Psalm 14 and 2 Samuel 11:1-15
David, Bathsheba and Uriah. It’s the stuff of an epic mini-series. Until we remember we’re not talking about t.v. fiction. It’s real people, and someone loses his life. You all know the story, and probably remember the implications for David in his holy story.
And it’s not unusual to read similar stories of love and betrayal and the hurt that ensues in the Inquirer or the Daily News.
I chose this text today because it’s time we say something about sex. It’s too important a part of the lives God has given us to let delicate church sensibilities or our own discomfort edit it out of conversation.
That said, the story of David and Bathsheba isn’t only, or perhaps primarily, about sex. There are a number of angles from which it can be understood.
It’s about temptation — how we tip toe or fall to it in a little way (that second glance towards the rooftop, when we looked deliberately), and then keep falling until we are head over heals, in a free fall. And our whole lives are a mess, and we are messing everyone else’s life up too.
Temptation isn’t only sexual. It be about money and power. Popularity. Food can be tempting. And thrills. Laziness can even be a temptation. Almost anything that one could — wisely or not — desire can become the occasion of temptation.
This story is also about power. About how some people have power over others. Since anyone of us with no more than a rock could take another’s life, we all have power over each other. But it’s scary to think that a few people have their fingers on buttons and triggers and other means that decide the life or death of others — others who may or may not even know the person or recognize the threat.
It’s also scary that the powerful can so take so lightly the responsibility that comes with their position. They can believe it’s rightfully theirs to use… they can make decisions about other’s existence on nothing more than their own personal needs, even just a whim.
The story is also about truth-telling. How we get ourselves in a knot by telling that first little lie. Thereafter, we’re faced with either ‘fessing up to a painful truth or spinning out more tales. …What we too easily convince ourselves is just “a little lie,” to protect someone else. There may be those, beloved, but not as many as we give ourselves.
This story is about the slippery slopes that get the best of us; the snowballs rolling down hill. Staying true to that initial little lie — so often, so easily, perhaps inevitably — leads to an avalanche of untruths.
Someone in my family really struggles with the truth. The stories he makes up are safer, an easier reality for him. Even though, at this point, they’ve pretty much cut him off, separated him from everyone else.
One lie spawns, necessitates a whole brood. And they get wilder and wilder. And more and more demanding. This person, sadly: his whole reality is knotted up in the web of lies he’s spun. But his habit and the mess it has created has taken on a life of its own. And taken over his life.
But it’s not just the psychopathic liers who get stuck. I don’t have that problem, but I’ve let myself tell a fib — only to spare someone else mind you! And the same is true whether the lies are infrequent or one’s daily bread. One lie takes a lot of energy — to remember what you made up, what you said to whom. What you aren’t saying. How you need to construct the rest of your story so that you don’t get caught…
David ended up killing a man so he wouldn’t get caught. And he got caught anyway. Not just for sleeping with another’s wife. Not just of fathering a child with another’s wife. But of killing an innocent man over his guilt.
Yes, the story of David and Bathsheba is about a lot of things. Has much to remind, and challenge and teach us. But I’m going to use it for a sermon about sex.
Not because it’s a very good example for what I want to speak of really. But because it’s mostly remembered as a story about sex. One of those religious warnings about how sex can get us in trouble. How it’s dangerous. And about the shame that’s paired with wrong-doing.
Stories like this become examples and illustrations of religion’s teaching that sex is bad, dangerous, shameful. So I feel called to articulate what we as progressive Christians generally believe, but do not often enough say.
Sex is about touching another person, deeply, intimately. So, of course that can be dangerous. It involves vulnerability and requires trust. And it’s all too easy for us to betray either or both of those.
But those same characteristics give sex great power in our lives. It can be a source of great joy. Not everyone is sexual. But for those who are, their intimacies can play incredibly important roles in their lives. Offering a feeling of connection. And common experience. Sharing. Caring. Physical and emotional joy. Pleasure. Solace. Affirmation. A sense of our sacredness.
Oh, yes, it’s complicated because it’s so close to all that matters most to us. And people can get hurt. And scared. And insecure. It’s all the more complicated because we’ve been taught not to talk about it. That’s one of the ways that shame, unspoken, stays so closely attached to it.
But also complicated because we are humans. And bear with us our insecurities and fears and self-doubts. We bring histories and psychologies to all our interactions, histories and psychologies of which we are often unaware and our partners are understandably more unaware.
