Sunday, August 26, 2012

Yes, but that's not the last word

This sermon is part of a series I did for the Deer Creek Charge on the story of King David. I won't post the whole series, just parts of it. I hope it gets you interested in the story from 1 and 2 Samuel to check it out for yourselves!

2 Samuel 11:1-15, 27 (Common English Bible)

In the spring, when kings go off to war, David sent Joab, along with his servants and all the Israelites, and they destroyed the Ammonites, attacking the city of Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.

One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone and inquired about the woman. The report came back: “Isn’t this Eliam’s daughter Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers to get her. When she came to him, he had sex with her. (Now she had been purifying herself after her monthly period.) Then she returned home. The woman conceived and sent word to David.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

Then David sent a message to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” So Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked about the welfare of Joab and the army and how the battle was going. Then David told Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.”

Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him. However, Uriah slept at the palace entrance with all his master’s servants. He didn’t go down to his own house. David was told, “Uriah didn’t go down to his own house,” so David asked Uriah, “Haven’t you just returned from a journey? Why didn’t you go home?”

“The [Ark of the Covenant] and Israel and Judah are all living in tents,” Uriah told David. “And my master Joab and my master’s troops are camping in the open field. How could I go home and eat, drink, and have sex with my wife? I swear on your very life, I will not do that!”

Then David told Uriah, “Stay here one more day. Tomorrow I’ll send you back.” So Uriah stayed in Jerusalem that day. The next day David called for him, and he ate and drank, and David got him drunk. In the evening Uriah went out to sleep in the same place, alongside his master’s servants, but he did not go down to his own home.

The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. He wrote in the letter, “Place Uriah at the front of the fiercest battle, and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die.”

But what David had done was evil in the LORD ’s eyes.

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13 (The Message)

When Uriah's wife heard that her husband was dead, she grieved for her husband. When the time of mourning was over, David sent someone to bring her to his house. She became his wife and bore him a son.

But God was not at all pleased with what David had done, and sent Nathan to David. Nathan said to him: “There were two men in the same city--- one rich, the other poor. The rich man had huge flocks of sheep, herds of cattle. The poor man had nothing but one little female lamb, which he had bought and raised. It grew up with him and his children as a member of the family. It ate off his plate and drank from his cup and slept on his bed. It was like a daughter to him.

“One day a traveler dropped in on the rich man. He was too stingy to take an animal from his own herds or flocks to make a meal for his visitor, so he took the poor man's lamb and prepared a meal to set before his guest.”

David exploded in anger. “As surely as God lives,” he said to Nathan, “the man who did this ought to be [hanged]! He must repay for the lamb four times over for his crime and his stinginess!”

“You [are] the man!” said Nathan. “And here's what God, the God of Israel, has to say to you: I made you king over Israel. I freed you from the fist of Saul. I gave you your master's daughter and other wives to have and to hold. I gave you both Israel and Judah. And if that hadn't been enough, I'd have gladly thrown in much more. So why have you treated the word of God with brazen contempt, doing this great evil? You murdered Uriah the Hittite, then took his wife as your wife. Worse, you killed him with an Ammonite sword! And now, because you treated God with such contempt and took Uriah the Hittite's wife as your wife, killing and murder will continually plague your family. This is God speaking, remember! I'll make trouble for you out of your own family. I'll take your wives from right out in front of you. I'll give them to some neighbor, and he'll go to bed with them openly. You did your deed in secret; I'm doing mine with the whole country watching!”

Then David confessed to Nathan, “I've sinned against God.”

Nathan pronounced, “Yes, but that's not the last word. God forgives your sin...”

Psalm 51:1-12 (Inclusive Bible Translation)

O God, have mercy on me!

Because of your love and your great compassion,

wipe away my faults;

wash me clean of my guilt;

purify me of my sin.

For I am aware of my faults,

and I have my sin constantly in mind.

I sinned against you alone,

and did what is evil in your sight.

You are just when you pass sentence on me,

blameless when you give judgment.

I was born in sin,

conceived in sin---

yet you want truth to live in my innermost being.

Teach me your wisdom!

Purify me with hyssop until I am clean;

wash me until I am purer than new-fallen snow.

Instill some joy and gladness into me;

let the bones you have crushed rejoice again.

Turn your face from my sins,

and wipe out all my guilt.

O God, create a clean heart in me,

put into me a new and steadfast spirit;

do not banish me from your presence,

do not deprive me of your holy Spirit!

