Sunday, July 29, 2012

Great power - Great responsibility (J. Barry Vaughn. July 29, 2012)

King David is one of the most vivid and lifelike figures in the entire Bible. If you envision the Bible as a vast painting, the figures most likely to catch your eye would be Moses, David, perhaps the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Mary – the mother of Jesus – Jesus, and Paul.

David is one of the most believable figures in the Bible because he is presented as fully human.

First, he has fully human desires and needs. The Book of Psalms was attributed to David. Even though I do not personally believe that David wrote the entire psalter, there is no doubt that he was a skilled musician. The author of First Samuel tells us that “And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”

Secondly, David is also presented as a person capable of extraordinary courage. As a very young man, he kills the Philistine warrior Goliath with a stone from his sling.  First Samuel also tells us that David was such a skilled warrior that Saul put him in charge of all his soldiers.

Thirdly, David is presented as someone capable of enormous love. The Bible says that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” When Jonathan is killed in battle, David laments his death, saying, “ I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan… your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women…”

Finally, David is also presented as a deeply flawed human being. First Samuel also describes David as a “man after [God’s] own heart.” How can a “man after God’s own heart” do the things we see him doing in today’s Old Testament reading?

One of the things that emerges most clearly not only from the Bible but also from any reading of human history is that great leaders are capable not only of great good but also great evil.

In today’s Old Testament reading we are told that “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.” In other words, David was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We know what happened when David did not lead his troops into battle at the time “when kings go out to battle.” But why do you suppose he did not go with him? Did David feel that he had arrived, that he had done all that he was supposed to do? Or did he stay behind hoping to catch a glimpse of his lovely neighbor Bathsheba?

Often it is in the very moment of success that we undermine ourselves. Think of Richard Nixon. I’m no great fan of Nixon, but there is little doubt that he was one of America’s most intelligent presidents. And in spite of his multiple failings, Nixon achieved some great things: he established strong standards for clean air and water, and he reestablished diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. And after he left the presidency he wrote several important books about American foreign policy and even advised his successors in the White House. But in spite of the fact that he knew that his re-election was a virtual certainty, he authorized illegal surveillance of the Democratic National Committee, and we all know about the tragedy of Watergate that followed.

The story of David is even more sordid than Watergate. David not only commits adultery with Bathsheba; he arranges for the murder of her husband Uriah.

The contrast between Uriah and David could not be more stark. Uriah is presented as loyal to a fault. When Uriah returns from battle, he does not go home to his wife as David hopes he will, he remains as close to his king as possible. Finally, in desperation David orders that Uriah be put on the frontline where death in battle is almost a certainty.

What are we to make of this  hero who is guilty of both adultery and murder?

I think the first lesson for us to take away is this: All of us have both Goliath moments and Uriah moments.

A Goliath moment is when in spite of our weakness, we reach down deep within ourselves and find a power that we did not know was there. In a moment of weakness we find the strength to do things we thought were beyond our power. When confronted with a great challenge we find the strength to meet and overcome that challenge.

But we also have Uriah moments. Like David we have moments when we believe that we have arrived or that we have accomplished all that we have set out to do, when we are coasting along, confident in ourselves, believing that we are the lords of all we survey, masters of the universe. And it is precisely in those moments that we are most vulnerable. To quote “Spiderman,” with great power comes great responsibility.

We may be able to see this more in the history of institutions and nations than in the lives of individuals. At the end of the 19th century, Great Britain ruled the world. For the most part, they ruled wisely and well. In many ways they left India and Africa better than they were before. They built schools and railways. They established the rule of law and built up a strong civil service in the countries they ruled. But they also committed great crimes.

And what was true of the British empire is equally true of the American empire. We have only to think of Vietnam to see the truth of that.

The child abuse scandals involving Penn State University and the Roman Catholic Church are perfect examples of Uriah moments. Persons with great power misused their power in the most dreadful way. They abused the most vulnerable persons among us.

But we have to do today not with institutions but with persons – with King David and with ourselves.

