Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
February 21, 2016
Sermon Text – Ephesians 4: 14-16, 25-32 and 2 Samuel 12:1-7a
I bet many of us have seen a bumper sticker like this one, haven’t we? (If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.) So true, right? I mean, there are a countless number of things that make me outraged: Toddlers trekking across dangerous lands and oceans to escape violent regimes, only to be imprisoned or turned away. Governors and other elected leaders who seem to live in some kind of fantasyland where education budgets can be cut and cut and cut. People who show up for political rallies where the candidates preach hate and ignorance. Knowing that so many in our nation cannot access even the basic physical and mental health care that they need. Thinking about the horrors of abuse….the abuse of children, adults, those who are elderly or differently-abled, the tragedies that come when substance abuse kills or maims. The thought of people being mistreated by police or the criminal justice system. The knowledge that modern-day slavery is still very much a thing, but that we often don’t recognize it because it goes by other names. The sadness and bitter anger that bubbles to the surface when I think about LGBT people who have died by suicide because they were told over and over that something was wrong with them.
I could go on and on and on. I know you could, too.
There are many horrors in the year 2016. Many, many things to kindle our fires of outrage. I don’t need a bumper sticker to remind me of this.
And we are not so unique in human history. I mean, sure, several of our presidential candidates seem unbelievable. And many of our elected officials are absolutely maddening. But there have been terrible leaders in every age.
Just look at today’s lection from the Hebrew Bible. Here we have the mighty and great King David. He has recently decided that the wives (yes, plural) he has are not quite enough for him. And he’s been keeping an eye on one of his neighbors, Bathsheba, as she bathes on her rooftop each day. Since he’s the king, he feels pretty entitled. And since he’s living in a man’s world, he sees no problem taking what he wants. He wants Bathsheba. Wants to own her as if she were a little lamb.
And so he sends for her. And she is brought to him. But there is a problem. She is married. Which, in her culture, essentially means she is already owned by another man. Luckily for King David, there are many people who are willing to keep secrets for kings, so probably no one will ever know.
Except….Bathsheba becomes pregnant. King David is smart, though. He knows how to fix this. He sends for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to come back from the war. If Uriah visits Bathsheba then they can just pretend the baby is his. No one will ever know.
Except…Uriah never goes to visit his wife when he comes back to Jerusalem. King David is smart, though. He knows how to fix this. He has Uriah killed.
And when Bathsheba heard that her husband has died, she makes lamentation for him. And King David sends for her and she becomes his wife. And she bears him a son.
This story makes me mad. Like, jumping up and down turning red in the face mad. I would use stronger language if I weren’t in the pulpit. And you know what else makes me mad? That when I was taught about King David as a child he was supposed to be this great guy….and that Bathsheba was like some princess who fell in love with him. But when you read it on the page….well, that is so clearly not the case.
King David may have been smart, but he had a few other, less redeeming qualities. Those closest to him knew this…including the prophet Nathan, who is the star of today’s story.
We are told that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord and the Lord send Nathan to David.” Nathan tells David this clever little parable of sorts. And David, smart though he was, is too dumb to see what’s right in front of him: the story is about him. Nathan has to spell it out for him: “Dude. YOU are the man in my story. How can you not see it?” And then David does see it. He sees his sin.
This story makes for some great drama. I get all worked up just thinking about how angry this story makes me. And I probably wouldn’t have done nearly as well as as Nathan did confronting the King. I guess that’s why he’s a famous Biblical prophet and I’m just….me.
I share Bathsheba and Uriah’s story to show that we aren’t all that special. People in power have always done horrific things. And they’ve always relied on their closest advisors to try to keep them in check. Nothing is new under the sun. The details just change.
And regardless of what you believe or where you find yourself on the political spectrum, there will never be any shortage of things that cause outrage. And outrage sells. Just take a look at every mainstream media outlet (pro tip: I gave up on televised news over a decade ago and have never looked back. My blood pressure thanks me.) Now we even have the ability to express our outrage with a quick hover and click of a button on Facebook. Groovy!
The problem, of course, is that all this outrage isn’t really very helpful. There ARE productive ways to channel our anger, but it’s a hard thing to do. And in the midst of all the shouting and name-calling, it can be hard to find a way forward.
And so…if you are still looking for a spiritual practice for your 2016 Lenten journey, might I suggest giving up unhelpful outrage and, instead, sticking your head under a rock at least until the Presidential election is over?
