A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on July 26, 2015.
One of the fun things in American politics is the need every candidate feels to write a campaign book – or have one written for them. Sometimes it’s a sort of biography, sometimes a sort of political credo: who I am, what I believe and why I believe it. Some of them get in the habit. Jimmy Carter just published another story of his early life and one columnist took the occasion to apologize for the way his fellow columnists had dismissed Carter as a “light weight.” No other president has brought mid-East leaders together and gotten an agreement signed – one still in effect between Israel and Egypt. No other ex-president has accomplished as much after leaving office. And no other ex-president has written so many books about it.
But I think of this because this summer we are reading the political biography of King David – not an auto-biography, no, far from it, and not a campaign biography either, but a political biography, yes, and a theological biography: a study of David as King in the light of heaven: not “how did he look to his colleagues” or “how did he look to his subjects,” but “how did he look to God,” the God who chose him out as a leader for the people of God. We should be asking ourselves that question as we roll relentlessly toward 2016: how do these candidates look in the light of heaven, do they have any inkling of a divine calling, do they hope truly to serve God’s people, responding first of all to those whose needs are greatest, and last to those whose needs are least. That’s a question for all of us in a democracy where we are responsible for the leaders we get and the decisions they make. So it’s not just politicians and leaders but all of us, always, who act in the light of heaven and will be judged accordingly.
We are reading this summer a study of the kings of Israel written by an unknown chronicler who tells us the inside story with no holds barred, shows us all the stuff the candidate doesn’t want you to know but that you need to know to be an informed citizen because what matters in the end is revealed in the light of heaven. Now that was not the usual thing in the ancient middle east. Today you have reporters telling you the inside story before the inaugural address is made and every few weeks afterwards. Not then. What you got then was mostly what the rulers wanted you to know. The kings and emperors of those days had their achievements carved in stone and set up on triumphal arches for all to see how great they were.
The English poet, Shelley, was told once of a desert where only the remains still stood of such a tribute and he wrote a memorable sonnet you might have read.
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said:
“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Kings can carve monuments but those will not determine what we sometimes call “history’s judgment.” Saul and David and Solomon probably didn’t have statues made because the commandments prohibited graven images but they, too, had their inscriptions and they had their court chroniclers to tell of their greatness.
There was, however, also another chronicler at work on what we would call today “the unauthorized biography,” that we know today as I and II Samuel and I and II Kings. We are working our way through some of it this summer because that unknown, unofficial chronicler is not only remembered, but still read in churches and synagogues. That unknown Chronicler saw history in the light of heaven, saw history from God’s perspective not the kings, and wrote what he or she saw for us to read and therefore the chronicle is not so much a story of what enemies the kings of Israel conquered but how well those kings conquered themselves, how well they brought their human strengths and human weaknesses under control – or not – used their gifts to serve themselves or to serve God and to serve God’s people.
King Ahab, for example, was a strong leader who won wars and built cities. But the chronicler says not much about that; instead the chronicler tells us how Ahab and Jezebel his wife conspired to rob a poor man of his ancestral inheritance and then, in one of my favorite Bible passages, the chronicler says, “Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house that he built, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? (1 Kings 22:39 ) Well, maybe they were, but no one saw fit to keep those annals. Who cares? Who cares in the long run, in the light of heaven, what wars he won or what cities he built? What matters in the light of heaven, is whether he dealt fairly with a poor man or let his greed destroy them both. That’s the sort of thing that matters in the light of heaven and that’s what the unofficial Chronicler tells us.
Now, all this is background to the part of the chronicle we heard this morning. It begins with one of those wonderful sentences that the unknown chronicler gives us and that sums up so much of what he wants us to see. “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.” (2 Samuel 11:1) “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle . . .”
Isn’t that wonderful? At one level, it is a simple statement of fact, but at another level it’s a devastating comment on kings and possibly presidents and politicians in general. Spring-time comes and kings go out to fight. The sap rises in the trees and birds build their nests and kings go out to battle. Like bears coming out of hibernation, like lemmings heading for a cliff, kings go out to battle. It’s what they do. They can’t help it. Fish got to swim, birds got to fly, kings got to go and do battle. Yes, but this time was different in one respect: David stayed home.
