is done, but never at the cost of one person’s dignity over another.
In God’s story, the kingdom is coming.
In God’s story, the kingdom is at hand.
And in God’s story, we find a place to work together for justice, for healing, for care.
In God’s story we are called to work responsibly together to see that every vulnerable person is safe, and that every boy knows his own body belongs to him, and that every girl knows her power to say no, to go, and to tell.

Our impulse, if we are honest, is to brush aside the ugly details of the story, like David did, to let the sadness crowd out the call for truth and for justice. One wonders how the story might have been different, if David had held Amnon to account. One wonders how the story might have been different, had the officials at Penn State listened to the voice of a wise woman.

The good news, friends, is that the story can be different. We can’t change the past, or prevent what has already happened. But we can make sure that we do all we can to prevent such horrors in our congregation, our community, our country and our world.

We can stand up for the victims of assault and violence, work for causes that seek to heal and prevent rape and sexual assault, speak up on behalf of the vulnerable,
especially children.

We can teach our children to be as safe as they possibly can, and we can build structures of safety in our homes and in our churches. We can adopt and implement policies that make sure that no child in our church will be vulnerable to a predator. We can support laws and legislation that protect the most vulnerable people in our society.

This story today is a story of fathers and sons, the tragic family trajectory of King David and his sons, a story of pain and trouble; it is a story of a father who put his own needs above those of his daughter. The bigger story, the great sweeping arc of God’s story, is one that we can only see in part, like seeing just a fragment of a rainbow.

We see glimpses of that in the stories Jesus told,  about the father who welcomes his son home, about the judge who responds to the persistent widow. We see that lived out in the life Jesus led and in his death and resurrection. As the Apostle Paul said, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.”

If we have that love, Christ’s love,
for each other,
for our neighbors,
for our world,
and even for our enemies,
we will be open and ready to protect those who are weak or in danger,
and to bravely speak truth to power, with words of wisdom and words of grace.
May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to be such men and women.



Power Failure
August 5, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

2 Samuel 11: 1-17, 26-27; 2 Samuel 12:1-14 (CEV)
In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab, along with his servants and all the Israelites, and they destroyed the Ammonites, attacking the city of Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.
One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.
David sent someone and inquired about the woman. The report came back: 
"Isn't this Eliam's daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?"
So David sent messengers to get her.
When she came to him, he had sex with her. (Now she had been purifying herself after her monthly period.) Then she returned home.
The woman conceived and sent word to David. "I'm pregnant," she said.
Then David sent a message to Joab: "Send me Uriah the Hittite."
So Joab sent Uriah to David.
When Uriah came to him, David asked about the welfare of Joab and the army and how the battle was going.
Then David told Uriah, "Go down to your house and wash your feet."
Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him.
However, Uriah slept at the palace entrance with all his master's servants.
He didn't go down to his own house.
David was told, "Uriah didn't go down to his own house," so David asked Uriah, "Haven't you just returned from a journey? Why didn't you go home?"
 "The chest and Israel and Judah are all living in tents," Uriah told David. "And my master Joab and my master's troops are camping in the open field.
How could I go home and eat, drink, and have sex with my wife?
I swear on your very life, I will not do that!"
Then David told Uriah, "Stay here one more day. Tomorrow I'll send you back."
So Uriah stayed in Jerusalem that day. The next day David called for him, and he ate and drank, and David got him drunk.
In the evening Uriah went out to sleep in the same place, alongside his master's servants, but he did not go down to his own home.
The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah.
He wrote in the letter, "Place Uriah at the front of the fiercest battle,
and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die."
So as Joab was attacking the city, he put Uriah in the place where he knew there were strong warriors. When the city's soldiers came out and attacked Joab, some of the people from David's army fell. Uriah the Hittite was also killed.
When Uriah's wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband. After the time of mourning was over, David sent for her and brought her back to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son. But what David had done was evil in the LORD's eyes.
So the LORD sent Nathan to David.
When Nathan arrived he said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him."
Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn't willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man's ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor."
David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan,
"As surely as the LORD lives, the one who did this is demonic!
He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this
and because he had no compassion."
"You are that man!" Nathan told David. “This is what the LORD God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul's power. I gave your master's house to you, and gave his wives into your embrace. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. If that was too little, I would have given even more. Why have you despised the LORD's word by doing what is evil in his eyes?
You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him. Because of that, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own, the sword will never leave your own house.
"This is what the LORD says: I am making trouble come against you from inside your own family. Before your very eyes I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight.
You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day."
"I've sinned against the LORD!" David said to Nathan.
"The LORD has removed your sin," Nathan replied to David. "You won't die. However, because you have utterly disrespected the LORD by doing this,
the son born to you will definitely die."

