Sunday, July 29, 2012

We elect leaders, not messiahs

Art by Lika Tova
Today's lessons are 2 Samuel 11:1-15Psalm 145: 10-19Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-21     (warning: 2 Samuel contains adult content)

Here is my sermon from today:

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“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This story today of King David and Bathsheba might not be exactly what the prophets had in mind when they penned those words.

If anyone tells you the Bible is boring, I would invite them to go back and read the Old Testament lesson from Second Samuel today. Please note that it has adult content that might make a sailor wince.

I must admit, as our able staff will tell you, that in a moment of squeamishness – or prudishness – I almost substituted a tamer, G-Rated Old Testament lesson for this one.

But then Pastor Heather told me her Bible study group wanted to know what the preacher would do with this one.

So I’m stuck with this.

I’m not sure I will meet their challenge adequately, but there are a couple of places I want to go with this in the sermon today.

To set scene of this melodrama, we have the handsome – and power hungry – King David; the unsuspecting warrior Uriah; and Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.King David spies Bathsheba bathing in the nude, and so he has his servants bring her to him whereupon he gets her pregnant.

What is King David to do? He sends Uriah into battle, and sets it up so he will be killed. Uriah dies and King David adds Bathsheba to his collection of wives. Please note: King David has broken at least three commandments: envy, adultery and murder.

You may ask, why on earth is this in the Bible? And what does it have to do with us?

The short answer is that it harkens back to the sage Samuel who warned the people of Israel about the nature of kings. Israel begged for a king. Fine, said Samuel, you will get one. But beware of what you ask for.

King David is remembered a great and clever warrior and king. He unites Israel. But he is a deeply flawed human being. The biblical authors put this here as a cautionary tale about kings – even the good ones.

Our trust – our faith – must be in the God of all creation, the one who can reach all people. Our faith must be in the God who reaches us not as a powerful world ruler or warrior king, but as the one who finds us in our weakest, most vulnerable moments and shows us a path to healing and wholeness.

You might have noticed a line in the Gospel of John this morning when the people try to make Jesus into a worldly king.

“He withdrew to again to the mountain by himself,” the gospel says. Jesus wants nothing to do with holding political power.

These are perhaps cautionary tales for this election year. Human beings – not messiahs – are running for office.

We elect our leaders, with all their flaws, and they reflect us, with all of our flaws.

We need to see political leaders not as messiahs, but as fellow human beings, and hold them accountable for their actions as we hold ourselves accountable.


One response is the temptation to find a mountain somewhere that we can withdraw to all by ourselves. But to do so would be to ignore the pain of our world.

The other path, the path of prophets and Jesus himself – is to engage the world not from a place of power, but from a place of vulnerability.

To paraphrase the prophet Micah, we need to ask of our leaders: Do they bring justice for all, and not just the powerful?

Are they merciful to the most vulnerable, or only protecting their friends?

And are they walking humbly with their Creator, or do they only lust for power?

Fine. But how do we figure this out as faithful people?

Many of us have seen, with great revulsion, the demagoguery on both the Left and Right that has ensued in our time when religion gets mixed into politics.

When we are convinced that God is on our side, and only our side, it is very hard to hear and see others who may have another point of view and, who in fact, just might also believe they have God on their side.

Is there a way to do this and not become like King David and become only in love with our own power?

It is one of the reasons I have felt drawn to the faith-based organization “IMPACT” here in Charlottesville, a coalition of 28 faith congregations that work together on solving hard problems in our community.

I know that not everyone is comfortable with our involvement in IMPACT, so I want to talk about that today.

It is a way to hold our leaders accountable to common values of justice, mercy and humility without seeking power for ourselves.

IMPACT uses methods of community organizing which are founded on a listening process in the participating congregations.Everyone is invited to participate and be heard.

To find out more about how this works, 12 of us from Charlottesville traveled two weeks ago to Tampa, Florida to a training conference on faith-based community organizing.

Our delegation represented eight congregations from here, and there were three of us from St. Paul’s. We were joined by 19 similar organizations from around the Southeast and Midwest at this conference.

The name IMPACT stands for Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.

It is the first word of that name that I especially want to underline today: “Interfaith.”

Our local coalition includes not only Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals, Methodists, Unitarians, Baptists and non-denominational Christians, but also Jews and Muslims.

It is the only interfaith organization like it in Central Virginia, and in all candor, such interfaith coalitions are exceedingly rare in the rest of the world. That alone makes this worthwhile.

Yet the conference brought home for me how hard it is to be truly “interfaith.” I learned once again that well-meaning faithful people can read the same scriptures and hear very different meanings.

That makes our coalition of faith congregations in Charlottesville a miracle – maybe more of a miracle than the feeding of the 5,000 – and a blessing worth nurturing. We sometimes don’t get it right, but we keep trying in spite of ourselves.

To work with people of other faiths does not mean giving up our own. It does not mean homogenizing our faith into some kind of meaningless mush. Rather, it means honoring the integrity of our own faith while listening closely and honoring the faith of others.

We are humans, not messiahs, and God just might be speaking through someone different than we are, and speaking a different language, and praying differently, seeing the world differently.

It is a terrible tragic irony of Christianity that it has spent much of the last 2,000 years building walls around our religion to keep people out, while Jesus and Saint Paul worked overtime to tear down walls and bring people in.

Jesus made no distinctions about who could come to his table. All were invited, none excluded. When he fed the 5,000 he did not ask who they were, where they came from or what they believed. He didn’t check for membership cards. He fed them.

He went to the Cross, not as a powerful king like King David, but as the suffering servant who would share our pain and show us a path to healing and life. Over and over he pointed to how God’s Kingdom is bursting into our world for all to see. And we can get a glimpse of it even now.

I got one of those glimpses yesterday, in a church of all places, as the Rev. Canon Susan Goff was ordained in Richmond as a bishop for Christ’s church, and the 1,066th in the Anglican line of succession in America.

She is the first woman to become an Episcopal bishop in Virginia.

And presiding was the first woman presiding bishop and primate in the Anglican world, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Hundreds of people came, including many of you. There were many wonderful moments, but the one that grabbed me the most was not in the pageantry, but in a simple hymn, in Spanish, I had never heard before.

Its title: “Muchos resplandores.”

In English: “Many are the light beams from the one light. Our one light is Jesus. Many are the light beams from the one light; we are the one in Christ.”

Indeed, many are the light beams. Many are we. AMEN

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux, St. Paul's Memorial Church

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