Be my savior again, renew my joy,

keep my spirit steady and willing[.]


Famed preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points to this story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba to counter the claim that the Bible is a wholesome guide to family values.1 And when I realized that this Sunday was the actual Sunday before school starts, I thought, hmmm, this story doesn't fit well with back to school, child-friendly themes. But I thought it was a part of David's story that was too important to skip over. Early in the summer, you talked about a young David's trust in God through the story of his anointing and of his defeat of Goliath. The last two weeks, we talked about David dancing with all his might before God and we spoke of how he wanted to build God a house, but God decided to build David a house instead. I have been careful to point out that David is flawed, but we haven't focused on any particular story that illustrates his sin. And this is the big story. In fact, the bible tells us in first Kings chapter fifteen verse five that David was faithful in all things except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

And so a sermon series, even a short one like this one, on David, is not complete without looking at the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba. But I think it is a story that does more that just disprove the idea that the bible is a wholesome guide to family values. It also shows us that even when we sin in big ways like David did, God still loves us. God does not leave us. God asks for repentance and then forgives us completely. And so this service, our scripture readings, our songs, our prayers have been about inviting us into that part of the story. It isn't about us wallowing in our sin, wondering how God could ever forgive us, no--- David didn't do that. It is about recognizing the truth of our lives, and trying to make things right, with the promise that God is beside us.

So let us pray:

Patient Teacher,

Guide us through this difficult story this morning,

difficult for so many reasons

including the fact that it reminds us too much of our own battles with sin.

May your presence with us show us the way to your abundant grace. Amen.

Many of you know the tradition that says David wrote most of the Psalms we find in the bible. Psalm 51 in particular is linked to the story we read earlier of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba, thought to have been written after David recognized his sin. And the language of the psalm is certainly what I picture the David who danced before the Ark of the Covenant writing. When he asks for forgiveness and a clean heart, he isn't just asking for peace, or for a removal of guilt. Be my savior again, renew my joy, we read. David is asking for the return of joy, that joy he knew so well that really defined his relationship with God.

Because this joyful relationship with God is nowhere to be found in our story this morning. We see David waking up in the morning, not full of the presence of God, as he may have been that morning he decided he wanted to build God a house, no. Rather he wakes up in the morning plagued by what inspirational author Max Lucado calls “altitude sickness.”2 He says that David has been too high too long, too powerful for too long. He has become the kind of guy who no longer wakes up in the morning full of gratitude and joy for what God has done for him. He has begun to think too much of himself, and he has begun to take for himself. He no longer sees the need to be with his own men in battle, and not because he's had a change of heart, wanted peace, but because he wants to lounge about at home instead, napping and doing as he pleased.

We all start to get this complacent at times. Now, it doesn't always mean that we then sin quite as grandly as David did, but it does open us up to some poor life decisions. We start to forget to trust God, the way young David trusted God when he fought Goliath. We start thinking that we are self sufficient. We may forget God's presence alongside us--- our forgetting doesn't mean that God is no longer, there, however. It just means that we are prone to doing things as though God is not beside us.

And this is what David does. He sees a woman, decides he must have her. He's told that she is married, and her husband is named as though David knows who he is. But David takes what he wants, without caring about the woman, her husband, or God.

The thing about the bible is that we have all read it or heard the stories many times--- but often it is the interpretations that stick and begin to take a life of their own rather than the text. This is why I keep naming this as the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah, rather than David and Bathsheba. While there is nothing wrong with interpreting--- we must interpret scripture, we must try to make sense of it! That is what we do in worship and bible study. But sometimes we don't ground ourselves enough in the text. We allow our Hollywood sensibilities to take over. That is how we begin to think of the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba as a story of lust and seduction rather than abuse of power.

One commentator I read pointed out:

Interpreters have found a variety of ways to help us forget David's sin in 2 Samuel....Some ...have blunted the bite of sin by making this a tragic story of love. David and Bathsheba, the 1951 film starring Susan Hayward and Gregory Peck, [for instance] seems to say that whatever happened wasn't really sin, because they really, really needed one another. David was the sensitive, reflective king who just wanted to be loved for who he really was. Bathsheba was the lonely wife of an over-dedicated soldier. They fell in love! Love can't be wrong, or at least not very wrong. The event is remembered, but not as anything like a sin.

