Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Truth Will Out (Second Samuel 11:1-15)

In today’s story, we’ll see King David make a small mistake, and, with careful, diligent and applied effort, create a huge mess that will cost a man his life.

We see this small mistake in the very first verse of the passage: It’s spring, kings are off to battle, but David’s hanging around the house. He’s a king, so we know where he should be and what he should be doing: Leading his armies in battle. In David’s case, that’s especially true, because it was his skill at strategy and his own fighting abilities that first won him fame when he was one of Saul’s commanders and then kept him safe when Saul chased him around trying to kill him. Soldiering is David’s thing, but he’s ignoring his responsibility. Had he been where he shoulda been, none of this would have happened.

Since he’s not where he shoulda been, he chances to spy one Bathsheba bathing on her roof. Rather than look away from a woman to whom he is not married, he watches, and he watches long enough to take decisive action. He sends for her and sleeps with her, even though he knows she is the wife of one of his soldiers. No harm, no foul, right? Victimless crime, nobody got hurt, consenting adults can do what they want and all that.

Except a little while later Bathsheba sends a note to David saying, basically, “Oops!” Now David’s got troubles. Even if Bathsheba’s the only one targeted as committing adultery, she can name her partner and there are people who know David had a liaison with her. He’ll be found out as well.

But David, the master tactician, has a plan. He’ll call Uriah home from battle and then send him home to Bathsheba, and so on and so forth, and everybody will be safe and nobody will wonder that Uriah Junior showed up a little early because sometimes those things happen.

Except that Uriah has more integrity than his king and refuses to enjoy his house or his wife’s bed while his fellow soldiers are in the field. Even drunk he won’t waver. David rewards his subject’s integrity and loyalty by planning to have him killed.

The part of the story after this shows how David took Bathsheba into his own household after Uriah was killed in battle, and again everything seemed fine until Nathan the prophet shows up talking about lambs.

Imagine, if you will, how different things might have been if David had told the truth. Yes, adultery was a capital crime in ancient Israel, but it’s very doubtful either he or Bathsheba he would have faced that punishment. Yes, his reputation would have been tarnished and he would have lost a lot of respect in the eyes of his people. But they would also have noticed how he faced up to his own mistakes and that would have laid the groundwork for rebuilding that respect.

Since David’s a political leader, we may automatically think of how frequently politicians twist themselves and their words into Möbius strips of doubletalk to avoid saying they were wrong or that they goofed on even the smallest things, when a simple “My bad” might end the matter and move forward. And they do make good – or maybe bad? – examples of just that sort of thing.

I have to confess, though, that I will sometimes do the same thing in order to keep an error from being found out. I’ll try to cover the mistake or misdirect attention or maybe even flat-out fib in order to hide something I don’t want other people to know about.

But truth, for all its virtues, has one shortcoming: It stinks at hiding. Whether we cover up intentionally or unintentionally, truth is eventually left standing in the middle of the field with no trees, rocks or shrubs around to give it cover.

The reality of God is similar. Most of us who are active with our faith got that way because at some point we realized a couple of truths. One, we couldn’t hide the truth of God’s existence behind increasingly elaborate justifications we built to help us ignore him. And two, we couldn’t hide that, as much as we might want to connect with God, we were unable to do so on our own and we needed God to connect to us first.

And of course, the greatest Truth of all is that he did just that.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Is He or Isn't He? (Mark 5:21-43)

There was a theologian we read in seminary named Rudolf Bultmann. Among his many ideas was the one that the existence of Jesus posed something he called “the existential question.”

Boil away every other situation, consideration and idea about God, the church, the Bible, miracles and what have you, and you are left with this question, he said: Is Jesus the Savior or not? You can define Savior and salvation in a lot of different ways, of course, but once you’ve done that, do you accept Jesus as that savior or don’t you? And if you do, how does that affect your existence – that’s why it’s an “existential” question.

In these two stories, we can see what conclusions people come to and how it affects their existence.

First is the woman with the “issue of bleeding.” We don’t know what her exact medical condition was, but we know what kind of impact it had on her life. Jewish culture and religious law held human blood to be “unclean,” as a way of helping draw the lines against human sacrifice. Warriors in battle, women who were menstruating or had given birth and people who had bleeding conditions like this woman were unclean until they were washed clean of the blood and underwent several cleansing ceremonies.

Since this woman never stopped bleeding, she could never be cleansed and she was an outcast in her society, because anyone who touched her would also be unclean.

She hears about Jesus the healer and resolves to find him, believing he could heal her. But there’s a problem. She is unclean. He isn’t. And he’s a teacher, a rabbi, someone who observes the law faithfully. Most of those folks are even touchier about touching someone who’s unclean than the average. If she touches him, his followers might take it harshly and she could be beaten.

So she compromises – she’ll just brush the hem of his robe, which nobody should notice and shouldn’t cause any problems. She has decided Jesus can heal her. If he can heal her, he can do it whether he touches her and says magic words and waves his hands in the air or does nothing at all. He’s a healer, so he can heal her. The robe ought to be enough.

And it is! Immediately, Mark says, when she brushes his cloak. No gradual improvement, no halfway measures. Immediately, she is healed of her condition.

Jesus knows he has been touched and knows he has healed someone. He probably, for that matter, knows exactly who the woman is. He’s Jesus, after all. But rather than pick her out of the crowd she’s now busily trying to fade back into, he asks, “Who touched me?”

“Look at this crowd,” the disciples say. “Who didn’t touch you?”

“No, someone did,” he insists. The woman comes forward and explains. “Daughter,” he says, destroying her isolation with that one word of connection, “your faith has made you well.”

Jairus, of course, is probably frantic with worry. And then the news he dreads comes, when people come from his house and tell him his daughter has indeed died. “Why bother the teacher any more?” they ask. He tells Jesus, probably offering thanks for his desire, but Jesus stops him.

“Have faith,” he says. Indeed. I never get how the people Jesus meets seem OK with the idea that he could heal, but death would be too much for him to handle. For me, once I get my head around the idea that God can work outside what I think are natural limits – and that’s not always easy, by the way – then why would I differentiate between healing and raising the dead?

In any event, Jairus, Jesus and a few disciples continue to the house, where the mourners are already at work. “What are you doing?” Jesus asks. “The girl isn’t dead, just sleeping.”

“Hey, get a load of this guy,” they respond. “He thinks people who are dead are just ‘asleep.’ Wonder if he thinks he rises from the dead every morning.” OK, that last part may not have happened.

Jesus, the disciples and Jairus and his wife enter the girl’s room. Jairus is a synagogue ruler. He has read how Elisha raised the widow’s son at Nain, and probably expects a long time of prayer and waiting, since that’s how it happened then. Nope. That was the undercard, friend, and we’re watching the headliner at work now.

“Little girl, get up,” Jesus says, and she does. He has them feed her to prove she is really alive again and not some kind of ghost.

Jairus takes a little longer to commit himself fully than does the woman. Eventually, though, just as she decides that if he’s a healer, he can heal her, Jairus decides that Jesus can do something for his daughter if he says he can. After that, he doesn’t care about the mourners or the weird thing Jesus says about his daughter sleeping or what the neighbors think.

When confronted with the question about whether or not Jesus is the healer, both the woman and Jairus realize they have to answer yes or no. Once they’ve answered yes, then they have to decide how that will affect their lives.

For them, Jesus the savior was Jesus the healer, and that made all the difference. What kind of difference will it make for us?