Last week, Richard talked to you about the power of stories. A story, he said, can help us to remember, to put the pieces together. We tell stories when someone is born and when someone dies. Those mysterious little story teachings that go by the name of parables tell us things about the nature of life and the universe that we might completely miss otherwise. As Richard reminded us, David would never have listened to Nathan if Nathan had simply accused him of breaking faith with his general Uriah and with God. But David did listen to the story of a poor man and a little lamb, a story that never literally happened, but which was nonetheless deeply true. Do not take what has not been given to you, said that story. Today’s story shows us what happens when taking becomes more important than giving, and reminds me that the parts of me that are broken may be just as important, if not more important, than the parts of me that are whole. As we come to the final installment in our reading of the story of David, we meet a truly mixed man. We’re all mixed. Perhaps one of the attributes of saints is to know this.
Stories help us to live because the best stories are true. Even the worst stories are revealing,but the best stories have been told and retold and added to and tweeked for generations. They have been tested by numerous lives and numerous communities. They have multiple characters and multiple perspectives, which allow very different people to enter a common space. Like the stone rejected by builders that becomes the head of the corner, stories’ overlooked details yield up secret messages that change the way we understand ourselves and our actions, often in surprising ways. Look at what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did to our country’s attitudes toward slavery. Stories stir us up and make us think.
The Bible is the story, told over thousands of years, of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. It did not spring, full blown, out of an author's mind, like a novel. It was not even written by a single author. The first part of it, The Old Testament, is a compilation of narratives and teachings shaped and told for thousands of years before they were ever written down. Sometimes different versions of the same story can be found side by side, as if to warn us not to get too rigid in our views. The second part, the New Testament, is a commentary on the first part, written from the perspective of the life and teachings of Jesus. The Bible is not history in the way Thucydides is history, because, for the most part, it cares less about factual accuracy than it cares about truth and meaning.Truth and fact are almost never the same the same, and indeed usually are not, because fact is about one thing and truth is usually about the relationship between many things.
Which brings me to Richard’s second point, which is that we can’t intellectualize religion. No one loves ideas more than I, but even I who love ideas know that Ideas are tools, not truth. How many of you have shared the very best idea you ever had only to hear yourself misquoted? My ideas live inside my brain, and life is a great deal more than a brain. The doctrines of the Church: salvation, redemption, providence, sin, creation, are not there to close down the story into some kind of unchangeable structure; doctrines are maps that help us navigate story’s ambiguity and complexity, its many different points of view, twists and turns. Doctrines, like maps and guide books, help us know what to look for. That said, no one would ever choose a map of Paris over the real place, but in the religious world we do that all the time, settling for ideas about God when we could be encountering God's amazing, living presence in the stories of our lives.
And so to King David. We saw him anointed as a child, tending sheep, defeating Goliath, loving Jonathan, fighting Saul, becoming king, dancing before the ark and estranging his first wife, helping himself to Bathsheba, and finally, in today’s last installment, seeing his rebellious son Absalom killed in battle.
“I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes,” said the prophet Nathan at the end of last week’s reading.
David had eight wives, but only one, Bathsheba, became his wife after he was king. Michal, the first, was the daughter of Saul. The other six were married during the years that Saul and David were at war, and represented various tribal alliances. Ahinoam was the first of these wives. She gave birth to Amnon, David’s firstborn. David’s fourth wife Maacah was the mother of Absalom and Absalom’s sister Tamar. Now, just as David lusted after Bathsheba, so did his son Amnon lust after his half sister Tamar. It became so all consuming that Amnon took to his bed, weak with disordered desire.
Do not take what has not been given to you, warned the prophet Nathan. This is a habit that is hard to break. In a culture of conquest, to reach out and take may even be seen as an expression of strength. But remember what Paul said about power in a recent reading: Power is made perfect in weakness. Paul knows that people with little to lose often have a much clearer picture of what’s really going on than people with interests to protect. Part of me will always wonder if David’s getting away with Bathsheba helped him to turn a blind eye to his son’s crazy lust, boys will be boys and all. But one of the rules in God’s kingdom, if not David’s is that nothing is lost and no cry goes unheard. The stone rejected by builders will become the head of the corner. We’re always going to be surprised by the one detail we’ve overlooked.
So: “Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. 4He said to him, ‘O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?’ Amnon said to him, ‘I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.’ 5Jonadab said to him, ‘Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, “Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.” ’ 6So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, ‘Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.’ Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, ‘Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.’ …But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, ‘Come, lie with me, my sister.’ 12She answered him, ‘No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! 13As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel.” (2Samuel 13:3-13)
Such a thing is not done in Israel. In my mind, these are some of the most poignant words in scripture. Tamar is dishonored, and immediately, Amnon despises her. The story continues, “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.” The king lets him get away with it it, in other words. His own house now divided, the king really can’t love impartially any longer. He must choose whose side he will be on. He chooses the son over the daughter.
And so it all falls upon Absalom to avenge his sister, and with that, comes rupture with his father, and the factions that always form when sides are taken. After many years, the two men find themselves at war with one another, for David would not punish Absalom either, because he loved him.
“Such a thing is not done in Israel!” When the unspeakable happens it is very hard to recover. Life goes on, yes, but it’s not the same. When things divide a community or a family down the center, everything turns impossible. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Love can only do its work when love is not betrayed, which is why the promises we make to the people we love matter so much. When I do premarital counseling, I have this little fidelity speech: fidelity may be the most important gift you give to one another. Trust in marriage gives a couple the freedom to live full lives; the freedom to have all kinds of friends, the freedom to come and go. Once trust is broken, however, even when things are patched up, suspicion will always linger. Nothing can be as it was. Even when I have been forgiven, I still need to deal with the things I have set in motion. The David story is a human story about a man who could not deal with all the things he had set in motion. All of us have made mistakes, many, if not most of us, big mistakes. Mistakes can make me more compassionate, more understanding. But unless I keep my eye out, they can also blindside me.
Love is all about the great mystery of achieving right relationship with others. Love asks me to wait, step back, and listen. Love’s dark cousin desire tells me to go ahead and take what is mine. Disordered desire tells me to have it all, now. Disordered emotions thrive on haste and deception.
David and his family experienced what happens when love turns into power. When he betrayed Uriah, David was compelled to live the rest of his life in the shadow of betrayal. He came out looking OK, but that does not mean that things were OK. Indeed, things were not. Jesus would later give his very life in the shadow of betrayal, his death on a tree suspended between heaven and earth hauntingly like the death of Absalom, for Jesus was both the Father and the Son and a house divided against itself cannot stand. The gap between heaven and earth cries out to be bridged. Do not take what has not been given to you. Let all of us speak the truth in love. Be kind to one another.
Stories, good stories, the best stories, do not yield easy answers. Stories invite us to linger, to go over them again and again for new insights. They are the endless and changing conversations we have with others as we try to discover our own deepest truths. Church is the ongoing practice of our story.
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We are now ready to confront the riddle of Jesus. But that will have to wait until next week. AMEN.