Proper 12B: How Much Abundance is Enough?

multiplication of loavesOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 11: 1-15

Read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

“In the spring of the year…the time when kings go out to battle.” The stage is set. It is spring and battles rage. Perhaps this story begins with that seemingly poetic phrase as it is trying to set the context for us. You know…”all is fair in love and war”, right? Really? Is that our excuse? Let’s get real…this is the grand poetic prelude to one of the biggest out and out failures by anyone in the Bible. Just to set the record straight: I do not think that this story can simply be dismissed with one of those “God can even use characters like this” comment. This is a clear exploitation and manipulation of power—even God-given power. Being “God blessed”, whatever you think that might be does not exempt one from sin or the consequences of that sin.

This story depicts a shift from the public domain to the personal, from power to vulnerability, from blessing to curse. There are four main episodes of this story: First, David is at home while his armies rage and lay siege to Rabbah. He sees a beautiful women bathing and exercises his power as king to take her. She becomes pregnant. So, David brings Bathsheba’s husband Urriah home from the front to sleep with his wife to cover up the pregnancy. But Urriah is too dedicated to his comrades in battle. And, finally, David arranges with Joab to see that Urriah dies in battle. But other innocent lives are lost in this process.

It’s actually pretty remarkable that this story was preserved and that it became part of the Hebrew writings and, thus, our Christian canon. After all, it doesn’t exactly show the fair King David in the best light. So, often this story has been “explained away” by depicting Bathsheeba as a beguiling seductress, which would then transform David into some sort of victim. Many take it as a warning against sexual temptations. Oh come now! Then, there are also those that will explain this away as the work of God to rectify the marriage of Urriah, a Hittite, to Bathsheeba, an Israelite, which was forbidden. There is even a story of Satan appearing as a bird and when David shot an arrow at it, the screen toppled, revealing Bathsheeba to David. But, sadly and truthfully, this is probably the story of a hero gone bad. David failed; David sinned; and then David did the unthinkable to try to hide what he had done. From whom did it need hidden? Those whom he ruled? God? Perhaps David himself? So what are we supposed to get out of it?

Perhaps we are supposed to look at ourselves and our own reactions. In essence, David becomes sort of a comic character in this story. The great military strategist is now put in a position of petty scheming and secret plotting to cover up his own lack of control. God’s response actually does not come until next week’s reading. A hint: Even David’s monumental breakdown is not enough to negate what God is doing.

It also should be noted that while David was doing all this, his army was fighting for their lives and taking the lives of innocent others. (After all, it was spring. Why wasn’t David with them?) And then when David needed Uriah’s death, he framed it in a military way, using his role as “Commander in Chief”, if you will, to cover up his own wrongdoing. David as king was meant to show and live out the righteousness of that role. But this is a story about the abuse of power and privilege and the victimization of others. The theology of failure is quite explicit. What does failure mean to God? What does the failure of our leaders mean to us? What does our own failure mean for us and for our faith?

The truth is, while all the violence was going on around him, David was enacting his own war, his own set of violent actions—violent sexuality, violent cover-up, violent murder. Maybe the most profound of all is the violent act of David’s own self-deception which, in all honesty, is also an attempt to deceive God. And, for us, rather than just slapping the hand of the perpetrator (“BAD DAVID!”), maybe in some odd sort of way, we are supposed to take a look at our own deceptions, at our own violent actions that are not in harmony with the Creation that God has envisioned. After all, we try, but, still, “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…, where are we?

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say about how we react to all of the issues in this passage?
  3. What does this say about sin?
  4. What does this say about God?
  5. What does failure mean to God and to us?
  6. What message does this passage hold for us today?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 3: 14-21

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

This passage contains a beautiful prayer that builds to the eternal proclamation of God. At the beginning, it proclaims God as “father”. This does not imply a “parental” or fathering relationship but, rather, one of power. Essentially, it is saying that God is God and there are no others. The writer then speaks of God’s Spirit, not as an “other-worldly” thing, but as part of our inner self that governs all that we are. This is continued with the mention of the Risen Christ, implying God’s ever-abiding Presence with us.

And, so, who we are, the very foundations of our lives are rooted in who God is. Knowing God, though, has nothing to do with knowledge of God, but, rather, in being so attuned with the God here and the God-piece in us that we begin to comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of God. God does not desire our worship or our glory; God desires to be known by us. God desires that we know and enter the immeasurable power that is God.

In a sermon on this passage, Edward Markquart relates the story of Ollie the Oyster with these words:

