Utility Failure

In the course of nine months in 2016-2017, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights had an adventure in listening to the stories of David and trying to draw wisdom or encouragement from them in our own lives.  On July 23, we heard the last of these messages, which considered the death of the King and led us to exploring some thoughts as to how we encounter death in our own worlds.  Texts for the day included I Kings 1 and II Timothy 4.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the audio player below

I was among the 24,401 who were counted at the major league baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night. After the Pirates tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers brought in former Pirate Jared Hughes to pitch the tenth. As Josh Harrison danced off of second base, Hughes stopped several times and bluffed a throw. Twenty thousand umpires screamed that it was a balk, and Hughes should be penalized. As Pirate broadcaster Bob Walk pointed out, “Not a single one of those fans thought that move was a balk when Hughes was wearing a Pirate jersey.”

He’s right, of course. What you see, and hear, and experience – all of it comes through a filter, does it not? Where we sit and what we’ve experienced affects the ways that we hear the stories of scripture and our lives. I was reminded of that this week as I consider the many lenses through which I’ve encountered the story of Abishag the Shunammite, the bulk of which you’ve just heard.

David’s Promise to Bathsheba, Frederick Goodall (1822-1904)

When I was a young man, I heard this part of the story and I thought, “Wait, what? David got old and they looked for who? And told her to do what? Seriously? That happened?” It seemed to me, at that point in my life, that this was a prime example of the old Mel Brooks line, “It’s good to be the king!” When I read these verses, I did so with a good bit of snickering and a little bit of the old “wink-wink nudge-nudge know what I mean?” I was a leerer and an ogler.

King David and Abishag, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Then, thanks be to God, I grew and matured. Some might say I got old. For whatever reason, it seemed to me, I came to see the story through Abishag’s eyes. Immediately this then became a text of terror. This woman – really, only a teenaged girl – is taken from her home about 50 miles north of Jerusalem and thrust into the King’s bedroom. Can you imagine the fear she must have felt, to say nothing of the powerlessness and perhaps even disgust? “What, what? I have to do that? With whom?” When I see the story through her eyes, I am haunted by the words of Frederick Buechner, who writes, “This sad story makes it clear that in peace as in war there’s no tragic folly you can’t talk a nation’s youth into simply by calling it patriotic duty.”[1]

Last summer, when I came up with the plan to preach through the stories of King David, I was pretty sure that I wanted to end the sermons with the one you heard last week. David names Solomon as his successor and the one who would build the temple to YHWH and then rides off into the sunset in a blaze of glorious faithfulness amidst the accolades of his people. Yay!

Oh, I remembered the story of Abishag and David’s final days, all right, I just had no intention of touching this particular part of the bible with a ten-cubit pole – not in public worship, thank you very much. I’m not going to go there.

And yet in recent weeks, it kept coming to mind. If we are preaching about the life of David, I thought, why not preach about his death, too? Why not finish the story?

And you can’t talk about the death of David without talking about Abishag the Shunammite. So here we are…

As the reading for today begins, David is an old man, by biblical standards. He is failing in all kinds of ways, and soon, he’ll be dead. Evidently, for loads of people, David is a bothersome problem. And what do we do with problems? We manage them, right? We handle them.

A few of you are old enough to remember the old Batman television show. Do you remember when the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder were really up against something, they’d reach down to their waists and pluck something from the old “Utility Belt” – it might be a batarang, or a grappling hook, or even a piece of kryptonite… but somehow Batman could always be counted on to find just the right tool to manipulate the situation so that the problem would be solved.

Bathsheba Makes an Appeal to David (detail), Arent de Gelder (1645 – 1727)

As David lay dying he is increasingly problematic. The various people who surrounded him would define the problem differently.

