July 31, 2009

On Receiving Gifts

by Halden Doerge
(2 Sam 11:26–12:13a; Ps 51:1-12; Eph 4:1-16; John 6:24-35)

The readings for this week offer an odd combination of themes. Both the Old Testament and Psalm readings are quite clearly concerned with the fallout of the affair between David and Bathsheba (though perhaps rape might be a more appropriate characterization). The Gospel and Epistle readings however seem, at first glance to have little if anything to do with the first two readings. In the Gospel we hear about Jesus being the bread of life whom the Father sends down from heaven to give life to the world. In the Epistle we are reminded of the fullness of Christ’s gifts in and to the church, as manifested in the multiplicity of charisms and ministries which build up the body in love.

What, we wonder do David’s sexual exploits have to do with Jesus being the bread of life? Or the fullness of Christ as given to the church in grace? Much in every way, I think. What seems to be vital about reading these texts together is the way in which they speak to what it means for us to be the recipient of God’s abundant gifting. In the Gospel, the Epistle, and the Old Testament reading the experience of being the recipient of God’s gifts lies at the center. In the story of David, the Lord, seemingly speaking out of hurt as much as anger, declares “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more” (v. 7-8).

“I would have added as much more.” That is the drumbeat, the cadence of how God has dealt with David. David, the recipient of God’s utterly gratuitous gift-giving, of God’s infinitely underserved abundance, has responded with theft and murder to possess more. God came to give life abundantly. David stole, killed, and destroyed.

Perhaps this gets at why David says in his Psalm of penitence “Against you and you only have I sinned.” One is inclined to be a bit surprised at this way of putting things. After all, didn’t he sin against Bathsheba by using his royal power to have his way with her? Let alone his, umm, murdering of her husband who happened to be his loyal soldier. How then has this turned into something just between David and God?

Well, it hasn’t really. What is at work here is the way in which God’s abundant gift-giving sets the framework for David’s sin of violence and domination. What is at the root of all of the deceit, murder, and victimization that he has wrought is a refusal to trust and live within the arena of gift into which God had called and established David.

But here is the all-important point: that is precisely what is at stake in all our acts of rebellion against God. The endemic nature of our lives, bound over to the rebellious powers, is to strive to live outside the realm of God’s gifting love. We seek possession, domination, and the endless pursuit of our own satiation. What David’s story reveals to us is that this pursuit ends in death. Through it we murder, and because of it people suffer and die whether we intended it or not. Outside the realm of God’s gifting love there is, quite frankly nothing. Only loss, only privation.

It is in light of all this that Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life who gives life to the world takes shape. God has always been the God of superabundant gift-giving as the story of David shows, but in Christ God not only gives again, but gives exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we could ask or think. God descends, as the Epistle reading reminds us, into the lower parts of the earth. The furthest reaches of the nothingness that we effect when we reject God’s gifting love. Even in that place of rejection, the bread of life appears. In the fullness of darkness, captivity itself is made a captive, and gifts are given to us (Eph 4:8).

In his descent Christ liberates us into gift. And in so doing we are caught up to participate in God’s very own mode of life, the life of giving-in-love. Thus, when captivity itself is made captive, when we are liberated from our infantile refusal of gift, we are freed into the life of loving that is the church. This is the life of mutual service, of edification, of doxology. In Christ we are invited out of the self-enclosure of death and into the freedom of God’s cruciform agape. May we, like David, repent of our attempts to descend into domination and possession and embrace the liberation in to loving that Christ has wrought. Captivity itself has been taken captive. Therefore let us rejoice!


July 20, 2009

Sex in Public

by Debra Dean Murphy
2 Samuel 11:1-15 (Eighth Sunday After Pentecost)

So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.

For the next two Sundays, churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary will hear the familiar story of David and Bathsheba—a cautionary tale often invoked to warn against the dangers of sexual temptation in our own time and/or to demonstrate the humanness of the oft-idealized King David in his.

It’s interesting to note the military context of David’s sexual conquest. It is the time of year, we are told, when “kings go out to battle.” But David, after dispatching his general, Joab, and all his officers and regiments to the front lines, “remained at Jerusalem.” While his troops are ravaging the Ammonites and besieging the city of Rabbah, King David—bored and gazing about the neighborhood—sets out to ravage and besiege the married Bathsheba, a woman of the Bible like so many others: silent and helplessly complicit in her own victimization.

