by Rev James B. Craven III (Jim)
Albino Luciani, the September Pope, John Paul I, who was Bishop of Rome for only a month in 1978, was once asked to recommend a good history of the early church. His response, try the one Luke wrote, which we know as the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Had he been asked to recommend a good readable biography, he might well have offered up the wonderful biography of David written by the prophet Samuel, from which we heard in this morning’s reading.
Revisionist history is not my thing. A new book speculates that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Barrett Travis abjectly surrendered to Santa Ana’s besieging Mexicans in 1836 at the Alamo. Sorry, but we all know they fought valiantly to the last man at the Alamo. Please.
In the Holy Land there is new speculation that maybe King David never existed. Let’s leave the Alamo and David alone, for heaven’s sake. The scholarly argument about David now is focused on the fact that there is no definitive archaeological evidence of David’s existence. No coins, no medals or amulets with David’s name or image on them. No 3,000 year old manuscripts or fragments.
In truth it is not always easy, or even possible, to document with certainty much of anything about our Old Testament Hebrew ancestors. It is easier with the more recent New Testament historical figures. You may remember in the movie and TV series MASH when the folks were putting on a fundraiser for a Korean orphanage. Corporal Klinger had a wonderful idea, very successful as it turned out, and that was to offer for sale autographed 8 x 10 glossy photographs of Jesus.
Well there aren’t any 8 x 10 glossies of King David. There is a huge archaeological dig in progress in East Jerusalem that has at times turned violent. I know, what a surprise in Jerusalem. The Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in East Jerusalem are worried that confirming archaeological evidence of David will be found, and the Ultra-Orthodox Jews are worried that nothing connecting the site to David, so close to the Old City and the Western Wall, will be found.
There are so many stories of David in our Holy Scripture, so many in fact that I find it impossible to question his historicity. We can quibble over details, sure, but not the big picture. In the account we heard earlier, from the Second Book of Samuel, house building is on the agenda. It occurred to David that while he was living in a fine house of cedar siding, the ark of God had always been in a tent, all through the trek through the desert to Jerusalem, and down to the present time there. Well God declines David’s offer to build him a fine home of cedar, but at the same time God promises David, perhaps out of divine gratitude for David’s kind offer, that he will create and protect for all time to come the House of David, and God foresees the building of the Temple by David’s son, Solomon. We see the family tree of the House of David in the first chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, in the 14 generations from Abraham to David, the 14 generations from David to the Babylonian deportation, and the 14 generations from Babylon to Christ. And indeed Matthew did begin his gospel account as “The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham“. Matthew was writing to and for a primarily Jewish audience. It is interesting though that the genealogical chart Matthew constructs fails except for the insertion of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, the husband of Mary.
David comes to mind on Father’s Day every year because of the unflattering story of the conception and birth of Solomon, and that story really says a lot. It would have been so easy to keep the negative stuff out of his biography of David, but Samuel wrote and told it warts and all. And that makes it all so much more a believable story. Not a hagiography or whitewashed history. David, the moral and political leader of the kingdom, sees Bathsheba sunbathing on a nearby rooftop. He likes what he sees and makes inquiries, only to learn she is already married, to one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. Meanwhile David gets a Hallmark card from Bathsheba: “Happy Father’s Day.” I tell you, there is adult stuff in Holy Scripture. So he sends for Uriah and suggests he spend a relaxing weekend at home, but Uriah will have none of it, not while his fellow troops are fighting and dying at the front. So David orders that the faithful and brave Uriah walk point, and as planned, Uriah is killed in action, making Bathsheba a widow able to marry David. A win for all except Uriah. And Samuel’s inclusion of this decidedly unflattering story about David in his biography of the great warrior, musician, poet and very human king, makes the saga of David all the more believable. Do you tell the life of Thomas Jefferson without mentioning Sally Hemings ? No, no more than you could leave Chappaquiddick out of a biography of Ted Kennedy.
For millennia, David was thought to be the author of about half of the 150 psalms, the hymnal of Israel. Biblical scholars have pretty well moved away from that position now, but some are still attributed to David. Again, there are no manuscripts that old, so we are talking about tradition only. We don’t know who wrote Psalm 89, part of which we read earlier, but read it and ask if David was a true historic figure:
I have found David my servant;
with my holy oil have I anointed him.
My hand will hold him fast
and my arm will make him strong.