But because God made sex, and it was good, it can also be a source of great joy, freeing, make one feel whole. One of you said, after I loaned you one of my favorite novels, James Baldwin’s “Another Country,” of course you love this book: “it depicts sex as redemptive, instead of condemning.”
I always tell couples in premarital counseling when we talk about sex– yes, the topic is part of the standard list of issues we cover. Why? Because certain areas often cause trouble in a marriage: communication, fighting, money, family of origin, parenting, religion, sex.
It’s there because it’s important. And because we’re often not prepared to talk about it in healthy, honest ways.
Many of us never talked about it with our parents. And this is a slight characture, but “the boys lied about it in the locker room and the girls giggled about in the bathroom.” We often don’t have great information or resources. And we don’t usually have much room to share about, even with our partners or in some cases ourselves.
So I make it part of the conversation in pre-marital counseling. Not because I think one or two conversations before a wedding can save any couple from encountering rough spots over the years. But because if they have talked with the pastor about it in the beginning, maybe they’ll really believe me when i promise: “the church in marrying you is promising to support you, to be here for you. So when you bump into some trouble, know you can come to us for help.”
I also get to say: “Sex can be a wonderful thing that God created; it’s good and can be our blessing. But like all the other areas of our lives, you will probably have some sexual problem some time. And you can work on it. Get help. Get through it. Because sex shouldn’t be a trouble all the time. If it is, that probably says as much about our inherited, cultural difficulties with it, as it does about you and your partner.”
Years ago, when I was a young pastor, one Saturday night, hanging out with friends who were also pastors, we started talking about what we were preaching the next morning. It was one of these texts that seem to be about sex that week. Maybe Adam and Eve and the apple. or Jesus saving the woman caught in her adultery.
We were talking about the disconnect between what we think the Bible says about sex and the contemporary sexual ethics we in the progressive church work with. Of course, there’s always some distance between what the ideal and our practice are. But on this one, it’s not just a difference. It’s a disconnect. Or a cut off. Many of us decide the Bible is not part of our consideration. Throwing off guidelines engendered in tribal societies, we are left feeling the Bible has nothing to offer. We go it alone.
My one friend Phillip, a good guy but an incredibly clumsy, even unwise pastor (who, I think, is no longer a minister), blurted out, “Michael, you’re the risk-taker; maybe your sermon tomorrow should be about a real — realistic — contemporary Christian sexual ethic. Instead of avoiding the topic, try preaching something about sex that really might help people live their lives.
I remember staring at Phillip and thinking to myself, “Even if I’d had some crazy idea to preach such a sermon, once you’ve suggested it, I am sure it’s NOT a good idea.”
Sometimes I worry that the only thing church holds sacred about sex is our unspoken agreement to keep all related topics off the church table!
But, older, and perhaps not any wiser, — maybe this is the onset of senility? — here goes:
A faithful, progressive Christian social ethic might not rely so much on marriage as the only sacred vessel in which it is appropriate and sanctified. But an ethic could draw on tradition — the Bible and the church’s experience as well as other resources — medicine, psychology, sociology — and our own prayerful experience. And our faith in what God means for us.
We would have to factor in our belief in and our concern for people and their sacredness. Our commitment that people can never be means to be used. Together those come up to a requirement that sexual relations are always consensual.
But there’s that list of topics I started with, all the other ways to think about the story of David and Bathsheba. We have to factor in our trust that truth, even difficult truths, are freeing. Our acquired lessons about the dangers of considering people equals despite the social differences in how much power they have. Our concern that no one, especially our children, be placed in sexual situations that they are not emotionally ready to navigate. Our commitment to personal health and wholeness, spiritually, physically, emotionally. And our cares for public health. Our understanding of how a little bit of temptation can lead to a much bigger mess.
Church, shouldn’t we begin working out, articulating for ourselves and our children what we believe as Christians are the right conditions for sexual intimacy? Maybe it’s time to recognize that our silence is not helpful in two ways:
First, it leaves many thinking that the only thing the church has to offer on the subject is taboo and shame. Or put another way, it allows the ancient taboos and shame to be the only voices.
And second, it pretty much leaves us all on our own, without each other, or the riches of our collective experiences or the repository of our various traditions.
Not sure where we might end up, I suspect the conversation will quickly become more nuanced. Surely there are directions to be had for sexuality within marriage as well as for those of us who are not married.
I wish that the church were helping us more in our relations around this issue. But I am not the church, and I cannot do that alone. I have, however, just set the topic right in the middle of the ecclesial table (I just resisted temptation, using the other idiom that came to mind — “now it’s in your lap!”)