Another lesson I take away from this sordid tale of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba is this: While great crimes undoubtedly tarnish the image of great men and women, it is also wrong to forget the good they accomplished.

Humorist Ambrose Bierce said that a saint is only a dead sinner who has been revised and edited. There is a lot of truth in that.

Several years ago I read a controversial biography of the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis. It was controversial because it presented Lewis not as a saint in a stained glass window but as a real human being capable of anger, a man who did not suffer fools. But after reading the biography, I admired Lewis more, not less. I saw him as someone I could aspire to be, who did good things in spite of great flaws.

I think also of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man I admire for his courage and his consistent practice of nonviolent resistance in the face of prejudice and violent racism even though his weaknesses and flaws were manifold.

Even though David did not write the entire book of Psalms, there are two psalms that I feel certain go back to David himself.

The first is the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

The second is Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

The Bible holds up a mirror to our lives. It shows us men and women like ourselves in our strength and weakness, glory and shame. It challenges us to look within ourselves, to take a long, hard, and honest inventory or our lives.

We need to look honestly at our strength. The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God, that there is a goodness in the human heart, a light in the soul that cannot be extinguished.

But the Bible also tells us that we are fallen, weak, limited, and finite. It tells us that we may very well use our power to harm and even kill.

But the Bible tells us that there is a remedy when we use our power to harm. It tells us that God is ever ready to forgive, heal, restore and redeem.

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. 15 O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. 16 For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage (J. Barry Vaughn, July 8, 2012)

When April with his showers, sweet with fruit,

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower…

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,

To distant shrines well-known in sundry lands

And specially from every shire’s end.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to visit one of the most visited of medieval shrines – the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, an archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by knights of King Henry II in the 12th c in a dispute over the relative powers of church and state. Sounds positively modern!!

Chaucer was a shrewd observer of human nature and understood that not all of his pilgrims were there for spiritual reasons. Some were going to make money; some just to have a good time; some of them were just on vacation!

But Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales speak to something that I think is fundamental to human nature – the belief that some places are holy, that we are closer to God in some places rather than others.

Some of us experience the presence of God in places of extraordinary natural beauty, such as the Grand Canyon or the Smoky Mountains or near the ocean. Some of us feel God to be near when we are in great and ancient cathedrals.

For some it is as simple as a place where we went fishing as a child or where we met the love of our life.

Many are overcome by awe when they visit places such as the Civil War battle field of Manasses or Gettysburg or even the beaches of Normandy. We are overwhelmed when we think that so many were willing to give their lives in defense of their country and to secure the freedom of people in countries which they had never even seen and whose languages they could not speak.

Sometimes these holy places make us feel as Paul did that we were “caught up to the third heaven-- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know….” That we were “caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat…”

Some say that there are “thin places”, places where the barrier between heaven and earth, the divine and human, is very, very thin, places like the one where Jacob saw the ladder joining heaven and earth on which angels walked up and down.

They say that India is the world’s most religious country, and I suspect that is true. It is certainly full of holy places. The Indian tradition is to remove one’s shoes when one enters a holy place, and we were constantly taking our shoes off and putting them back on.

If any place in the world is holy, then surely it is the city of Jerusalem. Medieval maps place Jerusalem in the center of the world, a geographical fallacy but a spiritual truth because any place we encounter God becomes the center of the world for us.

Today’s OT reading gives us some insight into the history of Jerusalem but is a little confusing. It tells us that David occupies a place called “the city of David” but also seizes the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and that he rules over the united kingdom of Israel for 33 years.

It may be that the “city of David” and Jerusalem were geographically very close but not quite the same place. Today the Palestinian village of Silwan is identified as the “City of David.” It is located just below the Temple platform on the lower slope of Mt Zion.

Perhaps David and his people occupied the city of David before launching their attack to seize Jerusalem proper on the slope above their encampment.

Regardless, the reading from 2 Samuel tells us that Jerusalem is an ancient place.

