Homily for Pentecost 12, August 2, 2015

WE MUST GROW UP

The Ven. Grant Rodgers

In the second reading today, Paul says rather emphatically: “We must no longer be children …. we must grow up.”

As St Paul says, there comes a point when we must no longer be children – guided by whim rather than reason – led here and there by our own egocentric desires – distracted by this, momentarily fascinated by that.  Adults can’t operate that way, and if they do, they cause all kinds of damage.

In the first reading, we have an example of what it looks like when an adult chooses to behave in a childish way.

The world of the child (or a rich and powerful king who acts like one) is one of instant gratification.  David has become so entitled he has failed to see that he has been operating like some spoiled brat who just does whatever he wants and lets other people pick up the pieces and bear the consequences. When Jesus said we should become like children, I am certain this is not what he meant!

The story of David and Bathsheba is one that is well known: David spotted her one day and wanted her so much he simply reached out and grabbed her as though she were an entitlement, a perk, and later arranged an elaborate deception to have her husband killed to avoid the complications arising from the pregnancy which David caused.

Just when David thinks he has gotten away with it, he discovers that there is a kind of invisible justice at work, revealing that even a powerful king can’t operate with impunity.  And so the prophet Nathan becomes the agent of divine justice and confronts the king with a parable, which is his own story in disguise.  People in positions of power are usually not very willing to be told what to do, and as a result they can get very isolated and paranoid and even dangerous, but Nathan takes the risk of enabling David to see what he is really about, to look more objectively at his own actions, and to see himself in context.

David’s response?   He hates the story.  He instantaneously hates this person Nathan is describing – this person he has become without even being aware of it.  “A person like that deserves to die!” he says. “He’s going to pay!” And the prophet informs him, “Well, actually,  it’s you.”  And David is suddenly awakened to the magnitude, the reality, of what he has done; he suddenly becomes more self-aware, and thus begins a process of transformation.

Infantile behaviour abounds in our world, in the way we relate to the environment, in the way we define ourselves and interact sexually, in the way we delay the onset of responsible, accountable (mature) behaviour.

Immature people often do not see or acknowledge any responsibility for the ripple effect of their actions, and perhaps the American dentist who loves killing off African wildlife and endangered species is a good case in point here.  They just want to do what they want to do without interference of any kind, as though they were living in a vacuum (or a playpen).   They may talk about having their rights compromised, painting themselves as victims, when instead they should be recognizing that the world is not an inert backdrop, and other people are not merely props in their own little pantomime.

Psalm 51 (which at one point was believed to be written by David)  says “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” but the fact is that from the time we are children we learn to deflect and deny, to send any potential blame or disapproval off somewhere else.  The fact is that we seldom see our transgressions and are instead quite unconscious and even oblivious of the impact we have on others and the world around us.

Like a skilled counsellor or spiritual director, the prophet helps David get honest, points to what’s really going on here, and helps him face the reality rather persist in believing in the stories he has invented to make himself look better and feel better.  David may well already have had a sense of what his biography was going to look like: the story of the obscure and unlikely young man chosen for greatness; his courage in facing down giants; his success as the great warrior, strategist, and statesman; the sensitive and cultured person who loved the arts; etc.  Nathan obliges him to include a chapter about him being an adulterer, manipulator and deceitful person.  Nathan helps David look not just at the situation, but into himself, and to see himself as he is.

There’s a famous painting called The Sleeping Cardinal in which an artist is portrayed in the attempt to translate the sad reality into the glorious myth.  The subject is a tired, wrinkled old man slumped in a chair sound asleep, his hair unkempt, his wrinkled chin resting on his chest.  The artist is clearly baffled – he is shown scratching his head, obviously struggling to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear, but the portrait that is emerging on the canvas is of a dynamic visionary with his lively, piercing eyes looking upward, as though constantly in tune with the divine.

The Sleeping Cardinal

In many ways, it’s strange that the chroniclers throughout the Bible did not paint just the rosy picture, the flattering portrait.  Instead, they insist on including people’s flaws and failings in the stories.  Even the greatest of their spiritual and military leaders, from Noah to Jacob to Moses to David, come with their defects and imperfections, and their tendency to mess up a good thing.

There is a wise old saying that goes “What Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than it does about Paul.”  The first reading today is a classic case of projection being turned against the projector – the one doing the accusing.  For David, what he most hates about others is really what he most despises in himself.  In a real way, he obviously hates what he has become.  “I really hate that guy” David seems to say as he listens to Nathan describing this person who is so inconsiderate and abusive toward others. And Nathan says: Well, that guy is you, but you haven’t looked hard enough in the mirror to see him yet.  Nathan provides the mirror whereby David begins to see himself in a new light, no longer in isolation but in context.  Nathan was wise enough, insightful enough about human nature, to be able to use this tendency to enable David to come to his senses and return to being a person others can look up to and believe in.

