Sermon 7.29.18 What Good Is Religion?

Scripture Lesson: 2 Samuel 11:1-12:14a

Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

What good is religion?  It’s not just a question for a skeptic or an atheist.  Considering the number of churches and religious institutions and faith communities in the US anyway, it seems like a good question.  What good is religion?  There’s a lot of it around us, but what good is it?

I think a major function of most religions, certainly Christianity, is to bring out the best in people; it is to encourage our goodness.  Religion is a way of dealing with life that fosters hope and joy and community.   A purpose is to help people be loving – of themselves, others, and Creation.  I think religion is to help people be good and have a good life.  

After a yoga class I went to recently, one of the participants mentioned that they were going to a steakhouse for dinner after class.  She glanced at the teacher and said, “I know that would not interest you,” because the teacher is vegetarian.  The teacher explained that she doesn’t eat meat because her spiritual practice involves “do no harm” so she doesn’t eat animals.  As an aside to the teacher, who knows I am a Christian pastor, I said, “I’m vegan out of reverence for the Earth.”  Then the teacher mentioned to all that she doesn’t kill bugs in her house either – at least not many.  She takes them outside.  Again, as an aside, I told her that we often take them outside, too, because we believe life is sacred.  So while the yoga teacher and I have very different religious leanings, our religious commitment is bringing out the good in us in similar ways.  

That is what religion is really all about:  bringing out the good in us, in life, in relationships, and all the good around us.  

This morning we heard a portion of the story of King David.  Now here is a figure absolutely steeped, from birth, in religion.  He is part of a devout Jewish family from the tribe of Benjamin.  His family is making sacrifices and following all the necessary observances.  Things are not going well with Saul’s reign and a new king is needed who will get things back on track.  Get Israel back in tune with God.  Clean out the corruption and violence and problems that have arisen and get the people back to living in a wholesome and righteous manner.  As the story is told, Jesse’s family is pegged to provide the next king for Israel.   And who gets picked to do this?  Not Jesse’s son, Eliab.  Or Abinadab.  Not Shammah.  None of the seven sons.  But the youngest son, who was keeping the sheep, David, he is the one who is fingered by God through the prophet Samuel.  A humble, unassuming figure because “God looks on the heart.”  [1 Sam. 16:5]  David is chosen because he is someone who will depend on God and someone God can trust. 

And it goes really well for a while with David.  He is sound through the challenging transition ending Saul’s reign.  When David is anointed king he brings people together.  He is successful militarily against Israel’s foes.  He establishes the city of Jerusalem known as the city of David.  And he is talking about building a Temple for God.  Things seem to be on track.  We’re told that, “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”  [2 Samuel 5:10]  He is a shining star just as was hoped.  

And then we hear of David and Bathsheba.  Such a promising start goes so awry.  And even that awesome, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of Israel doesn’t seem able to keep David and his regime in line.  What good is religion?  It didn’t stop David from lusting after Bathsheba.  It didn’t stop him from summoning her.  What could she say, no, she would not come when called by the king?  Religion did not stop David from “taking” Bathsheba as it is stated in the text.  

Seemingly unable to control himself, David is also unable to control the consequences of his actions.  Bathsheba becomes pregnant.  Now there is a problem.  At least for David.  He has taken another man’s wife.  He has violated the ownership rights of another man.  And so he is looking for a cover up.  There has already been a problem for Bathsheba.  She has been raped;  but that is not the main issue here.  Women’s problems are seldom the main issue in a patriarchal society, but more on that in a moment.  So, in light of this pregnancy, David digs his hole deeper by pursuing a coverup.  He calls Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, home from the battlefront.  Uriah comes when called, just like Bathsheba, just like anyone summoned by the king.  But, again, things are out of David’s control.  Uriah is supremely noble.  One of David’s elite 30 soldiers among thousands.  His name means “God is my light.”  For Uriah, religion is bringing out his best.  He will not have a conjugal visit with his spouse when the ark of God is still out on the battlefield along with the other soldiers.  This would be disrespectful, dishonorable, disgraceful.  He is calm and principled.  So Uriah sleeps out in the yard, not inside in his soft, comfortable bed, with his soft comfortable wife.  

Now what will David do?  Something righteous?  Something good?  Come clean?  Nope.  David arranges for Uriah to return to the front and be killed in battle.  Then he takes Bathsheba as his wife. 

This whole sordid episode is a turning point in David’s monarchy and in his life.  After this, David’s life is wracked by problems and tragedy.  Bathsheba’s baby dies, though she becomes the mother of Solomon, the next king.  David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped by her brother who is killed by another brother out of revenge.  David’s son, Absalom then stages a take over, including raping 10 of David’s wives, and is killed.  Pestilence invades the land.  It’s simply downhill after Bathsheba. 

Now, back to patriarchy.  There are scholars, white, male, who, through the centuries, have blamed the whole Bathsheba saga, the beginning of David’s downfall, not on the glorious, victorious king, but on Bathsheba.  She lured the king.  She enticed the king.  She asked for this.  She brought David down.  Here’s a sample of this view from a commentary:  “No one of good moral character could have acted as she did in her seduction and conquest of David.  She doubtless exposed herself that the king might be tempted; she willingly came to the palace when she was sent for; and conspired with David for the murder of her husband.”  [Cited in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 2. p. 565]  Talk about blaming the victim!  That is not religion bringing out the good in people, but religion with a twisted imagination fueled by patriarchy.  (And there’s a lot of that. . .)

