August 2, 2015 The Reverend Dr. William S. Stafford
Proper 13 B: 2 Sam. 11: 26-12:13a; Eph. 4: 1-16; John 6: 24-35
“But the thing that David did displeased the Lord.”
On the subject of leadership, the Bible is one of the most complex documents in existence. The Bible shows leadership from many different angles, some of them in acute tension with each other. On one thing, though, it is absolutely united and as clear as glass: God cares passionately about how his people are led, above all because God cares about God’s people. But the rest of the story can be very complex indeed. You’ll perhaps remember the complicated history we’ve been following in our Old Testament readings from Second Samuel. The people came to the prophet Samuel and asked for him to give them a king, so that they can be like other nations. Samuel was horrified at the request, and God told him that the people had rejected not Samuel but God himself. But then God tells Samuel to go ahead and give them a king. God calls a man named Saul and has Samuel consecrate him as king. But somehow, in turn, Saul offends God terribly, and God sets him aside and chooses a new king, David. David, God says, will be a man after God’s own heart. And David did become the king of all God’s people, transparently devoted to the Lord, glorifying God in whatever he did, and blessed by the Lord in all he did. David looms very large in the Bible. He would be Israel’s iconic king, together with his son Solomon. He was the heir of God’s promise that one of David’s line would always sit on the throne of his people, a promise that was changed and transmuted and became the promise of the Messiah, the son of David who would deliver his people, Jesus, Son of David, Son of God. The hero king David looms large.
So is it not surprising that the Bible would tell us what it told us last week and this, about the sickening abuse of power that David indulged in? You may perhaps remember last week’s reading. David was at home in Jerusalem, even though his armies were in the field—he was taking a vacation while his leaders were at war. And one day he saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing herself on the roof of her house. He immediately summoned her to his bed, in spite of the fact that she was the wife of one of his officers. When she became pregnant and her husband was still absent in the field, David did all he could to hide his adultery by summoning her husband home, expecting him to sleep with his wife and thus assume the child was his own. But while Uriah, the husband, came to the king’s house, he would not go to his own home and wife, not while he was parted from his troops. So the king sent him back to the war with a sealed message, ordering his general to arrange to have Uriah killed in combat. It worked. Uriah died, and David was free to add Bathsheba to his growing harem of wives and concubines—which he immediately did.
Now that is not only a pair of major league sins, adultery compounded by murder. It is also a gross abuse of power. God does not give anyone authority in order for them to use it for their own advantage at the expense of the people they are serving. David treated the kingship as a set of levers he could pull to get anything he wanted. He forgot entirely the purpose he had been meant to fulfill as king: to build up the people of God, to lead them into security and prosperity, and to help them learn ever more fully what it meant to be God’s own people, living in covenant with the God who loved them. Leaders in the world and leaders in the church simply must never forget what they are there for: service; in their own distinct ways and according to their own distinct gifts, to build up the world and the world’s people. Leading for one’s own private advantage is simply an abuse of power. Corruption and abuse in politics, in business, and in the church undermine the whole purpose of authority. It doesn’t matter if you’re the head of a department or the president of a developing country or a parent or a coach or a priest like me: the authority of leadership is for the sake of the people God gives us. David had forgotten that completely.
And David had forgotten one other thing. He had forgotten the source of his authority. The true king of God’s people is God. When God shares that ultimate leadership in any way, at any level, that leadership must remain transparent to God. Leaders are finally accountable for God as stewards, as those who exercise an authority that is finally not their own but God’s. It is not weakness to be humble in the presence of God. It is not negative thinking to take to heart that anyone who bears any kind of authority has an account to render for their stewardship. Leadership is called to reflect God’s own way of being king of all: God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s devotion to his people, especially his care for the poor and powerless; God’s love for his creation, God’s integrity; God’s self-sacrifice. David forgot all of that.
He forgot it until God sent Nathan the prophet to remind him. “You are the man.”
All of us have power of some sort, authority in some measure. Maybe you are a teenager with a circle of friends who are texting constantly: what are you doing to contribute to those conversations building people up rather than tearing them down? Perhaps you are a recognizable person in your neighborhood. What are you doing to make it safer and more welcoming for the people who live there and all the kinds of people who come into it? Perhaps you teach Sunday school or lead a Scout troop or help run a business. How are you doing that, in ways that will build up the world and reflect God’s goodness?
For God is good. In our covenant of love with God, we are surrounded by God’s faithfulness and love. And surrounded by God’s mercy. David’s sin was not the end of David. He repented—“I have sinned against the Lord.” The Psalm 51 we said together earlier is by tradition attributed to David himself, his prayer for forgiveness after his sin. That prayer was answered, as our cries for forgiveness will be answered. David would suffer, but king he would remain, and see his son seated on his throne at his life’s end. And through many generations he would be the father of the Messiah. For God’s own authority is filled with holiness and justice but also with the mercy born of his love for his people. God’s mercy and justice are fulfilled in Jesus’ own ministry, the true authority born out of Jesus’ self-giving death and his resurrection. It is that glory that we celebrate in this Eucharist today, overcoming all the abuse and betrayal that Jesus encountered and that was turned inside out in God’s victorious faithfulness. It is that authority in which we all share this morning, as God’s people. Out of the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are all alike share in the authority to build up the body of Christ, to strengthen and empower each other, as together we seek to live out God’s great purpose: the reconciliation of all things to him. That’s what authority is for.