Sermon by Barbara Mraz - Jul 31, 2012

Ancestors

A Sermon by

The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

July 96, 2012

2 Samuel 11:1-15    Ephesians 3:14-21   John 6:1-21

I remember a sign I saw displayed in a small antique shop in Brainerd: “The only person interested in what your grandmother had was your grandfather.”  A gentle plea, I’m sure, not to have to hear once again that “my grandmother had that exact same teapot on her kitchen table!”

Many of us find our ancestors fascinating, especially in the comparisons we draw between them and us:

Look at that!  Baby Timmy has Grandpa Ernie’s chin!”

“My sister is a complete control freak, exactly like our Dad!”

Until the last two generations, my ancestors were farmers on both sides and were defined by nothing if not by backbreaking work and devotion to family.

Except maybe Nellie.

Nellie was my never-spoken-of great-grandmother. I found her picture with my great-grandfather and their son tucked into the back of a folder with a shocking note that at age 35, she had left her husband and ten–year-old son and “ran off” with a Holy Roller preacher; later she wrote fromCaliforniathat she had gone into the grape business.

Maybe an interest in religion runs in the family.

The Gospels agree that, through his mother Mary, Jesus is a descendent of King David, who lived a thousand years earlier.  But David is also the spiritual ancestor of all of us who call ourselves Jewish or Christian. My point today is this: all of us can learn about who we are in relationship to God by looking at David, a name meaning “beloved.”

Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is about this greatest of all Biblical kings: David, ruler ofIsraelfor thirty years; writer of psalms; subject of Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece; direct ancestor of Jesus. No more complex personage exists in all of Scripture than this man of unrestrained passion, accomplishment, sinfulness and charisma.

He was the JFK of his time, the celebrity king, celebrated soldier, musician. poet, slayer of giants, apple of God’s eye.  The Scripture says, “And God created David after his own heart.”

The early church believed that the life of David foreshadowed the life of Christ: They are both born inBethlehem(in fact,Bethlehemis referred to as the City ofDavid—David saw to that); and David spent his early years as a shepherd, reflecting the popular image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.

David had seven brothers, and a sister, and was born the son of Jesse in the hill country around Bethlehem.  After a notable military career, this good-looking, brave warrior is made armor-bearer by Israeli King Saul.

After King Saul ‘s death, David is anointed king ofIsrael.  The crowds go wild.  He is thirty years old.  He is passionate and valiant; brave and avoidant; powerful and pained; generous and self-absorbed, and above all, so beloved by God. In short, like most of us.

Frederick Buechener writers this about David’s coronation: “With trumpets blaring and drums beating, it was Camelot all over again and for once that royal young redhead didn’t have to talk up the bright future and the high hopes because he was himself the future at its brightest and there were no hopes higher than the ones his people had for him.”

Of course, David is not perfect. Nothing about David is more widely-known than today’s lesson: the dalliance with Bathsheba.

Buechener gives this evocative paraphrase: “Even on his deathbed, he remembered the first time he had seen her.  The latest round of warfare with the Syrians had just ended and left him feeling let down. He drank too much at lunch and went upstairs for a long nap afterward.  It was almost twilight when he awoke. The palace was unusually quiet and he felt unusually solemn and quiet inside his own skin.  There were no servants around for some reason, nobody to remind him that he was anointed king victorious general and all that.  He bathed, made himself a drink and with just a towel wrapped around his waist, walked out onto the terrace on the roof where he looked down over the parapet in a kind of trance.

Beyond a wall, a naked girl stood in a shallow pool, dipping water over her shoulders with a shell.  In as detached a way as he saw the girl, he saw both that he had to have her at any cost and that the cost would be exorbitant.“ 

Our lesson tells the rest of the story: Bathsheba immediately becomes pregnant, and David at first tries to make it look as if her husband Uriah is the father.  But Uriah is an honorable man and will not forsake his troops to be with his wife. So David does the unthinkable and orders him sent to the front line of battle, where he is killed.  And David marries Bathsheba.

