Sunday, July 26, 2015

From the height

Proper 12b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.

Everyone knows that if you want to get a good look at the landscape, you want to get as high up as you can. I’m sure we’ve all seen those scenic view spots on the highway, where you can pull off the road, park the car, and get a magnificent view of the valley or the mountains across. What you see can often be spectacularly beautiful.

But beauty comes in many forms, and some of them can get you into trouble. This is what happens, or begins to happen, with David the King in the passage from Second Samuel we heard today. He is content in his kingdom, living in his spectacular new palace, about which we heard last week. His battles are over — he now has an army of loyal soldiers ready to fight for him; they’re out in the field fighting even at that moment — and the crown sits easily on his head. He is content in his unchallenged position as king, and he has everything his heart could desire.

Well, almost everything. For with this week’s reading, we begin one of the most wicked stories in all of Scripture, a story that will lead to tragedy not only for King David, but for all who become involved in his crime — even the innocent who take no part in it. I’m sure you all know the saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, David has absolute power — power that was poured out upon him by God working through the prophet Samuel, when he was chosen to be the king; and for most of his life David has used that power well, and justly, walking in righteousness with his God. But now he is at ease — he’s no longer walking, he’s sitting on the throne, he’s even lying down on his couch, secure and high and mighty in his beautiful palace, like a Hollywood star in his Beverly Hills faux-Mediterranean MacMansion. David’s new palace literally gives him the high-standing roof from which he can survey his kingdom from the heights of the City he has renamed in his own honor: the City of David.

And from that height he can also look down over the walls of the more humble citizens’ homes, even into the cloistered garden of one of his leading generals. And there he spies out the naked beauty of General Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as she goes about the religious duty laid down in the law of Moses, bathing in the purifying waters of the ritual bath after the end of her monthly period.

And David sins. He sins in his heart and he sins in his actions — sending for that woman as any heartless criminal boss might do, bringing her to his bed, and having his way with her, and then sending her home. He sins again when he finds she has become pregnant. He plots to call Uriah home from the front, to send him to his house to sleep with his wife — hoping to fool him into thinking that the child conceived is his.

But David doesn’t reckon with Uriah being a more honorable man than David is himself. Like a good general, loyal to his troops, he refuses to take the leave offered him, to have some R&R while the rest of the army is still camping out in discomfort in the field. David tries to make him drunk — but even drunk honest Uriah will not be disorderly, and he still refuses the comforts of his home.

Then, in those chilling last lines of that reading, David adds to all of his other sins by plotting to put an end to Uriah by sending this faithful soldier on a mission, a dangerous mission, and then cutting off all support, so that he will die. And to add insult to injury, he gives the letter with those instructions to Uriah himself to deliver. Doesn’t that make your hair stand on end? What a terrible, terrible thing. David plots the kind of murder that you could see in “The Godfather” — something a Dictator might accomplish. (You could picture Saddam Hussein writing a note like that, and giving it to someone, to make sure someone is put out of the way.) David will not get any blood on his own hands, but will have his sinful desires accomplished by accomplices.

We will hear the beginning of the end of this story next week. So for now I want to focus on how sad it is that even good people can forget their duty and their God when they have risen to the heights of power. The Scripture is full of such warnings: “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” — that’s a proverb from the time of David’s own son Solomon; and David himself had lamented, after Saul’s death, “How the mighty have fallen!” — so David has absolutely no excuse in thinking that his high position entitles him to low crimes. David has coveted his neighbor’s wife, then committed adultery and finally murder — well that’s three strikes from the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on another height —the height of Sinai. Three strikes and you’re out, David! as we will hear next week. For this cannot be hid from God. What David has done, beginning on that rooftop, in the sight of the sun, is surely seen by God — and the punishment will come.

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Is there any good news in this? I say that there is, for there is no necessity that a climb to the heights must be accompanied by descent into the depths of sin. Though that is often the fate of those who climb up so as to be able to look down on others, with contempt or with desire — there is another way to rise up without losing humility and care and concern for others. The point of view — the height — is not the problem — as with so much else in life, the problem lies in what you do with your new knowledge gained through your new perspective from your new position.

David could have caught sight of Bathsheba in her ritual bath, and then shielded his eyes and turned away, and given thanks in his heart for this good and dutiful woman carrying out her ritual duty in accordance with the Law of Moses. He could have thought, “That must be my neighbor Uriah’s wife — how fortunate he is to have such a beautiful and dutiful and religious wife; blessings be upon them both.” He could have returned to his couch and resumed his nap. He made a choice to do wrong, a choice he could have refused at any of those steps of the way of sin upon which he deliberately set his foot and kept on walking, deeper and deeper and deeper into the filth of his own wickedness.

