“Nathan, Jon Stewart, and Us”

August 9, 2015

 

II Samuel 11:26-12:13a

 

In the mid-1950’s the American Friends Service Committee published a study of international conflict titled “Speak Truth to Power.” They took that phrase— “Speak Truth to Power”—from a charge given to Eighteenth Century Quakers, who accepted that burden in many ways.

Over the past sixty years, people in churches have used that phrase repeatedly, reminding us that seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God will often take us to the halls of power and require us to speak when those who occupy such places would prefer our silent compliance.

Look at the “What We Believe” section of the United Church of Christ website. Near the bottom of the list presented there you’ll find the affirmation: “We believe that the UCC is called to be a prophetic church.” What this means is then spelled out this way: “As in the tradition of the prophets and apostles, God calls the church to speak truth to power, liberate the oppressed, care for the poor and comfort the afflicted.”

Last Sunday we heard that very disturbing story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah. It was so troubling that there was an audible gasp throughout the congregation when I finished reading the scripture lesson. Not the usual light, mid-summer fare that you will find in many congregations—but then we here are a hardier stock.

Today we heard the aftermath of those events.

First the judgment of God: “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”

Ultimately the mercy of God: “The Lord has put away your sin.”

And in between we hear the astonishing story of Nathan who—that’s right—speaks truth to power.

Thomas Troeger, who teaches at Yale Divinity School wonders: “How do you confront someone who commands vast authority and power and uses his or her position to commit atrocious evil? It is a question that haunts history. Those with little or no influence have struggled mightily with how to hold accountable those who are in power and who possess the resources to enforce their will through violence, imprisonment, and death.”[i]

From Elijah and Jeremiah to John the Baptist and Jesus, the Bible tells of those who met with just such responses. And the longer history of the world is filled with similar examples.

The story of Nathan and David is an exception.

It began when David sent someone to find out just who was this woman whom he had seen.

Then David sent messengers to get her.

Now we are told, the Lord sent Nathan to David.

It is no easy thing to be sent by God.

Nathan could take the direct approach and end up like so many others who directly demanded moral accountability in the face of abusive power.

Instead, he tells a parable that stirs David’s imagination.

You remember that the powerful King David was a shepherd in his youth. So Nathan tells the story of a poor man and his lamb that reaches the vulnerable, compassionate spirit of David. In righteous anger toward the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb and fed it to a guest, David cries out: “The man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

In spite of all of David’s horrific actions the prophet of God does not address David’s shadow side. He speaks instead to his moral sense that is still there deep beneath his greed and lust and murderous spirit. Having done this Nathan can speak now with a surprising and honest directness to the king: “You are the man!”

We begin the often dangerous work of loving and seeking justice by recognizing the common humanity that is shared by all people—the just and the unjust, the oppressed and the oppressor—by seeking to speak to the good within each person, however deep it might be buried.

This past week Jon Stewart ended his sixteen-year run as host of The Daily Show.

Over the years, in spite of Stewart insisting that his job was just “throwing spitballs” from the back of the room, many have echoed The New York Times when it said years ago that he did what real news programs could not do: speaking the truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language.”[ii] Indeed, as I watched over the years, I often said his vulgarity never disappointed.

I don’t want to paint Mr. Stewart as a saint. Certainly he was never in as much danger as Nathan was and many others have been—including both humorists and journalists.

But like Nathan, Jon Stewart was effective because he didn’t come at issue directly, but out of a comic tradition that can express “strength, perseverance and love,” that can expose numbness and grief as much as cause us to laugh. And he was able to do what he did, in part, I think, because he kept reminding people of their basic human decency—even when, especially when that decency seemed so very slight.

