Sunday, July 29, 2012

A King of Questionable Virtue

A sermon on 2 Samuel 11:1-15

Before we get started, I’d like to be clear that today's text from the Hebrew Scriptures focuses on themes of sexuality and violence. Addressing these issues as a faith community is important and worthwhile, but it may not be appropriate for every listener. So this is a trigger warning for those who are sensitive to discussions of sexual violence, and a parental guidance warning. I will be preaching on the story of David and Bathsheba, and this sermon is rated PG-13.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Holy One, our rock and redeemer.  Amen.

I was in the fourth grade or so, and it was a Sunday morning at United Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. There had been a call to worship, a hymn, and a children’s sermon. We had been dismissed for Sunday school, gone to our classes, said our opening prayer, taken attendance, collected an offering for the Heifer Project. Now it was time to read the scripture and do the activity. “Who wants to read the scripture?” the teacher asked. My hand shot into the air. I was terrible at crafts, but I was a good reader. “Okay, Emily,” the teacher said, “Open your Bible and read to us starting at Exodus 19:15.” I opened my Bible and found the page. “Are you sure?” I said. “Yes,” the teacher replied. “Are you sure you’re sure?” I said, “Chapter 19 verse 15?” “Yes, I’m sure,” the teacher replied impatiently, “please read the lesson.” I could feel my face blushing and my ears burning as I stammered out the words: “and Moses told them, ‘Be ready by the day after tomorrow and don't have sexual intercourse in the meantime.’” The class erupted into laughter. That’s when my teacher interrupted. “What are you DOING?” she shrieked. We got it sorted out eventually – she had meant chapter 15, verse 19, not the other way around. That was the day I learned that the Bible sometimes talks about sex. 

And boy, does it ever. There are protocols and prohibitions; there is luscious love poetry and erotic imagery; there are stories of aging couples longing for children and young lovers on their wedding nights. And there are stories of sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct ranging from stories that are puzzlingly archaic – like Ham, whose misdeed is lost to the fog of ancient euphemisms – to stories that are horrifically relevant – like the woman of Judges 19, who is sexually assaulted and dismembered, as too many women are around the world to this day. 

Our story today of David and Bathsheba is not the most graphic or the most horrifying story of sexual misconduct in the Bible, but it speaks to our contemporary context nonetheless, especially in the ways that power, sexuality, and violence interweave and overlap in this text, as they often do in our contemporary world. 

Our text finds David in the middle of his reign, no longer the promising and idealistic youth who slew the Philistine giant Goliath, but now a wheeling-and-dealing power player who, through some combination of political savvy and divine favor has managed to ascend the throne, attain the upper hand in wars with the surrounding nations, bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and win the people’s hearts. David has been able to acquire everything he has set his eyes on; in today’s reading, he sets his eyes on Bathsheba. He sees her bathing from his rooftop, he wants her, and he sends a messenger to find out who she is. 

David’s is married, but his polygamist society will not look askance at him for seeking variety. By the end of his life, he will have several wives and concubines. He is free to marry another wife, take another concubine, seek out a lover, have an affair. These things are considered neither criminal nor sinful (which are, in David’s society, essentially the same thing). Pursuing Bathsheba, however, is considered criminal and sinful for both of them. Because, in their society, men are permitted to be polygamous, but women are required to be monogamous. Adultery, in their time, is not so much about covenant, as it is about women as property; it is defined as a married woman having sexual contact outsider her marriage, or a man having sexual contact with another man’s wife. And Bathsheba is another man’s wife. Specifically, Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in King David’s army, a member of the Thirty, an elite corps of soldiers who are listed by name at the end of 2 Samuel. She is Uriah’s wife, and Uriah is away fighting on King David’s behalf, while David is at home, napping and pursuing Bathsheba. 

Let us imagine, for a moment, what Bathsheba may have experienced when messengers from King David began to knock on her door. Some commentators suggest that she may have been delighted. By bathing within view of the royal roof, they suggest, she was intentionally inviting King David’s attention. Perhaps she was; such things have certainly been known to happen. But I am wary of too easily assuming that Bathsheba was trying to seduce David while she bathed in her own home. Because in our society, when a woman is harassed or assaulted, it is not uncommon to hear the assumption that she was seeking out sexual attention. “She was asking for it.” “Why was she wearing that?” “What was she doing there?” Where there is misconduct, our society too often picks apart every aspect of the victim’s behavior, reputation, and appearance rather than putting the blame on the perpetrator. It is possible Bathsheba was seeking King David’s attention; it is just as possible that she didn’t realize she was being spied on. 

