Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 4:7-26
The summer after I graduated from high school, I went to church camp for the last time. I always attended Music Camp. Most of the counselors were young adults. On the last night of camp – always an emotional occasion – one of the counselors talked with me and I have never forgotten our conversation. At camp earlier that summer, they had a resident musician for awhile. He wasn’t there that week. He was back on tour. But the counselor who spoke with me – we can call him Bill – had gotten to be good friends with that guest musician. Bill had grown up in a small town. He had wrestled with his sexual orientation. Struggling all throughout high school, members of his church prayed for him and he prayed and longed so deeply for his orientation to change. He’d felt, perhaps, he was making some headway. But, before that musician left camp, the two of them spoke quite openly with one another. Both confessed that they’d become very attracted to one another and that feelings they’d spent years trying to suppress had risen to the surface. As Bill shared his story with me, he began to cry. It was the last week of the camping season. Soon he would be returning home and he dreaded that return. He would have to hide his feelings, hide his struggle, hide his identity, from the people who assured him that – if he just prayed hard enough – be could become someone else. His summer job was winding down. Bill would have to go back home and make the choice between being rejected by his church family or keeping his true identity a secret.
Today is the final Sunday in a sermon series I’ve been doing called “Tell Me a Secret.” It was inspired by an interview I heard with the founder of a community mail art project called Post Secret. If you don’t remember anything else I’ve said in this sermon series, I hope you’ll remember this one thing: church should be a place where people will still be loved and welcomed if they’re honest about who they are. Church should be a place where people don’t need to pretend and conjure up a secret identity in order to be loved and accepted. Bill had enough experience with his home church to know that he could not go home and be honest about how he felt and who he was. He could only experience their love and acceptance by pretending to be someone he was not.
More than anything else, people today who decide to check out church are seeking authentic relationship. Out in the world, people often feel they need to put on armor, crawl inside their shells and hide in order to protect themselves. Church should be the place – more than any other place – where people don’t need to hide who they are.
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favorite bible stories. Honestly it has so much theological meat in it that I could preach it for months straight and nothing run out of material, so to speak. But, don’t worry; I won’t try to stuff everything in this morning. As the story begins, our narrator tells us that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria. That phrase “had go” is translated from one tiny 3-letter word in Greek, dei. But it’s an important word in John’s gospel. Now, geographically, there’s no “had to” to it. Any good Jew would gladly walk around Samaria. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. But, Jesus’ decision to enter into this Samaritan village doesn’t reflect a geographical imperative. It reflects a theological imperative; a mission imperative.
Jesus sits down by a well to rest while his disciples head into town to buy some food and he initiates a conversation with this Samaritan woman who comes to the well, alone, to draw up water. As the story unfolds, we discover that Jesus has divine knowledge of this woman. And we shouldn’t be surprised by that. All the way back in chapter one of John’s gospel, we discover that Jesus knows people inside and out. Jesus is assembling his disciples. He’s invited Philip to follow him and Philip goes out and tells his friend, Nathanael, about Jesus. Nathanael makes a sarcastic remark about Jesus being a Nazarene. The next day, when Jesus spots Nathanael walking toward him, Jesus reveals that he has this uncanny insight into Philip’s disposition and remarks. It really freaks Nathanael out. And all throughout John, over and over again, Jesus has divine, supernatural knowledge of the people he meets.
So, once again, we discover that Jesus knows all about this woman’s life and, as their conversation progresses, Jesus tips his hand. He tells her to go get her husband. She says she doesn’t have one. But Jesus doesn’t allow the conversation to stop there. She doesn’t need to try and hide anything from him; Jesus knows it all anyway. So Jesus puts it out there: “Yep. You’ve had five husbands and right now you’re living with someone who isn’t your husband.” Jesus notes her honesty with him: “What you have said is true.” And Jesus leaves it at that. He doesn’t follow up the statement of fact with an assessment of her character or lifestyle; he simply makes her aware of the fact that he knows her. Now, Jesus could have called her out. I find in reading the gospels that Jesus never has a problem calling anyone out. If he felt the need to say more about this woman’s lifestyle, I’m sure he would not have hesitated to do so. But he doesn’t.