If this second interpretation has flourished in modern times, a third has shaped readings of 2 Samuel in many ages. It remembers the story in a way that attributes the seduction--- and so the sin--- to Bathsheba. She was bathing on her roof, after all. If the sin must be remembered, and remembered as sin, it can at least be blamed on the woman.3

Such interpretations happen over and over again in movies and in popular books, trying to smooth over David's power-hungry nature, and trying to make the story about sex rather than about abuse of power. There are incredibly dangerous, especially in a country like ours today where politicians try to define rape as occurring only if there is brutal physical force. Let's not play word games with women's lives, even women's lives way back in biblical times. Bathsheba was the victim here, and David sinned against not only Uriah, not only God, but also Bathsheba. And Nathan's confrontation with David names him a sinner and Bathsheba a victim. Nathan offers an interpretation different from our idealized Hollywood love story.

But before we even get to Nathan, we have David snowballing out of control in terms of sin. Like Ruthie and the Teeny Tiny Lie, David's transgression against Uriah and Bathsheba does not end with the one night with Bathsheba. Bathsheba tells him she is pregnant. That is all the note says, but between the lines we read that she will suffer, maybe even be stoned to death according to the laws of Leviticus, if her husband discovers her pregnancy, after all, he has been away at war and the baby cannot be his.

And so David devises a plan, bringing Uriah back home, only to find that Uriah is a better man than he is. While David has been home doing as he pleased the whole time, Uriah refuses to go to the comfort of his own home even for one night, even after he is drunk. Uriah reminds David of the other men living in tents on the battlefield, and also mentions that the Ark of the Covenant, the beautiful chest that symbolized the presence of God for the Israelites, is there too. Uriah remembers God's presence. David does not. And faced with this more moral man, David does not turn to God for guidance as he would have when he was younger. Instead, he arranges to have Uriah murdered.

Though our own sins are not on this scale, I think we can recognize this cycle David is going through. How our own disconnect with God continues to widen and widen. And yet David still does not recognize his sin. He brings Bathsheba to his home to become his new wife. This is not a David who says a create in me a clean heart, but a David who says, well let's just make the best of a bad situation.

But God sends Nathan, the prophet, to wake David up. God is still with David, though David cannot feel God's presence anymore. God is still there, calling David back, patiently, maybe even angrily sometimes. God pursues us, will not let us go.

We talked a bit about Nathan last week because he first appears with David to tell David that God does not want David to build a house but will rather build a house, a lineage, for David. Prophets in the Old Testament were always around trying to keep kings honest, trying to prevent corruption. And David, for all his flaws, seems to listen to Nathan. Of course, Nathan is smart. He doesn't just come in, trumpets blaring, demanding David repent of his sin. Too often when we have hurt another or hurt God, someone telling us straight out causes us to be defensive, to shut ourselves up even further away from God. Nathan doesn't come in pointing a finger at David. Instead, he tries to bring David back to the time when David was a young shepherd boy in love with God by telling him a story of a shepherd.

It is this story that reminds us again this is no love story. David has sinned. Bathsheba, the lamb, is the victim. Uriah, the poor man, is the victim. But David doesn't see the parallels with his own life at first. Something within him stirs, though, causing him to passionately defend the poor man against the rich, even calling for the death of the rich man for his selfishness. And so Nathan looks at David, looks deeply into him and says with a kind of power, whether or not was a quiet declaration or a loud denunciation: You are the man.

A story followed by four simple words. And David wakes up. He confesses right there: I have sinned against God. But the death sentence for himself that he himself has proclaimed is not the last word. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

God does not turn away from us. God sends prophets to wake us up, to tell stories that show us who we really are. If we are lucky enough to feel our hearts split in two, then we may find that even the death sentences we have pronounced on ourselves are lifted, because the recognition of sin is the beginning of the end of it. The moment we know we are lost and say so out loud, God can hear us to find us to take us home.4

Like David, we also need to wake up from sin--- and like David, we see that sometimes even after we have had powerful experiences of God's love, we can forget and live as though God is not beside us, hurting when we hurt others. But God doesn't give up on any of us, not David, not any of us. God sends Nathans to wake us up, to recognize our sin so God can hear us and take us home.

We read Psalm 51 today because it expands David's realization that he sinned against God. You see the passion within the psalm, the desperation of the writer to reclaim that lost relationship with God.

O God, create a clean heart in me,

put into me a new and steadfast spirit;

do not banish me from your presence,

do not deprive me of your holy Spirit!

Be my savior again, renew my joy,

keep my spirit steady and willing[.]