There is much more to David’s story, of course – and to Bathsheba’s as well.  So what do we learn about our humanity and our relationship with God from our spiritual ancestor?

We learn that we human beings are complex and contradictory.  David was a man of accomplishment on a grand scale.  He was a warrior who defeated all of Israel’s enemies and set the stage for his son Solomon to reign in peace.

He was a poet, with 73 of the psalms attached to his name, psalms which of course, reveal the whole range of Israel’s relationship to God, from ecstatic praise to deep anger and disappointment. David laid it all out.   One of David’s psalms is the beloved 23rd, which recalls his time as a shepherd of his father’s sheep.

But being the apple of God’s eye did not protect David from failure and suffering. He badly wants to build a great temple inJerusalem, even designs the plans, but God says, “You have shed much blood, and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name.” (1 Chronicles 22:8). This privilege is given to his son Solomon, and David must only watch.

Not only does his first child with Bathsheba die right after birth– the child that cost Uriah his life – but later his beloved son — — “the most handsome man in the kingdom” it was said — Absalom dies in battle, after rebelling against his father.  David reacts not as a king but as a father. “O my son Absalom, Absalom—if only I had died in your place!”

In spite of their flaws, too often, we see our religious heroes such as David —  as well as our cultural and historical heroines as bigger than life, impossible to emulate, and assign ourselves to roles of relative insignificance on life’s stage.  The late Bill Holm wrote, “Though not such an accomplished musician as to have made a genuine living at it, I was accomplished enough to know the exact deficiencies of every performance I ever gave.”

The best advice I ever received was: “Stop comparing.”  And I remind you of this today.  Stop comparing your life to those you envy.  Stop comparing your life today to what it used to be, or what you envision it to be ten years from now.  Stop comparing your portion of talent, money, resources, energy, spirituality, and appearance to that of others.  Stop comparing today to yesterday or what may or may not happen tomorrow. To keep comparing is to turndown cold the gifts and opportunities being offered us in the present moment.

Today’s Gospel exhorts us “to gather up the fragments so that nothing is lost,” and not only fragments of bread and fish, but fragments of our life experiences, so that nothing is lost: no relationship, no heartbreak, no loss, no achievement, no momentary insight, because God can help us use them all in our ministry to each other and in his name.  In today’s epistle are these words: “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family I heaven and on earth takes its name….And to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Bathsheba remained David’s favorite wife.  Bathsheba lobbied David relentlessly to make their son Solomon king, and Solomon became perhaps the most compassionate and wise of all ofIsrael’s leaders.

Like our ancestors, David and Bathsheba, our own lives also are complex and contradictory.  We are all cowering heroes. Our lives are defined by movement, even if we aren’t aware of it, and encapsulated by God’s love.  And we are in no position to say how God uses any part of our story for God’s own purposes.

A story: A woman was riding in a train from Marseille toParis, and noticed a fly buzzing aimlessly about the car, flitting from one person to another, alighting on an arm, a hat, a window.  She nodded towards the fly and remarked, “Well, talk about wasted effort. He’s certainly not getting anywhere.”  “On the contrary,” a nearby passenger remarked.  “He is going from Marseille toParis.”

For me, no one writes so movingly about David as Frederick Buechener, and this is how he concludes his account of David:  “A long time afterward, when the chill was in his bones, rattling with beads, Bathsheba came to pester him about their son Solomon.  He could hardly see her the way she looked there at his bedside, but saw her instead glimmering in the dusk like a peeled pear as he’d first gazed down at her from the roof with his glass in his hand all those years earlier.  Raising it first to eye level he had drained it off in a single swallow like a toast, but it was only on his deathbed that he caught a glimpse of why.

It wasn’t just Bathsheba he’d been toasting or the prospect of their life together but a much more distant prospect still. He had been drinking he realized, to the child of their child of their child a thousand years thence, who he could only pray would find it in his heart to think kindly someday of the beautiful girl and improvident `king who had so recklessly and long ago been responsible for his birth in a stable and his death just outside the city walls.”

Amen.

Reference: Thank you, Frederick Buechener, for “David” in Beyond Words, 2004.

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