And notice how the woman responds. She doesn’t express shame; she doesn’t express anger. It simply has piqued her curiosity. She figures that, if Jesus knows her without having ever met her, he must have access to supernatural knowledge; he must be a prophet.
Now, this is a part of the story where the exchange gets really interesting. She asks Jesus a question and – in order to appreciate the significance of the question – we need to know a little bit about first-century Judaism. Way back in the Old Testament, after the death of King Solomon, the nation of Israel divided. The ten northern tribes seceded from the union and became their own nation of Samaria. The capital city of Israel had been Jerusalem and that’s where Solomon had built the temple and those folks down south in the capital told those folks up north that there was no other lawful place to worship except Jerusalem. And so, for folks up north in Samaria to be “right with God,” they would have to make that long trek down to Jerusalem in a day and age devoid of interstates – when traveling was really dangerous and difficult. And once they got there, they needed to purchase animals for sacrifices at the temple. That was on top of all the taxes they paid to build and maintain the temple. So, the location of the temple really propelled the economy down south; but it was an enormous burden to the folks up in Samaria. So, after Solomon died, they seceded from the union and they set up their own places for worship. Take that, Jerusalem. Eventually Samaria was conquered and other nations – pagans, of course – moved in and they intermarried and diluted the pure Jewish blood and that made those Samaritan no better than the pagans. So, in the time of Jesus, no good, self-respecting Jew would ever talk to a Samaritan. And that Temple stuff was still a sore point between Jews and the folks up north.
But, it’s a really important question that goes beyond taxes and politics because the Jews believed God, literally, dwelled in the Temple. So, if you wanted to worship God, if you wanted to be in God’s presence, you had to go to that Temple… or else. That was the official stance.
But is it Jesus’ stance? The woman wants to know because this is an important question. It’s a question about relationship. How does one go about being in relationship with God? Is God bound by geography? And Jesus responds seriously to her question and basically tells her that fellowship with God isn’t about a particular geographical place. God isn’t bound by time and space because God is Spirit. The woman wants to know about the coming of the Messiah and Jesus responds to her question with the words “I am.” Now, if you were in church last Sunday or any Sunday during my last sermon series, you’ll hopefully remember that, in John’s gospel, Jesus makes a series of “I am” statements designed to reveal his true identity as one and the same with God the Father. When God encountered Moses at the burning bush and Moses asked God’s name, God replied “I am.” The Samaritan woman is waiting expectantly for the revelation of the Messiah and Jesus answers her, “I am.” This is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus speaks those words. Just one chapter earlier, Jesus had been in dialogue with a good Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus. They were engaged in theological discussion. Wouldn’t that have been an exciting time for Jesus to say, “I am?” In chapter two Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding reception. It was his first sign; his first miracle. Wouldn’t it have been icing on the cake if he’d have said, “Cheers, I am.”
In that same chapter, he kind of threw a fit in the temple courtyard and threw out all the money changers. He was pretty mad. Wouldn’t you have expected him to justify his righteous indignation by pronouncing “I am?” And when he called those disciples back in chapter one, don’t you think they would have loved to hear the words, “I am.”
But the first person in the gospel to hear those words is a nameless Samaritan woman at a well. It’s astonishing. And armed with that new knowledge, she returns to her village to evangelize; to spread the news of who she just met and to invite them to meet him too. They go out to the well with her and listen to Jesus. Our narrator tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…”[i] This woman that the average Jew would not have gone anywhere near becomes a remarkable evangelist and a hero within the story. And it might make us wonder, what might have happened to that woman – to that village – if Jesus had played things differently? What if the brief statement Jesus makes that summarizes her lifestyle would have been followed by judgment and critical remarks that may have driven her away? What if Jesus had never brought it up and out into the open? It is his simple acknowledgement that opens the door to this deep, serious, probing discussion about God and where and how to be in relationship with him.
Friends; Trinity is, officially, a Reconciling congregation. But I know we are not all in agreement with that stance. We do not all share one uniform opinion about sexual orientation. By the way, there are probably plenty of other things we don’t share uniform opinions on… especially this election season. And it would be hypocritical of me to say that we must all agree because THAT would force us to pretend with one another and – as I’ve already mentioned – that is what I hope to have us avoid. And so, we may disagree with one another theologically. But, if we take this bible story of the Samaritan woman seriously, we must acknowledge what it reveals. Jesus wants this woman to know that he knows her. But he doesn’t judge her. And she is eager to know God. She is passionate and serious about her relationship with God. And because of the dialogue they share, she leads an entire village to faith.
If church is nothing else, it must – most certainly – be a place where we need not assume a secret identity and hide who we are. If church is nothing else, it must – most certainly – be a place where we can be honest about who we are and, in doing so, still be loved and welcomed.
[i] John 4:39.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 18:25-27
I realize that I have previously shared the story I’m about to tell; but I hope you will indulge me in sharing it again. When I was in the eighth grade I had an experience that I have never forgotten. I was – and still am – pretty clumsy. As a youth, my short stature and clumsiness made life in gym class miserable. On the day this event occurred I had had a particularly bad day in gym and had been harassed, as I frequently was, by Kelly, a popular and athletic young lady. So I entered my English literature class that day already feeling embarrassed and wanting to simply be invisible. Now I was a good student in English; I enjoyed all the reading and I really liked my teacher. There was another student in my class, Donald, who was equally bookish and equally awkward. That day in class, the teacher asked a question. When no one volunteered a response, he called on me by name. And, much to my dismay, I did not know the answer. My classmates, including Kelly, began to snicker and whisper. And out of my mouth flew these words in a terribly catty tone: “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Donald? He knows everything.” The classroom erupted in laughter and they were laughing with me, not at me.
Yet immediately, I felt my conscience panged by my cruel words. I glanced at Donald. It was like I’d kicked the dog. His expression registered shock and pain. I left school that day feeling about as low as I could. I don’t think I ever told my mom what happened that day. Now, I had a great mom; I’m sure she would have understood. But I felt so ashamed. I had behaved in a way that violated our family norms and values. I had behaved dishonorably. When I left school that day, I carried a belly full of secret shame.
This morning I continue my current sermon series Tell Me a Secret. As I’ve mentioned, it was inspired when I heard an interview with Frank Warren, founder of the community mail art project, “Post Secret.” What I heard in that interview and what I’ve heard in my church offices over the years as I’ve met with parishioners and strangers impresses on me the reality that we all carry secrets. Down deep, we want to share them; but we are afraid that, in doing so, we will be judged and rejected by others.
Yet as Christians, we need to experience honest, authentic community in order to become the people Christ has called us to be. Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, writes that it is crucial to allow God and others to see us in our nakedness and imperfections. Otherwise, we will never know the transforming and mysterious power of God’s grace.[i] Our Methodist denomination began when two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, began to meet with a group of young men of faith to talk openly about their lives as Christian disciples. They formed what we today would label as “life groups” where people were asked questions like “What good did you do this week? What evil did you avoid?” And they were expected to give an honest answer because they knew that the people they shared their life with wanted to help them grow as a disciple of Jesus. It was a church renewal movement of honesty for the purpose of accountability, encouragement, prayer and – ultimately – Christian growth. But today, in so many churches, when people ask us how our week went or how things are going in our life, we say “Oh, I’m good” and that’s it. So, I hope – I pray – through this sermon series that Trinity, as a church, will be a community where all of us find a few friends with whom we can share our secrets so that, together, we can experience support, encouragement, prayer and – ultimately – Christian growth.
Today, we’re looking at the secret of shame. That day in the 8th grade, I shamed myself by engaging in dishonorable behavior. Now it’s important for us to know, as I’ve mentioned before, that honor and shame were huge things in the ancient Mediterranean world. Nothing was as valuable to someone as their honor. “Success” in the Mediterranean world was, and still is, about maintaining honor. And honor is a social concept. Honor is achieved through socially appropriate attitudes and behaviors; respect for rules of human interaction and social boundaries. Honor is about my personal claim to worth being publically acknowledged by others. When I claim to be someone others know I am not; when I behavior inappropriately in my interactions with others, I shame myself.
Now shame is different from failure as we often define it in America. Here’s a simple example. When an Olympic athlete tries their best and doesn’t medal; they have failed but they have no reason for shame. Admittedly, our post-modern western world is very focused on success (that is, personal achievement) versus failure. And, while that kind of perspective certainly influences all of us, I think – at least, I hope – that, as Christian disciples we are more likely to feel ashamed when we interpret something we’ve said or done as being a disappointment to ourselves, those we love, or God. And, in that sense, it brings us closer to the biblical world.
Let me provide an illustration. A mother’s oldest daughter is a junior in high school. At work, mom has an opportunity to interview for a job that would involve an increase in compensation. So, she seeks the promotion; but doesn’t get the position. By purely secular standards, mom might be deemed a “failure” because she didn’t beat out the competition, her co-workers. But from her perspective, she may feel shame because she’d mentally equated that compensation increase with the opportunity to better provide for their child’s college education. Do you see the subtle distinction there?
So, for our purposes this morning, as we examine the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, we’re going to talk about shame as it relates to a real or perceived sense of disappointing ourselves, those we love, or God. In other words, we’re going to talk about shame as a real or perceived sense of letting someone down. I say real or perceived because – in the example I just gave – mom has no reason to feel shame. But, we feel what we feel; feelings simply are what they are.
The story of Peter denying Jesus at the time of Jesus’ arrest is a well-known story. It is told to us by all four of our gospel writers; though there are distinctions within each account. This morning I shared the account from John’s gospel and I want to back up and put that story in context within John’s gospel because it has a great deal to teach us.
Only John gives us an enormously lengthy account of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. During the meal, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples;[ii] a service so humiliating, it was not even consistently required of slaves. Often people simply washed their own feet and certainly no one of an honorable status, like a Jewish rabbi, would have ever been expected to wash anyone’s feet. But Jesus does so as an example lesson in humble, sacrificial love. Jesus gives his disciples the love command saying, “as I have loved you, you also should love one another”[iii] and within the next couple of verses, Peter pipes up and claims that his loyalty to Jesus – and by the way, love was defined or expressed as loyalty in the ancient Mediterranean world – Peter claims he is so loyal to Jesus that he will lay down his life for him. And that is when Jesus tells him that, in fact, before the cock crows, Peter will deny Jesus three times.[iv] Jesus continues through the next four chapters of John to teach his disciples, to assure them of his love, to clarify what love looks like, to pray for them, to assure them of his ongoing presence with them through the Holy Spirit.
Then, at the start of John, chapter 18, Jesus goes with his disciples to a garden. In John, Jesus does not engage in prayer there. In fact, he barely seems to have entered the garden when Temple guards arrive, led by Judas, to place Jesus under arrest; and there is a very interesting exchange between them. Jesus, wanting to protect his disciples, steps forward and asks the guards, “Who are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.”[v] And Jesus responds, “I am.”
Now, if you were in church for the last sermon series, Who I Am, you might remember that Jesus, in the gospel of John, makes a series of “I am” statements in order to clearly reveal his identity. When Moses asked God at the burning bush for his name, God replied, “I am.” “I am” is the expression God uses to identify himself.[vi] And, “I am” is the expression Jesus uses to identify himself and to make clear that his identity and the identity of God the Father are one in the same. And so, in that garden on the night of his arrest, Jesus asks quite directly who it is that the guards have come for and to affirm in their presence also, “I am.” When the guards hesitate – perhaps they weren’t prepared for such honesty – Jesus repeats his question, “Who are you looking for?” The guards reply, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus responds, “I told you that I am.” But before the guards can place Jesus under arrest, Peter grabs a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave.
The arrival of Jesus, Peter and an unnamed disciple at the home of the high priest is the setting for the bible verses I shared this morning. Peter has sworn to lay down his life for Jesus. But so far, all he’s managed to do was cut off the ear of an innocent slave. Jesus has offered himself up to the authorities, while still affirming his divine identity as the great “I am.” Peter stands out in the temple courtyard trying – like me in 8th grade – to blend in and be unnoticed. But he doesn’t succeed. He is questioned by a woman who asks Peter if he is one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter is quick to reply in the negative, “I am… not.” Meanwhile, Jesus is inside being questioned by the high priest. He doesn’t miss a beat. He is ready and willing to admit who he is and what his ministry has consisted of. Jesus says, “I have said nothing in secret.”[vii] Our narrator returns us to the courtyard where Peter still stands, trying to stay warm and blend in. He’s asked a second time if he is one of Jesus’ disciples.
Disciple, by the way, is a relational term. You can’t be a disciple unless you have a teacher, a rabbi. And you can’t claim to be a teacher, a rabbi, unless you have disciples. And so, when again Peter denies and says, “I am not,” he also undermines the honor of Jesus as a teacher. Peter is questioned a third time and this time he is questioned by a relative of the slave whose ear Peter cut off. You’re not going to forget something like that. But even with that added bit of info, Peter persists in denying his relationship to Jesus. Jesus is the great “I am”; Peter is the frightened “I am… not.”
And so we learn a lot from this story of Peter; a story about shame. Peter does more than fail to tell the truth; he denies his relationship to Jesus and, in doing so, robs Jesus of honor. Peter has let down his Rabbi, his Jesus.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. After all, he is not divine; he is not the “I am;” he is the “I am not.” And so are we. Friends, there will inevitably be times when we feel a sense of shame because we have let down ourselves, God and those we love. We are human creatures; it is inevitable. “I am not.” “You am not.” “We am not.” Jesus is the “I am.”
But there is good news and hope within this story. Remember, I chose John’s account for a reason. After Jesus is resurrected, he will still entrust the work of shepherding his people to Peter. They’ll be eating breakfast on the beach one morning after Jesus has risen but before he’s returned to heaven, and Jesus will ask him, “do you love me?” When Peter responds affirmatively, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.” In other words, do all of the things that you saw me, the Good Shepherd, doing. That’s what I taught you as my disciple. So be my disciple. Peter denied that identity of disciple that dark night in the cold courtyard outside the priest’s home. But, at dawn on a beach, Peter gets another chance to say, “Yes;” because that is how the grace of God works. We are called to be disciples, students, who learn from Jesus what to say and do. Yet sometimes, inevitably, we will screw it up because Jesus is the “I am” and we are the “I am not”s. And when we screw things up, we are likely to feel a sense of shame because we’ve disrespected our relationship with Jesus or with someone else. We know that and we’re embarrassed by that. But it’s not the end of the story because Jesus will show up again to ask us the question and give us another chance to be his disciples.
Every one of us carries shame for times when we have said or done things that have let someone down. We weren’t the people we know we should be; we weren’t the people our friends and families expected us to be; we certainly weren’t true disciples. And, when that happens, we need to acknowledge it; not try to hide it from ourselves or anyone else. We need to confess it and then we need to embrace the good news, the gospel story: that Jesus will show up and offer us another chance cause that’s just what Jesus does; that’s just who Jesus is. And that is very good news.
[i] Richard Rohr Daily Meditation: The Meaning of Spiritual Love (posted on August 19, 2016)
[ii] John 13:1-11
[iii] John 13:34
[iv] John 13:38
[v] 3 times between John 18:5-8, we read the Greek phrase ego eimi, meaning “I am.” It is not so clear in our English bibles which add the pronoun “he” (as in “I am he”), though the pronoun is missing from the original biblical text.
[vi] See Exodus 3:13-15
[vii] John 18:20
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 2 Samuel 12:1-7
I’m a Paul Simon fan. His “Negotiations and Love Songs” CD contains a song entitled Train in the Distance. It begins:
“She was beautiful as southern skies the night he met her,
she was married to someone.
He was doggedly determined that he would get her.”
And sure enough, as the song progresses, he does woe her away from her husband and, eventually, they marry. But in time, it too falls apart. The song’s final verse concludes:
“What is the point of this story?
What information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”
And perhaps it is. That nagging thought that life would be better, would be more satisfying, if only we had what someone else has. The ancients called that nagging desire envy, historically labeled by the church as one of the seven deadly sins.
The Old Testament story of David and Bathsheba, relayed by the prophet Nathan in parabolic form, appears, on the surface, to be a story of adultery and murder. But it is, at its most fundamental core, a story about envy, a story of one who succumbs to that nagging desire, that persistent thought that life would be better if he had what belongs to another.
Now, as post-modern westerners, it is hard for us to think of envy in relation to people. We no longer live – thankfully – in a culture where we think of a woman “belonging” to a man like a suit or a cell phone. But in the ancient world, Bathsheba belonged to her husband… that is until she was envied and stolen away from him by King David.