David's is a story where we see him as murderer, adulterer, and predatory king. But that isn't the first word, and it isn't the last word. David is also a hero, beloved of God, and singer of psalms.5 It is a story that reminds us all that we have need of God's grace, and that reminds us of the enormity of that grace.

We read the modern-language paraphrase called The Message this morning when we read about David and Nathan because I love how after David has proclaimed his sin, Nathan says gently, channeling God's own love, “Yes, but that's not the last word. God forgives your sin.” The story continues with grief, as God tells David that the child will die--- which I cannot explain and certainly does not sound like grace and forgiveness, but you need to know the story. But such a continuation of the story reminds us that the consequences of our sin do not always end when we repent. Creating clean hearts in us does not release us from responsibility for old sins, but gives us the ability to live anew and make new choices. And that's why we remember that our sin is not the last word, even if the consequences from it reach deep into the future.

No, God's forgiveness is the last word, a forgiveness that renews our joy, strengthens our spirit, and washes us clean to face the world anew. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

Patient and Gracious God, we know there is a bit of David in each of us, strong and faithful, and sometimes foolish and deceitful. But we also know that you are a God of amazing grace and love, who forgives our sins, and gives us the resources to avoid them to begin with. Lord, Open our eyes to our mistakes, and to the ways you love us into preventing them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.6

1Barbara Brown Taylor, “You are the Man,” Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997), 13.

2Max Lucado, Facing Your Giants: A David and Goliath Story for Everyday People (Nashville, Tennesee: W Publishing Group, 2006), 136.

3Ted A. Smith, 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a, Commentary on Alternate First Reading, Ninth Sunday After Pentecost,, 2 August 2009,

4Barbara Brown Taylor, “You are the Man,” Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997), 15-16.

5“Preaching that tells this story in all its fullness will push us beyond the polarities that often order our thinking. It will remember David as murderer, adulterer, and predatory king as well as hero, beloved of God, and singer of psalms. It will break up the stories we tend to tell about others and ourselves, stories in which we are either good enough – not perfect, but good enough – that we have no real need of grace, or so bad that we are beyond the scope of grace. Remembering David's sin can also push us beyond the poles of cynicism and naivete in our political and institutional lives. The politics of David's court are brutal. But – often in spite of themselves, and almost always in ways the actors do not fully understand – these power politics are caught up in God's redeeming work. Remembering this can give vision for action that neither flinches from the morally risky work of politics nor tips over into a 'realism' that proceeds as if God had abandoned us to our own devices. Remembering the fullness of this story can help us see all of life as the theater for God's wily, costly, persistent performance of redemption.” Ted A. Smith, 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a, Commentary on Alternate First Reading, Ninth Sunday After Pentecost,, 2 August 2009,

6Melissa McDade, closing prayer, David and Bathsheba sermon, 2 Samuel 11:1-15, Pent B, 5 August 2012.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Our God Will Not Be Contained

This sermon is part of a series I did for the Deer Creek Charge on the story of King David. I won't post the whole series, just parts of it. I hope it gets you interested in the story from 1 and 2 Samuel to check it out for yourselves!

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a (NRSV)
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?' Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”

Sermon: Our God Will Not Be Contained

We're continuing to study David this week! Again, I encourage you to read along during the week in first and second Samuel. David's is the longest continuous story in the Bible, and we won't do it justice in just the few weeks we'll look at it in worship. But at least it will give you a taste of the story if you don't know much beyond David and Goliath!

Let us pray:
Patient Teacher,
We give thanks for another opportunity to explore your love for us
through the story of David. May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

David wakes up one morning, and in the style of his dance, he is overwhelmed by the way God has loved him. I don't know if you have ever felt that way, when you wake up one day, the sunshine kissing your face, feeling rested and full and content. There isn't always a reason, you know. Just sometimes you get caught up in beauty and realize how beloved you are.

This is how I see this scene in 1 Samuel. King David has successfully and somewhat peacefully brought together Judah and Israel, scattered, fragmented tribes of people who have dispersed since being led into this land of milk and honey from Egypt. He has suffered persecution, and also already committed some evils or at least questionable acts like his own involvement as a mercenary soldier among the Philistines who killed his beloved friend Jonathan. But he has also felt overwhelmed by the presence of God in his life, and I don't mean overwhelmed in a bad way. I mean completely covered by the beauty of God's presence. And so we read today how he gets caught up in that moment, looks at the richness of his own life and wants to give back to God.

