Early in the days of my posting to the far reaches of the Empire, I was invited at the last minute – in order to fill the empty seat of a guest who couldn’t make it - to a dinner at Government House in Perth – the official residence of the representative of the British Crown in Western Australia. It was marvelous – tinkling cocktail glasses, and passed hors d’oeuvres, and a long, long mahogany dining table in a candlelit dining room with lots of attentive staff. The glasses on the table all had little crowns etched on them. And after dinner, port was passed, and the Governor stood to give the loyal toast to the Queen. This, I thought, was how life should be. And although I am no monarchist, as we all raised our glasses, inwardly, I swooned.
How easily one swoons within the halls of power and prestige. They are, in fact, made for swooning. Proximity to power is enough to make one swoon even if it is meaningless, as it was that evening. My presence at the Governor’s table was entirely inconsequential to him or anyone in authority. But the environment had its effect on me, and my innards still swooned.
The Scriptures today present us with a story of power gone amok. To backtrack a little: King David – chosen by God, and anointed by his prophet to lead Israel – now intoxicated by his own power, has his own episode of a different kind of swooning when he spies Bathsheba bathing on a nearby roof. He swoons, and, being the king, he sends for her and has his way with her – what Bathsheba thinks of all this, we are never told. We are told that from David’s swoonful clutches a child is conceived, news that will soon become apparent to Bathsheba’s husband Uriah who has been off fighting wars for King David, while David has been peeping from rooftops.
The details of what transpires are rich and delicious, but we have no time for details now. Eventually David determines to send Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, back into the battlefield, and arranges to have him ordered into the most dangerous part of the battle, where he is killed, along will several others, thus relieving the king from the unpleasantness of admitting his indiscretion.
But before long Nathan, the prophet, appears on the scene to confront the king – a dangerous thing to do. So he does so by telling the story we heard read earlier of two men: one, a rich man with many flocks and herds, the other, a poor man with a single ewe lamb, to whom he feeds food from his own plate and drink from his own cup, treating the lamb, we are told, like it was a daughter to him. When a traveler comes to visit the rich man, the host cannot bear the thought of slaughtering one of his many sheep for a meal. So he contrives to steal the ewe lamb from the poor man, kill it, and serve the meat to his guest as though it was his to serve.
Hearing this story, King David is appalled, and, slamming his hand on the table, he pronounces, un-prompted, a sentence of death on the callous, cruel, and selfish rich man who would deprive a poor man of his only lamb. David does not know that he has just pronounced judgment on himself, but Nathan knows, and with a steely look in his eye, he fixes the proud king’s gaze, and says to him: “You are the man!”
This story begs us to consider how easily power corrupts, how predictably the mighty do fall, and how necessary but difficult it is to speak truth to power. All of which are valid and important points to be gleaned from the Scriptures. But few of us will ever be king or queen – which is to say that few of us will ever be in David’s place of power. And few of us will be called to be prophets, which is to say that not so many of us work at the NSA, or WikiLeaks, and few are in a position to blow the whistle on power when it runs amok, as Nathan blew the whistle on David.
Now, when you’re sitting in church, and the Scriptures tempt you to point the finger at someone else, you should exercise some caution – at least if you are sitting in the position of relative comfort and privilege that most of us enjoy. And this biblical passage seems to be encouraging us to point the finger at someone. But if we accept the caution that finger-pointing in church is a dangerous thing, then what are we supposed to make of the story of King David’s shameful hubris and galling hypocrisy?
This is where the story of the two men comes in again. Because it’s true that you and I are neither king nor prophet, neither rich man nor poor man, and neither is any of us the poor man’s little lamb. But there is another character in this story – there is the traveler who sits at the table of the rich man and dines sumptuously on the meal set before him, and raises a glass to his host, even though the meat was stolen from a poor old man down the lane. And did the traveler swoon, just a little, as he tasted the first morsel of that tender and delicious lamb, slaughtered just for him?
If we are looking for the place we fit into this story, perhaps we should be looking at the table where the traveler feasts so well on the meal provided for him, he knows not whence it came. Maybe we are sitting at the table too.
And is the table laid with a cloth and napkins that were manufactured in a collapsed factory in Bangladesh? While we sit at table, and un-manned drones go in search of God-knows-who, do young men and women in uniform still go off to fight a war at our bidding that we have nevertheless forgotten about almost entirely? Do we care that the vegetables at our table are the product of an agri-business conglomerate that long ago squeezed family farms out of the way, along with sensible, sustainable farming practices? Do we ever consider how it became so easy to set a bowl of bananas on the table? Is there a flat-screen TV at one end of the table? Are there bottles of water being served? Where did these come from? How much work for the preparation of this meal, and the ingredients that went into it, was performed by undocumented workers? In other words, how much of our comfort and pleasure comes at the expense of folks who have less than we have, and less than they need?
I know there is nothing original in bringing up these issues. And maybe, like me, you are stymied by them. What are we supposed to do? After all, we didn’t take anything from anybody!
