During my time in the Intro to Pastoral Care course we were assigned to construct a family genogram and then write a paper based on the research we did on our family and how that shapes and affects us. Since we had to go back to our grandparents I had to contact my mother’s sister to learn about my grandparents. I chose her over my mom because my mom was by far the youngest child and had, what I felt was, an idealized image of my grandparents. I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather. He was a war hero. He was such a hard-working man. He once stayed up 36 straight hours because he sat by my mom’s bedside all night after working a 12-hour day when she had a fever of 104 as a young child. By the time the fever finally broke he had to go take a shower and put on a clean shirt to go off to work for another 12-hour workday. This man was a great man in my mind. He was someone I wanted to aspire to be like. And then I got my aunt’s side of the story. She was the oldest in the family and she informed me of some of the many things my mom was sheltered from as a child. My grandfather was a bigot. He was a member of the school board outside of Eufaula, AL and was an outspoken advocate for the segregation of schools. In fact, when my aunt informed him that he was a racist for this belief at the young age of 15, he packed her a bag and threatened to throw her out of the house. I was so disappointed to learn the truth about this man I had so admired through the years. He died when I was a child so the legends of his greatness were all I had to hold onto. This new reality served as a major blow in how I will forever view this flawed man I call grandfather.
This very difficult passage from 2 Samuel today does the same thing to us. As we have moved through Samuel we have heard the stories of the great David. David was the great man whom God plucked from the hills as a shepherd boy. David was the great man who, as a boy, defeated the mighty Goliath with nothing but a slingshot and three stones. David was the great king who slew many men and was then ordained by Samuel to be the next king after Saul. It’s a major blow to our idealized image of David when we see this power-hungry side of him. We’re not sure where to go after this story. Our realities have been rattled. Our romanticized image of this great man of faith has been tarnished beyond repair. But we cannot merely skate past this part of the scripture. The author of Samuel will not let us. We are forced to face David, the real David, head on. This is the David that David probably doesn’t want us to know. But if we are to understand David at all we have to see him as he is. But this story does something even more powerful than that. Through seeing David as he is, weaknesses and all, we are forced to also see ourselves in this same light. This is the tough part of our text. You see David’s sins are our sins. David’s attitude of self-deception in light of his sin is the same self-deception we practice when we try to cover the tracks of our sin. And like David, just when we think we have avoided the embarrassment of our sin and retained our good reputation, we are faced in that moment with the cold, hard fact that even though we might have fooled the whole world around us, God knows better.
Leading up to our text today we are quickly rushed through the details of this story. David eyes Bathsheba and sends for her to come to the palace. It is Spring, and the armies are off to war and David seems to have, as my old boss would say, a case of Spring Fever. If we go back to early in chapter 11 we find David described by 3 verbs. He sends, he takes, he lays with Bathsheba. With no regard for any consequences David seeks to satisfy his hunger. I would even go so far as to say that this was more than a hunger for sexual satisfaction. David had a strong hunger for power. The text says he took Bathsheba because she was beautiful. But we do not read of him romancing her. There is no telling of him wining and dining her. There are no Barry White CDs in the background as he admires this woman’s beauty in the light of the early evening. No. He takes purely because he can. He takes and lays with her and then sends her back home. This was a good day for David. That is, until he checks his inbox a few days later and sees the e-mail from Bathsheba. The subject line contains two words: I’m pregnant. And thus we are taken through the remainder of chapter 11 and the sordid details of how David tries to get Uriah to go lay with his wife and, when he doesn’t, conspires with his general Joab to have Uriah killed in battle. After this misdeed is carried out David sends again for Bathsheba and takes her again, this time as his wife since she is now pregnant with his child. Coveting his neighbor’s wife, adultery and murder-David has quickly broken 3 commandments of the Decalogue.
All seems well for David. He has a new wife he doesn’t know but who cares, kings had many wives since a greater number signified greater status and power. He has a new child to care for but who cares, he has the money to provide a life. More importantly for David, no one would be the wiser as to how Uriah was killed and why exactly this new wife came to be the wife of the king. Or at least that’s what David thought. Now we have to read verse 25 juxtaposed to verse 27. Verse 25 tells us that David said to Joab, “do not let this thing bother you.” And then in verse 27 our narrative takes the surprise twist when we learn “but the thing David did displeased the Lord.” This is surely a turn David did not see coming. It is at this point in the story that we see two narratives collide: the story of how power is gained, used, and inevitably abused in the “real world” and a second narrative about God’s counter plans for the world.