So he speaks to Nathan, a fascinating man we too often forget about. Nathan is a prophet. You will notice if you read through the Old Testament especially in Samuel and Kings, though also in the books called The Prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, that prophets accompany kings. See, God did not want to give the people a king. Samuel, the priest and prophet who anointed David, did not always want to give the people a king. God was supposed to be their king! But the people were stubborn, and living under intense violence, and so God gave them a king. However, as we saw with Saul and will see with David, and as we see with our own politicians consistently in both parties, with power comes corruption. Prophets are supposed to keep kings honest. We see throughout David's rule that though he can be corrupt, he does listen to and take the advice of the prophet Nathan. And so here he seeks out Nathan to run by his idea.

So here's King David, living in what is essentially a palace, a house of cedar, having grown up sleeping in sheep pastures when he was shepherding. And he remembers dancing in front of the Art of the Covenant, that box, that, while beautiful in and of itself, has been housed under a tent. And he thinks to himself, and then asks Nathan what he thinks, “Aha, God doesn't have a fancy house like me. I can build one, an offering of sorts for all God has done for me!” So it is a piety that can be twinged with a little guilt. Nathan agrees that this would be a good idea, at first.

But as so often happens with all of us, God laughs at David's plans, coming to Nathan later that night to say so. David, like we often do, is missing the point, and God turns the tables on him. I really like the way Kate Huey, a United Church of Christ pastor, paraphrases God's response:
Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place.” God then turns the tables on David and says, “You think you're going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I'M going to build YOU a house. A house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with wood and stone. A house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after 'you lie down with your ancestors.'”1

There is a lot to unpack here, though I think Rev. Huey has presented the conversation in a way that makes a bit more sense to us. God turns the tables on David, reminding him that, though he means well, God cannot be contained. Here is David, with his assumptions that God should live in the wealth that he as a king lives in.

Last week, we talked about how David moved God to the center by bringing the Ark of the Covenant from gathering dust in his brother's barn to his new capitol city. As we remember from last week, the Ark of the Covenant was not a boat, like Noah's Ark, but it was from way back in the time of Moses when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. It was a beautifully crafted chest made of wood and covered in gold that contained reminders of how God provided for the Israelites: a jar of manna, Aaron's staff, and the ten commandments were found within. And since it was created, the Ark traveled beneath tents. And as the Ark was mobile, it symbolized God's mobility, the fluid ways that God could interact within the community, which in and of itself in the time of the escape from Egypt was a mobile community.

David was bringing in a time of supposed stability, though. Finding the Ark a new home, Jerusalem, was part of that stabilization. And it is funny--- I spoke last week about how sometimes we just need to be undignified, like David was when he danced in front of the Ark with all his might glorying in God's presence with him. And then this week we read about how David was trying to make God a bit more dignified by putting God in a real house instead of a tent. And God points out how silly David's assumptions are. God prefers being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place. And God is, in effect, choosing to be homeless.2

We don't understand that choice. David probably did not either, but did not have the time to process it before God proposed alternate plans. But we do have time to look at this choice this morning, and it is the piece of the scripture that has captivated me since I first read it.

I think the reason why I was so captivated by God's insistance on freedom of movement was because too often we see our own buildings trying to box God in. We complain a lot in institutional church meetings and in seminary about people's attachment to church buildings. I've worked some in cities like York, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey, where the church is so focused on keeping an old building up and running that they cannot devote sufficient time and energy to mission and outreach. And even if the building is not a financial burden, sometimes congregations are so inward focused that the church building becomes a sanctuary away from the world, rather than a place to invite people in to meet God. It is like pulling teeth to remind people that *“The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.”*

But our God is a God who cannot be contained, a God who shows up in mysterious people and mysterious times. Our God makes home not out of a building but out of people we would never expect, people like David, and people like us.

This is where God's promise to David comes in, when God says, in Rev. Huey's words, “You think you're going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I'M going to build YOU a house.” God refuses David's gift, a gift that shows an obvious misunderstanding of God's purposes, much like we see the bumbling of the twelve disciples over and over again in the Gospel stories, but then this surprising homeless God does something more surprising. God promises to build David and house, a lineage, one protected and nurtured by God. David thought a house would be a way of abundantly providing for God. But God says no, mobility is abundance, and demonstrates that abundance by promising to build David a house.

And so God provides David with an unexpected abundance when God promises David a house, a dynasty. I admit I am uncomfortable with this part of the story. Hasn't God already noticed that David messes up sometimes and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to promise his line a throne forever? And doesn't God know that just because you are born of some fancy dynasty doesn't make you a good ruler? Where's the democracy, God?