It’s time for a story, the story about Ollie the Oyster. It is an old story that is like a weathervane for me on the top of a house in rural North Dakota. This old weathervane points in the right direction, and this story about Ollie the Oyster has always pointed me in the right direction. Ollie the Oyster was swimming along one day in the ocean and he was having a wonderful time, with the sun out and weather warm. He was cruising along at the bottom of the ocean happily and joyfully when suddenly, a piece of sand, a piece of ocean grit, got into his skin. Ohhh, what pain. That piece of sand hurt so much. Ollie didn’t necessarily do anything wrong to get that sand in his life; it just happened. But ohhh, how it hurt! And so Ollie the Oyster cried. How he cried! He cried and cried and cried, tears and tears and tears, so much so that the ocean slowly rose over the days, weeks and months and years. After he had cried for two or three years, Ollie stopped and…and…the sand was still there, causing him pain. What to do? So Ollie the Oyster started to cuss. He used every cuss word that he learned in grade school and junior high school. He cussed and cussed and cussed, so much so that a plume of blue smoke came up from the ocean where he lived. When Ollie the Oyster was finished cussing, he stopped….and…and…the sand was still there in his side, causing him immense pain. So Ollie the Oyster started to pretend. He would pretend that the piece of sand was not in his side. He pretended and pretended and pretended. He repressed and repressed and repressed. When after all those months and years of repression had passed, he woke up to reality enough to realize the sand was still there, causing him pain. What to do? And slowly, ever so slowly, it began to dawn on Ollie the Oyster. Slowly, o so slowly, he remembered that he had a special power within, and so he grunted and groaned and groveled and slowly an excretion of gooey oil came out and surrounded the piece of sand, insulating the sand and the pain went away. What a miracle! The pain was gone. And ever so slowly, over time, that gooey substance began to harden around the grain of sand, and in time, it became a pearl. Yes, a pearl, for that is the way that pearls are made. (Edward Markquart, “The Power of God Living Within Us”, available at http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/books_ephesians_thepower.htm, accessed 23 July, 2012)

The prayer itself has been handed down to us, handed through thousands of generations, because we need to hear it. Knowing God is not private work. It is part of the community in which we live and work and have our being. In a commentary on this passage, Sally A. Brown says that “we are blessed with each other and stuck with each other.” (available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=7/29/2012&tab=3) In other words, this community is God’s dwelling place. God is already here. Love and grace and God’s power comes before. The One to whom we bow has been here for all these countless generations. All we have to do is know the God who is already known and enter the mystery that abounds. It is the love and grace that fills us. We were never promised easy; we were promised life. We just have to open ourselves to what is already there and be transformed in the process.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “knowing God” mean to you?
  3. What is that inner power, that “God-piece” that is in you? What does that mean?

 

GOSPEL: John 6: 1-21

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This is one of the most well-known passages. Its popularity was also evident in the first century, because it is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. There are subtle differences. Here, the writer depicts the group of people as a “crowd”. According to the Gospel known as Mark, it is a “throng”. (I don’t like crowds myself, but, oh, to be part of a throng!) But Luke and Matthew state that it was 5,000 strong (not counting women and children, of course!) So we end up looking at this as some sort of extraordinary miracle where Jesus was able to multiply the food that the little boy had.

But notice, first of all, that it never says that that was the ONLY food. Perhaps there were some people holding back their food, tucking it away so that it would not be discovered and so they would be expected to share. Perhaps the miracle lies in the little boy. He was first, freely and openly offering everything that he had to Jesus. The lunch of barley loaves and fish would have been a basic lunch of the poor. Barley is a very inexpensive grain and fish were plentiful here on the Lake (remember, it’s really a lake, rather than a sea!) of Galilee. And yet, this unnoticed and uncounted person of poverty offered everything that he had. Maybe the miracle was that he sparked others to come forward and offer what they had. Maybe the miracle was that there was enough after all.

I, personally, would like to be like that little boy. I would like to learn how to offer what I have and not feel compelled to hold back for fear of running out. And also notice, that Jesus did not just somehow provide exactly what was needed. This is not the story of a magic trick. There were leftovers. And nothing was wasted. The sandwiches and leftover fish were not left on the grassy mountainside to rot and be picked apart by animals. They were carefully gathered and saved to be used—maybe for the next picnic, maybe for those in the village that did not have enough, or maybe it was given out as holy doggie bags to remind us what can happen when we open what we have and who we are to others!

This is a story about abundance. But we Westerners struggle with scarcity, with worrying that there won’t be enough, with knowing that we have to take care of ourselves first before we take care of others, worrying that there is some storm right around the bend for which we need to be prepared. Why do we struggle like that? Well, the story takes care of that too. The passage tells us that the disciples started across the lake in the darkness. And, just as they had feared, a storm did surface—blowing winds, waves crashing into the tiny boat, drenching them through their slickers. But there, there is Jesus. Do not be afraid…Do not be afraid. Interestingly enough, this account never says that the waves were calmed. It says, rather, that Jesus calmed the disciples. Isn’t that what faith is about? Perhaps abundance has nothing to do with what we have or with the world around us. Perhaps it’s the perspective that comes when you know that God is present your life. Maybe that little boy got that. Maybe faith is about realizing that there are always fragments around us, there is always importance in what has been tossed aside.

In one of his sermons, Thomas Long tells the story of a student of his that went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood.  As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own.  At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a pizza to be delivered to their home when they got there.  As they headed for the phone, though, a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change.  So the father reached into the pockets of his sweat pants and pulled out two handfuls of coins, “Here,” he said to the homeless man.  “Take what you need.”  The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went on his way.

Well, it only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone.  “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a call.  Can you spare some change?”  The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins.  “Here,” he said.  “Take what you need.” (Thomas Long, “Surprise Party”, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2168, accessed 21 July, 2009.)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What makes us hold back from the abundance that God offers?
  3. What stands in the way of us being like that little boy?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

There’s a crack. There’s a crack in everything. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)

The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love; but if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is from God. (Meister Eckhart, c. 1260-c. 1327)

 

If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. (Annie Dillard)

 

 

Closing

My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask [God] to strengthen you by [the] Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask [God] that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! [God] does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, [with a ] Spirit deeply and gently within us.

Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus! Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh yes! Amen.

Ephesians 3: 14-21, in The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

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