Everything had been going so well.
This boy David, son of Jesse, killed the Philistine giant, married the King’s daughter, became King himself, united the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. It looked like a charmed life. He had a palace, and three wives. He was a man after God’s own heart. Rich, handsome, successful, powerful. What more could he possibly want?

If you updated the details a little bit, this story could have been taken from the headlines.
John Edwards comes to mind. I liked him, at first. I liked that he seemed to be smart, faithful, a good family man. I appreciated that he had been the first person in his family to go to college, and that he had not had an easy life. He had suffered, too, the tragic loss of a son, and seemed to have come through the experience stronger, more compassionate. He was a tough fighter in the courtroom, and he stood by his wife Elizabeth through her battle with cancer. The first time, anyway.

Then, after announcing that he would not run for president unless Elizabeth’s health was stable, he ran anyway. You know the rest of the sad tale – his affair, the cover-up, the repeated denials the grand jury, Elizabeth’s death, the criminal trial. How the mighty have fallen!

So just when you think that this David, this king, the shepherd who was so ruddy and handsome, and fair of face, just when you think he is a hero worthy of our favor, and God’s favor, you come upon this story.

It starts with a subtle dig: “In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab…”
Yes, this David, the one to whom the people had said, “you were the one who led Israel out to war and back,” The army took the Ark of the Covenant with them, but David stayed home, and sent his Secretary of Defense, General Joab.

Instead of being with the army, at the front, David was at home, taking the evening air out on his rooftop patio. That’s how he chanced to see the neighbor lady taking a bath. There is nothing in the story to even suggest that she was doing anything wrong, although generations have sought to re-tell this story in a way that mitigates David’s guilt. They say she was behaving seductively, deliberately, knowing David would see. They call what happened a romance, a love story. But it was nothing of the sort. Nowadays, if a woman is sexually assaulted, we don’t ask, “Why was she there?” or “What was she wearing?” And we can’t really put any blame on David’s neighbor. He saw her, and he sent for her, and he took her, and he lay with her. The verbs are strong, imperatives – he saw her, wanted her, took her. All just like that. He was the King.

The woman is only named once in the story – to identify her – Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. But David didn’t care whose daughter she was, or whose wife she was. The woman only speaks once in the story, too. She says: “I’m pregnant.”
David sets the attempted cover-up in motion. He sends a message to Joab to send Uriah home from the front, then acts as if he is interested in a battle report from Uriah. Three times, David asks, “how is everything? how is Joab? how is the army?” Uriah, whether he is taken in or not, does what a good soldier does. He reports on the army’s progress.

But David’s real intent is to cover up his crime. He wants Uriah to go home, take a bath, spend a little time with the wife, you know, R and R, a little second honeymoon. Uriah, though, is a better soldier than his commander in chief. He doesn’t go home, but sacks out at the entrance to the palace, with the other soldiers. David can’t understand it – he had even sent a gift to Uriah’s home – who knows what – maybe champagne, or strawberries dipped in chocolate. He quizzes Uriah in the morning –
“Why didn’t you go home to your wife?”
“The Ark and Israel and Judah are all living in tents," Uriah told David. “And my master Joab and my master's troops are camping in the open field.  How could I go home and eat, drink, and have sex with my wife? I swear on your very life, I will not do that!”

So David invites Uriah over for dinner, and gets him drunk. But still, Uriah does not go home and sleep with his wife, but returns to the same place and sleeps with his master’s servants. And then, in the strange logic of treachery, David takes the obvious next step. He sends a message with Uriah to Joab: Place Uriah in the front lines, in the most dangerous position. And Joab does so.

