Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On Idolizing My Hero (Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan

When I was in middle school my church hired a new youth director. John was young, outgoing, and we all thought he was super cool.

John was also really smart. He made me want to be smart, too. To read books so that I actually knew what he was talking about.

Most important of all, John took a particular interest in me. He took me out to lunch, to Rita’s water ice, for coffee before I even liked it.

I tried to hide my admiration for John. I tried to keep it cool. He was the older brother that I never had. An older friend who not only didn’t make fun of me, but thought I were cool and worth talking to. He made getting involved with God seem alright.

A few years later, after I had gone away for college, my mother told me that John had had a great fall. She told me that he left his wife and newborn daughter to run away with a girl whom I later found out was not much older than I was at the time.

I was shocked. At first I accused my mom of not getting the facts right. Then when I found out that his wife hadn’t left him, I continued to blame her anyway. (Sorry, ladies. Typical misogyny.) But after this short lived denial, of justifying John’s behavior, of making excuses for him, I came to. John had done a terrible, terrible thing. Everything he’d been for me was undone. He was no hero after all.

In this and last week’s Old Testament selections, we read about another fall, the fall of a king of Israel.

Now in the history of the church there has been a temptation to downplay an aspect of David’s fall. In the parallel biblical account of David’s reign, in the book of Chronicles, his fall isn’t mentioned. It’s skipped over as if it never even happened. King David, the one whom we all love, is squeaky clean.

Similarly in the 1951 movie ‘David and Bathsheba’ with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward the story is not ignored but glorified. David’s fall is turned into his glory. It becomes a tail of two lovers who against all odds found a way to be together. In this Hollywood's account, David’s behavior is justified.

Now thankfully the church and synagogue have not often erred in such extreme ways. For the most part we have rightfully labeled his shortcomings adultery and murder. Unfortunately though, when it comes to David’s affair, we’ve been slow to call a spade a spade. We’ve been slow to say that David--a hero of the faith--raped Bathsheba.

This is how II Samuel tells the story. King David is on the roof of his palace overlooking his kingdom when he saw a beautiful woman bathing. Having asked about her he was told that she was married to Uriah the Hittite a soldier in David’s army who was away at war. Disregarding the Law of God, he sent messengers to get her, and he lay with her.

Not long after, she sent word to David that she was pregnant. So David, not wanting to muddy things, sent for Uriah and told him to take some time off. To go be with his wife. Only when Uriah left, he did not go to his house. Not wanting to enjoy any luxury that his men away at battle might not also enjoy, he slept at the entrance of the king’s house with the king’s servants. Having been informed of this, David tries a number of different tactics to get Uriah to go home, all to no avail.

When he realized the situation was hopeless, that Uriah was a man of integrity where he was not, David did what other shady king’s do. He sent Uriah back and told the commander to put him on the front lines of the hardest fighting and then to draw back from him so that he might be struck down and die.

And, as we read this morning, when (according to Hebrew tradition) Bathsheba’s time of mourning was over, David sent for Bathsheba and made her his wife.

Now before I go on to tell you how bad David was I must first say that it is remarkable that this story made it into the Bible. This kind of full disclosure about the failures of great kings is unprecedented in the ancient world. Instead you hear about how Ashurbanipal, the great king of the Assyrians, crushed his enemies, fed his people, and floated on air. But here in the book of Samuel we see something unparalleled: We’re given a look at a great king’s huge failure.

In the first part of this failure, David not only sleeps with a married woman, but, contrary to the 1951 film on the pair, Bathsheba has no agency here. She is forced to have an affair, and then, after the death of her husband, she is forced to be the king’s wife. Let’s call a spade a spade: This is exploitation.

The LORD is displeased. So he sends the prophet Nathan to confront the king. The prophet who only chapters earlier has announced blessing upon David, is now coming to him with a rebuke.

Nathan, much like we read in the story of John the Baptist’s beheading just a couple of weeks ago, stands up to power. He tells David a parable, a story about man who’d done something truly awful. And he presents it in such a way as to get a visceral reaction out of David. He tells it so that, when he’s through, David is calling for the death of whoever this man in the story might be.  

And at this, Nathan tells the king, the one with the power to strike him down, “You are the man!”

But instead of striking him down or throwing him in prison, like King Herod did John the Baptist, like most any other king publicly humiliated would probably do, David does the unexpected. He repents: “I have sinned against the LORD,” he says.... Some of the good that were so accustomed to when talking about David, once again shines through.

So what is the message of this story? What can we learn from this passage in II Samuel?

Well, one message is most assuredly: Don't idolize you heroes. In the words of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (that I’ve said before), “the line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but runs through every human heart.” David, ‘the man after God’s own heart,’ committed terrible sins, of which he would pay the consequences. Having just read a story like this, obviously he was not all good. But, with this in mind, he was also not all bad. Despite our ever present tendency to canonize on the one hand or demonize on the other, David is not a package deal. He’s a mixed bag, just like our heroes. Just like Martin Luther who despite his awful anti-semitism, said and did some incredible things. Just like Martin Luther King Jr. who despite his infidelity, lived a life worthy of imitation. And also just like my old youth director, who I’ve called John, who despite his awful betrayal, is not all bad, and, I must admit, is in no small part the reason I am here as a priest today.

Maybe you followed or deeply admired someone, and they let you down. Maybe you caught of glimpse of the skeletons in their closet. Or worse, maybe you were the victim of their sin or lapse.

A friend of mine whom I deeply respect once told me, it’s never a good idea to have heroes, they’ll only one day not live up to your expectations. A wise admonition but I must object. We need our heroes. We’re embodied beings. It’s seems built into us that we need someone to admire.

But the problem lies not in having heroes but when we turn these heroes into idols. When we go to them for the Bread of Life. Who, as we learned in our gospel reading, is Jesus Christ and him alone. We go to our heroes hungering and thirsting after their righteousness, but we can only find these things in their perfection in the God-man Jesus Christ.

So maybe you have had a hero who’s let you down and you’re tempted to say that everything that he or she has done for me is now undone. I don’t know your story and I don’t know what horrible things this person has done, but don’t forget all that they’ve meant for you, don’t forget the good things they’ve done for you, don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. Let’s stop making these people into Christ. Let’s stop pretending they are the bread of life, because there is only one who despite our hunger will fill us and despite our thirst will forever quench us because he is the source of lasting nourishment. Let us stop idolizing our heroes and instead ‘idolize’ the God-man.

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