Oh, wait. That’s not quite what I said was the title of this week’s sermon. Let me double-check that in the bulletin. Ahhh. Here it is. I stand corrected. Might I suggest “giving up unhelpful outrage and, instead, learn to speak the truth in love?”
Gah! Whose idea is that?!? That sounds really hard. Couldn’t we just live in blissful ignorance instead? Or just keep smiling and pretending like everything will be okay? Look for the best in others? Trust God to fix everything?
Unfortunately, the letter to the Church at Ephesus has a different suggestion. Apparently, we’re supposed to GROW UP. We’re supposed to try to speak the truth in love and, in doing so, we will be growing up, in every way, into the one who is our leader – Jesus Christ.
Since this is much easier said than done, I want to give you a real life illustration. Earlier this week I got a text from Heidi. She gave me permission to share this story with you, by the way.
So Heidi had spent a couple of hours at a local coffee shop – alone – and you know how it is when you’re alone in public and can’t help overhearing the conversation next to you? Well, that was Heidi’s morning. And there were two people next to her, one of whom was attempting to disciple the other one – teach him how to lead a Bible study, teach him how to follow Jesus. Which is cool.
The un-cool part was that this guy was also saying a lot of rude and disparaging things along the way. He would talk about following Jesus a bit and then say some mean stuff about his professors….about women….about his parents. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I know that if someone like Heidi was mad enough to confront him, it must have been pretty egregious. And Heidi was mad. If she had had a Facebook button she might have clicked “angry.”
Instead, what she did was try to speak the truth in love.
She wrote a note to this man. She told him that she, too, was trying really hard to follow Jesus and that it was troubling to her that he was saying so many unkind things in public about other people….while also leading a Bible study at the same time. She told him that she wanted to challenge him to think about how those things – following Christ and saying mean things about other people – go together. And she closed the note saying “Good luck with your journey – may you find a way to be a blessing.”
Now, we have no idea how this guy received the note. He was probably furious. He may have ripped it up or had a laugh. Or maybe, just maybe, her words gave him pause. Maybe he really will take the opportunity to look more closely at how his values and actions line up.
Regardless, here’s what I know happened before Heidi wrote this note. And I know this just because I know the kind of person Heidi is. I know that she prayed about it before her pen touched the paper. And I know that she tried to very carefully put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice – even if she was shaking a bit in her anger. I know she was doing her level best to be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving. She remembered that we are all members of one another. She tried to do what was useful – what might have a hope for building up a better world. And when her pen touched the paper, it did so connected to love….and with hope.
When we hear the phrase “speak the truth in love” we probably think about literally speaking. Like Nathan did. But speaking doesn’t have to be a conversation. There are many other ways to speak.
Heidi spoke through the written word. And I think there is something that is often very helpful about organizing one’s thoughts on paper before saying them out loud. Sometimes saying it in writing can even be the best way to go. I do think, though, that, when possible, the ideal is to offer feedback within the context of a relationship and in a way that allows for ongoing dialogue. Heidi didn’t really have that option, of course, so she did the next-best thing. But when we DO know a person, we need to speak the truth within the context of our relationship, which typically means we shouldn’t give anonymous feedback – whether it comes second or third hand or in the form of a letter. You just can’t DO much with anonymous feedback because there’s no way to respond. But a signed note within the context of a relationship can be a beautiful way to speak the truth in love.
I am also reminded of other ways of speaking. I’m reminded of Bree Newsome scaling the flag pole at the capitol building in South Carolina and removing the Confederate Flag. Ms. Newsome was speaking the truth in love. She was filled with dignity and grace. She even prayed as she did this brave thing. Sometimes actions can speak the truth even more loudly than words.
And I am reminded of Beyonce’s new video for Formation, which caused such a stir when it was released a few weeks ago. It’s a complex video and the reactions to it have been complex. We don’t have time to get into all of that today. But I am thinking, in particular, of the scene with the little black boy in a hoodie dancing in front of a long line of white cops dressed in riot gear. He dances and dances. He’s just this beautiful child reveling in the beauty of being alive. And then this long line of cops dressed in riot great put their hands up in response to the little black boy in a hoodie who is dancing. Without a word, this image speaks the truth in a powerful way. Art can be a medium for speaking the truth in love.
However you speak best, I invite you during this Lenten season to find your voice. I invite you to put away childish and unproductive anger…or at least to hone and craft it carefully until all bitterness and wrath are gone. And then to speak – loudly and clearly with a heart full of love. And may our words build up the entire beloved world as we walk together towards God’s reign of justice and peace for all.
May it be so.