The song you just heard used to be one my favorites and has been covered by almost every performer on the planet. Written by the poet and songwriter the late Leonard Cohen, it has always touched me with its beautiful melody and ancient Biblical refrain. It also echoes our lesson today from Second Samuel about David and Bathsheba and introduces timely and relevant moral questions that confront each of us as well as our country.
Scripture tells us that David was “a man after God’s own heart,” handsome, strong, a great soldier, an inspiring leader, and is known as the greatest of Israel’s kings, ruling for over forty years. A direct ancestor of Jesus, it was David who captured Jerusalem for the Jews. He was also a musician who wrote many of the psalms; Cohen says that he knew a “secret chord that pleased the Lord.”
But David was far from perfect and that is what our lesson today is about:
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the
moonlight overthrew you.
She tied you to the kitchen chair
She broke your throne
and she cut your hair
And from your lips, she
drew the Hallelujah.
No, Leonard Cohen! No! Bathsheba is bathing but didn’t cut anyone’s hair; suddenly you’ve switched to Delilah (without naming her), who was bribed by the Philistines to cut Samson’s hair. These women are not interchangeable, just because they both supposedly overpowered a great man with their beauty.
The story of David and Bathsheba used to be taught in Sunday School as a love story (where one kid asked “Is her name Bathsheba because she was taking a bath?”) The story is what the theologian Phyllis Tickle calls one of the many “texts of terror” in the Bible, where women are abused and then silenced.
Bathsheba is bathing– it doesn’t say she is on any roof; David is on the roof. She could be in an enclosed courtyard of her home. She is from a distinguished family and is married to a valiant soldier, Uriah the Hittite, whom she mourns after his murder.
The first line of the lesson is poetic and telling: “(It is) the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle.” We learn that war is normative, every spring, and at the moment, David’s armies are battling the Amorites. But David is taking a break, he is restless, and wanders up to the roof of the palace.
Like many powerful men, David is a collector of women. He has six wives and access to numerous slaves, prostitutes, and servants. That assumed “access” is what it meant to be a woman working at the palace of a king.
When David sees Bathsheba, and even after learning that she is married to Uriah, he sends messengers to “get her” and she is brought to the palace and sexually violated.
Bathsheba is humiliated again when she must announce that she is pregnant. How the palace must have buzzard with that news. Eventually David marries Bathsheba, but first he must execute a cover-up. He orders the honorable Uriah to the front lines where he is killed.
Eventually God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David on these deeds. David repents (writing Psalm 51), asking for mercy and confessing “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart…”
God and David are reconciled but the consequences of David’s sin unfold, as God tells David,” I am about to bring disaster on you from inside your own house…. Although you have acted in secret I will do this thing before all Israel and in broad daylight.” (2 Samuel 12:9). The child dies; David’s daughter Tamar is sexually assaulted by her half brother; one son kills the other; David’s wives are publicly humiliated, his authority is undermined and the nation is divided.
One theologian writes: “David had become like a little god, autonomous, at the height of his royal, political and spiritual power, and his seductions of military might and security had begun to skew the moral vision of Israel. The king may act. The king may kill; the king may be self-satisfied. The king, however, is not capable of revising moral reality. In his deceit to cover up his actions with Bathsheba, and his plot to kill Uriah, David may have imagined that he escaped the hard, non-negotiable reality of the old Torah tradition, he may have forgotten he was accountable to God, he may have assumed he was subject to no one.” (1)
It’s not just the Jewish-Torah tradition, but the fact that virtually all of the world’s great religions agree on the basics of morality: respect for life, honesty, generosity, compassion. Yet as participation in organized religion has has decreased, what has replaced it? Who or what on a regular basis now calls us to order and decency? Or do we indeed live in a culture that is “post-religious, “post-truth” and “post-ethical”?
What do we learn from the example of David about leadership, morality, and power? Speaking not about political policies but about moral issues, I want to ask: what are the Scriptural “facts “in this lesson– and then what questions and issues do they raise for us?
Scriptural Fact: David lied repeatedly, to Uriah, to his military leaders, and countless others.