But I think this is more about hope, abundant hope, hope of abundance, than it is about the divine right of kings. To return again to Rev. Huey's paraphrase, God says that God will build “[a] house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after 'you lie down with your ancestors.'” And on top of this, God says, “I will be a father to [your offspring], and he shall be a son to me.”

This is “the core of Messianic hope in the Old Testament.”3 It promises us that God's presence with us endures, and more than that, that there is something more to come. For us, as Christians, we understand yet another twist: God's throne is like God's house building skills--- the throne looks different than what we expect. Jesus is a king we do not expect. This house God builds does not follow the pattern of, for instance, English kings who become more and more corrupt. God turns our understanding of this house, this dynasty, for David on its head.

And God part of the way God does that is by expanding this promise into more than just a biological family. When reading the Old Testament, we see that even if this is a promise to David specifically, it extends to all Israelites, it is a hope for all Israelites. This hope God offers all people, a hope of a different way of living, one we cannot often imagine but one we have tasted, even briefly at times. It is a way of peace and security. A way of abundance.

In the Epistles in the New Testament, we read this house metaphor even more expansively. The author of Ephesians writes in chapter two verse twenty-two: “you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (NRSV) Here, we see that this house is not just within David's family, not just within the Israelites, but that God has built a house in all of us.

Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a United Methodist pastor and blogger writes:
You are a house. God has chosen you as a tent to move about and live in. Your opponents are also houses of God. And we all are a house where God lives, not in any of us alone, but in the sacred space among us. Be mindful of this mystery, for it is the foundation of a great and powerful dynasty.4

I love this. God has chosen each of us, each of our bodies in all their problems, as a dwelling place, rather than a house of cedar. And such a reminder tells us that we aren't the only dwelling places. God can use each of us with all our faults, the way God used David with all his, and the way God uses those we might not like as much.

The hope of the dynasty, then, is a hope that one day we will see that sacred space around us and find abundance all around us. It is a hope that one day we will stop trying to contain God, to domesticate God by saying God only belongs in Church, or that God only belongs to us Methodists and not to Presbyterians, or that God only belongs to us Christians. God has broken out of those containers and said, “I will build YOU a house. I will move and dwell within you AND your neighbor AND the guy who lives down the street you may not like as much.”

God provides for us in ways we never imagine, just as God did for the Israelites in the wilderness, just as God did for David. And just as God does for us today. God shows a mobility and freedom that provides us with an abundance and unity we would never expect.

Let us pray:
Our God-Who-Will-Not-Be-Contained,
We don't always understand your ways of abundance,
presenting you instead with gifts we think you'll like but gifts that end up boxing you up. Be patient with us.
Remind us that you have chosen us as your dwelling places,
and guide us to living into this un-contained abundance. Amen.

1Kate Huey, “Wherever You Are,” Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Weekly Seeds, Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, 22 July 2012,
2“God's choice to stay homeless, however, surprises us.” Joni S. Sancken, Proper 11 [16], Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, eds. Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 332.
3Richard W. Nysse, 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Commentary on Alternate First Reading, Seventh Sunday After Pentecost,, 19 July 2012,
4Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “I will make you a house,” Unfolding Light, 20 July 2012,

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Searching for the Bread of Life

So I know I am posting these sermons a bit late (this one was given July 29, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost), but here it is. I wanted to post this sermon, given my second month at the Deer Creek Charge because I think the personal stories are important to connecting with a new congregation. I also wanted to post this because of this funny story: At Deer Creek, I put the supplies for a kids sermon on making bread in the box for my new blender. Everyone saw the blender and got all excited, asking me if we were going to have margaritas. I pointed out that Jesus said he was the bread of life, not the margarita of life, but I have been thinking about ways to preach Jesus as the margarita of life...

Also, we used a communion liturgy written by myself and Amanda Rohrs-Dodge and it was very well received. You can check it out here. 

Scripture: John 6:24-35
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Sermon: Searching for the Bread of Life

Today's scripture reading comes almost immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, which is why Jesus talks about how the people were following him, not because they wanted to learn more, but they wanted to be physically fed again. The people are treating Jesus as another Moses, here.