The prophet Nathan comes to David in chapter 12 and tells him a parable about a rich and a poor man. He tells the story of how this rich man exploited the poor man by taking his prized possession. And we learn this story infuriates David. David, who is used to issuing court orders, declares this man deserves death. And on top of that, before he dies he should pay the poor man fourfold what he took from him. And then, after a moment of silence, Nathan takes a deep breath and tells David point of the story when he says, “you are the man.” What a bomb to drop on the king. Nathan surely risks his life by coming to the king and confronting him of his sin. But the conversation does not stop there. Nathan proceeds to tell David his message from the Lord. “Thus says the Lord: I gave you everything David. I made you king, gave you riches, gave you your power. And on top of that I would have given you more if you needed it.
In my difficult study of this passage I am stuck on a question that keeps coming up in my reflection. We know that in verse 13 David admits his guilt for his sin. But what made the difference? What was the turning point that David felt compelled to admit to his sin for the first time in this narrative? On first glance we assume it was when Nathan proclaimed that David was the wrongdoing man from the parable. But after a careful reading I am not so sure. Nathan does not come to David to condemn him for his sin. He is, instead, sent by God to remind David of, as my mother would say, who he is and whose he is. You see David’s admission to his guilt is not meant to be just a submission to the commandments, but rather, it is a submission to something more-his covenantal relationship with God. As Will Willimon writes, “just as we are about to write off David as a moral failure, the prophet calls forth a new David, who is able to submit to the dominance of God’s account of the world.” You see in this story we see ourselves in David’s cry for autonomy. But we also see God who cries for covenantal relationship with us instead.
I must confess that this subject of sin is not one I am comfortable writing or learning or much less preaching about. This text calls all of us to a place where we are not comfortable. This text takes us to the cold, dark valley of not only David’s sin but also our own. And yet it is through this journey to the dark places in our lives where, if we pay attention, we can hear God calling us back into a covenantal relationship daily. It is not through condemnation that he does this but rather through the transforming realization that like David, God has given us so much. For us, it was not power or wives, or military might. But rather it was something so much greater. He gave us himself. You see only in our humanness do we truly know the redemptive power of God. This redemption is constantly calling us into a covenant relationship with Him. Time and time again, God calls us forth into a new life with Him. Despite the depth of our sin, God’s love is so much greater.
In this narrative we learn that sin carries consequences. That’s very true. David’s family will never be the same after this episode. And we cannot forget that idea that sin carries consequences that often, just as in this story, affect the innocent more than it does us. But in spite of that sin, God continues to relentlessly pursue a relationship with us. And we can be reminded through this story of David of the dramatic love of a God who will go as far as death on a cross to remind us not only who we are, but whose we are! Amen.
Recently a friend posed a question as her Facebook status where she asked, “What does it mean to say your churhc has open doors?” This question got me thinking. I, like many I am sure, want to immediately answer that it means simply that church is to be welcoming of all. But I hesitate and find myself questioning that automatic response. What is the true meaning of being “open to all?”
The United Methodist Church has affirmed through media adverstisements the need for “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Now I think as good Methodists this slogan is classically as ambiguous as some of our doctrine. But let’s unpack the reality of this statement a bit. In word we proclaim the doors of our churches to be open. But practice tells us something different. Actual practice sees many churches in decline and dying. And when the congregation is asked about reaching new people they answer uniformally that “there’s no one left where we are.” Now in a country with a fairly decent population density one should find this hard to believe. The truth is, if we are truly honest, the real response is that the people we want are no longer around our churches. The powerful, the prominant, and the influential have left for other parts of town. And now we are left with those we don’t really want in our church. But this shortcoming does not lie solely on the congregation. Well-meaning and capable pastors recognize the need for powerful, prominant, and influential persons in church because we need to pay our bills and apportionments and, even more directly, our salaries. There is inherent risk in building church around a congregation of homeless and poverty stricken people. It ‘s just not practical.
So if this notion of Open Doors is a value judgment what are we saying we value? Quite simply, we value accessibility to resources. We are a production-oriented, Westernized culture that places ultimate value on the productive capabilities of a body. And is this wrong? If one is measuring value by the value system that runs our culture there is absolutely nothing wrong with this value judgment.
But does this reflect God’s system of value judgment? This becomes a much more difficult question. Scripture tells us that God values that which is least among us. One need to go no further than many of the parables, miracles, and teaching of the Gospels to find such a value judgment. But does this mean, in turn, that God does not value the rich and powerful? I would say absolutely not.
So here is the crossroads I feel the Church stands at in terms of what it means to have open doors. God values the poor. This value judgment is plain and simple. Further, and even more general, God values all human life. This includes those who may be of different race, ethnicity, background, life experience, sexual orientation, and any other measuring stick we place in front of those who dare desire to walk through the doors of our churches. Further, God values the least among us. And make no mistake, this least often applies to that which we may regard as the most. If we have all fallen short of the glory of God then how dare we, as the Church, place arbitrary value on any person?
