The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks –The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 13—Year B
II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51:1-12; Ephesians 4:1-16; Mark 6:24-35
I have a confession to make. I love Veggie Tales. For those of you who have not been around children in recent years, these are the Broadway Musicals of animated vegetables. And my all-time favorite Veggie Tale is King George and the Ducky. In the story, King George, who is a talking cucumber, has this obsession with cute, little, yellow rubber duckies. His country is embroiled in the Great Pie War and all he wants to do is lounge in his bath with his rubber ducky. His able assistant, Louis, keeps trying to get his attention. After all, if the kingdom is at war, shouldn’t the king be paying attention? Eventually, King George gets out of his bath, and while wondering around on his balcony, he spies a beautiful, gorgeous ducky floating in a bath on a rooftop in the lower part of town. King George wants that ducky—it’s beautiful, and he wants it. There is only one problem—it belongs to Thomas. The king’s assistant, Louis, is confused. “But you already have a duck.”
King George responds, “What are you saying? That I shouldn’t have it?”
Louis backs up to a huge cabinet, throws open the doors, revealing hundreds of duckies, and reminds the king, “You already have quite a few duckies.”
And in the line to end all lines, King George responds, “Those are yesterday’s duckies.”
Louis persuades King George that he just can’t go in there and take Thomas’ duck because then other people would think that the king would come and take their stuff, and well, you just can’t run a kingdom that way.
King George agrees, so he plots with his General, Cedric, to send Thomas to the front of the Great Pie War, and then he tells Cedric to have everyone else to step back. General Cedric responds, “But sire, he’ll get creamed,” which is exactly what King George wants.
While Thomas is off at the front, King George and Louis sneak off in the dead of night and swipe Thomas’ ducky. Just as King George is admiring this ducky (which Louis thinks looks like all the other duckies he has and which George vehemently denies), Cedric walks in with Thomas, now a war hero, who’s really woosey because he really did get creamed at the front of the Pie War. George conceals the ducky until Thomas is whisked away.
Just as King George is about to enjoy his bath, in walks Melvin, that slightly odd wise man who shows up every so often to tell the king things. Melvin has come to tell the King a story, flannel graph and all. And, in good Broadway fashion, Melvin breaks into song.
There once was a man, a very rich man, he had a lot of sheep, he had a lot of lamb,
He threw a lot of parties, he was dapper, he was tan, there once was a very rich man.
King George breaks in and thanks him for his story to which Melvin responds:
Wait just a minute, my story isn’t done, it’s about two men and I’ve only mentioned one.
There once was a man, a very poor man, he had next to nothing, just a little lamb.
But he loved it like a son and he fed it from his hand, yes there once was a very poor man.
Then one day, there was a guest at the house of the rich man.
What did he do, have you guessed, to feed the guest of the rich man?
King George reasons, “Well, let’s see, he had plenty of sheep so he could just share one of his sheep, not a problem.”
Melvin shakes his head, “He took the lamb of the poor man. He took the lamb of the poor man. The rich man took, to feed his guest, the very, very poor man’s lamb.”
King George is incensed. He questions Melvin, “What? Is this a true story?”
Melvin replies, “As surely as I stand before you today, my story is true.”
King George rages, “Who is that man? Tell me. To take the lamb of the poor man when he had lots of sheep and the poor man only had one! Man, for his cruelty, he will spend the rest of his days locked in my dungeon! Who is he?”
Melvin solemnly sings, “Oh King George, you are that man.”
Melvin then spells out the parallels to the whole ducky thing. As the reality sinks in to King George, he asks what he must do. Melvin tells George to ask God’s forgiveness, and to ask Thomas’ forgiveness, and then King George must make it right.
King George does just that, eventually drawing a royal bath for Thomas and restoring his rightful ducky to him.
It’s a brilliant retelling of the story we have today, except the stakes are a little higher in II Samuel. For King David, it was a matter of taking another man’s wife and sending her husband to the front of the war so that he would be killed so that David’s indiscretion would not be found out. I’ll leave you to read the explicit details in II Samuel chapters 11 and 12, but check it out sometime—court intrigue at its best. Showtime and HBO can’t top this.
When the prophet Nathan confronts the King with the very same story that Melvin tells, Nathan makes it clear that God gave David everything, rescued him from the hand of Saul, gave him Saul’s house and Saul’s wives, the houses (read kingdoms) of Israel and Judah, and if that had been too little, God would have given that much more. But noooo, David had to go and have Uriah killed so that he could take Uriah’s wife.
Just an aside, we need to have a whole other conversation one day about how the women are handled in these stories—traded, given, stolen, possessed—but that’s a conversation for another day. Just need to note it.
So, when is enough, enough? How many duckies does one need? How many wives does one need? What is it about somebody else having something that sparks an obsession in us to have what they have? Why do we covet what we do not possess and are restless with what we do have? Why are we not content? And what is it about taking from the one who has so little that is so immensely attractive?
I ran across a story recently that still has me scratching my head.
In 2007, the six Walmart heirs had wealth equal to the wealth of the bottom 30% of Americans combined. By 2010, the combined wealth of these same six heirs was more than the bottom 42% of Americans combined. At a time when the Great Recession sent many Americans into a negative wealth position (13 million Americans now fit that description), at a time when the wealth of the average American declined from $126,000 to $77,000, the six richest Walton’s collective wealth rose from $73 billion to $90 billion. One more image to complete this picture—in 1983, you would have to combine the median wealth of 61,992 families to equal the Walton family wealth. In 2010, it took 1,157,827 families to do the same.
This story from II Samuel is as pertinent today, as it was almost 3,000 years ago. And if we have ears to hear, the scriptures will pin our ears back good about the income inequality that exists among us in this country and across the world.
But it’s easy to point fingers at the Walton’s and miss the log in our own eyes. I think the most haunting line in this whole passage is when Nathan turns to David and says, “You are the man!”
What if we stand where David stands? What if Nathan is telling us this story? What if we recognize the blatant injustice of this story, and what if Nathan then turns to us and says, “You are the man! You are the woman!”
Where have we taken from the one who has so little? Where have we coveted what did not belong to us and plotted to possess it, all the while not being content with what we have? Where do we continue to rob the poor man? How are we complicit?
A huge piece of this is economic—yes, the Bible mentions wealth, poverty, and the poor 1,900 times—but it is not only economic. We covet in many ways. St. Paul lays out a list of gifts that Christ gives to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. How often do we spy a gift in someone else and want that gift for ourselves, never noticing the gift that God has given to us, never developing that gift in ourselves, never being content with the gift we, in fact, already possess, never even acknowledging that we have been given a gift to use for the sake of the world?
These are all hard, soul-piercing questions, and I can’t resolve their answers in this sermon. Sometimes the call is simply to sit with the questions and let them pierce our hearts, and then our tender and open hearts can move us to change. St. Paul reminds his listeners that “we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness and deceitfulness scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” It all flows from Christ; he holds it all together, and when each part is working properly, the whole body thrives.
So, the call today is first to identify those places and those ways where we “are the man, the woman” of whom Nathan speaks, to see what it is that we covet and who we are robbing in the process, to look at all those ways we deny what God has given us because what we see in another looks better. The call today is to acknowledge that we can no longer dodge our responsibility to work to build up the whole body, we can no longer dodge our responsibility, like children often do, but it’s time to grow up into the likeness of Christ, and it’s time to speak the truth in love to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.
Pretty tall order—this will take a lot of discernment and no small amount of courage. But remember, Christ is the head of this Body and the Holy Spirit dwells in us richly; if we consent to this hard work, God will supply what we need to turn our lives and the life of the world around.
It’s the very first step that is the hardest to take, the one we are called to today, and that’s to confess that “we are that woman; we are that man.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 5, 2012