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But no one needs to take that path, that downward spiral from the heights, into the depths of depravity. From the heights instead we can look with admiration upon beauty without the need to possess it or to control it— to enjoy the gifts God gives without having to claim them for our own. We can make use of the heights not to grasp, but to share.

We see this better way, as we do in so much else so often in today’s Gospel from John. Jesus is high and lifted up as well — not in a palace, but on a mountain. From that vantage he can see the crowds of thousands who have followed him,

who have joined the throng to come out to hear about this preacher, and see the wonders of healing that he has performed. Jesus could, up there on the mountain, stand there like a first-century Donald Trump; he could say, “Look at how all these people love me!” He could — but he doesn’t. He could fall into the temptation with which the devil has tempted him when he fasted on the mountain, and order all the people to bow down to worship him. But he doesn’t.

Instead, he takes another of the devil’s temptations and turns it on its head. He asks the disciples about the well-being of the crowd, testing his disciples, for he knows full well what he is about to do. He will feed his sheep. He transforms the devil’s offer to make stones into bread, and instead he takes bread and fish and multiplies it thousands of times over, to make enough bread to feed that teeming multitude of thousands and thousands of hungry people.

And, more to the point, at the end of the miracle meal, when the people rise up and want to take him by force to make him king — what does he do? — he withdraws deeper into the mountain landscape by himself. He has no need for their accolades and praise. He has no need to have them make him a king: He is Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. He is not offering himself like a politician trying to gain favor from an electorate, feeding them so they will make him king. Instead, he is feeding them because they are hungry — they are hungry, and they have followed him. He loves them; he cares for them — but he does not need them to make him a king.

We can do the same. We can take advantage, when we are lifted up, of the position we hold to do good, the good God has empowered us to do. None of us is a monarch, but each of us is a child of God — and that means we are heirs to an eternal kingdom, and have many gifts to share with those who lack, with those who hunger, those who thirst. We need but accept the grace of God, who has put us where we are, to do what we can, with what we have.

Let us pray.

Fished from the ocean of compassion,
baked in the oven of his heart,
broken, given; in like fashion
may we do our part:

catching the fish you have provided,
baking the bread from grain you give,
sharing with all the gifts, divided
that we all might live.+

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A House not Made by Hands

Proper 11b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.

We continue our readings from the Court History of ancient Israel with an incident that tells us a great deal about God, and our relationship with God. King David by this time has settled in and settled down as a comfortable monarch secure on his throne. He has wiped out the few who continued to support Saul that remained of Saul’s friends who still considered David to not deserve the throne. He has conquered the Jebusites who held the heights of Mount Zion and he has renamed that part of the Jerusalem as his own: the City of David. He has defeated the last few outbreaks of Philistine resistance, as Second Samuel tells us, from Geba to Gezer, whipping their tails back to the seaside, away from Jerusalem. His neighbor to the north, King Hiram of Tyre, no doubt wishing to curry favor with this new powerful ruler on his borders, sends a small army — not of soldiers, but of carpenters and masons, with a supply of cedar-wood, and builds David a beautiful house, a palace to live in. This is the act that finally convinces David that he has it made, and one of the first things he does in this new settled kingdom, as we heard in last week’s reading, is to fetch the Ark of God from where it has rested, to bring it into the City of David with dancing and rejoicing.

And so we come to today: David reflects on the fact that he has a nice house to live in, but the Ark of God is still camping out in a tent; and he tells the prophet Nathan about his plan to build God a house of wood and stone. Nathan at first gives his OK, but then God speaks to the prophet and tells Nathan to tell David to hold his horses. God tells David through the prophet that he hasn’t asked for a house to live in — just as God had never asked any of the tribal leaders, judges or prophets before David to build a house as a dwelling or resting place. On the contrary, God has clearly preferred the outdoor life — traveling with the people of God in a tent and a tabernacle. God moved about, enthroned upon the cherubim adorning the Ark of the Covenant — the Ark that had rings built right into the side so that carrying-poles could be slipped through and put in place at the drop of a hat, and the Ark could be carried by bearers and move as God willed. This moveable Ark has served for centuries as the sign of God’s presence — a presence that moves with God’s people.

But then, after declaring no need for a house, God takes it one step further. Not only does God not ask for a house, but God will make David a house — and here is a play on words, for God is not speaking (in David’s case) about a house of wood and stone, which David already has thanks to King Hiram of Tyre. God is talking about making David into a royal house — like the House of Windsor or the House of Hanover. God will set up the House of David as a royal lineage.