If the worship and the life of the Church is meant to be holy ground then there is no room for value judgments to keep particular persons off such holy ground. The truth is, many of us who act as the gatekeepers are less deserving of such inclusion than those who we exclude. And yet, by the grace of God, the holy ground can be and is extended even beyond the walls of the church-sometimes in spite of the walls of the church. And we are humbled before a God who dares to remove all value judgments we hold in the name of a redeeming love and grace that says all are welcome in the holy place of worship. Thanks be to God.
Here lies one of my biggest gripes with “contemporary worship.” When did worship become something to entertain and draw out emotion reaction? Stanley Hauerwas touches on this as he explains that the people of God (i.e. the congregation) have a responsibility to be participants and not an audience in the liturgical life of the church in worship. Great video!
What Really Matters?
1 Corinthians 12:1-6
I vividly remember talking with a friend at school when I was about 13 about the Holy Spirit. This friend explained to me the Holy Spirit was a source for great and dynamic worship. The Holy Spirit could make someone sway and clap, testify and speak in tongues, shake and even fall out. Now as a young United Methodist kid this was amazing to me. You see I didn’t know much about the Holy Spirit. Sure I knew it existed but don’t ask me to explain it. At least tradition calls God male and we know Jesus to be an actual human being from Nazareth. But the Holy Spirit-I had no idea.
Now please understand that I know wonderful faith communities where the attributes my friend described are real elements of vibrant worship where the Holy Spirit is real and active among them. But for me, at 13 years old, from a faith community that didn’t really talk about the Holy Spirit it was easy to begin to think the only way the Spirit worked was through dynamic worship and nothing else.
This morning we find ourselves in the midst of a discussion between Paul and the Corinthian people over the actual function of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and the individual Christians. For the people of Corinth, they thought the purpose of the Holy Spirit was simply to inspire the gift of dynamic worship-the worship like at my friend’s church. The Greek word they attest to the work of the Spirit is kharisma. This is where we get the term for charisma and we can understand their interpretation of this type of gift by thinking of charismatic worship. In other words, the church in Corinth believed the work of the Spirit lie in the context of worship and was measured by the extent to which one could speak in tongues, among other charismatic traits. Even more simply, the church in Corinth understood the work of the Spirit to be limited to worship like I did when listening to my friend.
But Paul does something very interesting in the Greek translation. He uses their term but uses it in the plural charismata; a variety of gifts. You see, Paul is seeking to broaden their understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit by defining it beyond worship. Paul explains the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t just limited to worship. It isn’t just about feeling and intensity of emotion. It’s about all gifts and graces. It’s about being empowered for the work of the Kingdom of Godà something that is much greater than we are as individual people. All too often we take for granted the need for spiritual gifts when there is work to be done for the Kingdom of God.
Bishop John Taylor puts it this way:
I have known projects abandoned for lack of funds, but not for lack of gifts of the Spirit. Provided the human resources are adequate we take the spiritual resources for granted.
So if we recognize the Holy Spirit being the source of all gifts and graces we’re led to recognize two dangers of using these gifts in the life of the church. If the work of the Spirit is something individual only like we treat it in the context of worship then it has no outside reference point. Paul addresses this by reminding us that though there are a variety of very diverse gifts they are all empowered by the same Spirit. Further, if Paul tells us that all workings of the Spirit lead us to confess Jesus is Lord then that is our reference point as to how and why we use our gifts. These are gifts to be used to build the Kingdom of God. They are gifts not to make us famous or noteworthy, but rather they are gifts we use for the benefit of others. As Christians we are often guilty of being so caught up in how all of this is to be processed in our own hearts. We think the Christian life is to be lived in the personal realm of our own hearts. We “ask Jesus into our hearts.” We sing in the hymn “you ask my how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” All of this is fine but we can’t leave Jesus in our hearts. We are an extension of Jesus’ ministry and we are called to give ourselves to the world as we live a life worthy of the call of Jesus Christ. In other words, if we leave Jesus in our hearts then we can “talk the talk” but we aren’t too worried about “walking the walk.” And to live such a life we can’t hide within the safety of our own hearts when there is a world that so desperately needs witnesses to Christ.
In that same Spirit we have to guard from going too far the other way. If we have a tendency to hide Christ in the safety of our hearts then we can also risk the same misunderstanding if we get too caught up in the greater need of the world. We have all seen or been a part of church programs that simply fold because they feel the needs of the world are so much greater than we are able to meet. We have to be careful not to forget that which we may call little can be very, very large. We can’t forget that a simple glass of water, or a meal can help to transform the life of another. And not only that, but our seemingly small activities can also give us small glimpses into what the Kingdom of God really looks like. There is no such thing as a gift, or an offering, or a ministry too small. What we see as small, with the Holy Spirit for the service of other in the name of Jesus Christ can make for great outcomes.