Projection is the tendency for people to “defend themselves against unpleasant impulses by denying their existence in themselves, while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude” (Wikipedia).  Or, a person who is gay, but not openly gay, will often attack or condemn gay people.  By projecting what we interpret as our own unacceptable qualities on to others, we can convince ourselves we don’t have to deal with them – it’s the other person’s problem, rather than our own.

Gay and lesbian people have been the undeserving target of people’s self-condemnation (their projections) for centuries, so it is good, especially on this Pride weekend, to note that Vancouver has created a relatively safe community where such people don’t need to disguise or deny or lie about who they are, but can be recognized and celebrated as valuable fellow citizens, and in many cases, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

King David was more fortunate than most, in that he didn’t persist in denial; he owned his problem.  He didn’t attempt to externalize it and try to blame the victim (Bathsheba) or argue that his circumstances were special — he  acknowledged the error of his ways and repented of what he had done and did his best to try to make it right. It was not enough simply to embrace the hatred he felt for that dark part of himself; he had to allow it all to be in the light.   In the end, his liaison with Bathsheba produced one of the great monarchs of history – King Solomon – a bit of irony, certainly, but also a lesson about how God is not tied to our conceptions and expectations of how things are supposed to work out.

But it is significant (I think) that David was not just thrown out in disgrace –  that is often how a society as a whole projects its own faults on to individuals.  God will not waste this man’s greatness.  Instead, David is humbled without being humiliated, and chastised without being destroyed; he is taught a lesson without being made to seem like a complete fool, because the goal is integration, not disintegration or destruction

He discovered God’s ability to look beyond our faults —to see in us things we may long since have forgotten or obscured – and yet how many people just like David have been subjected to witch hunts and inquisitions of various kinds!   The Bible does not paint rosy portraits of people because it is pointing to a deeper reality: that God loves us and works with us regardless of our faults and failings and weaknesses – almost in some cases because of them.

I recall some self-righteous nit trying to lecture me about a “biblical model” of marriage.  As sarcastically as I could, I asked “Oh, what ‘biblical model’ are you talking about – Jacob?  David? Solomon?,  all of whom had multiple wives, or maybe St Paul, who urged people not to be married at all?”    And I think of how many great people whose lives would have been nullified, invalidated, including David and Paul, if that kind of simpering person, with that kind of simpering attitude, were allowed to prevail. Life would be too boring to bear, and people like Paul and David were anything but boring.

Rather than trying to do the hypocritical thing and hide the messy bits, the Bible reveals to us that God knows us in our totality, and works with us in spite of our own attempts to deny who we are.    As we learn to trust in the love of God, some of the deeper, hidden qualities that we are ashamed of can be allowed to emerge and be integrated and finally transformed, and this works at the level of society in general, as well as in individual lives.

It encourages us as well to paint more honest and authentic portraits of our leaders, perhaps especially our spiritual leaders, rather than trying to paint them as perfect icons of morality and propriety. Like the Bible, let us choose to paint more wholistic pictures that show how people are able to be faithful leaders and servants of God, regardless of their unconventional characteristics, unusual courses of action, and occasional mistakes in judgement.

George Orwell, a writer with a prophet’s sensibilities, once wrote that “Ignorance is bliss.”  In his famous book 1984, he also wrote that “orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

Growing up means becoming willing and able to deal with reality and not childish fairy tales about human life – realizing that that we don’t need to go around pretending that we live within certain norms when in fact we don’t (or can’t).  But the fact is that we are still way too ready to crucify people when they are not perfect, when they don’t match up with the ideal, and so our process of growing up continues all too slowly.

Ironically, the Bible has often been used (or misused) to set up a perfectionistic, idealized view of human life, when in fact it seems to be  at pains to portray the opposite, and King David’s story is a good case in point.

“We must no longer be children …. we have to grow up,” Paul says.  For him, growing up means taking on the likeness of Christ – growing into the fullness of our humanity, instead of persisting in a limited and isolated and tribal way of life.

Like David, Paul himself was a deeply flawed person who was obliged to confront his inner demons – to deal with the perfectionism and idealism that had turned him into a murderous fanatic.  Paul never seems to hide that fact of his past despite how bad that could have made him seem to some people.  In fact, his “weaknesses,” which he might have been tempted to hide, or have airbrushed out of the portrait, turned out to be sources of hidden strength (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So Paul was able to advise the church that we need to learn to bear with each other and celebrate, rather than resent, the great variety of people and gifts that are present in any faith community, rather than seeking to shame, intimidate or even eliminate people who differ from the “|norm.”

The Gospel today points to the fact that was Jesus inviting people us into a sacramental vision of life, a life in which we look deeper into things – see though the superficial and the obvious to what might easily be obscured, to see things more wholistically – and realistically – in the light of the love which created us in the image of God in the first place.

The Venerable Grant Rodgers+

RCL-appointed readings:

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a  When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him.  When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD,  and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”  Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”  Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.  Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.  Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun.  For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” 

Psalm 51:1-12 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.   Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sins. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  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 judgment.   Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.  You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.   Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.   Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Ephesians 4:1-16 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.  Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”   (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)   The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.   We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

John 6:24-35 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.   When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”  Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”   Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”   Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”   So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?   Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”  Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.