Why did David stay home? It doesn’t matter. The Chronicler doesn’t speculate. Maybe he was beginning to get bored with it all. It’s hard to tell why, but “David stayed in Jerusalem.” Better he’d gone to battle, because there’s another thing kings do when they’re bored as inevitably as they go to battle. David saw Bathsheba. Well, he didn’t know it was Bathsheba, What he saw was a woman and she was beautiful. And nature took it’s course.
Do you see what the chronicler is doing? He’s showing us human nature in the raw. Was David in love with Bathsheba? Of course not. He didn’t even know her name. It’s simple sexual attraction. “Birds do it, bees do it; Even educated fleas do it.” That’s a famous Cole Porter song of which I can’t quote all the lyrics right here – though I like the line that goes, “People say in Boston even beans do it.” But the refrain to Cole Porter’s song is completely illogical and unexpected: “Let’s fall in love.” But love is not what the song is about; it’s about birds and bees and what beans do in Boston but that’s not love, that’s biology. And love is not what David was up to either.
The chronicler is showing us human nature in the raw, and he knows – and he knows that David knows – that human life is something more than a simple set of reflex actions. He’s going to show us that David knows better and the redeeming feature of the narrative is David’s repentance. You have to come back next week when we will hear David say, “I have sinned.” But you almost don’t need to hear that because it’s obvious in this week’s episode that David knows the difference between sex and love. He knows the difference and he knows he has sinned and he knows he needs to cover his trail.
The chronicler just gives us the facts and lets us interpret them, which is not hard. David knows that what he has done is wrong, he knows that what he did is not just a simple physical act, it’s an act with moral implications. He knows that he is a human being made in the image of God and that human actions have meaning and what you do has consequence, has moral implications. Do you see what the chronicler has done? He has told us a story in which everything can be explained in basic biological terms – up to a point. Birds do it, bees do it, David and Bathsheba do it. But when David and Bathsheba do it, that’s different because they are human beings made in the image of God and what they do has consequence because human relationships are intended to move beyond the biological.
Human beings are drawn to do what birds and beans do but human beings also have an instinct to move beyond the biological, because we are made in the image of God. It’s a human instinct to understand that our acts have meaning because we are made to be more than a simple collection of biological instincts and urges. We are made to fall in love and to experience in our own lives the very nature and being of God who is love itself. But oh how hard it is to get that right. Oh how hard it is to overcome our animal biology and act out of the deeper and truly human instincts of love and commitment and self-sacrifice.
Why do we read this story? Because we too are human and we too know the conflict between biology and morality, between physical attraction and love. But even governments and churches forget that and get it wrong. Biology is a powerful force and often it trumps theology. I suppose it’s not surprising then – although it’s weird when you stop to think about it – it’s maybe not surprising to find governments and even churches insisting on marriage as a purely biological institution. So twenty years ago, we saw the Congress passing a “Defense of Marriage Act” insisting that marriage is a biological institution. Popes and theologians, contrary to all logic, insist that marriage is a purely biological institution.
I read an impassioned piece in a church magazine just this week insisting that marriage must be open to conception. You mean that nobody over 45 or 50 is allowed to marry? I think it’s sad that the Roman Church and the so-called evangelical churches can’t see beyond the biological and insist that marriage has to conform to certain biological standards, that it must be between a man and a woman and be open to reproduction. Why do they do it? They do it because they can’t see beyond the biological.
The Law of Moses also prohibits non-reproductive sexual acts. Why? Because the tribe needed soldiers. It needed to reproduce to survive. You could understand the Congress passing a Defense of Marriage Act if we also were in need of more population, if we were an endangered species, but that’s really not our problem. It’s not more people we need, it’s more love and self-sacrifice and you cannot legislate that and you cannot limit it to reproductive relationships. The Supreme Court got it right when it said: “The right to marriage cannot be conditioned on the capacity or commitment to procreate. . . ” That’s right! We cannot limit marriage to biology. Theology is not determined by biology.