In Exodus chapter sixteen, verse three, we read that after the Hebrews have been liberated in Egypt, the people began complaining: “The Israelites said to [Moses and Aaron], ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.'1 So God creates manna. Again, the story from Exodus: “When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.'2

This background is important to the story because, though Jesus' words in this scripture are beautiful, I hear a harshness in them, particularly when he tells them not to work for the bread the perishes. I think the harshness comes from this backstory of the complaining Israelites who refuse to trust the God who has brought them out of Egypt. Jesus knows the ways that we refuse to trust God, and the ways that we, like the crowd gathered in the story, want to see more signs, want Jesus to continue to do for us without responding to his teaching.

But Jesus is patient with us, even when we can sense that he doesn't want to be! He teaches us yet again about his way of abundant living, saying, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher,
one who nourishes us and fills us,
help us be bread. Teach us this morning and every day
to center our lives on you, so that we may be sustained by you
and led into more abundant living. Amen.

Bread of life. I think this is a hard concept for many of us who have never been hungry to understand. Of course, some of us have been hungry, and most of us have seen hunger in ways we will never forget. Most of us are disconnected from the baking of bread--- that's why I brought in the supplies to make bread today for the kids. But I don't want to lose this, of all of the Gospel of John's what are called “I am statements”--- you know, “I am the way the truth and the life”--- because when Jesus says that he is the bread of life, when he says “whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he is talking about abundant living in a way that shows the physical and connectional ways that we are to live.

Last week I talked a little about how God cares for our well being, God cares about our bodies. Jesus fed five thousand hungry people, not because he was expected to do so by that crowd, not only as a sign of his power, but because he had compassion for hungry people. Jesus has compassion too this morning in our story. The crowds have searched and searched for him, but, as he explains to them, they don't even know what they are searching for. They are looking to feed on bread again, and while Jesus cares about their hunger, he points out a deeper hunger within them. A deeper hunger within all of us.

We are hungry not just for food. Food was a sign for many of the crowds gathered that day, a sign of a different way of living, but many of them did not understand that sign, as many of us may not today. But I think they were seeking after that abundance that Jesus showed him in the fragments; how Jesus could feed five thousand people with a five barley loaves and two fish, fragments, and how Jesus cared about the fragments of the meal and collected them into baskets. From the fragments comes abundance with Jesus. And that's what the people were searching for.

When we talk about eating and abundant living, we are not talking about the Desert Fathers of early Christianity fasting in the desert. Some may be called to such a life, and some fasting is important to all our spiritual lives. And of course, abundantly living does not mean sitting on the couch with bags of chips and oreos lined up, either. We are talking about having enough, about being healthy, and if we have enough food sharing with those who don't, and finding ways for them to be fed always as well.

When Jesus uses the metaphor of bread, he is talking about what for many people, though this may not be true today, was a staple in their diets. Jesus is not the icing on the cake of life, he is the bread of life, a wholesome staple in our diets, not something extra that spruces things up a bit. Jesus feeds us and wants us to feed others.

That is the connectional piece of the bread of life. Jesus doesn't stop with being our sustenance, but calls us to feed the world, by witnessing to our faith in words, like sharing our stories, and in deeds, like feeding the homeless.

And we celebrate this abundant life every month with communion, a simple taste of bread and juice to symbolize an sustaining meal--- a meal that goes beyond the elements of food to knit together the people sharing together and open up ways for us to seek that abundant living together. Many of us may not think much about communion. Unfortunately too often rituals that we do with regularity, to imprint them onto our bones, can become meaningless, things that we do without thinking about them. But I want us to turn to the Lord's Table now to think about what this Bread of Life can mean with a story of my own encounter with the Bread of Life.

I studied abroad in Toulouse, France, my junior year of college. I was not a happy person then, though. While I was excited to live outside of the country, I was nervous, as many of us are when we are far from home, and I felt kind of dejected. See, I thought that God was calling me to be a missionary at the time, but my study abroad plans to go outside of Europe fell through, and so here I was, nineteen, so sure of God's call on my life, only to find that I didn't know where God was leading me at all. I had been seeking the Bread of Life with such certainty that I knew the way--- and maybe I did. Many of us feel God's call on our lives but sometimes that call changes or is lived out in ways we never expected. I think that is what happened to me. But I didn't know this at the time. I just knew I was tired and frustrated.

And I was lonely. Aaron and I had talked on the phone at least every day for the past five years before this--- and I went the entire month of September without hearing his voice at all. My sister Kate was starting college and I was missing all her exploits, and Suzanne was getting her driver's license. My host family was wonderful and the other women in the program--- we were all women that year--- were great, but I still felt alone.

