In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, film critic Liam Lacy, writing a valedictory column as he moves towards retirement after 40 years as a writer and critic in the print media, commented on the state of movies today. “Films are, for the most part”, he said, “not really films any more. They’re part of the digital video soup we’re all swimming in.”[i]
Into this digital video soup we’re swimming in come today’s scriptural texts about marital infidelity and a miracle story—two narratives that would inspire unending tweets and Facebook posts if they’d happen today. If the story of Jesus miraculously feeding 5000 people doesn’t grab you maybe David’s sleeping with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah might have pulled you, for a moment, out the porridge pot of microfame and nano frame.[ii]
Because these two stories hold within them enough jolts to push us, if we hear them, out of the complacency of life in the digital age, away from our screens for a moment to wonder about what in heaven’s name we’re to glean from scripture this day.
The text from 2nd Samuel begins with the haunting words, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle”. The time when kings go out—pull back the curtain and see the ancient world in all its complexity and horror—a world where patriarchal rulers used their soldiers in a never-ending quest for land and resources, a world of violence, where human lives were expendable. King David, who we heard about last week in his quest to build God a beautiful home, was a king like many others, a tyrant who would use the levers of power for his own gain. We know his type, we see it manifest in leaders throughout history and even today. The story of his affair with Bathsheba has been made famous by Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, and his subsequent repentance is found in the words of Psalm 51—
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
A Facebook friend of mine last week asked me a question that’s been turning round in my mind ever since. He said, “The remembered moment and the replayed scene, and the ensuing cringe factor….like “how could I have said x” and so on. What do we call that?” What Christians call it is sin—missing the mark, getting it wrong, making mistakes. It’s the human condition in all its moral ambiguity and confusion, it’s the in born instinct in all of us to see only through the filter of our own perceptions and forget the wider perspective of others and indeed the most important perspective of the earth itself and of the history of human habitation on this planet. We get it wrong.
We get it wrong because somehow we get hooked into the game of judging who’s right. It’s at the base of our instincts, our reptilian brains, wanting to prove to others that we’re right and more importantly, you’re wrong. And once you put a person in the ‘wrong’ category, you forever perceive them differently, so differently indeed that you become blind to their humanity and see them as dispensable.
David was convinced that he was right to desire Bathsheba, therefore Uriah was wrong, and therefore dispensable. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? How can a self critical consciousness ever be developed so that we can never again have those replayed scenes in our minds wondering how we could have ever said or thought so in so.
Isn’t it interesting, from this perspective, to look at the world of video games and comic book based movies with their glorification of violence as a response to conflict and injustice—the heroes, often with a grudge over a past wrong, stop at nothing to destroy the villains, whose horrible actions are accentuated to make the revenge stories seem even more acceptable. But revenge, retaliation, righting the wrongs through violence always leads to a perpetuation of the cycle of violence and doesn’t solve anything. The only solution is the transformation of our lives and consciousness.
The antidote to the game of ‘who’s right’ is the Jesus movement with its focus on forgiveness, feeding and healing.
I don’t know if you remember last week the story of King David wanting to build Yahweh a great house, a temple—and the Lord God spoke to Nathan the prophet to inform David that God was perfectly content in a tent. The gospel of John, from which we read the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, begins with the outrageous claim that God pitched a tent in the midst of the human story and appeared in flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. So in John’s gospel whenever Jesus acts, see God. And tonight we see God feeding a hungry crowd.
Now there’s been lots of interpretations that this isn’t a miracle in the classical sense at all, that what happened was that when Jesus received the loaves and fishes from the young lad and prayed over them, that the crowd, who presumably would not have travelled without provisions, would have furtively brought out their sandwiches and eaten—the miracle, this interpretation would argue, was that they brought out their food.
But while that may make our rationally oriented minds a little more comfortable with the weirdness of the miracle story, I’d rather take it as a genuine miracle. Priest and contemporary prophet Nadia Bolz-Weber has preached a wonderful sermon on this text and let me close summarizing her argument.[iii]
It’s a sermon preached to clergy and church musicians—and she affirms the work that is done by ministers in the church. But she reminds us that when we think it’s all up to us, we miss the point. As important as our work is to God’s working in the world, God doesn’t love us any more because we’re doing the work. She tells the story of being on retreat because she was feeling burned out, and the work that her retreat master gave her to do. She said, Nadia. I don’t think you should DO anything while you are here. Just walk these grounds knowing that God loves you totally apart from any work you do.
Nadia reminds us that the God depicted in Holy Scripture is pleased to work with nothing. The universe was created out of nothing. Nothing, she says, is God’s favorite material to work with. Let me close with her words:
The resource that Jesus had in abundance that day that a few loaves and couple fish became a feast for 5,000 people wasn’t the fried chicken and potato salad hidden under people’s tunics…the raw material that Jesus had was the need of humanity for a God that can do miracles. This need is an endless resource.
Maybe the mistake the disciples made wasn’t only that they forgot how God works, but also that they forgot that they too were hungry. They defaulted to “what do I have” rather than “what do I too need, and is that also what the people in front of me need?”. The disciples seemed to forget that their own personal need for bread, and not their own personal resources was the thing that qualified them to participate in the miracle of feeding thousands with nothing on hand. It was not their cooking skills, it was not their ability to preach enough Law that they guilted everyone into sharing; it was their own deep hunger which exactly matches that of the crowd. … And this need you and I have for Jesus, in not a scarce resource…the need for forgiveness and love and mercy has no limit. Let that be our nothing from which God creates real miracles.
When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus- my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm. That’s our guy. The Man of sorrows familiar with suffering, friend of scoundrels and thieves, forgiver of his own executioners, resurrected on the 3rd day, the lamb who was slain, the great defeater of death and griller of fish and savior of sinners.
In him there is not one category of people who teach and one who need to learn. There is not one category of people who heal and one who need wholeness. There is not one category of people who minister and one who need care. There is just one category: hungry sinners in need of a savior. So together we come away with Christ to sit in the grass and be fed…and you are in as much need of being fed, healed and ministered to as those who you care for. Because the work you do IS important and it is transformative but you, my sweet, dear friends, are loved entirely and completely by God with or without doing that work.
[ii] 2 SAMUEL 11:1-15; JOHN 6:1-21