But let’s imagine another possibility. Let us imagine that when a messenger arrives from the King, she finds herself afraid, and weighing her options. There are, of course, repercussions for accepting King David’s invitation. It would be a sin and a crime. She would be an adulteress. She might be found out. She might be stoned to death. But there may also be repercussions for refusing, because this is not a relationship of equals. As the King, David holds power over Bathsheba; as the commander of the army, David holds power over Bathsheba’s husband and also her father. What will happen to them if she refuses, provoking his anger? What will happen to her? Is this an invitation, or is it a royal summons? If she refuses, will her refusal be honored, or will the messengers return with armed guards? Even if Bathsheba goes to David’s bed willingly -- and some commentators believe that she does not, that this is clearly rape -- it is possible that she goes there reluctantly, or under duress. We do not know. The narrator does not tell us. 

Bathsheba never speaks; we never hear a word about her intentions, her emotions, her aspirations. All we ever hear from her are the three words that she sends to David by messenger: “I am pregnant.” With her husband away at battle and a baby on the way that is clearly not his, she is in a precarious situation. Whatever her feelings were about David before, she has few options now, and she chooses to appeal to him for help and protection. She calls upon David, who used his royal authority to summon her to his bed, to use that same authority to resolve her dilemma. 

For what it’s worth, David does try at first to resolve the crisis through deceit rather than violence. He calls Uriah home on furlough, and attempts to send him home to his wife, hoping that when her pregnancy becomes apparent, Uriah will assume the child is his. But Uriah’s sense of honor prevents him from indulging in the pleasures of home while his fellow soldiers are still on the field of battle. He refuses to go to his wife, and David’s plan is foiled. 

That is when David turns to violence, handing Uriah a sealed message to his commander, Joab. The message instructs Joab to put Uriah in the front of a dangerous battle, and then to have the rest of the troops draw back so that Uriah will be killed by the enemy, leaving Bathsheba widowed and protected from discovery, and David free to honorably marry her and raise “Uriah’s” child as his own. David covers up one misdeed with another, covers one abuse of power with another, perhaps greater, abuse of power. 

In our world, too, power, sexuality, and violence often overlap and interweave in ways that are confusing and toxic. How many Bathshebas are there in our contemporary world, women and men who weigh their options and reluctantly tolerate unwanted sexual attention because they are afraid to say no? How many people who make their choices out of the fear of losing a job, failing a class, being rejected by family or doubted by friends or mocked by peers? How many Davids are there in our world, men and women who coerce, manipulate, and threaten, using positions of authority, financial dependence, or threats of violence? It happens every day, in big ways and small; big ways like the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. Big ways like the prevalence of child sexual abuse: one CDC study indicated that up to a quarter of adult women and a sixth of adult men experienced sexual abuse in their childhood at the hands of an adult, although data seems to suggest that that rate will be much lower for children of this era. And there are the seemingly small things that add up: the catcalls, objectifying remarks, and unwanted touches that many women experience on the sidewalks and in the subways of this city, for instance; the sexual harassment that women and men experience all too often in the workplace; the gender- and sexuality-based bullying that children experience all too often at school – seemingly small indignities that we silently accept rather than making a fuss or a scene, passively tolerate rather than risking escalation or retaliation. 

In the face of all of this, the Christian tradition’s response has been woefully inadequate. Sometimes we get it right, sure. But more often, historically, we have gotten it wrong. Sometimes the church has been complicit; churches too often try to cover up wrongdoing, concerned with public relations and liability, rather than healing for victims and accountability for perpetrators. 

Even when Christianity is not directly complicit in such abuses of power, it has too often failed to adequately address the issues. We sometimes cast sexuality in terms of black and white: do this, don’t do that, failing to address the ambiguities and complexities of real life, failing to offer an ethical framework that is adequate to the challenges that people face. If Bathsheba were sitting in the pews of our churches, would she receive a word of life, or a tirade of shame and blame? Other times the church has preached cheap grace and instantaneous forgiveness, rather than calling for accountability, repentance, and transformation. Uncomfortable and embarrassed, many churches avoid the issue altogether, retreating into silence. 

But the good news of our story today is that God is not silent. Our faith tradition holds stories like the story of David and Bathsheba in sacred trust, calling us to remember and recognize the brokenness of this world, naming and condemning the abuses of power that dehumanize, harm, and destroy, so that we may turn away from the powers and principalities of this world and toward the realm of God. We are called into communities like the church – the Body of Christ – to bear witness to a better way, where all voices are heard and power is used for the good of the whole. We are called into community to pray and hope and work for a world where God’s will of justice and righteousness is done. As we hear this story of a king of questionable virtue, we are invited to remember the fallibility of human kingdoms – even the kingdom of David! – and to seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God. 

Peace, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, is not merely the absence of violence, but the presence of justice. So it is with the kingdom of God, and so may it be in the communities we are called to build as children of God and disciples of Christ. We are called not just to the absence of abusive power, but the presence of mutual empowerment. Not just to the absence of objectification, but to the presence of compassion. Not just to the absence of shame and blame, but to the presence of grace and respect. Not the absence of manipulation, but the presence of love; not the absence of coercion, but the presence of mutuality; not the absence of harm, but the presence of healing. These are the marks of the kingdom of God and the Body of Christ; this is the call God places on our lives and our community; this is the path on which we are invited to follow Jesus. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.