Don’t you wish marriage could be conditioned on the capacity for true and lasting love? Don’t you wish we could legislate that “Marriage shall be limited to two human beings who have experienced the love of God In their relationship with each other.” Now that would be a Defense of Marriage Act worth voting for! But, you see, governments can’t do that. Churches can’t do it either though we try to, and we do try to. We don’t do marriages for just anyone who turns up. We don’t just endorse the biological urge. We have standards. We cannot perform a marriage without thirty days notice and time for instruction. We have always had the right to refuse to perform any marriage but not on physical or biological grounds, not because a couple are too old or a different race, no, only if we felt that there was no deep understanding of marriage as a lifelong commitment based on something more enduring than mere biology. But that’s impossible to be sure.
Finally, a few weeks ago, our church took the logical next step and put aside that age-old standard of “one man and one woman” and recognized that love is not a biological phenomenon and that love is what marriage is all about. Finally, after all these years! But even the churches missed that point until not very long ago. In fact, down through human history marriage has usually been about biology and economics. Marriages were normally arranged between families and they were sanctified by the church to create stable economic units. Love did, of course, from time to time rear its lovely head and create trouble. Read about what still happens in Afghanistan and such places when a young couple fall in love and threaten the social fabric. We read about it every now and then in the papers and it’s not nice reading. Western society moved beyond arranged marriages fairly recently and maybe not entirely even now. After all, what was Charles and Diana all about?
So we read the story of David and Bathsheba and you can read it through the eyes of Cecil B. DeMille and turn it into a Hollywood epic which would miss the point entirely or you can see what the chronicler is showing us and understand better what at least five Supreme Court justices had a glimpse of:
that marriage is an evolving institution moving ever so slowly beyond biology and economics and politics and drawing us toward a deeper understanding of what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,” moving ever so slowly toward the love that draws us here in worship, toward the God who made us for love, toward the love we sometimes experience in marriage and sometimes in churches and sometimes in other communities and relationships and that none of us will experience perfectly in this life, but that all of us can hope to experience in the life to come. That’s what we hear about in the second reading as we jump a thousand years and hear about a love “that surpasses knowledge.” That’s what we sang about also in the opening hymn: “a love beyond all knowledge and all thought.”
What we see in the story of David and Bathsheba is an early stage in the story of that development. David is letting biology control him but he was made for something more and his failure to move beyond biology, to move up to his potential as a child of God, creates a problem that moves on quickly to tragedy. You see, love is still not a major part of the story. It’s not really a story of love vs. biology but biology vs. property. At the biological and political level Bathsheba belongs to Uriah, we are still dealing with marriage as property, and David tries mightily to get Uriah to come back and claim his property, but Uriah has a higher loyalty, a loyalty to his comrades in arms, – maybe even a love for his comrades – and finally he leaves David no choice except murder. David has stolen and needs to conceal his crime and he moves quickly and methodically to do what he has to do: adultery leads on to murder.
We can read this story simply for that drama and it’s a great story at that basic airport-book-rack level but that would miss the point. If we are thoughtful and faithful we can also read it as another chapter in the long history of human evolution, the ongoing story in which the Supreme Court just wrote another chapter. The chapter we read this morning comes much earlier in the book, much earlier in the story of the long, slow, painful development of our human response to God’s calling: to become who we are called to be, human beings made in the image of God and moved by love because God is love and we are made in God’s image. David and Bathsheba didn’t know much about that. That’s the tragedy of this story. You and I are in position to write a new and better chapter, to move far beyond David and Bathsheba because you and I know so much more about divine love and human love. You and I know the story of Jesus, love incarnate, and we are called to reflect that love in our lives and relationships and show the world the infinite, patient, sacrificial, transforming love of our Creator.
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.