I will keep my love for him for ever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
I will establish his line for ever
and his throne as the days of heaven.
One psalm David well may have written, at least there is a stronger tradition for it, is Psalm 121. We read it so often at funerals, but it is almost a fixture at funerals in the mountains, where I grew up:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
It is such lovely imagery. You can just see Mount Mitchell and smell the cedar. Well, guess what, that’s the gloss we put on it. Now, put that aside and imagine yourself, as David was, in a small and beleaguered rag tag army, vastly outnumbered, marching from Jericho up the plain to the back side of Jerusalem, a great wall-like hill in his path, between David and the Philistine hoards on top of the hill. So “I will lift mine eyes unto the hill.” And, in the next breath, “from whence cometh my help?” In other words, where in the world is my help coming from? How are we going to get out of this? It puts Psalm 121 in a different light, doesn’t it?
But that small beleaguered rag tag army led by David did carry the day against the superior force. Now we can say that maybe in his biography of David, Samuel was gilding the lily here, exaggerating a bit to make David look even better, but I doubt it. History is replete with examples of a lesser force defeating superior ones, from Hannibal at Cannae, to Henry V at Agincourt, to Belleau Wood and Guadalcanal in more modern times.
There is much more to Samuel’s great biography of David, when life was long and fascinating. Go read it for yourself, take it to the beach.
The portion of Second Samuel we heard earlier dealt with the building of houses, for David, and for the Ark of the Covenant, which had never had a home except in a tent and in the hearts of the faithful. In the part of the Letter to the Ephesians we heard earlier, Paul takes this notice of house construction further, by way of metaphor:
So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and
peace to those who were near; for through him both
of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but
you are citizens with the saints and also members
of the household of God, built upon the foundation
of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself
as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined
together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
in whom you are also built together significantly
into a dwelling place for God.
See the construction imagery, the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together. And indeed in construction today, we start with the cornerstone, always at the northeast corner, and branch upward and outward. To become what? A “holy temple of the Lord, in which we also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Remember “Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” The cornerstone of the Body of Christ. And folks, that’s where we come in!
For we are the body of Christ, all of us here, and many others. You have heard me say it over and over, and it cannot be emphasized too much. We are the hands and feet of Christ here in this world. When? Now, in the time of this mortal life. As the Gospel from Mark points out today, much of Jesus’ ministry consisted of acts of healing. Now my healing skills are limited, but one can participate in the process, by love and encouragement, by pushing the hesitant to get vaccinated for the sake of their own lives and health and that of others. Do you remember WWJD? When I first heard it, I assumed it was simply the call letters of a radio station, but No, it’s What Would Jesus Do? Would Jesus give $5 to a street corner panhandler? Would Jesus say that the guy will just use it to get a drink? If I were homeless, penniless, and hungry, I imagine I might well use the $5 for a cold one. Also, a gift by definition has no strings attached to it. Tell the poor fellow he can use the $5 for Gatorade for electrolytes but not for Budweiser, and it’s no longer a gift. Would Christ get vaccinated today? Wouldn’t he want to be an example to others? Certainly we as his 21st century followers should help others by serving as an example, though it can be a burden for all of us. Not to worry though. As Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will
find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Would Christ tolerate race or gender-based violence? Of course not, nor should we. Ignoring it isn’t enough though. We have to speak out against that sort of behavior. If we are truly going to be the hands and feet of Christ we cannot accept or tolerate violence in words or actions against “the other,” against Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, all of whom suffer in this society and throughout the world.
As Christ to others, we reach out to others. Great conversations and a thoughtful smile can come from simply saying “Long day, huh?” to a cashier who looks as though she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Hugs can be very therapeutic, as can a kind hand.
Notice in the Gospel how the sick were brought on mats to Jesus. They laid the sick in a marketplace and he healed them. Notice though what is not in the story, or indeed in any of the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ acts of healing. Never did he ask anyone if they could pay the copay. Never did he ask a woman if her boyfriend lived with her in public housing. Never did he ask anyone for their green card or citizenship papers. Of course in Jesus’ youthful past, there was a period when he, Mary and Joseph were undocumented in Egypt. Jesus also just wasn’t interested in that stuff that adds such volatility to our lives today, if we let it, anymore than he was interested in church politics or power. Anything we have experienced, Christ went through too, alongside us. So we ask “What Would Jesus Do?” And we remember how Easter follows Good Friday, and for God so loved the world. Thanks be to God.