November 19, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presby, Columbiana & First United Presby, EP
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
Where did your mind and spirit go as we read this passage? In the time of silence that followed? Know that wherever you are – whether its in a place of guilt or anger or fear or moral superiority or boredom or pain or sorrow or frustration – God is present in that emotion.
My own thought chain ran from Harvey Weinstein to Roy Moore to #MeToo. From may pastoral conversations over the years, to the many ways we form and abuse relationships, to David and Bathsheba.
David – the greatest king of Israel, a man after God’s own heart. Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of David’s top soldiers. David – bored, restless, at home while his army has gone off to war. David – pacing the roof of his palace. David – seeing Bathsheba in the bath; desiring Bathsheba; summoning Bathsheba; impregnating Bathsheba. David – arranging for Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to conveniently die on the battlefield. David – incorporating Bathsheba into his harem.
David – all powerful king following the rules governing all powerful men. He owned everyone and everything. What he wanted he got, with nobody to judge. Nobody that is except Nathan, David’s pastor, and the God both Nathan and David served.
Over the years commentators have worked overtime to pin the blame for David’s downfall on Bathsheba. She shouldn’t have been so pretty. She should have taken her bath at a different time, in a different location, with more clothes on. She should have said “no,” or resisted more forcibly. She shouldn’t have gotten pregnant. She – and her baby – should have quietly disappeared.
The ancient storytellers have little patience for these victim blamers. Holy people who desire healthy relationships respect the boundaries laid out by God, society and those they love. Marriage stands as most important of these boundaries. Marriage binds us together with our partner, creating an ideally permanent foundation for two people to grow together, support each other, belong to each other, nurture and raise children together.
In his sexual promiscuity, David willfully tramples the boundary of marriage. When we or those around us violate the boundaries of marriage, stability can turn to chaos, intimacy can turn to hatred and assurance can turn to fear. Some of you have experienced this. You know what its like to try to restore boundaries and rebuild relationships. You know what its like to fail. You know that sometimes the best thing for the health and wholeness of all involved is to break the bond – and you know the emotional and economic pain and hurt that causes. Jesus condemns divorce because of the very real damage it causes, especially to women and children. Jesus also shows immense grace toward those outside traditional family structures – the woman at the well who had five husbands and was living unmarried with a new partner, male and female disciples whose family relationships are unknown, the woman caught in adultery. When sin increases, grace abounds even more.
David tramples the boundaries by stealing Uriah’s wife. According to the ancient storytellers, David impregnates Bathsheba but violates Uriah. Bathsheba’s a mere pawn in the power games of men. A piece of property to be brought, sold or discarded. Women remained the property of men in Jesus’ time. According to Jewish law, a man had every right to discard a woman deemed no longer acceptable. Jesus disagreed. “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning,” Jesus tells the Pharisees, “made them male and female.” Both in the image of God. Both equally fused by marriage into becoming one flesh.
The apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching when he gives wives authority over their husbands’ bodies and husbands authority over their wives. Holy people who desire healthy relationships not only respect boundaries but also anchor their relationships in mutuality. Without mutuality, David abuses Bathsheba but violates her husband Uriah. With mutuality, David abuses Bathsheba and violates a person created in the image of God, defined as a child of God. In violating Bathsheba, David violates God.
Jesus, who comes to earth as God, never holds his authority over anyone. He also elevates those long dismissed to the margins and gives personhood to those considered invisible. Jesus welcomes Mary, sister of Lazarus, who should have been in the kitchen, to sit with his disciples at his feet. Jesus empowers the women at the well, who he should have shunned for so many reasons, to be the first evangelist. Jesus calls Mary Magdeline, who society forbade to give testimony at court, to be the primary witness of his resurrection. Jesus called men and women to be his disciples, calling each into mutual relationships based on the image of God in each.
Society and culture divides us and puts us in positions of power over each other. Society creates kings and powerless women taking baths. Society creates bosses and powerless interns; movie producers and powerless actors; mentors and powerless newbies trying to get a foot in the door; manipulative abusers and their powerless victims. Some in power even try to codify the power structures in religious language, claiming divine authority to deny mutuality, justify sexual promiscuity, affirm abuse and empower exploitation. Just as the ancient storytellers had no use for those who try to victim shame Bathsheba, scripture has no use for those who seek to deny mutuality, trample boundaries, and give into their abusive passions. To violate your sister or brother is to violate your God.
God welcomes us into his presence as we are, in the relationships we’re in. But God also calls us to holiness in our relationships with each other. By respecting boundaries, by affirming mutuality, we reject the disorderly and unkept lives of those who do not know God. We see and honor the image of God in each other. We do not take what is not given freely and we give as we receive. We seek lives and relationships transformed by God’s spirit. Relationships made holy and beautiful. Relationships created in the image of a God defined by self-giving love.