And so we ask: What are the falsehoods surrounding us today? Who is covering up information that, if made known, would be damaging? Can we accept leaders who repeatedly lie?
Scriptural Fact: David murdered.
And so we ask: Who is dying today as a result of policies put in place by our leaders? Who is dying from hunger, ask of access to health care or mental health services? How are dreams of racial equality still being murdered?
Scriptural Fact: Although immensely wealthy, David was greedy.
How concerned are our leaders with accumulating wealth? How open are they about their holdings? Who are the ones with little from whom much is being taken? Is the fact that a million and a half children live in “food insecure” homes a result of lazy parents or systemic greed and paying wages that a family cannot live on?
Scriptural Fact: David shamed and violated those who opposed him.
And so we ask: Is name-calling a form of shaming? Is it shaming to refer to a supreme court justice by saying, “Her mind is shot”?
Is it shaming to deny people a meal in a restaurant because of their political convictions? To publicly ridicule and embarrass our international allies for no obvious purpose? Or to mock the handicapped? Who today is being shamed by not being listened to?
Scriptural Fact: David repented and apologized.
And so we ask: When is the last time we have heard words of apology from an elected official? (except from Senator Franken?) Does changing words around constitute an apology? Is apology seen as a sign of weakness?
This is the point in the sermon when I would usually offer words of direction or consolation, maybe a solution for these problems. I’m not sure how this can be fixed. All leaders fail. All leaders disappoint in some ways. But our foundational moral standards do not change – even David was not exempt.
Yet where is our Nathan to call the guilty to repentance and apology? Where are our prophets? The Christian Church and its leaders remains restrained and cautious even though, historically, it has been a legitimate function of the church to promote justice and moral behavior and to name sin. As Neil Elliott said three weeks ago, every preacher struggles with what to say during these times: are we to comfort the afflicted or afflict the comfortable? Some will be angry at us for what we say and others for what we don’t say.
The standard for me is to be guided by the Scripture assigned for the day and today, that is David’s story and that is also the Gospel which I’ll reference in a minute.
Specifics always speak more powerfully than generalities so let me give you this;
The local actor T Michael Rambo, after living through a carjacking and a beating, forgave the young men who attacked him and said this: “Our children, with technology, are living very isolated lives. And they’re seeing that people in high places, people who have power, don’t reap consequences for their behavior.”
That’s what happened with the children of David and to some degree can be happening with us. And it is a high price to pay.
People followed Jesus because they found he respected them; he even hung out with tax collectors and sinners. He would not allow anyone to make him king. He fed them, he healed them, he listened to them – even the women, he affirmed them, and yet he called out evil He spoke up. He got angry. The oppressive Roman Empire eventually could not tolerate his vision of compassion, equality and justice and killed him.
I call your attention to two things about the Gospel where Jesus feeds the Five Thousand that I think have special relevance for us. First, the five barley loaves and two fish come from a boy, a child. How often today it seems that the children are leading us, are speaking out on the need for a more just, moral and less violent world.
Secondly, after everyone is fed, Jesus tells the disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” I don’t think that Jesus was merely being thrifty here, or a good steward. The fragments are gathered to be used at another time because you never know when people are hungry and you never know which of those fragments will satisfy their particular hunger. Some times a sermon is that—a bunch of fragments that you hope will feed someone. I offer those fragments to you today with respect for our similarities and differences.
This Gospel is seen as a precursor to the Last Supper and the Eucharist where Jesus again feeds people, as will happen here today. You will each be given a small piece of bread, a fragment, but you never know at what point in your life that fragment – that food, that insight, that mysterious blessing, will be what nourishes you, sustains you and empowers you in our challenging world that is at once horrible and beautiful, agonizing and hopeful, where each week we come here not for only for pardon but also for renewal.
We are a community that is grieving. Two of our elders are hospitalized; a young man took his life on Tuesday and the funeral will be tomorrow. We will have had three funerals in eight days. So I offer you these familiar words:
Life is short
And we do not have much time
To gladden the hearts
Of those who journey with us along the way.
So be quick to love
Make haste to be kind
And the God of justice and compassion
Will go with us.
- The Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet, “Grace Alone,” Sermon at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, October 7, 2017.