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Oct 23, 2022

“Agency: Jesus’ Grandmothers III”

“Agency:  Jesus’ Grandmothers III”

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: October 2022


Today's Sermon


"Agency: Jesus' Grandmothers III"


2 Samuel 11:1-17    

11In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. 3David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ 4So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. 5The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’

6 So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. 7When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. 8Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. 9But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ 11Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ 12Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, 13David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15In the letter he wrote, ‘Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.’ 16As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well.

“Agency:  Jesus’ Grandmothers III”

            I used to love the book The Giving Tree.  If you’re not familiar, by Shel Silverstein it’s a story about a boy and a beloved tree. The boy gets what he wants from the tree at every stage—something to play on as a child, fruit to enjoy and later sell as he grows up, a place to bring a young romantic interest and a place to carve their initials, wood for a home and a boat in adulthood.  By the boy’s old age, all that’s left of the tree after ceaselessly providing for the boy is a stump on which the old man sits. At each stage we are told, “The tree was happy.” 

            I always loved that story until it was pointed out to me it might feel like a good story to the boy, but perspective is everything.  Some people get to go through life mostly as the boy.  Others, however, go through life mostly as the tree. They’re asked to let others take from them and take and take.  There’s no sense of any mutuality, and maybe not even proper consent. 

            I know we’re getting metaphorical and allegorical, but that’s how this story has been treated. It’s taken on even religious significance.  The tree in The Giving Tree is frequently described as a Christ figure, and didn’t Christ lay down his life however you understand the intention and effect of Jesus’ willing submission to execution?  Yet, The Giving Tree is controversial from a theological standpoint, because it depicts not only the tree as being faithful, it raises no questions about the boy then man constant and therefore seems to depict the boy as faithful too, as the boy continually takes from the tree, with no expectation of stewardship or boundaries or limits.  We have a culture that claims to revere the giving tree but models itself after the taking boy. Once in a while we live up heroes that model selfless extravagant giving and that allows everyone else to feel good about the whole arrangement.  Remember, perspective is everything.  Yes, for some a message to be more giving, more self-sacrificing, is a well-placed lesson. Others have had to do more than their share of sacrificing.  If you think we’re making too much of this, even the Wikipedia entry on The Giving Tree describes it as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature” characterizing it as either about “selfless love” or an “abusive relationship.” Note, we’re not talking about Silverstein’s intentions.  As someone with a background in rhetoric, I’m always far more interested in what the text reveals than what the author intends. 

            I am working on a paper on the atonement for my preaching group, in other words what the cross means for Christians.  People are quick to repeat the notion that Jesus died for their sins, but there are actually many Christian understandings of the cross.  Did Jesus die for our sins or because of the sins of his society?  Was Jesus a ransom, and if so to whom, to God, to the devil, or to death itself that we might be freed from its grasp?  All of these are positions within various places in the tradition as is the notion that the crucifixion is simply the ultimate display of integrity triumphing over corruption.  Are we asked to be crucified or are we to understand the senseless violence enacted upon Jesus to be the last anyone should have to endure? The questions go on and on.  As with The Giving Treesome Christians have argued that to glorify only the sacrifice is to ignore the totally different perspectives in life between those who need to sacrifice more and those who have sacrificed enough.  Perspective is everything.

            Put yourself in Bathsheba’s tub, for example, in her place, left naked with only your vulnerabilities.  Today we finish our series on three women in Jesus’ genealogy at the beginning of Matthew. Let’s dispense from the beginning with the notion she was doing anything seductive, even out of the ordinary. Bathing outdoors would have been entirely within the norm.  To suggest otherwise would be an ancient equivalent of, “Look at what she was wearing. She must have been asking for it.” We blame victims for perpetrator’s lack of self-control.  From her position, this is a horror story.  Though Bathsheba is already married, David wants her, sends for her, and what choice does she have?  She’s utterly devoid of agency.  Not only does David take her, he sends Bathsheba’s husband to the front lines in order to be killed in war. 

            She is there, everybody is there, to fulfill what he wants.  Is Bathsheba the giving tree, happy to give her flesh as long as it makes him happy, or should we see her as the forbidden apple that the man in the story simply can’t resist taking, or should we treat her as no object at all but a person a someone?  Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman, pastor in Statesboro, GA helpfully points to womanist biblical scholar Wil Gafney in trying to wrestle with this story. Gafney describes Bathsheba in the following way, “She is remembered for the worst thing that ever happened to her.”[1]  Think of that, not the worst thing she ever did or said—that would be a bad enough—no she is remembered for the worst thing that happened to her.  Think of how important it has been for people to say, “I have cancer, but I am not cancer” or “I survived abuse but I will not be defined by it,” or even simply, “I am not what I do for a living” or “how much I earn” or “where I go to school” for we teach people lies about their identity from their youth.  Bathsheba is not known for anything she does or is.  She is not known for her dreams; she is known for how she fulfills someone else’s fantasies.

            Matthew wants us to know at the outset of the gospel that Jesus was born of her, reigns in solidarity with her, yet even Matthew’s author doesn’t choose to name her.  Wait, you might think, you said this was a series about women named in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew.  Well, it’s about women in that genealogy, but not necessarily named. Bathsheba only appears in the genealogy as “the wife of Uriah.”  She is remembered and would have been known, as would have been common in the culture, by her attachment to the men in her life – her father, her sons if she was fortunate to have them, her husband, and the king who took her from her husband and sent him to be killed.  Jesus bears her initials carved on the bark of his skin as he’s nailed to a tree.

            We started an installation last Sunday, after spending time in the story of Rahab, in which we’re writing the names of people or peoples overlooked or colored over by society, trapped by their station in life.  The symbolism is, of course, that just as fall leaves reveal their brilliant colors, so too could lives reveal their beauty if given a chance to reveal themselves.  This installation will stay up until the beginning of Advent, and you can both add to it during the week and come here and pray surrounded by these names.  Bathsheba deserves to have her name included, included in the names of the forgotten or insufficiently remembered, deserves to have her name included in the genealogy, the names and lives and stories that lead us to Jesus.

            I was tempted to write imaginatively of what her life was like, but that would be repeating a sin of sorts, me telling you what her life was about.  Instead, I invite you to spend your prayer time asking the Spirit to open your ears to Bathsheba’s voice singing down through the centuries. Dream of encountering Bathsheba on her own terms.  Dream and work so that others who share her place in life have the ability to be defined by what they were able to be a part of not what was done to them without having a part to say in the matter.  Spend some time here, surrounded by them, and listen for them and in doing so perhaps find those in our midst also silenced, or maybe your own voice, parts of you silenced. 

            I don’t know if the tree was happy.  I don’t speak tree.  We can ask those whose language we can speak, and we can work to increase the chances her answer will be a good one.  This is the gift Bathsheba gives us and we should remember her.  Bathsheba was Jesus’ 28thgreat grandmother.