A sermon by Margaret McCray
July 26, 2009
Samuel 11: 1-15
The collapse of our world economy in recent months has revealed an appalling lack of ethics and abuse of power, systemically and individually, in our human community: from AIG to Bernie Madoff, from Nice Guy prostitution rings to Eliot Spitzer, from NJ mayors and NY rabbis to Rod Blagojevich, from African genocide to racial profiling. Nearly every week we shake our head at the news of another scandal, another horror, another story of greed and self-centeredness at the expense of human pain and loss.
Our Hebrew Testament this morning is sad evidence that scandal, greed, and horror among the high and mighty are nothing new under the sun.
The story of David and Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah is part of the broad narrative of Israel at the height of its political dominance in the ancient world. David was in the midst of enlarging his kingdom. Skirmishes, war, and raids were frequent and bloody. David had accrued enough power, security and personal wealth that he could stay home and manage his kingdom from a distance. It is in this context that he awakes from a nap and spies a beautiful woman bathing.
Perhaps she seems to him just an extension of what he already has - the power to assume that what he wants he has a right to own. Or perhaps he is lonely, unhappy and stressed, and the sight of Bathsheba touches his tender side that desires the comfort and warmth of emotional and physical intimacy. Whatever prompts his reprehensible actions, this time he gets no sympathy or excuse from the biblical narrative.
As beloved of God and a popular ruler, David's biographers routinely excuse, explain away or smooth over his indiscretions and poor judgment calls in order to preserve the luster of his remarkable reign over the people of God. But not in this instance. The Bathsheba and Uriah story remains a permanent blemish on David's legacy, and sets the stage for similar transgressions on the part of three of his sons.
Of what is David guilty? Certainly he is responsible for the death of Uriah. He arranges for Uriah to be put on the front lines of battle where he will surely be killed. For David it is a means to cover up his responsibility for Bathsheba's pregnancy. How ironic that David, who has caused this tragedy by thinking only of himself, his wants and desires, cannot persuade Uriah to indulge himself in the comforts of home while his fellow soldiers are on the battlefield. Twice, Uriah chooses to be mindful of his bond with his comrades instead of satisfying his own desires.
And what of Bathsheba? Nathan, the prophet, makes clear in his subsequent confrontation of David that David is guilty of an egregious abuse of power in his sexual encounter with Bathsheba. (Read 2 Sam. 12: 1-7a)
David used his power and position to procure, entice and maybe even force the sexual incident with Bathsheba. We do an injustice to the victims of this kind of abuse of power when we regard such an encounter as adultery or an affair. An affair requires the free choice of two adult individuals. It is a consensual act. When there is a significant imbalance of power, free choice is not possible on the part of the one with less power. The one without power is vulnerable and the one with power has the advantage of emotional coercion seduction, and even subtle threat.
What 20-year-old White House intern would find it easy to say no to the President of the United States? Or what soldier's wife would refuse the King? Both women, because of the power and prestige of their abuser, would most likely feel complimented, privileged and special. The same is true for a secretary and her high-powered CEO boss, or for a devoted woman in the congregation and her beloved pastor. Sadly, these are not unusual scenarios, and they are not affairs. They are abuses of power, and the ripples of hurt, shame, despair, betrayal and brokenness extend far beyond the initial two people. David and Bathsheba are a classic example.
It is easy to distance ourselves from David. We are not like him. We comfort ourselves with the satisfaction that we are not a Spitzer or a Sanborn, a Madoff or a Berlusconi. (And please excuse me for the plethora of male names. This is not a gender specific phenomenon!) In our self-satisfaction, we, both men and women, ignore the log in our own eye. We must ask "Is it I, Lord?" "How close am I to that slippery slope of moral dilemma?"
The answer is simple. We all stand on the edge that David stood on. We do not have to be a President, or governor, a pastor or a CEO. We are all, at times, tempted to sacrifice everything to our own desires and interests. We are all born with a self-interest that makes the self, our self, the center of all we survey. It is only a learned and cultivated sense of justice that pulls us back again and again from that slippery slope we venture a little way down more often than we want to admit.
The Dalai Lama, a man with a level of charisma, compassion and wisdom that brings crowds like those who flocked to Jesus, has said, and I quote, "Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of each individual is difficult, it is the only way."
Jesus said the same thing in different words. Some of Jesus' most quotable quotes are about paying attention to the inclinations and motivations of the individual self in order to then be able to be attentive to the realities of others.
Jesus said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." In other words, ask yourself how you would wish to be treated and treat the other in the same way.
Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." In other words, you must be able to love yourself before you are truly able to love another.
Jesus said, "Take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." In other words, we must first hold ourselves accountable before we can help or even understand our neighbor.
Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength." In other words, your love for God must come from the very core and every fiber of your being, from the very essence of your individual self."
