Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Crooked System that Keeps Us All Uriahs

Hey all,
It's been a while but I'm hoping to get back to posting sermons and other reflections here more often. Below is a sermon manuscript I preached this Sunday on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15 at Messiah Lutheran Church. Would love to hear your thoughts!
God's peace,

One day, while strolling around his palace, King David spots a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing way off in the distance, and well, he's uh, ya know, pretty interested. King David, a sort of Barney Stinson of ancient Israel it seems, has a problem though because Bathsheba is married to a fellow named Uriah the Hittite, one of the king’s warriors and a man of great honor. Blinded by his own wealth and power as king, David disregards this "minor roadblock" however and decides to invite Bathsheba over for a night at the palace anyway. As can often happen in these situations, the suave King David gets Bathsheba pregnant, but no worries, to cover up his infidelities, the king asks Uriah to take a break from battle and go home to have some "family leave" with his wife. Uriah however, as a warrior of great honor, refuses, not wanting to leave his fellow soldiers on the field of battle.

Now here’s where the story gets a bit more dangerous, where King David’s actions descend into greater sin… not knowing what else to do, and once again blinded by his immense wealth and power, King David writes a letter to his commanders to send Uriah to the place of fiercest fighting, and essentially commanding the murder of Uriah through the hand of the invading Amorites. Bathsheba, now a widow, is free to marry King David, and that's exactly what happens. As punishment for King David’s sin, this baby dies shortly after birth but eventually Bathsheba ends up giving birth to Solomon, who was both a much bigger womanizer even than his ol’ dad and also the next King of Israel.

Now you might be wondering, what does this sort of ancient Jerry Springer story have to do with us today, right here, right now in twenty-first century Schenectady… what might a story like this teach us about how God is breaking into our lives in liberating love? In short, my sisters and brothers, we should consider the story of Bathsheba and David with great seriousness, because really, at least in a round about sort of way, it’s the story of the times we are living in as well. The story of Bathsheba and David is the story of times we are living in as well. And no, I don’t mean to infer that all of us are out there being all promiscuous or whatever… let me explain. For almost forty years now, power and especially wealth has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few elite individuals and families, both here in America and around the world. In fact, the level of income inequality in America is at its highest levels since the Roaring Twenties. Not to get too technical, but “income” is sort of the annual flow of money a household receives every year, but if you look at wealth, the amount of assets a household has saved up over a lifetime, it’s even a scarier story… at this point the richest 3% of Americans hold over half of our country’s wealth. That’s right, the richest 3% of Americans now hold over half of our country’s wealth.

Given these sort of statistics, and even more importantly the horrible stories of suffering and despair behind these statistics, it makes a lot of sense that ordinary folks like you and me are angry, really angry… I occasionally stop by Mark’s Bar and Grill right over here on Curry Road, a very working class sort of place right? and the frustration and anger there is easy to see. The fact of the matter is, in this day and age, the vast majority of us are Uriahs, ordinary folks struggling just to survive and not even knowing who those elites really are that are sending us off to die. Living as Uriahs, with little wealth and diminished power, we’re angry, really angry and that anger is indeed justifiable, but let me make this abundantly clear, that anger is coming out in ways that are both dangerous and misdirected. Living with such unnecessary inequality, living with such unnecessary struggle, ordinary folks like you and I, modern day Uriahs, are angry, and justifiably so, but wow, that anger is coming out in ways that are both dangerous and misdirected.

After being away at a wedding in New Hampshire and then at synod assembly in Rochester over the past week, I hadn’t been paying attention to the everyday news cycle ya know, I was out of it for a while, so after getting back I was immediately struck by the disgusting state of our politics. We actually have candidates who have made blatant racism, sexism and xenophobia central pillars of their campaign, but on the other hand, as we saw this past week in San Jose, the folks protesting that sort of thing are themselves getting physically violent. Yes, we’re all Uriahs and are anger is justifiable, but such anger is both dangerous and misdirected… immigrants, transgender folks, people of color, religious minorities or whatever other favorite targets of the far right aren’t the people who have caused extreme income inequality in our country, not at all, but on the other hand, individual wealthy folks or individuals with different political views didn't really cause it either, at least not directly.

Look once again at our reading from Second Samuel… the main problem that led to Uriah's unjust murder was not that King David was generally this lustful, covetous, horrible person! King David is remembered as the greatest king of Israel, a man held in the highest regard by Judaism and Christianity, a man considered by Muslims to be a prophet. David did make a huge mistake here, but while it's not an excuse for his actions, David also lived within a system where an extreme imbalance of power in his favor blinded him towards the true ramifications of his actions. Once again, while it’s not an excuse for his actions, King David lived within a system where an extreme imbalance of power in his favor blinded him towards the true ramifications of his actions. Indeed, as you heard today, once the prophet Nathan engaged David in true conversation, by helping him understand through the parable of the rich man and the poor man’s lamb, King David repented and saw the evil of his ways.

While individuals can indeed mess up and make sinful mistakes, or maybe even do evil on purpose, as people we all mess up, while we’re all saints we’re also all sinners, right? In the end, the problem in our own time, as it was in King David’s time, is not individuals, whether they be poor immigrants or wealthy crooks on Wall Street. In the end, the real problem is the system we live in, a system where great inequality allows for the mistakes of a few to disproportionately affect the lives of us all. The real problem is the system we live in, where great inequality allows for the mistakes of a few to disproportionately affect the lives of us all. Thus, if we direct our anger towards an individual, no matter what that person's identity might be, our anger while perhaps justifiable is misguided and probably won't fix much of anything at all. It’s not a coincidence I think that the great increase in inequality over the past forty years took place alongside the degradation of our American social structures… union membership has greatly declined, folks don’t go to the PTA or Elks Club like they used to, folks don’t visit each other in their neighborhoods, people don’t go to church. I deeply believe my sisters and brothers, that the renewal of those social structures is the only thing that can equalize our crooked system that’s keeps all of Uriahs, that resigns us and our families to grinding inequality.

So, how is God work in all of this, how is God breaking into such an unequal system, delivering us in liberating love? Well first of all, as people of God we are called to listen to one another, to build our capacity to have the hard conversations necessary to change our current system of sinfully high imbalance from the the ground up. For far too long church has been a place where folks go to be superficially nice to one another over an unhealthy but delicious potluck but not really talk about anything of real importance. Over the past year especially at Messiah we’ve been working to change that trend… hosting many conversations about racism and religious diversity. We’ll be hosting another conversation about creating more diverse communities in just a couple weeks at an event cosponsored by WELCA.

Additionally, though, and perhaps even more importantly, God is calling us to remain centered on what’s important. There’s been a lot of growth and change here at Messiah in recent months, mostly from positive things, but I know that’s also put some stress on our system but know that despite any minor issues we might face, God is breaking into your life and mine, and indeed into the life of our community… God especially likes to show up in face of others. And in the world we live in, with so much inequality, so much anger, so much hate, the fact that God is at work, building up and strengthening communities like ours, well nothing, and I mean nothing, could be more important. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ in Schenectady, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.