So, how will this whole mess be resolved?  Uriah is dead.  Bathsheba is pregnant.  Religion doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in King David.  What now?  We are told that God sends Nathan the prophet to David.  Nathan is to help David see the error of his ways.  Nathan is to expose the truth to David.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t envy Nathan.  I would not have wanted that assignment!  But Nathan proceeds.  He shows us religion bringing out the truth.   The stark honesty that is needed.  Nathan shows us religion bringing out the truth of the abomination that David has committed.   But it is about more than exposure.  Nathan also leads David to admission of guilt.  To repentance.  To redemption and restoration.

Yes, religion is about bringing out the good in us, about helping us to be our best selves.  But it is also about finding our way back when we have erred.   In Judaism and Christianity, religion is about restoration after we have strayed.  It is about an on ramp back to goodness when we have hurt ourselves, others, and our relationships.  It is about healing when we have caused or contributed to pain and suffering.  In some ancient versions of 2 Samuel, the scribes left a gap in the text after David’s confession.  There was an indication that Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance, was to be read there.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.  . . .”  After the reading of Psalm 51, the text of 2 Samuel resumed.  

What good is religion?  Yes, it inspires the good, but it also provides a way back.  Our faith tradition provides a path of restoration.  And that may be its most important function.  In today’s world, we seem bent on punishment, retribution, and revenge.  Think of that ubiquitous question on most job applications:  Have you ever been convicted of a felony?  That seals it.  Yes or no.  And if the answer is yes, there is little chance of a way back; of being fully restored to a constructive role in society.  Your personhood is not restored even after you have served your sentence because you are still not allowed to vote.  There is no way back to full humanity, healing, and wholeness.  But our religion does provide that way back.  Our faith helps us find a way to healing and wholeness even after the most painful experiences.  We are part of a religion of forgiveness which can lead to the restoration of our full humanity.  We can once more see the image of God within ourselves after we err, and in others who have done heinous things.  In Christianity, our only permanent label is child of God created in the image of God.  And our faith always provides a way for us to see that in ourselves and in others.  The scene of Jesus on the cross is definitive:  Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.  David asks for forgiveness because he didn’t know what he was doing.   And he receives the forgiveness he needs.  He finds a way to go on, with Bathsheba, no less, after arranging the murder of her husband.  And, we can imagine that Bathsheba, too, must in some way forgive David, for she somehow finds a way to go on as one of his wives.  

What good is religion?  Yes, it encourages and fosters the good.  But it is also about finding a way to go on, a path of restoration, when we are less than our best selves.  And we know that humanity is capable of great evil.  And it can be that the more power we have, the more harm we do.  We remember the words of British historian, Lord Acton, in 1887:  “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  David is a case in point.  We can also see this among the wealthy, dominant, white, elite portion of the US population.  Often the power carried by that status leads such people to think they are subject to different rules, different standards, different morals.  How is it that our government thought it was ok to take children away from their parents – babies, toddlers, kids, teens?  They expected a “pass” because they are the government.  But the courts and people of this country are seeking to rectify this immoral policy.  Power corrupts and we can succumb to doing great wrong.  Whatever our transgressions as individuals or as a society, there is a way back.  Our faith tradition gives us a way of reconciliation and healing.  

Recently a friend, who is agnostic and not religious, told me the story of her cousin’s murder here in Florida many years ago.  Her cousin and his girlfriend were college age.  They were out on a date.  They were abducted and taken to the woods.  The woman was raped and then killed.  And the man was then killed as well.  It was a horrific, random act of violence.  The murderer did not know these people.  It was an act of pure evil.  The families of the two young people were wrought with unimaginable grief.  My friend told me that she noticed that the two families handled things differently.  And that has remained notable to her.  The woman’s family was angry and wanted revenge.  They wanted the killer to get the death penalty.  They remained broken and hostile.  They never seemed to heal after this experience.  The man’s family, his parents, my friend’s aunt and uncle, were part of the Salvation Army.  They were very involved in the church.  They were people of faith.  Yes, they were devastated by the murder of their son and his girlfriend.  But they sought healing in their faith.  They prayed.  They offered forgiveness to the killer.  They told the judge that they did not want him to receive the death penalty.  It would only mean another death and it wouldn’t bring their son or the girlfriend back.  They also started a support group for others who had family members that had been murdered or had been victims of violence.  This work helped them to heal.  They found solidarity with others.  They were able to express their grief and seek the solace of forgiveness with others.  They were able to go on with their lives and find the good in themselves and others again.  Sadly, there was little reconciliation between the families of the two victims.  The parents of the woman could not understand the attitude of the parents of the man.  They could not see the value in forgiveness.  They could not let go of their hatred and anger.  

So, what good is religion?  As the story of David, Jesus, and the stories of those around us continue to reveal, religion gives us a way back to life.  It gives us a way forward after devastation.  It is a path of restoration and renewal because we are going to do things that are wrong, that cause pain, that separate us from our best selves and from others.  This is inevitable.  It is the consequence of freewill.  It is our nature.  Our religion gives us a way back through forgiveness of ourselves and others so that we may once again know love, goodness, and joy.   That is good religion.  Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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