Odds and Ends of Scripture

Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Berkeley by The Rev. Dr. L. Wm. Countryman on the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, August 9, 2015:

Proper 14B: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6: 35, 41-51
It’s hard to imagine a more oddly assorted set of readings than the ones we’ve just heard: a bit of family tragedy from the story of David, a Psalm making a desperate plea for help, some sober moral advice from Ephesians, and a very obscure speech about bread from John’s Gospel. My usual approach to preaching from texts like these is to pick one, develop some of its meaning and implications, and bypass the others.

Today, though, I want to look at all four readings. One reason for that is just to underline the fact that this is what the Scriptures are really like. They’re not organized by topic. One passage differs dramatically from another. There’s no single theological thread that ties everything together.

The one thing that does tie it all together is that God is for ever trying to speak to real human beings in the worlds where we live. And given how different our worlds can be and how different we can be, Scripture is bound to use a variety of voices. Sometimes, it plays poet, sometimes story-teller, sometimes advice columnist, sometimes teacher of spiritual mysteries.
How, then. does Scripture address us in this morning’s readings? Probably the most powerful of them, the one we all immediately relate to in some way, is Psalm 130. When we’re really in a bind, really at the end of our rope, this is the go-to passage:

Out of the depths have I called to you;

O God, hear my voice. . .

It says just about everything you need in a desperate situation. It admits that we’re not perfect and appeals to God anyway. More than that, it expects God to help—even insists on it:

I wait for you, O God; my soul waits for you;

in your word is my hope.

My soul waits for you,

more than sentries for the morning,

more than sentries for the morning.

And notice here how the perspective has subtly shifted. It starts in the pit, the depths, the place you can’t see out of. It winds up on the city wall, watching for the dawn with the sentries. Up here, we can see out again—and see forward into a future that we weren’t sure would come to pass when we were trapped down there in the depths.

We’ve turned from desperation to hope, from being trapped by the immediate danger to seeing future possibility. It doesn’t preach hope, or command us to hope. It embodies it—and invites us to express it even before we can quite feel it.
The story from Second Samuel, by contrast, is drenched in grief. Absalom is David’s favorite son, despite having been a lifelong problem. And now, he’s rebelled and is actually trying to kill his father so that he can be king himself. Despite that, David can’t bring himself to hate him—even tries to protect him. He puts his commanders under specific, public orders not to harm him. But Joab, who was a brutal man but a clear-eyed politician, knows better and has his bodyguard kill ill him when they find him hanging in the tree. David is completely overwhelmed by his grief. The scene where he cries out for Absalom is as devastating as anything in Greek tragedy. And it’s almost as well-known as our Psalm this morning—maybe because it allows us to revisit our own griefs in that of David.

But there’s more to this story—a part that doesn’t get read in church, but is equally important: Joab gives David a while to grieve, but then he goes to him and reminds him that, however deep his distress, he is still the king: “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you. . . . So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night.” (2 sam. 19:5,7)

It was brutal, but Joab was right. He forced David out of his despair by confronting him with the needs of his kingdom, of the people for whom he was responsible. In our Psalm, we experienced a turning from despair to hope, from past to future. In this story there is another, related kind of turning, a turning outward. David leaves his private grief because his community needs him. And this turning brings a certain hope. I would guess that it saved not only David’s kingship but probably his sanity as well.
It’s a shock, after the story of David and Psalm 130, to turn the pages of the Bible over and get a little moral pep talk from the author of Ephesians. Pep talks like this were a standard feature of ancient letter writing—so much so that ancient rhetoric had a technical term for them, parainesis. Almost every New Testament letter has a section like this near the end. You can almost see the finger wagging while you listen, but much of the advice was standardized and is actually pretty good: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. . . ” Well, yeah!

Still, it runs the risk of making religion sound like just a matter of following rules—or at least of feeling guilty for not following them. The first Christians, we think, must have been goody-two-shoes. But look again. What is this bit about? “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” Wait a minute! There are thieves in the Christian audience? They weren’t all perfect? They didn’t all come to church justs to show how good they were? That’s surprise number one.

Surprise number two: the author doesn’t rake them over the coals, doesn’t say “Bad! No! Stop that!” Instead, he says, “There are people who need your help. Figure out how to make a steady income so that you can give it.”

There’s actually an echo here of our story about David. This passage is also calling for that turn outward, to the larger world. David was interested only in his grief. The thief is interested only in oneself. David had to do turn outward because he was king. We Christians have to do it because we’re part of a community where everybody has gifts to share. Our author wants the thief not just to “stop doing that” but to turn around and become part of this community of gifts.
So what do we have so far? Three turnings. From despair to hope. From devastating private grief to renewed kingship. From a life concerned only with self to a life that embraces others. These are all turnings toward fuller human life, toward a future that can still bring good, despite past sufferings and losses and wrong-doing.

And the reading from John’s Gospel is also about turning forward and outward. It has often been misread as something else—as a doctrinal pronouncement that Jesus has founded the one true religion and that everyone must agree with Christianity and receive its sacraments. Otherwise, too bad for you.

But that’s wrong. The Jesus of John’s Gospel isn’t talking about Christian doctrine here. He’s talking about his own life and the kind of turning that he wants to bring about in our lives s well: a turn from defensiveness and fear and self-justification to a life seen as the gift of God. I believe the whole Gospel of John is about this turning, as I argued years ago in a The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel.

When Jesus says things like “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he isn’t speaking literally. His audience is quite right to say that this makes no sense on the literal level. He’s saying rather that the kind of freedom with which he lived—even to the point of risking and losing his life—can make us free, can sustain our life, can help us claim the full gift of the humanity God has willed for us. His life offers us a turn forward into the future, a turn outward into human community—a turn toward hope, toward kingship, toward generosity, toward life itself.
None of these texts, on the surface, seems to have much to do with the others. But sometimes the Scriptures show a deeper level of coherence underneath their surface. Here it takes the form of a call to turn toward new hope and trust and love. That turning is not made in a single moment of human life, but over and over again. And probably the greatest gift that God gives us in the Scriptures is the repeated reminder of it in so many different forms.

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