Monday, August 13, 2012

Follow Your Reality

Scripture for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

Our summer cycle of stories about King David is hard for a preacher to avoid speaking about. I mean, it’s tough to steer around this material—it’s so raw and compelling. For those of you who are tiring of this reality series, it has just two more episodes after today.

David’s story illustrates the adage that power corrupts. Back when the prophet Samuel had the task of anointing a king for Israel, David didn’t have a place even in the primaries. You remember how all his brothers passed before Samuel, but the prophet recognized no spark of inspiration in their eyes until he met the youngest, who was living the humblest life of them all, a shepherd tending his father’s flock. Instantly, David was chosen.

But by the time we meet him today as King, he is sorely compromised. He has let a great gulf settle in between himself and his people, between himself and God, between himself and the truth. That distance marks the trajectory of his ethical collapse.

And he hits bottom today in his encounter with another of Israel’s great ancient prophets, Nathan. Nathan tells David what may be the first and oldest parable in the Bible. It is a story compressed as hard as diamond, pressed by truth.

Every animal lover, anyone who has ever had a soulmate in a cat or a dog (or a lamb), laps up this parable, fully gets it on an emotional level, a spiritual level, and certainly on the level of social injustice.

So does David. That’s a sign of hope, isn’t it? “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” David explodes.

In fact, what explodes is the lie that David has believed, that there was a vast moral gulf between himself and any rich man who could exploit his advantage as did the fellow in Nathan’s parable.

“You are the man!” cries Nathan.

To quote Pogo Possum, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

It is in that spirit that we have recited the penitential Psalm 51. We are here not to point the finger at David, but to let his story resonate in our own—probably less dramatic—betrayals and failings.

The silver lining in this story is David’s repentance. This is a story of what the Greeks called “metanoia”, turning about, conversion, remorse leading to a changed mind and heart, renewal in the ever-new embrace of God. Since it is a Hebrew story, it conveys the sense that sinning against a compatriot is also sinning against God, an awareness that such a betrayal does not happen when one is in right relationship with God—therefore what needs changing, renewing, is relationship with God.

In keeping with ancient Hebrew thought, times of national defeat and disgrace were marked with the silver lining of a call to repentance. So David hears Nathan describe the peculiar terms of David’s coming public shaming, and recognizes it is time to take responsibility… and repent. He is still the King. And now he is to become Israel’s King who fell, and rose again.

In that respect, paradoxically, David is a precursor of the Christ. Though the Christ would fall, not under the burden of his own sin, but under the sins of the world. He would fall, not because of any falsehood in himself, but because the church of his time and the civil government of his time were so far from the welfare of their people and so distant from the compassion and mercy of God.

The falling of the Christ would lead to the rising of the Christ, and the author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes, in language that sounds like both creed and praise, how this dying and rising is to fill all creation with his Spirit and his gifts. That Spirit and those gifts, in partnership with our commitment to speak the truth in love, will cause the whole Body of the renewed creation to grow and build itself in love.

How central in our relationship with God is Jesus Christ. Central to us, and central to God. God has centered God’s self in Jesus Christ. You and I are becoming centered in Christ beginning with baptism and opening more and more, day by day. That centering and opening is not just a result of our daily practice; it is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, who may be well at work even when we may not be much impressed by our own centeredness or openness.

As central as the Christ is, our Gospel today illustrates how far from that mark we can get. The setting of this story is that rolling hillside where Jesus took five fish and two barley loaves, belonging to a little boy and offered with a disciple’s comment, “But what are they among so many?” What Jesus did with them is known to imitate the Eucharistic action: he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave. What happened next is largely unknown, except for the Church’s recollection that there were many leftovers. This is a story told consciously to remind the Church (and teach the world) that we have a God of superabundant love, One who repeats in daily life the archetypal wonder of sending manna from heaven.

But notice how today’s narrative begins. The people who remained after the feeding suddenly realized that Jesus was not there. We get the sense that they simply hadn’t been paying much attention to him, once they’d had their lunch. They lingered at the site, as if hoping that on the heels of such a wonder, another would come. So they kept their eyes on the disciples (who had organized them prior to their windfall meal), but they saw no movement among the twelve and didn’t think to notice where Jesus himself was— there were still lots of people milling about on that hillside, and besides (yawn) they were sleepy after such a meal and it was siesta time.

But the real reason, as he tells them later, is that he could slip away unnoticed because they just didn’t get it, that the feeding was a sign from God that they are to find their deepest feeding in him, the Son of Man, the Christ, and on him they were to set their hope and fix their attention, and keep up with him when he moves.

The abundant life is enjoyed in closeness to him. He is central to relationship with God. Allowing a gulf to open and widen between ourselves and him is to risk the loss of our passion, our compassion, and our sense of right and wrong. Losing track of Jesus is to lose our supply, our sustenance, and our part in building up the whole Body of the renewed creation.

Writing about the Olympics, New Yorker critic Louis Menand says that, “The motto of athletic competition should not be ‘Follow your dream.’ It should be ‘Follow your reality.’”

That observation comes from Menand’s discovering the hard way that as a five-foot-something teenager he might not be cut out to become the next Houdini of the Hardwood, like his idol, Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics. Painfully, Menand came to realize that achievement in sports complies with the laws of physics. “You can dedicate your life to the sport, but, if you are under six feet tall and weigh less than two hundred pounds, you are never going to throw the discus seventy metres. The motto of athletic competition should not be ‘Follow your dream.” It should be ‘Follow your reality.’”

That comment may highlight the contrast between our two stories today, one about the King, the other about the Christ.

Imagining he could erase the distance between his own royal rooftop and that of his neighbor Uriah, David gained Bathsheba in his bed but lost his soul and, by his own treachery, lost his valiant soldier Uriah, and with that loss lost also the approval of God. All this in the name of following a shepherd boy’s dream of someday having everything.

A dream is followed in our second story, too. Those who have tasted the goodness of God have stayed on, hoping not so much for God but for more magic. And if this Jesus could serve up bread and fish out of seemingly nothing, why, he might turn copper to gold and Israel’s helplessness under Roman occupation into a bloodbath of retribution.

Instead, they—and we—are called to repent of some of our dreams, and follow our reality, utilize and offer who we are and what we have, practice, train, develop the gifts we’ve been given. What we are cut out for by our baptism is to follow Jesus closely, to grow into maturity, into the measure of the full stature of Christ.

So it is in another sense also that we are to follow our reality, Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of God has come to dwell, in whom we all have been planted, like seeds, to grow up in love.