The story is told: A little girl stood near a small church from which she had been turned away because it was “too crowded.”
“I can’t go to Sunday School,” she sobbed to the pastor as he walked by. Seeing her shabby, unkempt appearance, the pastor guessed the reason and, taking her by the hand, took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday school class. The child was so happy that they found room for her, and she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship Jesus.
Some two years later, this child lay dead in one of the poor tenement buildings. Her parents called for the kindhearted pastor who had befriended their daughter to handle the final arrangements.
As her poor little body was being moved, a worn and crumpled red
purse was found which seemed to have been rummaged from some trash dump. Inside was found 57 cents and a note, scribbled in childish handwriting, which read: “This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday School.” For two years she had saved for this offering of love. When the pastor tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying this note and the cracked, red pocketbook to the pulpit, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion. He challenged his deacons to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building.
But the story does not end there…
A newspaper learned of the story and published it. It was read by a wealthy realtor who, in turn, offered them a parcel of land worth many thousands. When told that the church could not pay so much, he offered to sell it to the little church for 57 cents.
Church members made large donations Checks came from far and wide. Within five years the little girl’s gift had increased to $250,000.00–a huge sum for that time (near the turn of the century). Her unselfish love had paid large dividends. When you are in the city of Philadelphia, look up Temple Baptist Church, with a seating capacity of 3,300. And be sure to visit Temple University, where thousands of students are educated. Have a look, too, at the Good Samaritan Hospital and at a Sunday School building which houses hundreds of beautiful children, built so that no child in the area will ever need to be left outside during Sunday school time.
In one of the rooms of this building may be seen the
picture of the sweet face of the little girl whose 57 cents, so sacrificially saved, made such remarkable history. Alongside of it is a portrait of her kind pastor, Dr. Russell H. Conwell, author of the book, ”Acres of Diamonds.” You see, there is no such thing as a gift or grace, when given for the service of the world in the name of God that is too small.
The need of the world is indeed great. And we are given the formidable task of working to address such a need by helping to build the Kingdom of God right here. But take heart, that gift that seems small can be used. That glass of water will quench someone’s thirst if only for a day. That meal will feed a hungry belly if only for a day. That visit will lift someone’s spirit if only for a short time. God is at work in this world even if it sometimes seems to be in small increments. And God has trusted us, even us, to offer whatever we can that this world may know God more fully. It is daunting but we can do it. We can do that which is little because it can turn into that which is so much bigger than we expect. And this is what really matters!
I normally do not like to give people like Pat Robertson the attention of my thoughts much less a blog post. But this story has stuck around for a few days now-much longer than I had hoped. And it really bothers me for a couple of reasons: 1) Do we really still live in an age where someone feels legitimated to say that they know why tragedy strikes and that is has something to do with divine retribution? 2) The horrors of Haiti seem to grow everyday. With every day the death toll gets larger and the extent of the damage seems greater, and 3) Pat Robertson attaches the term “evangelical” to himself and those who may agree with him and I can’t resist and opportunity to speak out against such narrow theology that is anything BUT evangelical at its core.
My good friend Brad has a wonderful post about this situation. I would love to join in this conversation with him.
First of all, if we adhere to anything Jesus taught us it is that we are to forgive. I am as human as the next person so I readily admit it is not easy for me to forgive Pat Robertson for such ignorant comments, in the name of God no less. But as Michael Gorman reminds us, if Luke 23:34 means anything, it means we forgive no matter the ignorance of Mr. Robertson.
Secondly, it goes without saying that I don’t believe Mr. Robertson to be an evangelical. Such a label should be reserved for a brand of Christianity that believes the love of God is so great that it was made manifest in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, continued in the ongoing empowering activity of the Holy Spirit, and that this love is greater even than claims of exclusivity by one person or group or even nation. God is in Haiti right now. God sits in the ash heap of rubble. God wraps God’s mighty arms of love and mercy around the people who now know nothing but desolation and despair. And knowing that is what it means to be evangelical in times like this.
Finally, if the cross of Jesus Christ teaches us anything it is, as Brad rightly reminds us, that we humans can have no claim of divine wisdom and authority. The cross of Christ was and is the end of humanity’s claim for divine wisdom. We are subject to a God who, even in the midst of tragedy, can see and begin to make new life. This doesn’t negate this God’s relentless mercy for all who are affected and stricken during a time of tragedy. But it does mean that God will not leave tragedy just as it is. New life is at work even now. But for now, before we can see such new life manifest, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti. We pray for hope and mercy during this time. We pray for the day to hasten when the people will have their cities and villages back. And we take heart in the fact that the God of the Cross is not done with the people Haiti yet!