August 5, 2012
by Robin Wardlaw
Pentecost 10, Year B
Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a; Psalm 51:1–12; Ephesians 4:1–16; John 6:24–35
Pointy questions. The questions that make you squirm. Sometimes they make me squirm even if I’m hearing them directed at someone else. "Coach, if you knew about the abuse of little boys by your assistant, why didn’t you do something?" "You used to denounce this is the kind of thing when you were in opposition. Why are you doing the very same thing now that you’re in government?" "Where did the money go?"
Nathan goes about asking his very pointy question indirectly. The king has scandalized his court. Adultery is one thing. But David has arranged it so that Bathsheba’s hubby Uriah dies in battle. Who will speak truth to power, and how will they go about it?
Your maj, just suppose someone with great power abused his power at the expense of a much poorer person. What should happen to that person? When Nathan puts the hypothetical situation to him, he evokes the side of David that is on the side of the downtrodden. David has farmed. He knows how tough it is to protect sheep. So he comes down on the side of the poor farmer in the story. Then he collapses when he realizes he has pronounced judgment on his own behaviour. The key to the story is David’s own sense of morality.
When Gandhi and the other resistance leaders urged a nation to stand against an imperial power back in 1947, he suspected he would provoke British authorities into atrocious acts of repression. This was his plan. It was horrified British public opinion that led to independence for India, then, not armed rebellion in India. That had been tried, back in the 1857 so-called Indian Mutiny. Like Nathan, Gandhi held up a mirror and asked, Is this you? Do you like what you see? If it only an oppressor could always be shamed into letting go when a people is trying to get its freedom.
Jesus often asks the pointy question, but in today’s reading he’s on the receiving end. "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?" (John 6:30) Come on, prove it. Let’s see. Do your stuff. No hint about Jesus’ response. Did he smile? Did his forehead crease and his mouth turn down? Did his breathing change?
A conversation such as this may have taken place. The gospel writer may be quoting things that were actually said. Or, this may be a way to frame a discussion going on seventy years after Jesus’ death in the gospel writer’s own faith community. It could be that the Jesus community was getting tired of waiting for the big change to come. Hope had been raised and dashed repeatedly over the decades. Where was the reign of justice and peace? Is our faith a crock? Give us a sign, that we may see it and believe.
This is still a pointy question for Christians. What’s the hold up here? We like to compose questions for others, and that’s a good thing. Many questions are needed about why things are the way they are, why we haven’t turned some important corners as a nation, as a planet. We need to be ready to hear questions addressed to us, too.
There is a great deal of outrage directed at places like this and people like us these days, as you may know. Some long ago chickens have come home to roost, at last, and they set us back. How to explain what other generations did in the name of the gospel? We can do it. We can think things through and see the church and faith as others see us. We can do this in our lives, too. We need to listen to our inner Nathans. We need to acknowledge when the awkward questions are making us squirm, and we have no defense for actions, or our inaction, as the case may be.
Our faith is certainly vital, still, today. This church and thousands, millions of others respond to the needs of our time the way Jesus responded to the hungers of his. But wouldn’t it be nice not to have to respond to critics because there was so little to criticize?
Create in me a clean heart, O God. One of those prayers that falls from our lips without too much trouble. The psalm is supposedly one of David’s. Whoever it was, he or she is doing the important inner emotional housework. Trying to get to a better place. It happens for people. It happens all the time, as people accept that they can be forgiven. Remember our first hymn? “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth.”
A whole church might be able to do this. There might be enough grace lying around that a church like the United Church can contemplate our failings without trying to defend ourselves, or pass the blame. The spotlight will be on the United Church in the next couple of weeks as General Council meets. Lots of pointed questions coming up. This congregation has done a good deal of this work on a clean heart over the past two years with Rev. Kim. It frees us to follow Jesus.
And that’s where the gospel lesson is a good one. Those people in the story chasing Jesus around the countryside seemed to want a kind of spiritual insurance plan, an OHIP for the soul. Or maybe the gospel writer is just painting them in a bad light. But there is still truth there. Following the way of Jesus is not exactly the easy path, not exactly a walk in the park. Jesus was trying to get people to see that their question was not the best one they could ask. Still true, all these years later. The John reading makes it plain that the good question is, What are you really hungry for? Do you want signs of power, or that which sustains?
We don’t live the life of faith because it’s easy. We do it because it’s hard. Pointy questions come, sometimes directed at us. Sometimes we have to ask them. We need bread for this journey, and that’s what our next hymn is about. (“Bread of Life, Feed My Soul,” More Voices 194)