The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

“Speaking the truth in love…” That was from last week’s reading, and, repeated in today’s, is the thematic thread for these reflections.

Our first reading from Second Samuel needs a bit of set-up. Last Sunday in Nathan’s oracle following David’s murder of Uriah and taking of Bathsheba, his wife, we heard “Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house.” But as the story unfolds it’s clear that the trouble might equally well be the result of David’s choices. It starts with Amnon, a son of David by one wife, and Absalom and Tamar, son and daughter of David by another wife. Amnon desires Tamar. She resists. After forcing himself on her, his desire turns to loathing, and he sends her away. As for David, we’re told “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn” (13:21). Let that sink in. The narrator hardly needs to tell us that the atmosphere at court is toxic, and that all the available choices for the protagonists may be bad. (Parenthetically, we’re warned against looking to David as a model for “speaking the truth in love” in this stretch of his career.)

Absalom, Tamar’s brother, bides his time, and when the opportunity presents itself, murders Amnon. A brief exile follows, and on his return, Absalom starts laying the groundwork for a coup. As our reading opens the coup’s well underway, Absalom having won the first sets, but David preparing to take the match. Against David’s express orders, Joab, David’s general, ever the pragmatist, executes Absalom on the battlefield, and David is overtaken with grief.

Had the reading continued a bit further we’d have heard one of the few examples of “speaking the truth in love” in this stretch of David’s story (Nathan’s oracle being the other one that comes to mind). Reading the verses immediately following:

It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” The troops stole into the city that day as soldiers steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Then Joab came into the house to the king, and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you. You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the LORD, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.”

Risky for Joab: had anyone piped up about Joab’s personal role in Absalom’s death David might well have demanded Joab’s head. But Joab loved David and said what needed to be said.

Between David’s love for Amnon, David’s love for Absalom, and Joab’s love for David, we could spend the rest of our time wondering about the demands of love. Minimally, it can be more than a little messy, not a bad warning as we move to our other texts!

“I am the bread of life.” Pretty much from the start readers have found it difficult to decide whether the metaphor points to Jesus as God’s definitive word or to the Eucharist. I think it’s likely that the answer is BOTH, with today’s text pointing more toward Jesus as God’s definitive word, and next week’s text (the next chunk of the same chapter in John) pointing more toward Jesus as received in the Eucharist.

I think that’s a really interesting ambiguity. Recall that even today scientists and philosophers have no good answer to how our mental and physical worlds connect. Jesus, Bread of Life, speaks to both halves of that puzzle. Jesus, received in Word and Sacrament. Sadly, Christians have frequently argued about whether it’s Word or Sacrament that’s more important. Jesus’ words here seem to render those arguments pointless. We need to receive Jesus in Word; we need to receive Jesus in Sacrament.

Notice that here the focus is on Jesus as God’s definitive word, rather than on the content of that word. We’ll circle back to Jesus in a bit for one example of the content. Now, over to the second reading.

In the verses immediately prior to our second reading Paul highlights Jesus as God’s definitive word. “That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.” (4:20-21). And the content of Jesus’ teaching Paul focuses is about how we live together, particularly as our tongues come into play.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” What might we observe about this portion of the letter?

First, it’s a remarkably candid—if not brutal—portrait of Paul’s assumed audience. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths… Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” He’s not talking about how the pagans act, or how his audience used to act. This is a community in which “kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” are not just optional extras, but essential so the whole thing doesn’t blow apart. It’s the sort of description that might have us heading for the nearest exit—until the penny drops that as long as Jesus is in the business of saving sinners, this can be as good as it gets.

Second, not surprisingly, “speak the truth to our neighbors” comes into clearest focus toward the end of our reading: “and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” “Gave himself up,” not so that we don’t have to, but so that we, powered by the Holy Spirit, can do it as often as necessary for the sake of our neighbors.

So, third, “speak the truth to our neighbors” is the polar opposite of what is often our first impulse: weaponize truth, let ‘em have it right between the eyes. Or, in Paul’s language, “speak the truth to our neighbors” is not to be confused with the over-abundance of “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander.”

Recall Jesus’ response to the scribes and Pharisees who brought to him the woman “caught in the very act of committing adultery” (John 7:53b-8:11). True enough, but a classic example of weaponizing truth, partial (where was the man?) and seeking to destroy—the woman, and, for that matter, Jesus. Jesus will have none of that: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus, God’s definitive word to us, and the content of that word includes attention to our inclination to weaponize truth.

Fourth—the next-to-the-last point—Paul’s instruction is remarkably optimistic if we compare it with, say, the Letter of James. “…the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:6-8). But by God’s grace with the power of the Spirit, Paul sees the tongue as potentially giving grace to those who hear, the tongue of every member of Christ’s Body as sacramental, giving grace. And James, when he calms down, might even agree.

Fifth, while Paul is speaking in the present tense, these instructions necessarily assume a temporal dimension. Recall Second Samuel. When Nathan and Joab speak hard truths to David, they have some shared history that makes it worth David’s time to listen to them. How we speak now also affects how we can be heard (or not) in the future.

“Speaking the truth in love…” “speak the truth to our neighbors” There’s caution in Paul’s words. Not having left childhood completely behind (recall last week’s reading) we too easily confuse speaking the truth with “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander.” But there’s hope in Paul’s words, for the same Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus’ ministry has “sealed us for the day of redemption.” The week lies ahead. In fear and trembling let’s discover what the Spirit might do with our tongues.

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