The pregnancy that results from the illicit affair sets off a complex, immoral scheme to get David off the paternal hook. But because this story of adulterous sex is framed militarily, the solution David proposes—one that begins dreadfully and ends violently—is understood by him to be consistent with a maxim of ancient (and contemporary) military culture: do whatever is necessary for victory. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, “the premise of violence [in the framing of the sexual story] legitimates the violence of sexuality, the violence of cover-up, the violence of required killing.”

It will take Nathan, in next week’s installment of the story, to reveal that “the thing David had done was evil in the eyes of Yahweh." Nathan’s wise counsel will pierce David’s arrogance and his stunning ignorance of what his violence, in its many forms, has wrought.

The David and Bathsheba story begins with the lovely phrase: “In the spring of the year.” (Makes you think it’s going to be about lambs and singing birds, doesn’t it?). We are now in the summer of the year 2009 and the news of the sexual exploits of powerful men is as disheartening as ever. When the infidelities of famous politicians become common knowledge, public discourse resorts inevitably to the private language of lust, ambition, greed, and hubris. And because these media-hyped revelations are always politicized for partisan gain, the transgressor-adulterer du jour is either a fallible human being (if the guy is one of your own) or a betrayer and perverter of all things decent (if the scoundrel belongs to the other political party).

But to pose such matters as either public or private (or both), is to miss what social critic Wendell Berry calls the “indispensible form that can intervene between public and private interests”—that of community.

We might think that talking about sex-and-community doesn’t get us very far from the sex-in-public problem, but for Berry, sexual love is the heart of community life (an arguable point, perhaps, but stick with me here). By “community” Berry means, in short, an interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature sustained by the virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. (The preacher dealing with the texts this week might think here of the community of the ekklesia).

Within this kind of setting, sexual love, Berry insists, is the force that “connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.”

In “public,” sex is a commodity—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively (a way to sell more magazines, say, or to increase cable TV revenues). In community, sexual love is a “momentous giving” which depends, as Berry says, on the practice of love as opposed to the mere feeling of love. And the practice of love depends upon a range of other embodied habits—truthtelling, for instance, as well as friendship and accountability.

But feelings, as we know, are what we tend to prize most in the therapeutic culture we live in. In public, politicians air their private feelings, sometimes seeking forgiveness; sometimes just hoping for the chance to rescue their careers and reputations from the brink of ruin. We may be disgusted by the spectacle of it all, but it’s hard to turn away from the tearful, remorseful, feeling politician brought low.

King David’s private feelings certainly were the beginning of his very public troubles, and the violence he undertook to save his political skin was born of a view of bodies (women’s and men’s) as dispensable and disposable. That God had called into being a covenant community—Israel—to be the means through which all of Creation would glimpse divine love and glory was a truth David would learn in time. But this week and next we see the monumental failings of man consumed entirely with self-love and personal glory.

For our own time, the story of David and Bathsheba ought to function less as a vehicle for delivering isolated prohibitions about sex and more as a parable for our failure to locate sexual fidelity within a shared way of living and loving that resists all forms of violence and coercion, and that communicates something of the God who created us for community with himself and with one another. This kind of community, sustained by trust, patience, respect, friendship, and forgiveness—that is, by the practice of love—is what makes such fidelity not only intelligible but possible.


July 15, 2009

A Great Gathering

Thanks to everyone for a great gathering. One sign of how important our topics were is we began conversations much larger than we could carry on during the time allotted. We're hoping we can continue our work together through an ongoing sharing on bLogos and FB.

Wealth, especially money, divides the church. It can and does also become part of our sharing, our communion (koinonia). We'd be mistaken to try to create the fool-proof perfect system that will overcome sin and remove our need for mercy, patience, and hope in God's grace. But we can still share wisdom about how congregations can plant the kudzu of the kingdom. How, in this culture so saturated with the symbolic power of money, can we be people among whom wealth serves its proper ends? How do you talk about that in your congregation?

In short, in what ways has your community made wealth and poverty into occasions for reconciliation, supporting and building friendships, witnessing to the finitude of being creatures and the plenitude found in bearing the cross?


Paving Stones on the Road to Hell

Andrew Bacevich looks to novelist Graham Greene’s The Quiet American for insights on US Foreign Policy.