It was a Jebusite city before it was an Israelite city. Undoubtedly, it was selected because it is easy to defend. The ancient city of Jerusalem is located on Mt Zion. There are deep  valleys on its east and west that converge at the south end of the city. In other words, Jerusalem is located on a relatively high hill shaped like the point of a spear. The only place from which it can easily be attacked is on the north, and that is the place where Jerusalem has been attacked many times throughout the centuries.

However, there may be more to Jerusalem than just its military significance. David made it not only his political capital; he also made it Israel’s religious capital. In next week’s OT reading we will hear how David moved the ark of the covenant, the ornate box containing the tables of the law that Mose received from God, to Jerusalem.

It could be that Jerusalem was already a holy place, that it was also a center of the Jebusite religion.

Regardless, these stories tell us that for 3000 years people have worshiped God in Jerusalem. It is not difficult to understand that when you visit Jerusalem.

First, it is a physically beautiful setting. The high hills and deep valleys around Jerusalem lift the spirit.

Second, Jerusalem is built from something called Jerusalem stone, a kind of limestone that reflects light in a soft and beautiful way, especially in the evening. At communion we will sing “Jerusalem the Golden” by the medieval mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux. Israelis also sing a folk song called “Jerusalem the Golden”. We sing these songs because Jerusalem often has a kind of golden glow.

All of these things have pulled spiritual people to Jerusalem over the centuries. But this has also made Jerusalem a place of conflict.

It is a city holy to three faiths – Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And no one knows how to fight like religious people.

David seized it from the Jebusites in the 11th c BC. The Seleucid Greeks occupied it in the 4th c BC. The Romans destroyed it in the 2nd c AD. They left not one of its ancient buildings standing and rebuilt it as a Roman city that they called Aelia Capitolina. They even put a temple to Venus where the Temple of Herod had stood. Then the Muslims seized it in the 7th c.

Perhaps the most violent group that conquered Jerusalem were the Christians. In the 12th c Christians calling themselves Crusaders which means knights or soldiers of the Cross conquered Jerusalem after a siege of 100 days. Many residents of Jerusalem died of hunger and thirst during the siege. But the Crusaders put the remaining people of Jerusalem to death by the sword, not distinguishing between Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. One chronicler says that the blood in the streets flowed as high as a horse’s chest. Apparently it was a Crusader who coined the phrase, “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.”

I could go on about the history of Jerusalem but the point is that it has always been a city of conflict and continues to be one.

But the point I want to make is this: Are there holy places? Are some places thin? Are we closer to God in some places than others?

In the 4th chapter of John Jesus encounters a woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well. She tries to distract him by engaging him in a conversation about where the appropriate place to worship God is. She says that her people, the Samaritans, worship God in Samaria but the Jews say that one should worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus says, “…the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 

In other words, God is everywhere. There is no place where God is not, no place where we may not be surprised to find God present with us.

I visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1985. I expected to be powerful moved by the holy places but I did not have any epiphanies or visions and I felt a little disappointed. Nevertheless, I fell in love with Jerusalem. What attracted me to it was its antiquity and history, with the many cultures, languages and peoples that swirled through its streets. But I did not feel the presence of God more strongly there than in other places.

After I got over my initial disappointment, I found the realization strangely comforting because I realized that God is present everywhere and that God is no more present in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than God is present here in St. Alban’s.

The English theologian Esther deWaal wrote a book about the Rule of St. Benedict, the fundamental set of rules that guides western monasticism. One of the rules is the rule of stability. Monks are supposed to commit themselves to one community for the rest of their lives.

DeWaal illustrated the rule by talking about people who go around seeking the perfect church and are never satisfied. She says that the rule of stability means that if I don’t find God here in this place and among these people, then I am unlikely to find God anywhere.

We all have holy places and that’s a good thing. We need to visit them from time to time and to remember the way that we experienced God there. But we should also remember that Birmingham may be just as holy as Jerusalem, that God is here and everywhere and that if the light is just right and we tilt our heads at just the right angle, we may see angels ascending and descending on that ladder that reaches from earth to heaven and back again.