For the palace staff, the insiders who were his servants and advisors, these were tough days indeed. Their jobs, income, security, and in some cases, their lives depended on David being a) alive and b) king. So they reach into their utility belts and grab whatever tools they can: bring on the blankets. When they don’t work, then find another tool to apply to the situation. Abishag? Sure, why not? Throw her in there and see what she can do…

Not only are neither of these approaches successful, what we really are forced to witness here is a dehumanization of both Abishag and David. They’re not really people any more – they are simply tools utilized in the hopes that a problem can be solved.

For his son Adonijah, David’s death is a different problem. Adonijah wants to be king so badly that he can taste it, and he’s not going to let a little thing such as knowing that his dad had already declared Solomon as, the next ruler affect his chances. Adonijah was nothing if not determined, and so he just pretended that his father was already dead. He threw a party and declared himself to be king.

Meanwhile, back in the palace, the Prophet Nathan and David’s wife Bathsheba are hatching a plan to ensure that Solomon, not Adonijah, will be the next ruler. These folks have bet everything on Solomon, and now it looks as if their plan is in danger of failing. So what do they do? They cook up a plot wherein they “bump into each other” in David’s presence, and casually remind him that he better keep his promises (and fulfill his obligations) before he dies.

I want to stop here for a moment and consider where these people are at this point in the story.

Adonijah is just south of town in the community of Siloam, where he’s gathered most of his remaining brothers, members of the clergy, and key officials in the army. He’s mapping out a parade route and planning his inauguration…

Nathan, the prophet who has walked with David though thick and thin in the previous decades, and Bathsheba, his wife and the mother of Solomon are both holed up in a coffee shop somewhere scheming as to how to get the old geezer to carry through on his promises…

And David – well, to quote Monty Python, “He’s not dead yet…” But in some lonely corner of the royal residence, the one who is called “the man after God’s own heart”, or “the lamp of all Israel”, or “the glory of the nation” is dying, and he’s all alone…

But wait – no! He’s not alone. Abishag is there.

Why? Didn’t she fail? She had one job, and it didn’t get done! Why is she still hanging around?

In I Kings 1:15 we read that when Bathsheba and Nathan got around to meeting up in the King’s bedroom, Abishag is there “attending” to David.

Who is Abishag that she should be the one doing this? Where are his children? Where is his wife? What about his friends?

The reality is, so far as we can see, that at this point each of these people is focused on themselves and trying to secure some benefit to themselves out of David’s living or dying. And because of that, at the hour of his death, the only person who is present to the greatest king that Israel ever knew is a teenaged girl who is probably scared out of her mind.

She’s not fixing any problems. She’s not solving any crises. She is just watching and waiting with an old man as the hour of his death draws near. There is no indication that there is anything in either his living or dying for her. She is simply, generously, kindly there for David.

And if this was the way that King David died, it would be sad for that reason alone. The real tragedy, though, is that this happens again and again and again.

So much of the time, death is so darned inconvenient. I needed you to do _____ for me, and you were dead. If she dies, how will I ever______? Who will make sure that ______ happens now?

Too often we view ourselves and each other through a utilitarian lens. You exist only in relationship to what you can or cannot do to help me. For Adonijah, Bathsheba, Joab, Shimei, Nathan, and the rest of the gang, David had ceased to be of any value. He was no longer in a position, frankly, to do anything for them. With his usefulness gone, it would be easier for all of them if he just died already. David was at this point in his life a utility failure. He was, at best, an inconvenience.

As we have done in recent weeks, let’s take a moment and compare the life of David with that of Paul. Our reading from Timothy finds him similarly nearing the end of his life. The things that defined him – vigorous travel, eloquent speeches to crowds in places like Athens, Jerusalem, or Antioch – they are all in the past. Now Paul is an old man, cold and lonely.

In this intimate letter to his dear friend, he claims that he wants his books and a favorite sweater, but the aging apostle is being more than a little disingenuous here. What he really wants is his friends. Some of those who were with him have run away; others are busily engaged. He’s got his old friend, Dr. Luke with him. And he says to Timothy, “Please, get Mark. And you. Come. Come before winter.”