Probably the best example of this occurred when Senate Republicans filibustered a bill that would have provided $4.2 billion in healthcare to 9/11 first responders. Stewart stepped into the role of advocate. He dedicated his final broadcast of 2010 to the subject, inviting four first responders onto his show to speak about their health problems and excoriating the GOP for “turn[ing] 9/11 into a catchphrase” yet failing to provide for those who were on the frontline. His call to do the right thing worked and a version of the bill passed just under the wire in the closing hours of Congress that year. Not the partisan hack that some would like us to see him as, Stewart was similarly passionate in his criticisms of the Obama administration over lengthy delays face by veterans seeking medical treatment. [iii]

No, he wasn’t always that successful. On Wednesday’s show Stewart had a segment that showed how little the world had changed because of what he said.

All of this brings us around to the work that is before us in these days.

There is still the need to speak truth to power.

There are still those in power who don’t want to hear that they are taking from others, as Samuel once warned the people of ancient Israel that kings would do, as Nathan said the rich man did.

There are still those in power who don’t want to hear about the ingrained institutional racism that plagues our nation.

There are still those in power who don’t want to hear about the changes to our climate that will harm the world’s poor the most but will affect all of us.

There are still those in power who don’t want to hear about the rights that belong to all people.

We could take to the streets or to Facebook in protest, in outrage. But lest we get too caught up in the idea that we are somehow filled with truth and not the powerful ones ourselves—a temptation that is always lurking within the United Church of Christ—our sister and brother Quakers help us.

In that study from the Fifties, they wrote that we speak to power in at least two senses:

  • To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace.
  • To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.

 

Well that changes things, doesn’t it?

 

Yes, the powerful are those “who hold high places in our national life.” Some of them are elected. Increasingly, it is money—the great wealth held by an increasingly small number of individuals—that buys power.

But the powerful are also, well, we, the people, who as the Society of Friends reminds us, “are the final reservoir of power in this county and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.”

In the United States we still need to speak truth not only to those in elected office but also to those of us who put them there.

We need to speak truth not only to those who have great wealth but also to those of us who participate in an economy that fosters the great income and wealth inequality that will slowly destroy this nation.

And once again, we in the liberal church are called to important work. While we used to be able to assume that many outside the church held our values and expectations, we are now called to define and clarify what those values are and learn to speak about them in ways that can persuade others. This is not about moral superiority.

In our time it is quite easy to stand in a pulpit and speak truth that will never be heard by politicians. It is quiet easy to stand in Rockwood Hall with a cup of coffee and speak truth that the oligarchs of our nation will not hear.

The more difficult task is to speak truth that will be heard by a congregation, truth that will be heard by our neighbors, truth that will be heard those who “set the limits for those who exercise authority.”

The Quakers also boldly announced: “Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth…is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history.”

When we speak truth to power, we will often be indirect.

When we speak truth to power, we will be speaking as much to our own power and the power of our neighbors as to distant political and economic forces.

And when we speak truth to power, we will always find ourselves in need of the same forgiveness that David received. We will always find ourselves in need of the new and right spirit for which the author of Psalm 51 prayed.

As I said, the thought and language of this psalm indicates that it was written centuries after the life of David. It provides a theological interpretation of the mix of sin and guilt and forgiveness found in the terrible and tragic story of David, Bathesheba, Uriah, and Nathan.

Thomas Troeger helps us to see that “here is a hymn inspired by a confession that was wrenched by a prophet out of a king who had abused his power. By placing the memory of that story permanently into Israel's hymnbook, the psalmist alerts the community to be continually attentive to the misuse of power and the need to confess it and to seek a new heart, not just for individuals but for the whole system of power relations that permits such abuse to occur…The psalm makes clear that it is not a story told for prurient interest. It is rather a wake-up call to the nation about the abuse of power and the need for repentance.[iv]

Once more, our scriptures speak to the ways in which political life and the life of faith interact with each other. Our actions and our speaking are at all times under the judgment of God and the forgiveness of God.

Like David, we are called to repentance.

Like Nathan, we are called to the demanding task of speaking truth to power.

And that, as Jon Stewart reminded the nation on Thursday evening, requires vigilance. Things don’t always smell right. So remember what he told us, speaking out of the tradition of a long line of both Jewish prophets and Jewish comedians: “If you smell something, say something.”



[i] Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).

[iv] Troeger, loc.cit.