Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sermon: David and Bathsheba

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 28, 2015

Listen to the sermon audio here. 

David and Bathsheba

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. 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. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”

One: This is the word of God, for us, the people of God. (?)
ALL: Thanks be to God.

[NB: The text from Leonard Cohen's heartwrenching "Hallelujah" were performed throughout the course of the narrative by the gracious and talented Victoria McGinnis and Daniel Thompson.]

            She scooped up the water in her hand, and watched as it lightly poured out of her palm, onto her knee that was peeking out of the bath’s horizon. She hummed, over and again, a quiet refrain… hallelujah. Hallelujah. She was thinking of her husband returning. He hasn’t been home in months, for it was Springtime – the season in which the kings went to battle. He loved this season. It was what brought him joy, in the strangest of ways.
            She washed the dirt from beneath her fingernails and thought of the mystery of their marriage. She never envisioned this for herself. She thought she’d be married, yes, but not to a Hittite. Her father’s people were always so brutish, and though she loved him, it made her feel all the more different, distinct. Her mind wandered to the scenery around her. She was strangely blessed, to have this view of the kingdom. Her eyes could see into the royal residence, and she often wondered what it was like there.
            King David, ruddy and handsome, had more wives and concubines than she had friends. She knew that they were treated lavishly. She dreamed, sometimes, of what it would be like to live in a palace with other people, rather than in her home, alone, waiting, all the time, for her war-weary husband to return. His loyalty was always to the King. Some days she wondered if he remembered he had a wife. She hummed her hallelujahs as she wondered…
Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…

            This bath, to cleanse her after another month had passed in which she failed to bring about a son, felt different. Month after month, she would bathe upon her roof, feeling the guilt and shame of her failure to conceive. And, month after month, she would stay in the bath long after the water was cold; it was a visceral reminder of her failure, her pain. She prayed to God above to open her womb, but her prayers were ignored. Her heart was typically heavy after these baths, weighted down by the burden of longing and hopelessness. She tried to open her heart to the possibility that she might not ever be a mother, but she could see in Uriah’s face each month the bitter disappointment that he masked so badly. He would drain his cup of wine, gulping readily, and leave as she prepared to ritually cleanse herself. His silence was his judgment. His battles became his children.
Baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I've seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

            It’s not as though Uriah was a bad husband. He was generous, he was loyal. He was kind and gentle. He may have been a warrior, but he was like a lamb at home. He was, at one time, as loyal to her as he was to David. She remembered what it was like, just after her father betrothed her to him. He was respectful, but tender. The first year of marriage was a delightful discovery, as strangers became intimate friends.
            Those days were long gone, as Uriah became more focused on his career. He hoped to become a general in David’s army. He fought bravely and successfully, but nothing pleased him more than returning home to his wife. But, these returns were growing more terse, as each month passed with no news of future generations being provided. His heart grew strangely cold. Bathsheba could feel it. Now they were just inhabitants of the same space on the fleeting days that Uriah was home. In the springtime, this was rare.
There was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me, do ya?
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