This morning’s sermon is the second in a series I’m doing this month entitled Tell Me a Secret. As I’ve mentioned, this sermon series was inspired by an interview I heard with Frank Warren, founder of the community mail art project, Post Secret; a website that posts secrets sent anonymously to Warren on hand crafted post cards. The secrets shared are as unique as the post cards themselves but are shared with complete anonymity.
As a pastor for two plus decades, I am amazed at the secrets people carry that weigh them down. One would think that Church ought to be the place where people can share openly with one another; where they can share their struggles and find help in time of need. But often it is not. Often, we do not allow it to be. So, my hope with this sermon series is to encourage all of us to grow in our openness with one another. Now-deceased Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “We tend to present to God and others only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response.”[i] But, as I mentioned last Sunday, we are relational creatures; created by our God with an innate need to help and to be helped by one another. Nouwen adds: “After everything has been said and done, what we have to offer is our authentic selves in relationship to others… Together, we form community.”[ii]
So this morning, I want to focus on a secret feeling that we are often too ashamed to admit to anyone, even ourselves: envy. As Christians, we know what we should do and how we should feel. We know that we are always to want the best for others, even if it comes at our own personal expense. We know that we should applaud the efforts and success of others, even in the midst of our own failures. But our human nature makes that difficult and it does no one any good to stuff down and ignore our emotions, pretending that they don’t exist. In times when we are suffering and are enduring personal struggles, it can be hard not to envy and resent the success of others; especially in those instances when their success seems like something that should rightfully be ours.
Now, playing into any understanding of envy in the ancient world was the cultural concept of limited good which I have spoken of in a couple of recent sermons. In a nutshell, ancient Mediterranean people believed that there was only so much good stuff to go around and if someone took more than they rightfully should, it would result in someone else going without. Envy requires the acknowledgement that some things are limited because envy involves competing with another person who wins out over us in possessing a thing or relationship that is in limited supply.[iii]
So, what is in limited supply in our culture? Well, we can envy someone because they have a unique role or position; president of the United States for example and we can see quite clearly how competition for that limited role is bringing out the worst in people. If you’ve been watching Olympic swimming, there sure have been a lot of wagging index fingers around that pool, haven’t there. Only one can get the gold; one only can be #1.
We might also compete for a unique relationship; that’s the concept behind those reality shows like The Bachelor in which lovely young ladies behave in appalling ways nearly scratching out the eyes of their competitors. Envy, strictly speaking, is a feeling of begrudging that emerges in response to the good fortune of others relative to some limited good that is of special value or interest to us.[iv]
Genesis, chapter 3 relates sin’s entry into the world through a story that is weighted with words and ideas associated with envy. When the serpent entices the woman into eating of the forbidden tree, he hooks her with this promise: “God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” You will be like God. Now, there’s an offer too good for the woman to pass up. The woman looks upon the tree with desire and so, she takes and eats because she envies the knowledge of God. She wants what God has.
So, let’s get back to this morning’s story of David and Bathsheba. Even before the bible reader is introduced to David we are prepared for his debut with this description: “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart.” So, when David enters the biblical story he is, indeed, a man who shares God’s heart, God’s desires. Consistently, David acts in honorable ways. As a soldier and warrior, he has a strong code of ethics. When his predecessor, King Saul, attempts to kill him, David goes on the run. When he is twice given the opportunity to end Saul’s life, David shows mercy. When at last Saul dies, David even mourns his death. He grieves for the man who wanted him dead. When David’s enemies, like the rival General Abner repent, David restores them to his fellowship, even providing a feast in Abner’s honor which, in the ancient world was the most powerful symbol of friendship: sharing table fellowship. With amazing consistency, David shows restraint toward his enemies and mercy toward those who are under his protection. He is patient and humble.
But something dramatic happens in 2 Samuel, chapter 11. Something goes wrong with David’s heart.
David, as king, had many wives and concubines. But David, looking out from his rooftop one day sees something better. He sees Bathsheba. When he inquires about her, he learns that she already belongs to another. She is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a loyal soldier in David’s army; someone who serves David and is under his protection. But David’s heart is not what it once was. David envies; he sees Bathsheba and he desires what rightfully belongs to another. He resents that Uriah has what he wants for himself. And so, he takes what he wants… because kings can do that after all.