It does not matter to David whether other men in his army have died, nor does it matter to him whether this order endangers the entire effort. He has one aim – to escape detection and somehow evade responsibility. He is the most powerful man in all of Israel, God’s anointed,  King of the realm, and he has taken another man’s wife, fathered a child with her,  attempted to deceive Uriah into believing that he is the father, and failing that, he has had Uriah killed.

In a part of the story that we did not read today, David writes to Joab and tells him not to worry about Uriah’s death, or the death of the other men, because this is just the way things happen in wartime. Joab, of course, knows better,but he participates in the deception.

Uriah’s wife mourns for her lost husband, a man of courage and honor, but when she is finished, David brings her into his house and marries her. Up to now, the reader of this story might think that the main characters are David, Bathsheba, Uriah and Joab.
But what David had done was evil in the LORD's eyes.

And now, the other main characters appear.
Nathan, the prophet, comes to the king. He speaks boldly, but not too boldly. When speaking truth to power, it is wise to take care with one’s words. So Nathan tells a story, a little parable about a rich man who has many sheep and cattle, and his neighbor, a poor man with one beloved little lamb. This little lamb is like a child to the poor man. He feeds it from his plate, and lets it drink from his cup, he cradles the lamb in his arms like a child, and it sleeps in his bed. But when the rich man throws a party, the poor man’s lamb is what’s for dinner. David is outraged. This rich man is evil! He must pay!
“You are that man,” Nathan says.

You had everything. Everything.  But everything wasn’t enough. And now, there will be consequences. David is truly and deeply penitent.

Psalm 51, a Psalm attributed to David, which we used as our prayer of confession,
expresses his contrition: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions… Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. …Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

God will forgive David, but all of David’s heartfelt penitence cannot undo what he has done.
Let me hasten to add here that in NO way should we employ a literal interpretation with this story, and in no way should we ever, under any circumstances, conclude that the loss of a child is punishment from God. The writer of this portion of Second Samuel has concluded that that is the case, after the fact, but no generalizations should be drawn from such a conclusion, any more than anyone should conclude that God has blessed David’s behavior when Bathsheba later gives birth to Solomon. The suffering that David and his family will experience as a direct result of David’s dishonesty and abuse will reach deep into the next generation, and the sorrow and grief that David will experience will be devastating. But these are inescapable consequences. The events he has set in motion by his actions will bring great grief upon his house, as we will see next Sunday.

It remains to be seen what will happen to John Edwards. Clearly, his political career is over.
But that was what people said about Newt Gingrich, too. Among others. What is clear is that the love of power is dangerous, and the thoughtless wielding of authority or influence for the gratification of one’s selfish desires is destructive, then and now. Power in itself is not evil; but coercive power without responsibility is immoral and manipulative.

The love of power and the thirst for power, the heady feeling of an absolute lack of accountability, have led many an otherwise upright person down a path of destruction, not only of their own lives, but of the lives of innocent people around them. This story is almost a melodrama, but for the sadness of it:
David becomes an object lesson, a story of what not to do.
Bathsheba is simply an object – of David’s desire.
Uriah represents the upright and faithful man, taken advantage of by his leader;
Joab is the complicit lieutenant, expediting David’s evil plan.
Nathan is the prophet, speaking truth to power, clever and wise in his actions.

But God, in this story, is demonstrated to be a God of forgiveness and mercy, a God of extravagant love and grace,
even more than we had previously imagined,
even more than we can possibly justify,
even more than we could ever use up.

In David, the nature of human sin is exposed, His love of power is destructive, even deadly, and nearly destroys his realm. But in God, the power of love is revealed, and that powerful love restores and redeems David.

That powerful love continues to restore and redeem people, and at this table, we find it once again, waiting for us. At this table, the One who overcame the love of power with the power of love, the only one who could show us what that looked like, that One welcomes us here. Here, at the communion table, Christ gives himself to us, and bids us come.

This is not an altar, for God does not desire a sacrifice or a burnt offering.
This is a table, where people gather to break open their hearts, to break bread, to share in the cup of the new covenant. This is not an exclusive table, not a reserved place for only certain people. It is an open table, where everyone, young and old, is a member of the family, and there is room for all.

You are welcome here, for the King of Love has invited you, and every person who knows him and follows him is welcome at his table.