I was going through what I think we are all familiar with in one way or another--- spiritual drought. I am the kind of person, as many of you may have noticed, who tries to see God in everything, particularly outside. But when I was in France, I felt as though I was walking through a fog or that kind of mud that sucks at your feet so you have to focus all your attention on the next step and ignore whatever is around you. This was perhaps one of the worst spiritual droughts of my life, though many of us have much less dramatic, day or week long drought, and many of us have droughts that last for years and years and we can't pull free. I knew I was in a funk, and I knew I didn't want to be in that funk anymore. I think that those people in the crowd following Jesus that day were also in a spiritual drought. They were seeking a way out, but they didn't know what they were searching for. They just didn't want to be in that drought anymore.

And so they started looking for Jesus. And I, I kind of did the same thing. I did what I as a preacher's kid knew to do. I went to church.

There are not many Protestant churches to go to in France. Though I have found beauty in Catholic worship, I really needed the familiarity and comfort of a protestant church. I looked around until I saw the closest one to my host family's house, called the Temple du Salin. The church sits facing a park, so I sat in the park for a few minutes before church started. I was afraid to go in the sanctuary early because my French was still very shaky and I didn't want to be pulled into a conversation. I also didn't want to have to sit alone inside a church for very long.

When I finally walked in, the building was enormous and cold. It was stone, and ancient, as most buildings are in Europe. In the winter time, I later learned, they had these kind of old looking red hot heaters hanging from the ceiling to give off a little warmth. The pews were not even remotely full. See, France is a largely secular country, and those who are religious are usually Catholic or, increasingly, Muslim. They are usually either older folks or they are immigrants, which is actually a trend in most parts of the USA as well. So we in the pews were an eclectic bunch, and no one really sat near one another.

I couldn't understand most of what was going on--- I was newly arrived, you see, and even though I had aced most of my French classes, you don't really know a language until you've been immersed in it. I didn't know any of the songs. And so I had almost resolved not to go back to the church...until it came time for communion.

Communion was when that little church came alive. It was what held that little church together, I think. The dark stone sanctuary became vibrant and warm. Everyone stood up and fanned around the sanctuary in a big circle. And then we all served one another communion. The bread, ordinary bread that was pre-cubed, which I usually hate because they kinda end up hard like crutons, was passed around the circle, each one of us serving one another with words of blessing. And let me tell you, that faintly stale bread tasted so amazing that first Sunday, like a little bit of heaven.

Then they passed the cup. Now, in France people care much less about germs than we do. When you buy bread, no one wears gloves to hand it to you, and they give you a little piece of paper to hold around the baguette with--- but if the baguette just goes in your bicycle basket, it certainly is not protected from the elements! So they passed the cup--- which was filled with wine: grape juice is hard to come by in Europe--- again with words of blessing to one another, and we all drank out of the same cup. It was liberating--- though when later in the winter I would take communion and hear the sniffles around the sanctuary and be sniffling myself, I must say sometimes I passed the cup without drinking. But in that moment on that day I could not think of any other ritual that would make us more connected.

This was the first time I felt as though I was a part of something bigger than myself. I didn't feel alone anymore. It was a simple communion with stale bread and germy wine, and we were ordinary people standing around that room. Some of us might have had a good week, some of us might have been having trouble at work, some of us, like me, were lonely. And yet, we all came together and blessed one another. I wanted to say with the crowd in our Gospel lesson this morning, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

I was able to start to come out of that spiritual drought after taking communion that day. Though I still struggled with loneliness and a deep sense of loss because I didn't know where God was calling me, I was able to make meaning in my time there. I began volunteering at a women's shelter. I traveled to visit friends. I made new, close friends. I even began to look at seminaries, though I refused to acknowledge any call to ministry at the time. But the Bread of Life was sustaining me, leading me to an ever-greater abundance.

May you find the Bread of Life sustaining too this morning. May we all be led to say as the crowd did, “Sir, give us this bread always,” until it becomes a prayer.3

Let us pray:

Bread of Life,
we give you thanks for the ways you have fed us in our faith journeys,
and we ask this morning that you feed us always,
and that we may respond to being fed by feeding others.
As we gather around your table this morning,
nourish us and strengthen us for the work ahead. Amen.

1Exodus 16:3. NRSV.
2Exodus 16:14-15, NRSV.
3Christopher Morse, Theological Perspective on John 6:24-35, Proper 13 (Sunday Between August 1 and August 6 inclusive), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, vol. 3, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 312.