Sermon: Sunday 16 June 2013
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Speaking Truth to Power 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 Luke 7:36-8:3
This week it was announced that Stephen Hester is to quit at the Royal Bank of Scotland with a £5.6million pay-off. Most conclude he has done a good job, even if some of the Libor scandal may have happened on his watch. The long term impact of the banking crisis remains with us and we still don’t understand it. For example, a survey published on Friday suggested that pensioner income has slowly increased over these past years whilst students and those in their 20s have seen an average fall of 12%. The new Archbishop has made the banking industry a focus of his concerns. This week at St Paul’s Cathedral he told the banks that they needed to be good. And he said they ‘can be good with the fear of hell and the hope of heaven’, rather than being motivated solely by financial bonuses and penalties. He went on to say ‘we can have potentially good banks, banks that live with a culture that is self-correcting and self-learning. A culture that is more like a body than a system’.
Archbishops speak truth to power as do indeed cathedrals, Deans and cathedral congregations. Yesterday Eric Pickles, the Government Minister for Communities, was here with us as we recalled 40 years since Idi Amin threw out the Ugandan Asians in a bid for African purity. Later this morning the Royal Tigers’ regiment will gather and this afternoon, led by the Lord Lieutenant, we will mark the 60th anniversary of the Coronation. Truth is speaking to and with power.
Our Old Testament reading raises many important questions about how truth and power interact. Such stories emerge out of concrete historical realities but they do not easily give us the answers we need for bank reform or the nature of democratic monarchy or any other contemporary economic or political question. But these are stories which frame our stories differently.
The great King David in this section of 2 Samuel is portrayed as a bad king. It can be summarised in three terse phrases from the text. The text says that Bathsheba, who is King David’s new wife, says ‘I am pregnant’. King David has killed her first husband Uriah! Nathan the prophet, who is part of the court but whose job as a prophet is to speak truth in season and out of season, says ‘you are the man’. And David, the anointed and chosen one destined for the rising and fall of his people, says ‘I have sinned against Yahweh’. Well that makes sense and it feels comfortable – David has done a terrible thing; he has violated at least 3 of the Ten Commandments – ‘thou shallt not kill’, ‘thou shallt not covet’, and ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’. Someone, namely Nathan, has had the courage to point it out to him; he has listened and responds with remorse seeking forgiveness. But the horrendous response of God in the narrative shows that this is not resolved. The nameless child born out of this mess will be struck down by God with illness. It is one of the most difficult verses in the Hebrew bible. There is a high price when we end up seduced by our imagined moral and ethical autonomy. In this case the child to be born carries the ongoing pathos. David has glimpsed some possibility of life even in the midst of mess but he, his family and his community remain wounded.
The gospel story from Luke of the woman who anoints Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee takes us further into witnessing the extent to which truth can not only speak to power but can actually reshape it. This nameless woman, a sinner who has glimpsed the extent of grace, is able to move beyond the constraints of morality. These constraints bind Simon into tram lines of thought. Simon may be acting as dinner host but he is not affording the proper honour he should to a guest. Simon the supposed host has failed to see the person of Jesus. Then when Jesus fails to expel the woman of the city, Simon’s view and moral world is merely reinforced. He is thinking this: ‘If Jesus were a decent human being and a real prophet, he would have thrown her out’. But then she takes the rug from under Simon by claiming the authority of the host. She washes his feet, she offers the kiss of welcome and the anointing for one coming in after a journey in the heat of the day. Her own experience of being forgiven leads her to enact a life of forgiveness. The stranger has become the host. The host has become the one in need of welcome and Jesus has created the space in which all this social and power reconstruction takes place.
Bankers and their customers who have done well and those who have paid heavy prices need no longer to shout across the walls if, like King David, the consequences of the past seriously affect or impair on-going life. Instead there needs to be sitting down together. The life of the woman on the city streets means that she has become estranged from the very places and powers that might be able to restore her. Yet when that experience, her experience of grace, is allowed to be present, the full possibilities of welcome and forgiveness suddenly become clear and enacted.
Most Sunday evenings as a student in Durham, I went to a simple Eucharist and most weeks we sang this song:
Beggars, lame, and harlots also here,
Repentant publicans are drawing near,
Wayward sons come home without a fear,
God and man at table are sat down,
God and man at table are sat down.
We looked around the room and wondered who was who.
We speak truth to power as we sit down at table with all manner of people and then we find that God comes amongst us – consequences are revealed and grace and forgiveness turn everything around.
© The Very Revd David Monteith