Paul doesn’t want to die alone.  I don’t think anyone wants to die alone.

I don’t know about any of you, but I sure have learned a lot about David in the past nine months. More importantly, because of David, I believe that I have some deeper insight into my own life. And now, I find that as we conclude this series of sermons about David, I wonder what there is for me to learn about the ending of my own story, or the stories of the people that we love.

I understand that for many, if not most, of the people in our lives, the relationship is somewhat utility-based. We hear of a death and we say, “Oh, he was my barber…that was my neighbor…She was the one who taught the dance classes to my children…” One of the implications is that we’ll have to find another barber, meet some new neighbors, and engage a replacement dance teacher. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are, in some ways, inextricably linked to the kinds of things that we do. When we die, there are some people that will miss the things that we do more than they will miss us.

But some folks are more than that in our lives – much, much more. Some people are measured for who they are, not for what they do.

This morning, I’d like to ask you to close your eyes – just for a few seconds, mind you. I’m not talking about a nap, I just want you to think about some of the people in your life whom you simply like or even love. People that you want to be with because being with them is good in and of itself, and not for any tangible benefit you might receive. Just close your eyes and think for a few moments.

Do you have in mind some people that you enjoy simply being with? People that you value because they are themselves, and not because they give you rides when you need them or do such a great job with the laundry…

Here’s some good news: a lot of the people that you’re thinking about are not dead. Most of them are not, so far as we know, close to death. So take time to celebrate those people today, and in the days to come. Enjoy them, and let them know that you do!

Sooner or later, however, one of those people – or you yourself – will be dying. This is the time to get ready for that.

Twelve years ago today I stood in this spot and preached a funeral for a young victim of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease). This young woman and I spent a lot of time together in the months prior to her death, and I shall always be grateful for the lessons that she taught be about living and dying.

One of the most horrid aspects of ALS is the constant diminishment and erosion of one’s body. Sooner or later, you – and you are still very much your you – can’t do a blessed thing. The patient lies in an unresponsive body waiting for someone to come and blow her nose or comb his hair. And wonders, “What is the point? I mean, who am I if I am not useful to anyone for anything?”

And on the day that my young friend died, I spent hours trying to remind her of that which I tried to tell many of you on the day that you were born: you are a child of God. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are not what you do, what you save, what you give, who you sleep with, or the places you go. Simply by virtue of being made in the image of God, you are worthy of love and friendship.

When those we love develop an awareness of the fact that they may be dying, may we have the grace to do what Paul asked Timothy to do, and to give to others what Abishag gave to David: may we have the grace to simply be with this person who matters.

And when we develop an awareness of our own impending mortality, may we be blessed with those who remember us – and who help us to remember ourselves.

And finally, as the church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ present on earth, may we take it as our sacred honor and ministry to bring this reminder to whose whom no one loves.

More than 450 years ago, as much of Europe was rising from the ashes of the Black Death, the plague, incessant war, and famine, a group of believers met together in the town of Heidelberg to write a statement of faith that would help their children embrace the truths they held. The Heidelberg Catechism begins with the simple question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, and the reply is beautiful: “That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

As we conclude our exploration of the life of David, may we see here in his death, with the help of Abishag the Shunammite, the truth that this beautiful and reckless man of God embraced day after day after day: that we, too, belong to God body and soul, in life and death, because of the work that he, and not we, have done. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979, p. 3)

The Giant Who Defeated David

Since September 2016 the Crafton Heights Presbyterian Church has been seeking to listen to, and learn from, the stories surrounding David.  On May 14, we considered his encounter with Bathsheba and the fallout from that.  You can read the story for yourself in II Samuel 11.  We also considered a few verses from I Peter 1

May 14, 2017

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the link below.

 

Lamia Airlines flight 933 crashed in Columbia in December 2016, and 71 people died. In June, 2009, Air France lost flight 447 and all 227 souls on board. A further 137 lives were lost when Germanwings flight 9525 plunged into the French Alps. In these and dozens of other airline disasters, what is the first thing that the authorities do? They look for the “black box”, right? Those things have been required in commercial aircraft for 50 years. They tell a story.

Here’s a trivia question for you: what color is the “black box” on an aircraft? It’s orange. And, appropriately, nobody in the transportation safety field calls it a “black box”; it’s known as the Flight Recorder. Generally, these devices consist of two units: the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder.

Why do the authorities spend so much time and energy looking for these things after a disaster? Well, you might say that they tell us what went wrong – and if you said that, you’d be incorrect. But more about that in a moment. They do, in fact, often reveal clues about what went wrong in that disaster, but I don’t think that’s the ultimate reason that these things are sought.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

Since September, our congregation has been watching the story of David’s call and rise to be the ruler of Israel. We saw him as a young boy when he was plucked from the fields by Samuel and anointed in front of his older brothers. We were there as he rose to prominence as the one who slew the Philistine giant, and watched as he was unjustly accused and hunted down by King Saul. We have seen him protect those who were vulnerable and seek to unify Israel, which culminated on the day that he was called the nagid – the “prince” – of God. We’ve noted that this has not been what you might call a “meteoric” rise, but slowly and steadily, David has been growing in wisdom, power, and faith. He has behaved as, and has been called, “a man after God’s own heart.”

Until today.

The reading this morning from II Samuel 11 describes a crash and burn which is no less dramatic than the crash of USAirways flight 427 here in Pittsburgh almost 25 years ago.

David And Bathsheba (Marc Chagall, 1956)

You’ve heard the story of how this gifted and faithful man, in relatively short order, manages to neglect his duty to his office, abuse a vulnerable young woman, order the murder of her husband and several other deaths which could be chalked up as “collateral damage”, and finally lie to both the nation and to YHWH about what he had done. The closing verse of this chapter is indeed an understatement: “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.”

Just as the flight recorders on airliners contain a lot of information that can clue investigators into seeing what went wrong, this chapter has a good deal of data that assist us in our investigation of how things went so badly so quickly.

The narrative begins matter-of-factly by asserting that in the spring – that is, during the wheat and barley harvest when armies were on the move… David was not. For all of his life, David had been on the front lines. When it was time to fight Goliath, he went when nobody else was willing to go. On other occasions, he led with bravery and distinction. But here, he is willing to send other people into harm’s way, but not to lead them there. Instead, he orders his nephew, Joab, to take charge while he remains behind in Jerusalem.

Not only is David unwilling to go to battle on behalf of the nation, he is also apparently disinterested in the affairs of state. The text tells us that one evening, David got out of bed and took a walk upstairs to the balcony. The leader of God’s people is evidently sleeping all day and prowling around, bored and distracted, at night.

In his choice of titles, the narrator gives us further clues as to what was happening with David. At his installation as king, and again when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, David was referred to as the nagid of Israel. The typical word for “king” in Hebrew is melek, but David is called nagid, or “prince”. This is an affirmation of the fact that when he was on his game, David functioned as the temporal agent of the real authority – God. As nagid, David was accountable to an even higher authority. Yet here in verses 2, 8, and 9, we see David called melek.

It’s easy to see why that word is used, too. Look at the verbs in verse 2. Unfortunately, not all of them translate freely from the Hebrew, but in fairly short order, David sent, took, used, and sent a woman away. That’s what meleks do. That’s what old Samuel tried to tell Israel all the way back in I Samuel 8 – that kings will take and use and discard. Clearly, that’s what David is attempting to do here.

Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (detail) (Rembrandt, 1654)

Let’s take the spotlight off David for just a moment and look at the poor woman who is, I suspect, unwillingly involved in this drama. We know (although not from David) that her name is Bathsheba. I suspect that she is quite young – perhaps a teenager, because she is old enough to be married but young enough not to have started a family yet. We know that she is religiously observant, and faithful to the laws of God. Because she is forced to bathe in the open air, I think that we’d be justified in thinking her to be a person who lived in poverty – after all, privacy has a price tag that the poorest cannot afford. And she is vulnerable. In spite of being told her name, David does not bother to use it. Throughout the narrative, she is “the woman” or “the wife of Uriah.” She is not granted her own personhood, but rather exists only to be defined by others.

Just last week, in II Samuel 9, we saw how David used Mephibosheth’s name to liberate Mephibosheth from anonymity; David sought an intimacy with the son of his friend that allowed him to build a relationship that was characterized by chesed – the loving, loyal, truthful presence and practice of friendship that led to a blessing that was passed down through the generations.

Today, David is only interested in satisfying his own pleasure, slaking his own lust, and solidifying his own power – a series of behaviors that leads to death and destruction that has generationally similar effects.

When he has used Bathsheba in the way that suited him and then she was found to be inconveniently pregnant, David fell to a new low as he tried to pin the conception on her husband. All weekend, David tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, but the soldier’s thoughts are only with his comrades and with the nation – he doesn’t have time for the distraction of family leave – he wants to get back to the front. And so you heard how in verse 15 David arranged with his nephew to set Uriah at the worst point of the fighting so that the Ammonites would kill him.

If you were here a couple of months ago, you’ll recall that this is the exact same strategy used by King Saul to get rid of David – in I Samuel 18, he asks David to attempt the impossible so that the Philistines will wind up killing David and Saul will not be to blame.

In short, David has become the melek that he replaced; he has become the very thing that he abhors; the very one about whom God’s prophet Samuel warned the people and that God himself disdains. It is a horrible sequence of events: evil took root in David’s heart, and that evil brought him to a place where he willingly sought to inflict pain and grief and misery on others; and that in turn led to a number of tragedies in the lives of Bathsheba, Uriah, the royal family, the nation, and of course David himself.   It is, as I have stated, a crash and burn.

At the outset of this message, I asked why we sought to be attentive to the information contained in the Flight Data and Cockpit Voice Recorders. When someone suggested that we did that so we would know what happened, or what went wrong, I said that I thought that was only partially correct.

The real reason we want to pay attention to that kind of data is so that we can avoid making similar mistakes in the future. We need to know what happened, of course; but more than that, we need to learn from it. We need to come up with some strategies or safeguards that prevent us from ever doing this again.

If I asked you to name the giant that David defeated as a young boy, you’d say, I hope, “Goliath”. And you’d be right. But if I asked you to name the giant that defeated David in his middle age, I’m afraid you’d say “lust” or “desire”. And I don’t think that’s correct. Oh, that may be what knocked him down. But the defeat started earlier with the ways that David nurtured a giant named complacency. Complacency was the one who convinced David to leave the doors of his heart and spirit unlocked, and lust was the one who happened to come in and ransack the place.

It’s obvious that David, at this point in his life, has grown smug and self-satisfied. He’s addicted to his own power and the lifestyle he enjoys – one that is drenched with luxury and ease. Amidst all of that, he has lost touch with his source of real power, purpose, and strength. He has become completely unhinged.

And it might be easy for us to say, “Well, of course. I mean, it’s a mid-life crisis for a wealthy man. He got drunk with his incredible wealth and power and this is what resulted.”

Except we can’t really say that. Let me be clear: everyone in this room is wealthier and, in some way, more powerful than King David could ever dream of being.

The average poor American – someone who makes, say, $25,000 a year, lives in a home that is climate controlled and equipped with a television and a telephone. He or she eats far more calories that necessary and is able to take those calories from abundant and varied food sources.

Although King David lived in a palace, he didn’t have access to running water; and with the threat of smallpox and tuberculosis and who knows what else, the average life expectancy for a man was about 45 years. He would have eaten well in comparison to his countrymen, but still would have been limited to seasonably available food from relatively local sources.

