The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12), 29 July 2018

July 29, 2018 | by Nichole Torbitzky

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
2 Samuel 11:1-5 [Psalm 14] Ephesians 3:14-21 John 6:1-21

2 Samuel 11:1-5
No telling of the story of David would be complete without the lurid story of the rape of Bathsheba.  All too often, interpretations of this story cast Bathsheba as a temptress who purposefully sets herself on a roof to bathe, inviting an unwitting king to lose control.  A bigger load of hogwash can only be found in a few other interpretations (and most of those have to do with casting women as whores and harlots when the text says no such thing).  The story goes that David sent his general, Joab, out to wage war against the Ammonites. Uriah the Hittite went out with Joab to fight. Uriah left his wife, Bathsheba behind. Joab left his king, David behind.  After his afternoon nap, David went for a walk on his roof. From his roof, he could see Bathsheba bathing on her roof, engaging in the necessary purity ritual of bathing after one’s menstrual cycle ends. It seems as if interpreters happily accept David going for a walk on his roof, but condemn Bathsheba for using hers.  As it turns out, houses in this time and culture often used roofs as outdoor kitchens, living space, and of course, washing-up space. It would not have been at all unusual for either of these people to be carrying out their daily lives on their roofs.

David, rather than turn away from peeping-tom on a woman in her bath, takes up an interest in her because she is beautiful.  He sends messengers to inquire about her and finds out that she is, in fact, married. The text says that the king sent for her, she came at his command, and he had sex with her.  No woman in Bathsheba’s position (nor almost any woman in that day and age…or this) can tell a king no. When a woman is not allowed to tell a potential partner no, that sexual encounter is rape.  Many may object with the question, “What if she wanted this?” Bathsheba’s thoughts and feelings on this encounter, like so many rape victims, are silenced. The circumstances of the text indicate that Bathsheba would have no way to say no to a command of the king, and as such, this stands as a story of rape.  Like so many men over the years, David’s story is interpreted as that of a hapless fool, overcome by lust, accompanied by the victim blaming rhetoric that ‘she was asking for it.’ Bathsheba ends up pregnant by her rapist, widowed by her rapist, and mourning the death of her son because of her rapist.

How to preach this story?  Preach it head on. Give Bathsheba a voice.  By doing so, give a voice to all of the rape victims that have been silenced.  The statistics on rape in the US say that 1 in 6 women have been raped and 1 in 33 men.  Someone in your congregation, dear preacher, has been the victim of sexual violence. Someone in your congregation needs to hear you say that rape is a sin, even for kings, even when she was bathing on her roof.  Someone in your congregation needs to hear that God knows their pain, condemns the violence perpetrated against them, and refuses to leave them alone and stuck in that violence and pain. I can say from experience that this is not an easy sermon to preach.  I can also say from experience that preaching the truth of the violence of this passage made a change for the better in my congregation. Both men and women approached me for weeks, and even years, after to tell their stories, to ask for healing, to seek release, to offer forgiveness and, in some cases, to confess their sin and ask for forgiveness.  

Ephesians 3:14-21
The text for this Sunday is a prayer for the reader. The prayer asks for blessings that seem normal, even passé to us now, but would have been fresh, if not novel, to the first people to hear this letter.  It ends with a doxology praising the power of God to grant all this and more. The requests in this prayer build on one another. First, the author asks for power through the Spirit to strengthen the believer’s inner being.  This inner strength is a gift of the Spirit that opens the way for the second request, that Christ may dwell in the believer’s heart by faith. One’s ability to provide a dwelling place for Christ requires both the power of the Spirit and the faith of the believer.  Both God’s grace and our will make us prime real estate for Christ. Then, the author prays that the believer has the power to comprehend, “the breadth and lengthen and height and depth.” The text does not describe precisely to what these refer, but it draws to mind Romans 8:38-39.  It may be safe to assume that these words draw a picture of the vastness of God and God’s love for us. It may also allude to the mystery of God, the paradox of Jesus, and the transgressive nature of the early church. Finally, the author prays that we have the power to comprehend the love of Christ, which, paradoxically, surpasses all knowledge and fills us with the fullness of God.

What a request!  The author prays for the fullness of God for each of us.  Perhaps this is simply metaphor; perhaps this is the author’s prayer for theosis.  Perhaps this is not metaphor, but a prayer that believers reach our full human potential, not to be God, but to be filled with the fullness of God.  This is not something we accomplish alone. In order to know the fullness of God, we need the presence of the Spirit and the indwelling of Christ. Only by these can we know the love of Christ, which is the fullness of God.  

The prayer ends with praise for God who has the power to do all of this.  Indeed God does. In each moment of our coming into being, God offers grace for that moment.  This grace offers each moment a vision of what it can become at its best. This reaching out is called grace, but it can also be called an action of the Spirit.  Choosing to fulfill the best possible, is making ourselves a dwelling place for Christ. The more we do this, the more often we choose to make ourselves a dwelling place for Christ in each of our moments, the more we will now the vastness of God, the paradoxes, and mostly, the love of Christ.  The more we follow and fulfill God’s vision for each of our moments, the more we will know the fullness of God. The great hymn, “God’s Eye Is on the Sparrow” comes to mind here. God is present with us in each moment of our becoming through the Spirit, urging us toward the best, offering us Christ, inviting us to know and fulfill the love of Christ and the fullness of God.  

