Bathsheba & stories left untold

homily for July 29, 2018:  2 Samuel 11:1-15 & Mark 7: 24-37*

This past March the clergy of the Diocese went on a Lenten retreat and our leader, Catherine Meeks, began by inviting us to put down our phones and try to forget the work of the parish for a day (not an easy thing in the last weeks of lent). She wanted us to put down distractions so that we could be fully together and present.  She then said to us, “I think evil gets to us by way of distraction.” I think evil gets to us by way of distraction.

Now, that was all we heard about evil for the rest of the retreat, but there it was, in the air and in our notebooks. An acknowledgement that amid all this talk about presence and soul-deep conversation, we can be drawn to some dark places when we become distracted.

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If you doubt that, just ask King David.  In a time of war, he wasn’t on the front lines with his soldiers. He was back at the palace and went walking about on the roof of his house. As it happened (coincidence, right?), Bathsheba was bathing in her home, and she caught his eye.

This tragic story starts simply enough, as a distraction. David sees Bathsheba and calls for her, and whether she wants this or not, he takes her into his chambers. She becomes pregnant, so he first tries to fool him into thinking the child is his, then sends him to his death when he doesn’t fall for that. The prophet Nathan confronts him in the next chapter and says that there will be strife in your household, David – “now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house” and that the child of this affair will die.

In all this, Bathsheba’s response goes unrecorded.

There are moments in holy scripture where our protagonists do unsavory things, and a closer look at the text and the context gives us some comfort. Perhaps a given story was a part of God’s plan, perhaps the writers had a deeper story to tell.

I’m not sure this is one of those texts. This story is deeply troubling when we consider the fate of the good soldier Uriah; it becomes heartbreaking as we see what befalls David himself. But this story becomes devastating when we consider Bathsheba, a woman who despite being taken by the king, despite seeing her husband’s life thrown away to satisfy David, despite losing her child because of the sentence on David, is given no voice in the story.

Through all this, Bathsheba’s voice goes unrecorded. It’s a story all about men that barely mentions the character who suffers the most.

Now there is a hero here, the soldier Uriah who won’t even sleep in his own home while his men are deployed in the field. The light of Uriah’s integrity shines into David’s window, and out of shame or anger or just an old-fashioned need to cover it all up, he sends Uriah to the front lines to be killed by the enemy.

So we’re beginning to see the evil thing David has done for what it is. We’re beginning to see that David can have moments where he is far worse than Goliath ever was.

Uriah’s fate helps us to see that David’s sin for what it is. But it’s curious and unfortunate that we need Uriah’s story to see it…what if we could have heard from Bathsheba instead? What if she could have spoken up sooner?

I realize that some of this was how stories like this were recorded at the time. But the opportunity we have is to look deeper, to seek healing and transformation not only in the stories themselves, but in the contours that are hidden beneath the surface. Often within those hidden corners we find grief and suffering, but we must go through that if we’re going to reach hope, a hope that is honest. If we can begin to listen to the stories that weren’t told,  what might we hear God whispering to us?

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But there is some good news in this story even if it isn’t enough to prevent the tragedy.  The prophet Nathan confronts David, and in so doing reminds us that this may be a fallen world, a broken world, but it is a moral one as well. In the kingdom of God, our actions have consequences and our sins do not happen in a vacuum.

“You are the man!” Nathan cries to David. You are the man who sent an innocent to die, you are the man who had everything, yet saw Bathsheba and took her, and for this the sword shall never depart from your house, for this I will raise up trouble from within your family. Perhaps we can find some justice in David’s comeuppance, in knowing that God holds us accountable to one another. Perhaps we can remember that even our heroes, even our patriarchs, are fallen human beings, and like us, are sinners in the need of forgiveness.

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It’s a dark story, to be sure, and the closer we look the less comfort we find. We could read this simply as royal intrigue. We could even say that David behaved like a worldly king at first but in a decidedly holy turn accepted the judgement of the prophet Nathan – it’s true, most kings would not have done that. Perhaps we can even look at Bathsheba and say that her story got better: she soon bore Solomon and became a matriarch of the kingdom.

But none of these are quite satisfying, because we are denied the witness that could only come from Bathsheba herself. When we listen for the stories that aren’t being told, when we look at stories like this not for the-way-things-are but for what is possible in the imagination of God, who loves Bathsheba as much as Uriah, who loves Bathsheba as much as David, we might begin to see a more complete picture of the Kingdom of God.

We see God’s story in the familiar characters, true, but we can also see God in the omissions, in the stories left untold that are there nonetheless. What we learn of God there will help us grow, and will help us to be bearers of life in a world that is broken.

Telling these stories will help us to heal. It will challenge us in what we know, but it will also remind us that the deepest part of our own stories, the stories we are afraid to tell, are in fact precious to God, and the places where something new can take root.

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When Jesus meets the Syrophoenician woman, a gentile whose daughter is suffering, what does she do when he at first dismiss her? She speaks up! Jesus – who was still focusing his ministry on his own Jewish brothers and sisters, says in effect, we’re going to take care of our own first. I realize that isn’t what we expect to hear from Jesus, but remember that in the beginning he really was focused on his fellow Jews. But it was moments like this that changed him.

When she asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he says, no, “let the children (meaning the Jewish people) be fed first.”  The response of the Syrophoenician woman is most certainly recorded. Lord, she said, we all must eat. And my daughter’s suffering matters as much as anyone else’s.

She speaks up, and Jesus listens. She speaks up and Jesus immediately expands the gifts of his ministry to the people who were otherwise invisible. Her story mattered. Her daughter’s story mattered. Jesus listened, and made her daughter well.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, July 29, 2018, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina. Year B, Proper 12.

*The gospel is from Proper 18.

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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