That became a reality, attested not only in the Scripture, but in an artifact discovered just over 20 years ago in an archaeological dig in the Holy Land. It is an engraved stone war memorial dating from about one to two hundred years after the time of King David On it, the King of Damascus celebrates a victory over the King of “the House of David” — Beit David. It is the only archeological find (so far) that mentions David by name, and one of only four that mentions Israel. Not all scholars accept that this war memorial actually means what it appears to say, and there are other different interpretations. (One of the problems about Hebrew writing is that it is open to many interpretations — which is one of the reasons the Scriptures themselves have received so many different readings down through the centuries. For instance the letters that spell the name of David in Hebrew can also mean “uncle” or “beloved.” It all depends on what you mean. Just look at the two different meanings of the word “house” in our present example — David intends to think about a physical example, the house built of stone and cedar, but God provides him with the another meaning of “house” — the house of flesh and blood in his descendants stretching on through time. )

And this is the important thing for us about this House of David: this is not a matter of engraved stone war memorials, or even of the Scripture, however interpreted, but of David and his descendants forming a new living house — a house made not of wood and stone, but of human flesh and blood. For that is what God intends to build: a house not made by hands.

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Flash forward a thousand years and we find the Apostle writing to the Ephesians in much the same tone: God is doing a great new work of construction. God tears down the dividing wall that separates Jews from Gentiles, and is in the process of building “one new humanity in place of the two.” This has a strong architectural reference, also, and may even refer to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — which had a literal dividing wall between the outer Court of the Gentiles and the inner parts of the Temple into which only Jews were allowed. With the literal destruction of the Temple, that dividing wall has been torn down.

More importantly, what God is doing in this new construction project is similar to what God did with David — that the house God really desires is not made of wood and stone, but of flesh and blood. In this case, it is in Jesus — who is the flesh and blood heir of the royal House of David — but in whom God has also acted once and for all to lay the cornerstone of the new temple of God’s presence, in which the Gentiles have now come to be full and equal citizens, no longer aliens and strangers, but heirs with Christ and members of God’s household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself being the cornerstone. And, as the Apostle affirms, this whole miraculous construction project is God’s new Temple — the human Temple not made by hands, but by the will of God, as the many members are joined in one as God’s dwelling place.

This new Temple is the Church. Not the church building — this is still made of wood and stone. The new Temple of God is the people, held together not with nails and mortar but with the water of Baptism and the flesh and blood of the Holy Eucharist. This church building has stood for almost 150 years (give it another couple of months!), but the Church of Christ has stood for more than a dozen times that, and it will continue to stand, long after all the memorials and temples and sanctuaries have become as fragmentary as that war memorial from the King of Damascus, as lost and gone as the Temple of Solomon and the Temple of Herod, as lost and gone as some day even this beloved little church building will be, for wood decays and stone dissolves, and, as the hymn we will sing at Communion says,

Though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.”

In Ephesians, the Apostle assures us that the union of the two in one — whether the two peoples, the Jews and the Gentiles, or two spouses, as he also teaches — all represent the new humanity that finds its new life in Christ, as a great mystery, the greatest mystery, the mystery of God’s will established in God’s adopting us as his children from before the foundation of the world. And not just us, as the Apostle affirms, for God’s plan for the fullness of time will gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

+ + +

That can sound a bit overwhelming, as I’m sure it did to the church in Paul’s time. But this is what we are part of, my friends, not just caring for this sweet, little church of wood and stone, but helping by our own extended hands reaching out beyond these walls, helping to grow and to build the house not made by hands, as we join hands with brothers and sisters newly adopted into God’s great family, the church of God, to fulfill the mystery by which the many become one in God, who is One: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Shall We Dance?

Proper 10b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
David danced before the Lord with all his might; Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.

Anna Harriet Leonowens served for a time in the 1860s — just about the time this church was being built — as the governess to the children of King Mongkut of Thailand — the land known in those days as Siam. She wrote a memoir of her experiences which was adapted into a novel, Anna and the King of Siam, which then became a film, and finally a Broadway musical — The King and I, which also became a film, and later a short-lived TV series. As so often happens when history moves into historical fiction and then into musical theater, film, and TV, the story moved further and further away from the truth. For example, in the novel and the film based on it, the character of the king’s prime minister is very noble and serious; but by the time the story made it to TV this noble character has become a buffoon suitable only for comic relief.

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The king himself fared similarly, moving from nobility and grace in the memoir to a kind of tyrannical, short-tempered stiffness in the musical — who can forget Yul Brynner — that stiffness only charmed by the winsomeness of Anna the governess. There is no evidence that the King of Siam and Anna were romantically involved — but that doesn’t suit a musical very well, so Rodgers and Hammerstein introduce a significant romantic theme, summed up in one particular song, “Shall We Dance.” As Anna and the king dance together, the stern tyrant begins to relax a little bit, and become less forbidding, less off-putting. This is fiction: but as with all good fiction, there is a grain of truth. Dancing can make for loosening up, growing closer — whether dancing on a bright cloud of music, or on a very terrestrial dance-floor. Dancing can be a way to break the ice, to warm the heart, even to spark a budding romance.

