2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a
How, at this time, is God present to you?
We have so many metaphors for this experience of presence, and we have heard some of them in the readings today;
Bread from heaven.. the Word made flesh..Jesus as food that nourishes.
Jesus, who speaks to us so often in metaphor or enacted parable, declares himself not to be simply a teacher whose words help us lead a better life, but the veritable food which we are to ingest and without which we cannot have life. This is the Word taken internally, transforming us from within.
That is a very physical image which perhaps may be difficult to relate to on this day when we cannot see each other face to face, let alone break bread together.
But today we do have…well…words. We have the words of our liturgy and prayers, and the Word found in scripture.
And today, some of those words in Scripture may be difficult to stomach- words that continue the story told last week of David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite.
If the ancient texts of scripture are to be one way we encounter and are nourished by the Word of God, it seems very important that we are discerning in the way it is read. Our image of God is defaced when we read violent texts as if they are literally descriptive of God’s behaviour and God’s will for humanity. It seems that the collection of books which make up this text we call the Bible needs us to have some interpretive skill lest we project too much of ourselves on to the divine.
Miranda Threlfall-Holmes has written a book called “How to Eat Bread: 21 Nourishing Ways to Read the Bible”. (You might like to join in the online book launch that is happening this week) It is called “How to Eat Bread” because the Bible, she argues, is nourishing for our faith in the way bread is a nourishing staple. Thankfully our shops remain open in lockdown so we do not have to rush to buy food or stockpile resources, but it is noted in the book that when people are nervous about supplies, breadmaking flour is one of the staples that disappears rapidly from supermarket shelves. Bread is a symbol of life and the comforts of home. It is a basic of life and sustenance. So what does it mean for us that the Bible could be seen as some kind of staple food for the family of God, when so much of it seems unpalatable?
This library of books is not compiled as a directive for what we are to believe about God. They are food for thought which we are meant to chew over and ingest, allowing the stories and images to do their work deeply in our lives, changing us from the inside out.
So how are we to digest this ongoing story from 2 Samuel? We heard last week that King David sent his messengers to bring Bathsheba from her home so he could have sex with her. Later, he sends a message that her husband Uriah is to be sent to the front line of the battle and left without support so that he can be killed, thus dealing with the problem of Bathsheba’s pregnancy to David. Threlfall-Holmes suggests that feeling appalled at this very uninspiring story of male and kingly privilege being abused means that the text is doing its work in us. When Nathan comes as the prophetic voice of God to David, cleverly drawing David into a story about a poor man and a beloved ewe lamb to reveal his guilt, we are perhaps being given a model of just how these appalling stories can work in us. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes says;
It does not matter that the story is not, in fact, literally true – that no sheep were harmed in the making of this story. Nathan’s purpose in telling the tale is not to get justice for a fictional sheep farmer, but to evoke the reaction that he did in his hearer: to make him angry at the injustice and determined to do something about it…. At one level – within the story itself – this is simply a clever way of trapping David into condemning himself. But it is also an example to us of what God might be doing for us, through the inclusion of some really problematic incidents and stories in the canon of Scripture.
The Bible is a smorgasboard of human abuses of power, twisted desires and examples of the way our envy, greed or selfishness do harm to others and ourselves. It can function as a mirror held up to us that reflects back the images we would rather not see. The prophet Nathan uses the narrative power of story to enable David to see his own reflection clearly- something that would not have occurred if he was simply accused outright. David enters the story willingly, and then is aghast at finding himself the lead character.
We may not have committed the kinds of sins that we read about in all their gory detail in scripture. What these stories can do, nevertheless, is draw us into the narrative so that we can feel the Spirit’s nudge to look at our own propensity for violence or greed, malice or slander. Or perhaps our rage at a story might stir us to recognise where we see injustice or abuse in our own society and culture, prompting us to act in support and solidarity with those who are suffering or oppressed.
This can all sound rather cerebral if not for the truth that it is not the many words that we have to digest but the meaning being impressed upon our hearts as we meditate on Scripture. These texts, with their often brutally honest stories with their potent symbols, metaphors and images can be to us the revelation of God about ourselves and the world in which we live. As we chew them over, we can encounter the presence of God in our present, giving the sustenance we need to grow into our deepest selves and live into the vocation to which we are called.
This all points to a way of encountering the Word that is beyond a transactional move of giving something, paying something or doing something in order to receive the gift of divine presence. There needs to be an entry point in our hearts and lives that is open to Spirit and the revealing light of Christ. The Word is not confined to scripture but is embodied in the enigmatic presence of the storytelling, question asking, metaphorically speaking Jesus who says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
It would be so much easier if we had a simple instructional guide in place of our scriptures that told us how to be and act in every situation and had fewer contradictions. But this form of religion would never demand of us that we bring our very selves to the task of engaging it. This form of religion would fit much more neatly with our usual transactional way of thinking that if we do something- we get something. Certainly the crowds who went searching for Jesus after he had fed them were seeking just those kinds of straight forward answers. “What must we do…?” they ask. Jesus tells them that they are to feed on him instead of chasing after food that does not last.
Many of the stories in scripture can leave us with a picture of a vengeful, punitive God, particularly when connections are made by the human narrator between the natural consequences of human sin and God’s judgement. Certainly, in the story of David’s line the violence continued, making true the statement of the prophet Nathan that “the sword shall never depart from your house…” Small wonder that the crowd at Capernaum, remembering their people’s history, beg for the bread that will give life always- they know their own lack of faithfulness and righteousness and they need lasting help through times of struggle and failure. And in this moment of humility we, like the crowd, can find the good news. The bread of life is given- not because we deserve it, but because God so loved the world that the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. It is not our faithfulness that matters, but the faithfulness of a God full of compassionate mercy who sees us in our struggles, our anxieties and our failures, and yet says, “Come.” The bread of heaven is eaten in the forgiveness and love that finds its way to our hearts as we open ourselves to the Word amongst us. The bread of heaven is already and always given, whether we can gather around the table or not. May we have the grace to bring open hearts and empty hands to the Word who invites us at this time to pause for a while… sit and eat.
 Threlfall-Holmes, Miranda. How to Eat Bread: 21 Nourishing Ways to Read the Bible . John Murray Press. Kindle Edition.