With your bike, your car, and these roads – to say nothing of a plane ticket – you can travel further in one day than David ever imagined possible. With your computer or television or smartphone, you have access to more enticing images of naked bodies than any of the ancients would have thought possible.

My point is simply that David did not have a rich person’s problem. He had a human problem.

David, the “man after God’s own heart”, chose to leave that heart unguarded, and that decision brought calamity to him and to all who surrounded him.

What makes you any different from King David?

What makes your discipleship any more reliable than his? What makes your integrity any greater? Your devotion any more passionate?

Nothing.

You and I are every bit as human as was he. And we are therefore called to be attentive to what we can salvage from his story in an effort to learn from it so that we might not fall victim to the same fate.

There is wisdom for us, church, in the letter that Peter sent to his followers. Peter – another fella who knew something about acting rashly and impulsively – writes to a group of believers scattered through Asia Minor. These are people who know all of the Jesus stories; they’ve said all of the right things and believe all of the important stuff. The translation you heard this morning reads fairly well in English. In it, Peter says, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” But the literal translation is even juicier: he uses the expression “gird up the loins of your mind.”

I bet you didn’t know your mind had loins, and if so, exactly how you would gird them. Here’s the meaning of that phrase: it has to do with ancient wardrobe practices and athletic prowess.

Image from theartofmanliness.com
Yes, there is a site by that name…

In the ancient near east, both men and women would have worn something loose and flowing – much like this alb I have on now. It works well in the heat, provides protection from the sun, and so on. But imagine how silly I’d look – and how dangerous it would be – trying to sprint up Stratmore Street dressed like this. So when it was time for some hard work or quick action, the wearer would have to get a lot of this extra fabric out of the way by hiking it up around the midsection and tying it off. If you knew that quick action or hard work was on the horizon, you’d “gird” yourself – be prepared – so that the wardrobe would not prevent you from doing what was necessary. In the same way, Peter says, we do that spiritually. We are alert. We are ready.

We do this by training ourselves to resist complacency. One of the most important conversations I’ve ever had with anyone occurred some years ago as I was talking with a trusted spiritual advisor. I must have said something that smacked of “Ah, I got this. No big deal,” because she grabbed me by the lapel and said, “David Carver, do not ever forget that you are seducible. I don’t know by what – it may be sex, it may be money, it may be popularity – but know this: you are seducible. Be on your guard.”

The memory of that conversation – probably fifteen years ago, now – is vivid for me as I seek to be moving forward in faith. The primary means of avoiding complacency is seeking to continue to grow in our faith. We cannot ever get to a place where we simply decide that we’ve “nailed it.” There is always room to grow, always something to learn, always a path that leads deeper. David got lazy, or weary, and he stopped looking for opportunities to grow stronger in his faith. That had disastrous consequences for him and for his community.

You and I are called to pursue holiness – to remember that God has something for us, and we are here to figure out how we can grow in our ability to steward that which God has given us.

Every plane you’ve ever been on carries a flight recorder – a “black box”. But I’d guess that none of the flights you’ve been on has needed to refer to the data from that recorder. Why? Because you haven’t crashed. Why haven’t you crashed?

In all probability, you haven’t crashed because the people flying the plane have completed the pre-flight checklist. They have gone over the list of tasks that are necessary for safe operation of the plane. I’m sure that it’s tempting for seasoned pilots in familiar aircraft to think that these are unnecessary; I hope, however, that they take it seriously every time. Just as we count on the folks from Southwest or American Airlines to check and double check the flaps, seals, and stops, so you and I do well to make sure that we are connected well to each other and to God every day; to be alert to and diligent about the small things in our lives that affect our integrity – so that when it comes to the big questions, we’re less likely to fail. Beloved, let us commit to staying focused on our faith, to being honest with each other, to practicing the disciplines of prayer and study and generosity and humility – so that when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, we might be ready to move through it without crashing and burning. Thanks be to God! Amen.