And as the water grew tepid, and she watched it stream down her arm, to her elbow, Bathsheba stared at the royal residence and her breath caught in her throat as she noticed that there was a figure on the roof, looking her way. He was alone. It was King David. Out of habit, she averted her eyes, but she had to check… she opened them, quickly, and noticed that he was still there. Staring. At her.
Her cheeks flushed. Her pulse quickened. She was anxious. Nervous. Embarrassed. He could see her. She felt exposed, vulnerable, terrified. So, she stayed very, very still. 
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah...
 She lifted her eyes again. He was still there, and it appeared as though he might be smiling. Before she could stop herself, she lifted her hand, slightly, in a gesture of reverence. The king, watching her, returned it.
Her head tilted to the side, curious at the strange thing that had just transpired. It was only a moment more before he left the roof, called for by a servant below. She stayed in the bath, letting her breathing slow. The anxiety left her. She climbed out of the bath and retreated indoors. The king saw her. She had been seen. It was difficult to describe the mixture of emotions that accompanied this realization, but the most baffling of which was the strange sense of astonishment. She had been seen, looked upon, witnessed. It was difficult to say if this was true in her own home.
As she dressed, she grew tired. She went to bed, early. The next morning when she awoke, there was a knock at the door. It was loud and notable. When she ran to answer it, she was surprised to see the King’s messengers standing on the other side. Her hand flew to her mouth as she started to ask, “Is he…?” Her first thought was that Uriah had been killed in battle, and this is how she would come to learn the news. But, this was not the message they brought. Instead, they said, “Come with us. The king would like to see you.”
She dressed, quickly, in the finest clothes she could find. The king! The very king! It seemed impossible that this would be happening to her. The events of the previous day flooded her mind. She felt certain she’d done something inappropriate by offering the gesture of respect. Perhaps this was punishment? Perhaps she had offended the king?
 She learned quickly, upon arriving at the king’s residence, that he was not offended, but she couldn’t discern if she was being punished or not. David himself greeted her at the door, walking her onto the roof upon which he’d viewed her. She stood there, in silence, for what seemed like hours, waiting for an explanation. His explanation didn’t come with words, but she understood completely.
A cold and broken hallelujah was all that was on her lips.
Her life changed forever.
She returned home, and went to bed, though she lay awake for hours, rolling the events of the day through her mind. Her tears soaked her pillow, ran rivets down her cheeks and neck. She couldn’t even pinpoint the source of her sorrow. Shame, yes. But a strange sort of longing crept in. Was she longing for the man who did this to her?! No. That wasn’t it. She was longing for the things that made her feel seen, special, known. It made more tears spring from her eyes to realize this.
 A few weeks later, she was preparing to draw another bath. She was preparing to soak her grieving and empty body in the waters that did little to comfort her. But the sign to bathe never came. Days passed, a week, a month… she began to suspect something when breakfast turned her stomach. Two months later, her waistline began to expand, as did her feet. Her sandals and robes were becoming tight. As she lay in bed, her hands rested on her abdomen as she tried to perceive if her prayers had been answered in the worst way possible. What if…?

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

In the third month, she knew it was time to send word to the king. If he was going to have a child, he had every right to know. She sent word to the king, “I am pregnant.” Those three words were enough to transform him, as well as her. It wasn’t long before she heard that Uriah was being summoned. She had a cousin who worked near the kings’ messengers, and he relayed the news to her. She felt her heart tighten at the thought of seeing him again. David had taken her, yes, but she was the one bearing the burden of shame. Day after day, she waited for Uriah to return, and he never did.
The messengers did, though. They returned one day with Joab, who was a scoundrel and a fighter. It was never good if Joab appeared at one’s doorstep. This time, her instincts were right. Joab came into her home, and described what had happened. Her husband was among the soldiers who were besieging the city, and as a valiant warrior, he was appointed to lead the charge. Some of the servants of David fell in battle. Uriah was one of them.
Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

