On two summer Sundays in 2012 (July 29 and August 5) I filled in at the Church of St Francis in the Wood in West Vancouver. The readings from the lectionary for each of those two Sundays offered the preacher an interesting choice. For July 29, I could choose either David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-5) or Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1-21). Then for August 5, I could choose either Nathan’s confrontation of David (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a) in relation to the murder, deceit, rape and adultery which the previous week’s reading had related, or the conversation between Jesus and the crowd which ends which his self-description as the Bread of Life (John 6:24-35).
So, which to preach on? I knew that whichever one I chose for the first week I would have to follow with its continuation the second week. At first I thought I would preach about David and Bathsheba, and I emailed a rabbi friend of mine to ask for a contemporary Jewish view of David, given his misdeeds. I didn’t hear back from him in time; and so I opted for the feeding of the 5000 and the Bread of Life. I did feel that in so doing I was being something of a chicken; but I justified my choice by telling myself that my friend hadn’t got back to me, and that in any case, this is a historical moment when we have to engage more strongly than we have been doing for some years with the person of Jesus himself.
Then on the evening of Sunday, August 5 (I know: too much church makes your eyes go funny), I went to Grandview Calvary Baptist Church for the 5:00 pm service—normal numbers around 125, average age 28 (!). Grandview is a one-of-a-kind church. I think of it as Bapto-Catholic, if there is such a thing. One of the many signs of this, I discovered, was that for the summer they are using the same lectionary as the mainline churches; and the preacher of the day, Joy Banks, pastor of the morning congregation, had chosen the reading about Nathan’s confrontation of David to preach from.
(Epiphany! The difference between “preach on” and “preach from.” Preach on–you tell them what you know about the passage, you show off your knowledge—ouch! Preach from—you try to bring out of the reading what it is saying. I do note that I used “preach on” earlier in this post. Hmmm.)
Joy took an approach to the text which had not occurred to me, but which made perfect sense—speaking truth to power. David was all-powerful in the Israel of the time; Nathan was a prophet, with no support base so far as we know. Once David had realized that Nathan knew about Bathsheba and that he was invoking God’s judgment on David’s actions, there was nothing preventing David from disposing of Nathan quickly and quietly. But the parable Nathan told (if you haven’t read the passage yet, read it now) had activated David’s sense of fairness and outrage; and when Nathan said “You are the man!” David was instantly convicted of his sins. (Psalm 51, according to tradition, is David’s statement of repentance.)
(Second epiphany! Leonard Cohen, if I may respectfully dare to say so, got it wrong; at least, what he says about David and Bathsheba, in the second stanza of his great song “Hallelujah,” doesn’t match scripture. It’s the only stanza of the song in which he addresses David, and in it he assigns agency in the incident to Bathsheba, not David. Here are his words.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
The whole sordid sequence, in other words, was her fault, for being beautiful—a classic patriarchal justification. And the reference to moonlight is pure poetic license; the text gives the time as “late one afternoon” (2 Samuel 11:2).
Back to the sermon. We were then invited to respond to what we had heard—by speaking truth to power ourselves. Joy spoke of her deep concern over the recent passing of Bill C-31, which seriously restricts the rights of refugees—claimants, including children, to be imprisoned; unreasonably short times available for claimants to collect documents). Grandview is a church with a long history of refugee support, and the sermon acted this out in a number of ways.
First, we were invited, when we came up for communion, to lay down a small rock which we were supposed to have picked up as we entered (I hadn’t noticed; so I went back to pick one up). The rock was intended to recall the words of Jesus to the accusers of the woman “taken in adultery” (John 7:53-8:11), “That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone” (v. 7, NEB). The preacher’s point was that “our call to live with a prophetic imagination and to confront the powers of darkness is also the call to confront the darkness within, to recognize that we too have sinned”—in other words, to stay aware of the possibility of self-righteousness. Ouch: OK.
Then we went over to a table on which there were pieces of paper on which were printed, in very large type, verses from the Hebrew Bible about refugees. I chose the one which quoted Leviticus 19:33:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (some translations say “stranger” instead of “alien”).
We then went over to another table on which stood a birdcage, out of which we took a tea-light, which we lit from the Christ-candle lit at the beginning of the service, to represent the liberation of refugees from the “cage” of regulations and restrictions which confines them. Beside the cage stood a lino-cut (Joy is an outstanding artist) of a woman and child in a small boat, the woman with her head covered. Is she a Muslim? Or perhaps we are seeing here Mary and Jesus, who at one point were also refugees (cf. Matthew 2:13-23).
Then the clincher. Holding the paper with the biblical statement in front of us, we were photographed (people had the choice not to be photographed if they didn’t want to be). The photographs will be made into a video which will be sent to Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism as a protest against Bill C-31.
I was impressed and moved. A word of justice from 3000 years ago had been heard afresh in 2012. It didn’t require as much courage from us as Nathan needed in order to confront David, but it pointed us in the same direction—speaking truth to power. My sense is that in the coming years in Canada, there will be no shortage of such opportunities.