+ + +

But what if you are not a good dancer, if you dance with two left feet, or step on your partner’s foot? Or what if the dancing is going on in the apartment above you at two o’clock in the morning? Then the dance can be more annoyance than joy. Instead of singing a chorus of “Shall We Dance?” some might sing a number from a different Hammerstein musical — you might have seen the movie with Fred Astaire — “I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me!” If the dance doesn’t lead to joy, what, after all, is the point of dancing?

In our Scripture readings today, we see two dances: and both of them also involve kings — not of Siam, but of Israel and Galilee, King David and King Herod. In each case the monarchs are having a grand old time, until someone rains on their parade — David’s wife Michal, Saul’s daughter,

and Herod’s daughter, in Mark’s Gospel named for her mother, Herodias. (We might call her “Herodias Jr.)

Our reading from Second Samuel stops short, so we don’t get to see David’s wife Michal greeting him in the doorway, a little bit like Hyacinth Bucket (it’s Bouquet!) when David comes home, and she confronts him in the doorway. A few verses later in the tale when she greets him, after having watched his dance from the window, despising him in her heart, as the Scripture says; and she greets him with words of contempt and sarcasm, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” Can you hear Mrs. Bucket saying, “Richard!” No, Michal is not amused, she has despised David in her heart, because he danced — in his underwear! — and this dance has far from warmed her heart: this dance, disgraceful in her eyes, has frozen her heart in contempt. We doen’t get to hear the reading, but a few verses later David curses her for her coldness of heart, and the Scripture goes on to tell us that she was barren to the day of her death. So much for raining on a dance that is danced for God’s glory!

But what about that other king, King Herod — does he get an unpleasant surprise, on his birthday no less! His heart is warmed with the wine and the birthday banquet and his dancing daughter, Herodias Jr, so much so he is willing to give the dancer anything she asks — only to be asked for a blood-chilling horror, a murder and a grisly prize. Did the music stop as his face fell, grieved (for he respected John the Baptist, visited him in prison, liked to listen to him)? Did he suddenly feel a coldness enter his heart as his daughter asked for the head to be brought to her? But he is also deeply embarrassed in front of his guests because he’s sworn an oath, and he can’t afford to lose face — even if it means John will lose his entire head! So, reluctantly, he grants her desire, and John meets his untimely and horrific end, as the voice of the great prophet is silenced, his head served up on a platter.

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So the question remains: Shall we dance? As Anglicans we are fortunate not to be stuck with the contempt for dancing that is common among some fundamentalist Christians. We Anglicans don’t think dancing is sinful. How many churches have dinner dances? What matters, for us, is the reason for the dancing, the motive and the intent of the dancers.

The dance before Herod — here is a dance with wicked motives, a means to incite Herod to make a poor decision after he’s had a few too many birthday drinks, to trap him in an oath that he just as soon would have broken, were it not for his guests. The motive for this dance is anger, resentment, bitterness, and the result is gruesome.

But to dance joyously before God — what a wonderful thing for David to be able to do, his heart full of joy that the Ark of God, the visible presence of the invisible God who rides upon the cherubim, should be restored to the tent of God’s presence, given a hallowed resting place, as God promised would be the case. Only an angry prude like Michal would find fault with such a dance in honor of God, and to the glory of God.

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Now, I’m not suggesting we start dancing in church; although there is a parish out in California where the congregation dances in church each week. Their church — and it’s an Episcopal church — has two large rooms, instead of a single worship space: in the first room the congregation gathers to worship for the liturgy of the Word, the Scripture readings, sermon, and prayers. Then, at the offertory, the whole congregation forms a line and dances its way into the adjoining room for the Holy Communion, as they dance to the altar and offer their gifts. I’m not suggesting we do that — although we get a bit of that flavor here at St James when we have our special Gift Offering, as we do today and on one Sunday each month; so please feel free to shake it a bit as you come up the aisle to make place your thank offering in the basket. We can dance; we can dance!

In this way we reflect something of what King David did when he danced before the Lord — with no other motive than to express his joy and to give thanks and glory to God who had so blessed him and his people, delivering them from their enemies, and deigning to dwell among them in that Ark of his presence, brought to the Tabernacle as the place chosen by God for God’s name to reside.

For we too have an Ark of presence and a tabernacle, there on our altar. And we too trust, as we sang in the hymn, that God himself is with us, as we worship in this place. So let us dance, my friends, in our hearts and minds if not with our feet — but even with those feet if the Spirit moves us to give glory and praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, to the one who moves the universe, in the great cosmic dance of creation; in whose Name and to whose glory we rejoice: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.