            Her cries caught in her throat, as she escorted Joab out the door. She turned away from him, wailing. Her cries filled her ears, her mind, her heart. She sobbed and sobbed until her throat was raw. The only word she could muster was a cold and broken hallelujah. She sat on the floor, alone, running her hands over her swollen belly. The king had taken everything from her. Her dignity, her husband, her body. And, you and I know how sinister the king had been. His pride allowed him to take what was his – this woman, wife of another man, who was a devoted and loyal servant. His privilege permitted him to have Uriah deliver his own death sentence to Joab.
            Bathsheba spent the next 7 days in the customary period of mourning. Her family and friends came to sit and weep with her, and she prayed none of them would notice the signs of her pregnancy. She made lamentation for him, singing her hallelujahs with the little breath she could muster.
            After her time of mourning, the family and friends departed, and she went back to being alone. Her only company was the quickening of the baby in her womb. On the 8th day, a loud and jarring knock came to the door. It was the king’s messengers again. They said the king had sent for her, and she was to pack her belongings and come with them immediately. She did so, slowly, reverently. And, when she arrived, David greeted her with the same gesture they exchanged on the roof. Tears came to her eyes as this man, who had done terrible things to her, welcomed her into his home. She became his wife, and in a matter of months, she bore him a son.
            She knew that this child wouldn’t be theirs to keep. He was stuck with a fever, and Bathsheba watched as her new husband rent his garments and fasted. He prayed to God above, and when their son took his final breath, he went to the house of the Lord and sang his own cold and broken hallelujah, offering his child and his guilt back to God.
            After that, things were different. They shared the same song, David and Bathsheba. He consoled her in her grief by singing it to her, and their melody became their story. She bore another son, Solomon, the king who would build the temple. It was Bathsheba who was with David through his reign, he took no other wives after her. Their home was not immune to the trials of loss, but their shared refrain is what kept them connected. Theirs is a story of selfishness, weeping, brokenness, and sorrow, for love is not a victory march. It is a story of unexpected redemption and grace. Every day that she looked upon David, her first thought would be of the gesture they exchanged. All that transpired after it never ceased to fill her with perplexity. But, as she looked upon Solomon, who grew into the wisest king of their time, she felt a quiet assurance that God would work good into her story.
            It’s why she continued to sing her refrain, and why we hear her story every time we look back to the lineage of our savior, and see that it is filled, not with saints, but with sinners like David, son of Jesse, father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, who is not forgotten, but memorialized in this litany of generations. Because God can redeem the most broken of people, the most blatant of sinners. If God can redeem David, think how much God can redeem us.

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon: The Lord Will Make You a House

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Lord Will Make You a House
2 Samuel 7:1-16, NRSV

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan:
     Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”
           Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.
           When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
           Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

           One: The word of God for us, the people of God.

           Many: Thanks be to God! Amen. 

           Ecclesiology. This is the term we use to describe the nature of the church. Of course, the thing we think of first when we hear the word “church” is the physical building in which we sit. In that case, then this is the very first recorded conversation with God about the church as we know it. In this passage, David has taken on his role as king, has danced before the Lord with humility and reverence, and settled into his house built of cedar. God has granted David rest from his pursuing enemies, and in this moment of Sabbath quiet, David kicks his feet up on his cushioned ottoman and suddenly realizes the injustice of their dwellings. David says to the prophet Nathan, “See, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent!”
            The implication here, of course, is that David believes it is his job to build a magnificent house for the Lord. Nathan, previously unknown to us, stands by to hear David’s wish and encourages him to do “all you have in mind” because, notably, “The Lord is with you.” (I wonder if this was spoken with a hint of irony, knowing that God would decline the invitation to establish a permanent address.)
            That night, the Lord speaks to Nathan, and declares that David will not be the one to build the Lord’s temple. God, always surprising, shows a passive aggressive side when Nathan is reminded, “Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribes of Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not build me a house of cedar?’” The answer, of course, is no.
            The Lord instructs Nathan to tell David that it was God who took him from the pasture, to be the prince over the people Israel. It is God who will appoint a place for the people, and there, they will be safe. Judges will be appointed, and there will be rest from all of his enemies. It is there, in that place, that the Lord will make you a house. The Lord will bless him with offspring, and it is that child who will build a house for God’s name, and God will establish his kingdom. God will love him as a father, and David’s house and kingdom will be established forever.
            This passage tells us that the Temple is built for the future; THIS is Nathan’s message to David. The temple is not necessary for the current generation to worship God. God will permit David’s son, Solomon, to build the temple, elaborate and gilded, but this is not the promise that matters. God tells Nathan, “He shall build a house for my name (not God’s presence, but God’s very name), and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. As it has always been understood, God does not “reside” in an earthly abode, but the Lord’s name is localized at one sanctuary as a manifestation of divine presence.[1]
            Perhaps God has promised the same for us. The temple is not built for our benefit, but for the benefit of our children, our grandchildren. The temple is not ours. That means our task is to instill the gift of faith in the generations to come. Our expectations cannot be contained in the walls of a building, because our God cannot be contained there.
           Previous generations have built a temple for their children to maintain. Now, these temples have become our idols. We strive to fill them, we take on debt to repair them and we force temples to meet the needs of an ever-changing congregation. It is virtually impossible to fulfill our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” when our primary responsibility is paying the insurance bill on time. We have become disciples of our physical plants, rather than disciples of Christ, the cornerstone.
           The same is true for our churches as an institution. More and more, it is evident that the denomination exists to maintain itself. What does this mean for the UMC? Are we building a temple that is too unwieldy to maintain, or are we building a home, that is adaptable and accepting? If our God cannot be contained in one place, how can we expect the disciples to be? As we look ahead to the conversations happening at the General Conference of the UMC in May 2016, we know that a schism is possible There are two sides, who cannot seem to agree. But, my prayer is that the Spirit of God will be able to move amongst us, doing exactly what Paul describes in his letter to the Ephesians:
           “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it… In Christ, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”[2]
           We have a particular challenge in this modern era of church, in that we have the privilege of re-defining how we understand ecclesiology. We know that the numbers are changing. There are fewer people in worship on Sunday mornings, and a smaller percentage of those people are in their 20s and 30s every year. This means that the church cannot be about the institutions that we’ve built. Our temples are decaying, but despite any evidence to the contrary, the body of Christ is not. As we look back, we know that "The apostles saw Christ in the flesh, but they did not see the church. We, on the other hand, see the church, but not the incarnate Christ. For both the Apostles and later Christians, that which is visible leads to faith in the invisible."[3]
           The church is changing.
           People are changing.
           Our fear is that the church is dying.
           With all that I have, I promise you that the church is not going to die. The Body of Christ is much stronger and vital than any of our institutional attempts to enliven it.
          A few weeks ago, Matt and I had the opportunity to go to the Beer and Hymns OC Gathering in Costa Mesa. This is not a denominational movement, it's not a non-denominational gathering. It is simply excellent music, traditional hymns and young people packed wall to wall.
          Friends, they're out there. The millennials are out there, finding church in a bar in Costa Mesa. Singing hymns that your grandmother sang. Singing with vigor, with spirit, with a pint of IPA. They are becoming the body of Christ, praising the name of the Lord.
          So, we don't have to fret about the church's death. It's not dying. It's changing. The metamorphosis of the church and the way in which we gather and worship means that we have to adapt to how we do our sacred work, because God cannot be contained in a box or a tent or a temple. And, neither can the body of Christ.
           In talking with the people who organize and provide the music for Beer and Hymns, I have heard that they are having a similar problem. The Spirit is moving, and they don't have anywhere to send the people whose hearts are being strangely warmed. There are plenty of choices, plenty of churches. But, we offer something special here. We offer a church that embodies what the whole of the UMC proclaims to be: a church with Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors. We offer a place to question, doubt and struggle. We offer faith formation, and fellowship. We offer kindness and compassion. We offer acceptance and an open welcome to all. We offer the sacraments as a means of grace. We offer Christ, crucified and risen.
            It is not our duty to build a temple for God! It is not even our duty to maintain the temples that were built before us. It is our job to receive the kingdom that God has built for US. We do not make the house… God does (v. 11). This is the true nature of our ecclesiology, the church – God has built it for us, and we are the good stewards of God’s name. Who we are is church. So, let us be the surprising signs of God’s presence in the world. Let us be the place where God’s name is being proclaimed! Let us share it and shout it and sing it with gusto. God’s presence cannot be contained, and so we must continue to look for God in the myriad of places in which God may appear. For, we are not stewards of the temple. We are the temple, which God has built. Paul writes that, “Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit!” So, let us go and share that Spirit with all who seek to know the loving and ever-present God.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] Deuteronomy 12:5, “You shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as God’s habitation to put God’s name there.”
[2] Ephesians 2:11-21, NRSV
[3] Adam Ployd, Augustine, the Trinity, and the Church: A Reading of the Anti-Donatist Sermons.