The readings for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) include the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah; the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ described to the Ephesians; and the feeding of the five thousand according to John.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
At Tuesday night’s bible study, it was suggested that we skip this morning’s reading from the Hebrew testament altogether. In fact, I once served in a church where the reader resigned as lector directly after delivering the lesson, rather than risk being called upon to read anything like that aloud in public, in church, again. It is painful, maddening to hear the story of David’s sin, and still call him king. But the story is there for us to wrestle with, and the power of God is such that even while trauma remains, the possibility of healing is offered by the presence of Christ among us, and the love of Jesus poured upon us. This is not to simplify anything; but it is our gospel hope.
At the very beginning of our recent General Convention, before formal business began, the bishops held what was called a Listening Session. It was a worship service, during which anonymous accounts of sexual harassment and abuse committed by the church against (mostly?) women, and the ways in which they were covered up, dismissed, or worse were read aloud by the bishops whom we expect to keep the flock safe from wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Reading this morning’s lesson, I have to wonder what Bathsheba might have submitted as her story. How she would have told this sorry tale. Who would have read her account aloud from the altar. Would anyone have believed her?
Well, yes. There were plenty of people who knew exactly what was going on – the servants of both households, for a start, and they would have been quite a crowd. But David was the king, and no one, not even his dedicated and dignified general Joab, was willing to call him to account. Joab’s misplaced loyalty led him to murder. David, the great king David, ruddy handsome shepherd boy, giant slayer, anointed by Samuel to be the father of his people: one might think that David could sink no lower.
And still no one said anything, to anyone, and given what David did to Uriah, who could blame them?
There is a fine question as to what comes after the Listening Session at General Convention. The stories that were read – we knew them. They had been told, in whispers, in private pastoral meetings, in heated discussions with senior clergy and leaders of the church. Convention did take some of definitive steps. As usual, there is a task force, to study and report, and to develop training to reduce the risk of further clergy abuse in the future. There is some suspension of the statute of limitations of reporting old instances of abuse, to encourage truth-telling, to help the church finally to hear and believe Bathsheba after all this time, as a first step towards repentance and reconciliation. If you need to talk, I will hear you.
This is difficult stuff. We are tempted to skip it; but sin blossoms in silence, and abuse depends upon closed mouths and blind minds, bent on protecting the king rather than the innocent bodies and souls whom he uses and disposes.
David’s downfall is tied up with the first sentence of this whole sorry story: in the springtime, when kings go out to battle, David sent his men away, but he stayed at home, in Jerusalem, drinking wine on the rooftop, and looking for entertainment from his subjects below. He had forgotten the duties of king, to lead and to serve and to give himself to his people, instead being seduced by the luxuries of a soft palace and a pliable public.
Whereas Jesus didn’t even want to be king. No soft palaces for him. Instead, a picnic on the hillside, a few good friends, a few thousand hungry mouths to be fed, and he was in his element. The miracle described by all of the evangelists, one way or another, begins with a simple act of blessing and breaking; giving thanks and sharing. As Jesus begins to share the bread and the fish, to give them away, piece by piece, holding nothing back, the miracle blossoms, like the flour and oil of Elijah and the widow, refusing to give out or give up until everyone has their fill.
Jesus gives thanks, and he starts sharing, and with nothing held back, without reservation, without keeping a kingly portion for himself, he finds that he has enough for everyone, and the people see in the gathered leftovers the abundance of God’s grace and providence for those whom God has called together in Christ: “the breadth and length and height and depth,” the knowledge of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19).
They had followed him because of the healing that they found at his hands, and at the hem of his garment. They found in him a source of life, of sustenance, beyond their imagination. No wonder they thought to make him king.
Jesus was not interested in a palace coup, and he slipped away.
But Jesus was descended from a line of kings, from David. There’s no avoiding it. We hear him called the son of David, we know that he is of the house of David, and if we look back at the genealogies in Matthew and in Luke, whether they name him through the line of Solomon or of Nathan, David’s sons, they both seem to agree that when Jesus’ line descended from David, his fore-mother was Bathsheba.
To be clear, the redemption of Bathsheba’s story, if that is what we find in these genealogies; the redemption of her story does not excuse David, nor save him from judgement. Only his repentance has a chance of redeeming his story.
And as the Revd Dr Wil Gafney, womanist biblical scholar, recently tweeted, the God who created out of nothing does not need such stuff in order to work God’s good purpose in the world:
“God can and does use the things that happened to us to transform us. But God who creates from nothing does not require trauma to make us who we will be.”
And so there is no reason to glorify nor sublimate the suffering of Bathsheba, nor any of the women or people of God whose bodies and souls have been sacrificed to the causes of kings, of religion, of power, of the church.
But God can help to bring healing out of the most desperate circumstances. Whether our trouble is like Bathsheba’s, or comes from another source, that is a reasonable hope for Bathsheba and all her siblings.
And there is good reason to restore her dignity, to allow her story to resonate with the strength with which she survived, and the new life she brought out of the ashes of her home, her husband, the betrayal of her king.
There is reason to believe that God, “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
There is good reason to believe that Jesus, who healed the woman of blood, who shared water with the woman at the well, Jesus who was born of a woman, has an abiding interest in the dignity and integrity of his foremother, Bathsheba.
There is every reason to believe that God, working within us, as flawed and as injured and as trying as we might be, is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine. The proof is right here with us: the incarnation of Jesus, broken, shared, never holding back, never giving out, never giving up; the height, and depth, and breadth, and length of a love that is immeasurable, unquenchable. Incorruptible.
Featured image: Bathsheba, by Francesco de’ Rossi – The Yorck Project (2002), Public Domain, via Wikimedia
I have great difficulty with the story of Bathsheba being read aloud to all in church. Dare I offer a roster of sins… voyeurism… rape…adultery…murder…misuse of power. Yet the only time we hear her voice is when she sends word of her pregnancy. My heart is full of sadness for Bathsheba and my gut is full of contempt for David. Thank you Rosalind for addressing this passage and equating it with #MeToo.
Thanks, Neva. We had a thoughtful discussion at our bible study as to the relative merits of reading such stories aloud in church or leaving them to be found by the unsuspecting in a bible at home. It was certainly something I didn’t want to leave unaddressed. We did that for too long, imo