John 6:1-21
If you have been preaching the Gospels this Season after Pentecost, you may notice that the lectionary cycle switches from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John.  The switch is not abrupt. John’s text for today tells a different version of the stories skipped in last Sunday’s texts (Proper 11), the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water stories.  John’s version of these stories tends to be a little more flattering to the disciples, and he adds details like verse 6:15 where Jesus evades a forceful attempt to make him king. (It might be interesting to note to your congregation that Jesus was not interested in setting himself up as head of a political system.  It might be even more interesting to suggest that perhaps Christianity is not or should not be a political system.)

If this telling of feeding the 5000 reminds you of communion, you would be in good company.  John tells us that it is near Passover when Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and gave them to the people.  This should sound a great deal like Jesus’ last supper, which was also near the Passover, where he also took a loaf, gave thanks, and gave it to the disciples.  In a twist on the storytelling, here the people want to make him king, later the people want him crucified. Either way, Jesus invites the people to fullness of life and the promises of Heaven, and they fail to understand the vast and satiating good he offers.

Jesus and the disciples have left their boat and gone up a mountain, and they see that the people have followed, nearly 5,000 of them.  That is a huge crowd! Even by today’s standards. The people persistently follow Jesus because they saw the signs he was doing for the sick.  In John, ‘signs’ are the miracles that Jesus performs that signal both who Jesus is and reciprocally, who God is. The people follow Jesus around because so many people need healing.  The story does not say why Jesus feels obligated to feed all of these people. However, they all need to eat and Jesus takes up the challenge. At least one child had the foresight to pack food along; we can only speculate why no one else did.  However, thankfully, one child did have the good sense to bring along five barley loaves and two fish. Barley is the first grain crop to come to harvest in the spring in Palestine. It is generally associated with the poor and animal feed. The rich would have enough wheat stores that they would still be eating wheat-based bread around Passover.  Poor citizens, those without the ability to buy and store so much wheat, would be eating the recently harvested barley.

The disciples help Jesus get the people settled.  He takes, gives thanks, and distributes the loaves and fish the boy initially offered.  (I wish the gospel told the story of how the boy came to make that donation.) When all 5,000 people are satisfied, Jesus instructs the disciples to gather up the leftovers.  What remains is more than what they started with by more than double. The people are amazed at this sing and come close to understanding whom they are dealing with recognizing Jesus as “the prophet.”  However, they miss the point when they attempt to force Jesus to become king.

The eschaton had drawn near, and they had missed it.  Want to have a taste of what Heaven will be like? Envision 5,000 hungry, sick, aimless people, gathered on a hillside, fed by the generosity of one small boy, and ending up with more than enough to spare.  I recently ran across an article by the non-profit NGO Oxfam detailing how the yearly income of wealthiest 100 people was enough to end global poverty four times over. That means that if the wealthiest 100 people in the world donated just one year of their salaries, we could end poverty. Stories like this are basically click-bait.  Not that I have any problem with Oxfam’s mission.  It is our Christian obligation to feed the hungry (cf. Matthew 25:35; Luke 3:11; James 2:15-16 among others).  While I would like to see the 100 wealthiest people share just a bit of their abundance, Jesus nowhere commands us to self-righteously judge the wealthy for not sharing their abundance.  That gets no one anywhere. It might just be a way to shift the responsibility. Instead, it is us, those who follow Jesus, who get to catch that glimpse of the perfection of Heaven. Jesus invites those who eat barley and catch their own fish to share what they can. Most people reading this and the majority of the people you reach each Sunday, dear preacher, do not fall among the 100 richest.  Yet, many will have a morsel to share. In an interview with Atlantic Monthly in 1936, Whitehead says, “No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individuality of his rowing.” He echoes Jesus’ actions here. Together, we truly can bring the Realm of Heaven close.

Two parables may work as good sermon illustrations.  Below is a clumsy retelling of each, more elegant tellings can be easily googled with a few keywords.  The first is an old classic, “Stone Soup.” It is a tale about a hungry traveler refused hospitality by poor townsfolk worried for their own survival.  The ingenious traveler gets himself a good meal by making stone soup, offering to share his bounty with the townsfolk, and suggesting that the soup would be just that much better if a little carrot, potato, onion, chicken, etc., could be added to the pot.  Soon the traveler and the townsfolk have a rich and hearty soup when each shared just a little of their own meager stocks.

Another parable sometimes called the “Parable of the Long Spoons,” may also serve as a good illustration.  The story goes that a man asks God to show him what Heaven and Hell look like. God obliges and shows him two doors.  Behind the first door lies a banquet hall full of tables laden to buckling with rich and delicious food. The people seated at the tables are starving waifs, miserable and despairing.  Their arms end in spoons, but they have no elbows and cannot bend to get the sumptuous meal into their mouths. Then, God shows the man to the second room. Behind that door lay an identical hall filled with delicious food of every kind, and at the tables sat people with spoons for hands, but no elbows just like the previous room.  These people were well fed and joyful. When he looked closer, he saw that the difference lay in their behavior. The people in this room fed one another.

If you are so inclined, be prepared to kick off a food drive for your local food pantry.  Your local pantry will also be able to give statistics on how many people, families, children they serve, and what items they need most.

Nichole Torbitzky received a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA and her Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions of subjective form and the internal relations subjective form has on the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God. Torbitzky is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University and teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, Indian Religions, History of Christianity, and Women and Religion.