Some of us spent the week before last visiting El Salvador, as I’m sure you know. An Anglican organization called Fundación Cristosal organized our trip. They run a lot of visits; the YLA – youth leadership academy – is with them this week. Their big thing – their organizing principle – is asking us visitors to hear about and see the lives of the people we visit, and then to discern how God wishes their lives to be related to our lives. Only after we’ve heard and seen, and then discerned, should we act. So, it’s 1. hear and see, 2. discern, and then 3. act.
We’ve also been doing a lot of bible studies in our congregation lately based on those three steps: Step one: hearing and seeing: what word or phrase in the reading touched my heart? Step two: discerning: what phrase relates to our life together today. Step three: acting: How is God calling me to change through the reading?
Our trip’s agenda was focused primarily on hearing and seeing peoples’ life stories, and getting to know them a little bit. Olivia Amadon, our trip coordinator, lined up all kinds of people to talk to us: a human rights lawyer, a youth worker, a survivor of a massacre during the civil war just to name three.
And, I confess, for me all this seeing and hearing sometimes got tiresome. More than once I caught myself thinking, “can’t we just skip all this and cut to the chase?” Thank goodness I had enough self-control not to say what I was thinking. We needed to hear and see what those people had to tell us in all the texture and detail they had to offer us. Maybe all the details didn’t make sense to us listeners at the time. That didn’t make them any less a part of their stories.
It’s possible that I and the other travelers will become tiresome to you. We saw and heard a lot and we all have a yearning to retell what we heard. So, you have permission to tell us “enough” when you’ve heard enough.
That brings us to today’s Gospel reading.
Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”
Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (John 6:1-21 NRSV)
There’s a lot of detail and texture, isn’t there? A geography lesson. A large anxious crowd. Signs and wonders. Going up the mountain with the disciples. The time of passover. Jesus testing Philip. The economics of feeding a crowd. A confrontation between Jesus’s focus on compassion and Philip’s practical focus. And that’s just in seven verses. It’s in the first third of the reading before we get to the feeding of the crowd or walking on water. It’s an awful lot to take in.
It’s enough to make us impatient. Don’t we want to say, “can’t we skip all this and cut to the chase?” Can’t St. John just tell the story like St. Mark did? Can’t St. John let the events of Jesus’s ministry speak for themselves? Does he have to fill in every little bit of backstory just in case we miss some little detail?
After all, you and I know the story, or at least we think we do. All the extra stuff is just confusing. Who cares what the lake is called? What does the Passover have to do with anything? Can’t we just hear the wonderful account of the miracle of feeding five thousand people? It’s human to be a little bit impatient with all these details, and human is what we are.
In our first reading …
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” (2 Samuel 11:1-15, NRSV)
In our first reading, David showed some, umm, humanity, didn’t he? While his general Joab and his army were out fighting in the desert, David had a nice afternoon nap, then took a stroll on his palace roof, and, how do I put this? He did what powerful men sometimes do. He used his power to get what he wanted from a young woman. He exercised his arrogance, lust, and pride. He didn’t even bother to keep his shenanigans quiet – he sent his servants to fetch her. He took advantage of her and made her pregnant, while her husband was away fighting his battle.
How much of a conversation do you think he had with her? Did he ask her about herself? Do you suppose he cared about any kind of relationship with her? It doesn’t seem so. She just went home after their encounter.
He most likely didn’t care about the details of her life. He didn’t have to care (or so he thought). He got what he wanted without bothering with companionship or with developing a relationship. A lot of getting, not much giving. And of course, when he tried to cover up his abuse of power, things just got worse and worse: he basically had the woman’s husband killed.
The realm of God is made from the details of peoples’ lives. When we love one another the way God loves us, it’s all about caring about the details and texture of their lives. But the realm of God doesn’t come easily to us. It’s hard work to care about the details of somebody’s story, especially when we want something from them. David mistreated Bathsheba and had Uriah killed. Do you think he would have done that if he really knew them?
In the case of our Gospel reading, we want something from Jesus: we’re hungry for the wonderful story about how he fed the crowd. At least in my case, I’m like David, and I think we all are at least a little bit.
It’s not easy to care about the deep texture of the story – Passover approaching, disciples feeling pressure, and so forth. We know what we want! Just hand over the good stuff already, the bread and the fish, and the beautiful and not-very-challenging miracle story. Gimme!
This is the David attitude. Doesn’t this attitude have a big effect on our lives?
We weren’t the only group of norteamericano church missionaries in El Salvador, not even close. There was a large group all wearing bright green T shirts saying, if I remember right, “Calvary Church El Salvador Trip 2012.” One of us had a conversation with one of them. It seems that their trip plan was to ride on their bus, visit four village primary schools each day and put on some kind of evangelical skit for the kids. That seems like a very ambitious agenda. I wonder if they got to know anybody? I wonder if they learned anything about the schools or villages they visited? Visiting four a day it seems unlikely. It seems very possible that they have a David attitude. They’re doing things to meet their own needs.
The truth is this: The David attitude – the human attitude, maybe we should call it – is a part of all kinds of mission and outreach work. Why did we go to El Salvador? Why do we feed people in our Among Friends ministry? Whose needs are we meeting? Of course, we’re meeting our own needs. It’s not wrong to meet our own needs. But it’s not enough.
The realm of God comes near when we hear and see peoples’ life stories, and when we begin to get to know them and develop real friendships.
I hope you’ll listen to strangers and see them in these days to come (not necessarily us El Salvador travelers: you don’t have to listen to all our stories!) I hope you’ll pay attention to the feeling that says “this is getting tiresome” because that’s a sign you’re getting beyond your David attitude and starting to actually listen. Because we need to know each other better, for the sake of God’s realm and the life of the world.