II Samuel 11:1-15 (Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21)
July 29, 2012
In the spring of 1993 I was privy to a prediction. I was attending a required conference at my seminary on Clergy Sexual Misconduct. The key speaker and leader of the conference was Elizabeth Stellas, who was at that time a key person at the Institute for Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, Washington.
In her introduction Elizabeth told us that statistics predicted that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church would pay over a billion dollars in lawsuits due to sexual misconduct and abuse by priests.
Over the last twelve years, it seems that every time I open a newspaper or tune into the news this prediction I heard in seminary appears to be coming true. Everyday brings a new headline about yet another priest charged with abuse. Sadly, the headlines don't seem to change much as the years go by. In just the last month or two I’ve been reading about another priest who has been charged for sexual abuse.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m picking on the Roman Catholics. I’m not. No one particular denomination or expression of faith alone is guilty of this problem. The reason the school coordinated and designed this conference for our campus and required attendance by both faculty and students alike was because this issue was coming to light in every mainline denomination – including the Presbyterians. It was literally being uncovered. And the more uncovering that was done, the more people – the clergy and laity alike – were realizing how prevalent a problem it was and still is.
This conference was one means of educating pastors and pastors-to-be about clergy sexual misconduct – what it is and how to prevent it. In a nutshell, clergy cannot be “involved” with their parishioners. That’s the bottom line. Certainly it is more complicated and more layered than just romance. It involves secrecy and shame and guilt. Some of what has happened within Catholicism involves pedophilia. And though it seems to be about sexuality, it’s really an issue of power.
The one thing that was drilled into my head over and over again in seminary – in this conference and in countless other classes as well – is that as a pastor I have a certain amount of power. I may not feel like I have any power. I may not believe it about myself or believe that I have any real authority, but whether I believe it or not is not the issue. My power rests in the perception of my parishioners. In my calling as a minister I hold a sacred trust. I am called to serve a congregation, to care for them, to be their shepherd. It is an abuse of my position, my authority, my call to draw anyone from my congregation into a relationship that is less than ethical. Clergy misconduct is an issue of power.
Other professions, other positions and offices are not immune to the abuse of power. As I was making my way home to Oklahoma last week, I watched the press conference held by the president of the NCAA and its decision concerning Penn State. In my opinion, if you want a case study in egregious abuses of power at all levels, look at what’s happened at Penn State. And to use a clichéd example, like a stone thrown into a pool of water, the ripples, the consequences of what’s happened there are going to expand outward for a long time.
This makes the story of David and Bathsheba sound like it’s been ripped from today’s headlines, doesn’t it? Certainly David’s relationship with Bathsheba was a question of power. I realize that there are many different opinions about what really happened between the two of them and which person was actually to blame for their affair.
But let’s remember this: David wasn’t just some guy who looked over and saw a woman bathing on her roof. He was the KING. At that time he held the ultimate religious and political power. Of course there were and probably always will be kings, rulers, dictators who abuse their power in a variety of ways. But we have to hold David up to the light of who he was and who called him. He was the King of Israel, a people whose national identity was based on the belief that they were the chosen people of the one true God. What happened between David and Bathsheba and between David and her husband Uriah was a question of power, an abuse of a king’s power. And how does the expression go? Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is unfair to say that David was absolutely corrupt, because there are many other instances where he wasn’t. I don’t believe that David was some sort of evil tyrant. In many ways he was a good king. But in this case King David had absolute power. Women in that society, in that time, in that culture did not. Bathsheba’s only power was through her husband, Uriah. When the king beckoned her to come to him, she had to go. Knowing this makes me question how much control or choice she had in what came next. I doubt that she had much choice, but even if she did, even if she acted somewhat of her own accord, David was the King. David held all of the power in that situation. And David used it, not only to have Bathsheba for himself, but also to have Uriah put in harm’s way to cover up the scandal David's abuses created. When David cannot convince Uriah to go against his duty and lie with his wife, the king, without any sense of remorse or regret, then acts to put Uriah at the front, in the sure line of fire.
Clearly David abuses his power. Instead of using his power as King to protect and benevolently lead the people he ruled, he used it instead to serve his own needs, to get what he wanted. And the consequences of his actions are only beginning to be realized in this first part of the story.
David’s use and misuse of his power provides a striking contrast to the power Jesus uses in today’s passage from John’s gospel. Jesus proves his power in the feeding of thousands of people from the meager offering of one boy. He proves his power by walking on the water toward his disciples caught in a strong wind on a rough sea.
Neither act of power was for show. They were done for the nourishment of the people, for the reassurance of his closest followers, and these acts of power were proven not by what he did, but by what he didn’t do. He didn’t stop his own death.
Here was a man who could heal with a touch. People went to Jesus believing they would be healed if only they touched his garments. And they were! He fed thousands! He walked on water! He preached with an authority that had never been witnessed before. He frequently got the better of the religious professionals of the day. He knew what was coming, he knew how his life on earth would end, and with all of his power, it is not hard to believe that he could have found a way to change the ending, but he didn’t.
It’s significant that Jesus withdrew from the large crowds because they wanted to make him king. He wasn’t about to be forced into that kind of position, and it wasn’t the kind of power he wanted. Jesus knew that his greatest power came not from what he could do, but from what he didn’t do. Jesus’ greatest power was his willingness, even his determination to be the suffering servant, to lay down his life so that countless others might live.
Jesus held the power of the suffering servant, and that was his greatest power. And if Jesus was a living testament to the nature of God, doesn’t it follow that God’s power is not the kind of power that hits us like a lightning bolt from the heavens, zapping us when we’re out of line. God’s power is God’s eternal capacity for love, for mercy and for grace.
When Paul in his letter to the Ephesians prays for the church in Ephesus and for us to be “strengthened in our inner beings with power through his Spirit” maybe this kind of power is the power that Paul prays for us to feel and to know.
The power of God isn’t about position or politics. It isn’t about having license to do whatever we want to do, to serve our own needs while flaunting or abusing the needs of others. Being filled with God’s power gives us the power to love as God loves. Being filled with God’s power gives us the power to show mercy when we are wronged, to show grace to someone who has hurt us. Being filled with God’s power gives us the power not only to show these qualities of character but to live them.
How wonderful if everyday I could live loving others the way God loves me. If I could live as mercifully toward others the way God has shown me mercy. If I could live as graciously toward others the way God has offered me grace. How wonderful it would be, how much strength and true power would my life really hold? But I am very far away from this goal. Maybe some of you are too. So then, Paul’s prayer still holds true for all of us. May all of us find the power, the true power of God, may we be filled with it, strengthened by it, live according to its call, and may this power, this real and true power, root us and ground us in the love of God. Amen.