Crash Course

by Brian Volck
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, (53-56)

Richard Dawkins, the famed British scientist and atheist, believes in Progress (with a capital “P”). He concedes the Shoah was a “temporary setback” for humanity, but nothing to fret about in the long run. In his view of history, religious faith is in full rout (though still, to his mind, terribly dangerous), material welfare is on the rise, and goodness and peace are coming in every way. Supremely confident in the power of Science (with a capital “S”), Dawkins assures his readers that, “our brains…are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences.”

Progress has been a dogma of modernity since at least the time of Francis Bacon, and it has real staying power. It’s just a lot harder to believe in it now that Science and Technology (with a capital “T”) have shown themselves to be two-edged swords. To the extent human activity is warming the globe, the efficient cause is carbon-derived power, not prayer. Similarly, to imagine the manipulative scientific consciousness which produced the South Pole’s ozone hole and the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone will soon bring universal peace and prosperity is an illusion every bit as dangerous—and more immediately so—than the fanaticism Dawkins accuses theists of.

The readings this Sunday tell of rescue from the mess we’ve made of our lives, our relationships, our world. Our plans crack and crumble. Our shepherds have misled and scattered their flocks. We wander, confused, leaderless, lost. Our attempts at peace fail, shattering on stonewalls of enmity and the rocks of our clung-to differences. We need help.

I’ve noted here before that anyone who’s spent time with sheep knows being called “the sheep of His flock” is no complement. These readings are crash courses in humility. Our claims to “see into the future” are the na├»ve, self-consciously rebellious bragging of adolescent boys. The “long-term consequences of” today’s actions are obscure at best.

Peace is not just over the horizon. It needs far, far more than a chance. Nothing less than the reconciliation of the cross, we are told, makes it possible. The cross sure doesn’t look like capital “P” Progress to me and probably not to you, either. I suppose that’s why we need a shepherd.

To what unanticipated reconciliations have you been led? Where are you being led now?


July 02, 2009

Interdependence Day

by Brian Volck
Our good friends at Englewood Review of Books offer a timely reflection on ways to celebrate the interdependence characterizing the Body into which we are called. Shaine Claiborne found the idea compelling enough to comment on. Comments on both the above links lay out familiar positions to those who’ve participated in such conversations before.


July 01, 2009

Neither the Best Nor the Brightest

by Brian Volck
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

I’ve been married long enough now to understand how, in great ways and small, Hauerwas’ Law and its necessary Corollary apply to most committed relationships. The Law, in its most elegant formation, is: You always marry the wrong person. The Corollary: The wrong person is the right person.

In mysteries and sacraments (and my particular tradition considers marriage to be both), informed consent isn’t part of the package. Talk about a Kierkegaardian leap! Prenuptial legal agreements are for finger-crossers and crass pragmatists. If bride and groom had any real grasp of what they were getting into, who would go through with it?

God, though, presumably knew what disappointments lay ahead when he led a nation of slaves out of Egypt. And the Chosen People (A title which defies Enlightenment theories of meritocracy, since Voltaire and his descendents could never fathom what was so special about the Jews.) were good enough to document in scripture their recurring cycles of promise, failure and reconciliation.

What nation would inlcude nearly endless scenes of corporate infidelity (have you read Exodus or Numbers lately?) in its holiest book? What nation would call “prophet” a mentally unstable man who quotes God as saying, “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn.”(Ez. 2: 3-4)

And what was God thinking when he chose Paul, a one-time persecutor of the early Church and a man with “a thorn in the flesh,” as Apostle to the Gentiles? Wasn’t there an applicant with a better resume? And what of this curious scene in Mark’s gospel where Jesus can do no deed of power in his hometown? I know the old saw about God drawing straight with crooked lines, but this apparently brings the line to a halt.

One of the great sadnesses of history is that the Church has far too often been less forthcoming about its failures than have the Jews. Even those who get the idea fall all too quickly into the trap of separating sheep from goats. When I hear someone proclaim, “We are the Church,” which in my tradition is now used largely as a denunciation of hierarchy, my silent reaction is to think, “Yes, we are…and we suck.”

We in the Church Christ gathers, are generally a nation of rebels, impudent and stubborn. We repeatedly go whoring after idols of status, security and national pride or, out of false humility, fail to respond when we see members of the Body harm others and themselves.

And – here’s the catch – the Creator of the Universe chooses us to be His people, sending us into a world unarmed, scarcely ready, flawed, dependent. Loved for what we were created to be, not for what we do, we have no idea what we’re getting into. There are no pre-nups at baptism.

In short, we are the wrong people for the job. It’s God, not we and certainly not our accomplishments, who makes us the right people. Get that straight before you go about your business.