By deepening our love of God, by coming to love our selves, by examining our needs and desires and impulses, we begin to cultivate a sense of justice. Justice, in the words of a contemporary philosopher, "demands that I give to myself and think of myself as though I were any other person." I will say that again: Justice demands that I give to myself and think of myself as though I were any other person. (Andre Compte-Sponville, "A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues")
This means that I do not have special privilege or entitlement. I do not have special needs. I do not have special rights. I do not have superior understanding. I do not have exceptional wisdom. I am, as a human being, equal with all other human beings. Justice is, justice requires, that all human beings accept their equality with all other human beings. Because such a state is not realistically possible, this same philosopher has said, "We must resist the injustice we each carry within ourselves, which is the self." ( Or as Paul put it, I do the things I do not wish to do.) "This is why the fight for justice is an unending fight. That Kingdom (of equality) is barred to us, or rather we inhabit it only to the extent that we strive to reach it." Therefore, our very striving to do the things we know we should do does have the effect of making more justice in the world, and of keeping us a bit further from the edge of selfishness.
Jesus was exquisitely aware of the equality demands of justice. A widow with one penny, a Pharisee with wealth and privilege, a crippled man, a bleeding woman, a Pontius Pilate, a centurion, a doubting Thomas, a beloved John, and even, after a brief learning moment, a Canaanite woman: they are all equal. They are all worthy of God's love, a love with justice that has no quantity of less or more.
If David had seen Bathsheba as like him in every way, as entitled to what all humans are entitled to, would he have so easily had her brought to him, impregnated her, and had her husband killed in battle? If he had seen her as like him in every way, would David have been able instead to transform his immediate feelings of lust and desire into compassion for her rights and feelings as a human being rather than asserting his power as a king. Understandably, the rights of women in David's time were nearly non-existent. However, even then, Nathan's words speak of how unconscionable David's actions towards both Uriah and Bathsheba were regarded.
We do not change the world by fighting wars, even just wars. We do not change the world by building institutions of integrity, by encouraging democracy, or by filling churches. These have not given us a just and peaceful world, though they may encourage us in that direction. Real change has to occur within each individual. Every one of us is capable of horrific cruelty, no matter our country, our religion, our ethnicity, our education, our childhood experience, or our gender.
Within us we have reactive forces that produce instantaneous emotions of rage, hate, and jealousy, of love, desire and need. If we do not slow down our reactions so we have time to examine our emotions in the light of justice and compassion, we are ripe for committing acts of selfishness, greed and cruelty. Most of us never act out the worst of which we are capable, but the possibility remains within us. The edge is always there, and we are always closer to it than we think we are.
I often say to troubled and angry couples as they leave a counseling session, "Be kind to each other this week. Try to show polite respect even though you may feel hurt and anger." I recently read two essays that explain why I might say such a thing.
The first essay was by David Brooks, the political commentator and columnist. ("In Search of Dignity" NYTimes, 7/7/09) He lamented the erosion of old rules of civil discourse and communal engagement, rules that were made as far back as the 16th century to help restrain human impulses that lead to disaster. This code of behavior, followed notably by George Washington, put national interests above personal concerns. It encouraged the distrust of rashness and zealotry, and suspicion of public expressions of private emotions. Parts of this code continued to guide public behavior into the mid-twentieth century. We regard such ideas now as archaic, stiff, and mannered. Brooks mentions a number of recent current events to illustrate that many people today do not know how to conduct themselves in private or public because, in part, dignity and careful expression of feelings has been replaced with the freedom to " be oneself", to be "brutally honest", to be "natural" and self-promoting.
The second essay was a treatise on politeness (Conte-Sponville). The author suggests that politeness is the precursor of moral behavior. Most of us are taught as children to be polite. Politeness is a behavior that encourages children to interact in acceptable, non-hurtful ways with other human beings. Ideally, the politeness we learn as children matures and evolves into more thoughtful feelings and virtues such as compassion and respect for others. Theologically, we might call these seeds of politeness "hospitality." As these seeds are watered by thought, word, deed, faith and education, they mature into a sincere ethic of justice.
Jesus was being a polite host, if you will, in asking the disciples how they might feed a crowd of people who had gathered around them at the dinner hour. However, Jesus' concern was not mere politeness. His concern was compassion for their hunger and justice for how they might all be served. I like to think Jesus had already seen and even smiled at the boy with the bread and fish. And I imagine that Jesus knew that an act of generosity by a child, seen by others, would inspire the crowd to be generous with those around them with whatever food they might have brought with them. One act of generosity, multiplied by a few, reaches out to many. Hospitality becomes justice and justice becomes compassion as each is offered a share of what is available. Whether the miracle was in Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish, or the miracle was in multiplying, by Jesus' example, the generosity within each person in the crowd, the result was the same: a miraculous giving to the well-being of all.
The root of selfishness is born within each of us. The root of justice, the root that sees the self as the same as all others, that root must be planted and nurtured. I think of the small piece of bread and the cup we partake of at communion and how the compassion and justice it represents in the body of Christ is multiplied when we carry that justice and compassion into our relationships with family, friends and strangers.
The pain of this world is immense. When we ask, "Is it I, Lord?" we acknowledge that we stand close to the edge where justice slips away and that pain increases. Joy and love abound when you and I, one by one, transform our self-centered obsessions into care for the reality of the other. When we love ourselves enough to let go of that which abases and shames us, we are free to equally love others. When we treat others as we would wish to be treated, we increase the measure of justice in the world and the miracle of multiplication continues.