David, who once shared God’s heart, now suffers heart disease because envy stems from our hearts. Ancient people believed that the eye expressed the innermost feelings and desires of the heart. So when David’s eye desired Uriah’s wife, it is his heart that is at fault.
Enter the prophet Nathan who proceeds to tell David a parable… a parable about one who mercilessly takes and consumes that which belongs to another, a parable of one who commits a horrible injustice. A rich man with plenty refuses to show mercy when he takes and devours the precious lamb of one who is poor and vulnerable. David listens to Nathan’s story and he is outraged. He pronounces a sentence of death against someone who would be so envious and so lacking in mercy. And then he is brought face to face with the hideous truth that he is “the man.” So we arrive at this horrible recognition that David’s heart has been changed and remarkable suffering has resulted from that change.
Now, David’s story is extreme and I certainly don’t think any of us are going to murder the neighbor this week because they bought a new sports car or an awesome new riding mower. But it might at least be worth acknowledging that we do live in a culture that has programmed us to believe that life would be better if we had more: more disposable income, more gadgets and technology, more leisure time, more… friends, more attentive parents, more attentive children, a more attentive spouse. If it as Steve sang this morning: “We have a greed with which we have agreed.” Greed and envy have become an acceptable part of our society. And it is hard for us not to be drawn into that yearning for more.
Consider for a moment, those times when an employer passes us over for a promotion or a particular project… or even, we notice… they seem to look to one of our co-workers, someone with far less knowledge and experience, for an opinion or advice. Why would they do that? Don’t they appreciate how hard we’ve worked and how much we know and have learned along the way? We’ve got a wealth of experience; why isn’t it better appreciated?
An acquaintance just got their dream job straight out of college. But we work hard and we have a dream, too. Why aren’t our dreams being realized?
We get a bad medical diagnosis. And why? We take care of ourselves. So, we sit in the break room at work and eat a salad for lunch with lemon juice in place of salad dressing while our co-workers eat burgers and pizza. Why? We want their lunch, not ours.
And that envy starts young. Notice the toddler: even with loving, attentive parents. She walks across the room and snatches the toy from her playmate’s hand and boldly speaks the language of envy: “Mine.” “The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”
So, what are we to do about it? Well, for one thing: admit it; at the very least to ourselves and hopefully to someone else; someone you trust to be your helper in a difficult time; someone who you know can help you see things more clearly, like the prophet Nathan did for David.
And then, engage in some spiritual practices that counter envy. I think three are especially effective… and related: gratitude, generosity and praise.
As human creatures, it is always easier for us to name what we don’t have and wish we did. But, when we stop to count our blessings, it helps to put things in perspective. So, thank God for the blessings you do have; take time to reflect on at least one every day. Engage in the spiritual practice of gratitude.
Second, practice generosity. As crazy as it sounds, when we feel like we’ve been cheated out of something, the best thing we can do is be generous toward others. Did you know that scientific research has proven that giving changes our brain chemistry?[v] It releases chemicals from our brain that create a sense of peace and tranquility. And I’m not just talking about money… although scientific evidence that giving to the church has health benefits could be a pretty cool stewardship campaign. But even beyond money, be generous in your speech and your actions. Again, crazy as it sounds, if you’re under-appreciated, make a point of appreciating others. The very act of giving to someone else yields spiritual transformation.
Finally, in expanding on this idea of giving, engage in the spiritual discipline of praise. Praise God for his goodness which surrounds us every day. If you can’t come up with a prayer on your own, turn to the Psalms. Pray the words of the psalmists until they become your words. And give praise to others when you see them do something well or do something helpful. Praise others in simple and sincere ways. Friends, we don’t have to want more than we need. The thought that life could be better may seem to be woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains. But we can loosen that weave; we can unravel that tangled web of envy through generosity, gratitude and praise.
[i] Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henri Nouwen; Harper Press; 2006; p. XVII.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 10-11.
[iii] See The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malina. Westminster John Knox Press. 2001. Chapter 4: Envy – The Most Grievous of All Evils.
[v] Taken from an online U.S. News and World Report Wellness: What Generosity Does to Your Brian and Life Expectancy. By Elizabeth Renter. May 1, 2015.
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