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.

+ + +

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.+

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