I don’t, frankly, know what we are supposed to do. But we might start by being suspicious of the inward swooning (that I, for one, am prone to) at how wonderful it is that we have so much good meat on the table. Which is to say that we might start by not taking the meat for granted, the way the traveler did. I want to tell you that I struggle with this. Do you know how easy it is to get to Wegman’s from here? Easier still to get to DiBruno Brothers!
Maybe a story will help.
One day a man was traveling, and he stopped, as was the custom in the land at that time, to ask for accommodation at the estate of a rich man, whose house was the only house for miles around – except for the little shack of a poor man down the road, and it was clear to the traveler that if he had to stop and ask for accommodation he was going to ask for it at the lovely, big estate, with the fruit trees lining the drive, and what looked like it might be a swimming pool out back, and not at the ramshackle, falling-down hut, where an old man puttered, and seemed deaf to the incessant bleating of a sheep that followed him around like it was his daughter.
The owner of the estate was happy to offer hospitality to the traveler. He gave him a room where there were clean towels laid out, including one he could take to the pool, he was told, if he would like to have a dip before dinner. This he did, and arrived at the dinner table refreshed from his day of travel on the hot, dusty roads.
When dinner was served, it arrived on a beautiful large platter – deliciously roasted lamb, with lemon and rosemary. The meat was pink, the way the traveler liked it. The wine was delightful. There was a scent of orange-blossom in the air. The candlelight was soft and flattering to everyone at the table. The cushions he sat on were comfortable. And as he put another bite of tender, pink lamb into his mouth, inwardly, the traveler swooned.
Mid-way through the meal there was a commotion from somewhere beyond the kitchen: shouting and stomping of feet, but soon the commotion was ended, the host apologized for the interruption, calm was restored, and the swooning could continue.
After dinner, the guest went for a walk to settle his stomach, finding a path that led through olive trees in the direction of some hills behind which the sun was setting. To his surprise this path led him to a wire fence that surrounded a little, unkempt garden that he soon recognized as the back side of the ramshackle cottage of the poor old man that he had passed on the way.
The traveler stopped, for he heard from somewhere in the garden, the sobbing of the old man, who he eventually spotted sitting on a little wooden bench under a crooked trellis on which climbed some half-hearted vines. The man was sobbing and moaning and talking to himself in the way that simple folk do in stories of this kind. And the traveler heard the poor old man, bemoaning the loss of his only sheep – who he cared for like it was his daughter – at the hands of his rich neighbor, whose servants had come and taken the sheep by force, and slaughtered it, and roasted it, and served it for dinner that very night.
The traveler felt embarrassed to be there eavesdropping like this, and still more embarrassed to have enjoyed the meal so much – to have swooned inwardly while savoring the scrumptiousness of a roasted lamb that he now knew to have been stolen from this poor old man.
The traveler turned back to the path and returned to the home of his host, where he was invited to sip tea or brandy and enjoy a smoke before retiring. And while he sat there with his wealthy and satisfied host, he did something that he knew was a risk, since he knew better than to bring up either religion or politics when traveling by himself, dependant on the hospitality of strangers…
… he mentioned to his host the news from Jerusalem, how it had been leaked to the press that the death of Uriah the Hittite had not been an accident at all, how King David himself had ordered him into the fray of battle with the express intention of getting him killed, all because the king had fancied Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, (well, who wouldn’t, she’s gorgeous?) and knocked her up, and acted quite the hero when he took her in after Uriah’s death, but in fact, the king was quite the scoundrel.
Un-prompted, the rich man, offered his opinion that the king shouldn’t be able to get away with such a thing just because he’s king! And oughtn’t there to be some justice in the world? And a man ought to be made to pay for such appalling behavior, even if he was the king! And he slammed his hand down on the table as he said this.
And with a steely look in his eye, the traveler fixed his proud host’s gaze, and said to him: “You are the man!”
And the traveler got up from the table and went to his room and gathered his things, and walked out of the comfortable house, down the path, past the olive trees, and into the little unkempt garden of the poor old man. And he found the man asleep on a bed of straw laid on the ground in what was neither bedroom nor stable. And the traveler set down his things, and lay down next to the old man for the night, on the straw.
And only half awake, the old man imagined that the movement next to him was the little sheep that he’d been tending, caring for it like it was his own daughter. Forgetting, in his sleep, the tragedy of the day, at the feel of the slight motion next to him, as the traveler made his bed in the straw beside the poor old man, who dreamt that it was his little ewe lamb settling in beside him for the night, inwardly, in his dreams, the old man swooned.
Most of us are neither king nor prophet, but we are travelers on the way. And we will be fed at many tables. And there is no doubt that the tables of power and prestige hold a strong allure for us. But, sometimes it behooves us to consider what table we are sitting at, and how the feast before us came to be there.
And it may be that there are times when we do better to excuse ourselves from the groaning board of plenty, and wander down the lane to the ramshackle cottage of a poor old man, who is followed everywhere by an incessantly bleating lamb who seems to imagine she is his daughter.
At least, the lamb was there yesterday. And maybe in our uncertainty about what to do in the crazy complexity of this modern and confusing world, we start by just making sure the lamb is still there today.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
16 June 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia