Why Is This in the Bible?


Lessons: Song of Songs 2:8-13; 8:6-7

A few years ago the Covenant Network of Presbyterians met in Chicago to talk about theology and sexuality. Their meeting was dubbed “Sex in the Windy City.” Amy Miracle, pastor at a church in Des Moines at the time, quipped in a sermon, “I’m a Midwesterner. I’m repressed and proud of it. I had hoped to end my career in ministry without ever mentioning the word ‘sex’ in a sermon.”[1]

Well, if I ever harbored any such hopes they would be dashed today. This morning we look at the Song of Songs, also called the Song of Solomon because of the very first verse: “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.”[2] It is as lush and erotic a love poem as you will find in literature. It’s actually multiple poems; between a dozen and thirty or so, depending on where you decide one ends and another begins. Most folks are frankly astonished if they ever get around to reading the Song of Songs all the way through, and it gets even dicier when they learn that, in all its eight chapters, this book doesn’t mention God once. It’s not alone in that; the Book of Esther doesn’t mention God, either. But at least Esther mentions praying and fasting, and at least it’s about rescuing God’s people from destruction – not sexual love. No wonder a very common reaction to the Song of Songs is, “Why on earth is this in the Bible?” Read more →

Thin Places


Lessons: 1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43

Have you ever heard a public prayer in a worship service do “double duty”? On the one hand, it’s a prayer; the person praying is addressing God in praise, thanksgiving, or petition. On the other hand, it’s an announcement, such as, “Lord, please watch over our brother George, who was admitted to County Hospital, Room 304 last night around 11 p.m. with chest pains…”. Or “Thank you, God, for opportunities for fellowship, including the supper coming up this Wednesday at 6 p.m., for which everyone will bring a dish to share; letters A through M a main dish; N through Z a dessert.”[1]

King Solomon’s prayer in today’s passage is a double duty prayer. Maybe even a triple duty prayer. A few weeks ago, we learned that Solomon’s father, King David, was willing to build a temple in Jerusalem, but God said, “No; you’re not the one to do it.”[2] As it turns out, Solomon is the one. Now he’s built the Temple, and his prayer of dedication is wrapped around a speech designed to answer the questions, “OK, so you built the temple, but – does God like it? Will God live in it?” In the verses we skip, Solomon says he’s built this temple as a place God may dwell forever.[3] Solomon is the king who is famous for wisdom, so he wisely wonders whether God will indeed dwell on earth.[4] But we don’t need to worry. Our first assurance is the cloud that fills the sanctuary, telling us that God’s actually moved in. Then God answers more fully in the next chapter, Chapter 9: “I have consecrated this house that you have built, and put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.”[5] If Solomon does all that God commands, and keeps God’s statutes and ordinances, then God will establish his royal throne forever.[6] Read more →

Speaking Truth

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Lesson: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

This morning’s passage opens on the heels of our reading from last week. King David was not out campaigning with his army as a good king might. Instead was lounging around the palace in Jerusalem when he saw someone he wanted. He took Bathsheba to bed, she became pregnant, and David began a campaign to cover it up which ended in Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, being murdered. Not to be deterred, once Uriah was out of the picture, David added Bathsheba to his collection of wives and God, as we heard this morning, was not pleased. David broke at least two, if not four or five of the ten commandments: adultery, murder, coveting? Stealing? And perhaps idolatry for something other than God was at the center of David’s motivation. Into this hot mess God sends Nathan, the royal court prophet or priest, to try to talk some sense into David.

Barbara Brown Taylor recounts this confrontation saying, “The way Nathan did it was pure genius – not head-on, like a fire and brimstone preacher, but sideways, with a story. Why did he take such an indirect route? Because he had not come to condemn David. That would have been easy enough to do, given the facts at hand, but Nathan was up to something much more profound than that. He had come to change David’s life. Nathan’s job was to help the king see what he had done, so that his conscience could be revived and his sense of justice restored. Then Israel might have the king they were supposed to have instead of this handsome hero whose power had begun to stink. If David could see that – if he could pronounce judgment on himself – the impact would be a hundred times greater than if Nathan did it for him. So Nathan told David a story, knowing good and well how human beings tend to drop their defenses while they are listening to a story about someone else.”[i]

Nathan’s story went something like this: Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go…the lamb followed her around all day, ate at the family table, and slept in Mary’s bed. Mary was poor beyond poor and the lamb was her only friend – they were inseparable. Her neighbor was a big-time successful rancher with multiple pastures filled with sheep. Yet when his fancy city friends arrive for dinner, he did not take one of his many sheep to be slaughtered, but served up Mary’s lamb instead.

The greedy rancher appropriately outrages David. In a fit of righteous, kingly anger he pronounces a sentence: the cruel rancher deserves to die and his estate should replace the deceased lamb with four sheep. Nathan flips the tables, “you, David, are the man.” You are the rancher.

Can you imagine the silence at this point? The tension so thick you could slice it and serve it for dinner. Will these be the last words out of Nathan’s mouth? They could be. Nathan continues and gives David a not so subtle reminder of who is supposed to be at the center of David’s life – God. Yes, the same God that brought you military victories, made you king, gave you property, relationships, authority…and how do you show your gratitude? You have forgotten who you are – you have forgotten whose you are.

Truth is, if God were at the center of David’s heart, he wouldn’t be in this mess. David comprehends Nathan’s message immediately. He repents. I have sinned against God. I would like to point out that it’s not just God whom David has sinned against – Uriah, Bathsheba, the couples’ friends, family and acquaintances who are at least puzzled if not irate about all of this, all of the servants who have passed messages, soldiers who orchestrated the death of one of their own, midwives, cooks, the entire royal court, and everyone in Jerusalem and beyond who are gossiping about the king’s lack of morals…there are many, many, many people who have been affected by David’s sins. Given all of this, all of the chaos and pain David’s actions have caused, David acknowledges his failures and the consequences.

Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. God does not give David the punishment he thinks he deserves. While David will face the grim consequences of his actions for the rest of his life, he is allowed to continue living – to continue even to be the king. As we tell more stories of David’s life in coming weeks, you can judge for yourself whether he makes the most of it and keeps God in the center of his will.

Contemporary theologian, Eugene Peterson who says, “One of the frequently misunderstood features of the gospel by outsiders is this: that a confession of sin isn’t a groveling admission that I am a terrible person; it doesn’t require what is sometimes described as ‘beating yourself up.’ Insiders to the gospel know that the sentence, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’ is a sentence full of hope. It’s full of hope because it’s a sentence full of God. In the Christian life our primary task isn’t just to avoid sin, which is impossible anyway, but to recognize sin. … (Peterson continues…) When sin is discovered in us, our guilty fears often produce a sense of condemnation. But if we stay with the story – the God story, the David story, the Jesus story –before long the condemnation gives way to the surprised realization of grace, mercy and forgiveness…. David’s sin, enormous as it was, was wildly outdone by God’s grace.”[ii]

God’s grace shows up with Nathan’s entrance. Nathan calls David to account. It is not often we think about speaking truth to power as something that is grace filled. I am not talking about judgmentalism or self-righteous finger pointing – for these are not worthy of God. God’s grace extends through Nathan who takes a risky, vulnerable chance on David and leads him to an ugly truth. Nathan cannot turn a blind eye because in doing so he would be condoning an abusive situation that has already led to travesty and death. Nathan calls David back to the faithful path. I suspect we have all had someone lovingly point out a flaw in our behavior before. Anyone with parents, or who has been in a relationship whether with a good friend, lover, or spouse, has no doubt experienced a truth being spoken or exchanged. And when the mirror is held up for us, well, may we all be so graceful as David in our response- even and especially when we know the consequences: “I have sinned”. It is not an easy thing to mean. And yet, “To be faithful to God means recognizing the truth of both of our own sin and the abuses perpetrated by others. God’s purposes call us beyond both of them into a different kind of [relationship].”[iii] God calls us to help each other be accountable to God.

Our story is not just about personal sins. This story can be reflected out into our culture – are there prophetic words being spoken today in our country that need to be heard? Yes. I picked up a book by Ta-Henisi Coates, Between the World and Me. Coates’ book gives his and his life story of being born in America in a black body. He grew up in Baltimore in a black neighborhood. He’s in his mid thirties and is now a staff writer for The Atlantic. It is a fascinating and provocative book filled with truth telling of his experience as a person of color in our modern culture. It is not sitting well with many. His insights are incredibly difficult to read. He indicts our entire culture for building a so-called American Dream that is really only ever available to people who are not black or brown. Joanne and I have been discussing it-we both found our way to it this past week, and we would like to suggest it as a book we as a community read together. Not because it’s an easy read. It isn’t. It is powerful.

The sins he points to in our society are enormous. I’ve been listening to Coates give interview on NPR and the Daily Show, and I am impressed by the heart and pain that comes through when he speaks. It seems to me that his words are angry, but he does not wish to stay angry. Like Nathan he seems to see the issues clearly and cleverly he delivers his concerns. And now he waits and wonders what David will say next. Coates does not see a reason to hope, and yet there’s something in him that hopes. I would be so bold as to name that something, God. I resonate with him because I do not see a clear path forward for our culture either. There is not a simple choice or series of choices to be made that can level the playing field because the field is built on white privilege and supremacy. (I am learning that is what it is called when the racism always has one particular group at the top.)

And yet, even in this moment of truth telling, there is hope. I am reminded by a quote from an aboriginal activist group in Queensland, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”[iv] Then let us work together. Let us speak truths and listen to truths, for God’s grace extends to all. God rejoices when we repent. God desires us to be in relationship with Her and with each other. May we be so brave as to listen and to respond…together. Amen.

© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015

*Image courtesy of of James Lewis
See more images from his series, “Icons of the Bible” on pinterest

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “You are the Man,” in Bread of Angels, p. 12.
[ii] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, p. 186.
[iii] “Narrative Lectionary 145: David and Bathsheba” Working Preacher podcast, October 12, 2014.
[iv] Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s. (typically attributed to Lilla Watson)

David’s Folly


Lesson: 2 Samuel 11:1-15

I grew up with Little Golden Books, little cardboard-covered children’s books that cost 25 cents in most grocery stores when I was a kid, and which are still around today. Besides The Pokey Little Puppy and The Little Red Hen, there were religious-themed Little Golden Books. My sister, who frequents antiques and collectibles shops, sent me a stack of these as a nostalgic reminder of our childhood and as a nod to the fact that I’m a pastor. Among them was this one: Heroes of the Bible.[1] Right on the cover is King David, clean-shaven and angelically playing the harp.

You have to wonder whether the Little Golden Books folks read today’s passage.

I want to get one thing out of the way: This passage about David and Bathsheba is not about sex, and it is not even about adultery in any way we would define it today. Realistically, you can’t call it cheating on your husband if you don’t have a choice, and you can’t call it cheating on your wife if you have multiple wives and concubines in your harem. David had at least eight wives and at least ten concubines.[2] The only way this is adultery is in the 1,000 B.C.E. context that David violated Uriah’s property rights in his wife. [3]

Older interpretations of this passage like to implicate Bathsheba. She was just so beautiful and so alluring that David couldn’t help himself. In 2015, we understand these dynamics a little better. It doesn’t matter what a woman wears, where she walks alone at night or whether she bathes naked on the roof. She is not “asking for it.” It doesn’t matter whether David was charming, and it doesn’t matter whether Bathsheba tried to fight him off. When the king orders his messengers to go get a woman and bring her to his bedroom, this is not a seduction; it’s certainly not a love scene. There is no hint of affection, of caring, of love.[4] Bathsheba had no say in what happened next. The power difference between David and Bathsheba means there is no way there could be anything approaching mutual consent.

OK, so I am not going to talk about sex or adultery any more, this morning – or at least not much more – because this is about power. This story is about abuse of power. Read more →

I Will Make You a House


Lesson: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a

About a hundred years ago, in eastern Tennessee, a congregation was given a piece of property upon which to build a church. When the elders went to see a lawyer about drawing up a deed, they were able to persuade him to list the owner as “The Lord God Almighty.”   This was fine, until a few years ago when the congregation decided to sell the building and lands in order to relocate to a larger site.

Because the property was listed as being owned by one “Lord God Almighty” and not “The Carter County Church of Christ,” the elders had to get a quitclaim deed before they could sell it. And to get a quitclaim deed, they had to show that the previous owner did not exist or couldn’t be found. So the county sheriff was issued a warrant to locate Lord God Almighty. He went over to the coffee shop on the square across from the courthouse, had his coffee and read the paper and then came back and signed the papers attesting that Lord God Almighty could not be found.

While he was having his coffee and crumb-cake, the sheriff happened to mention this little legal maneuver to the editor of the local paper. The next day the headline read, “Lord God Almighty not to be found in Carter County, Tennessee.”[1]

In today’s passage, we learn King David’s plan to make sure the Lord God Almighty could be found in Jerusalem. This summer we’ve been following Israel’s transition from a loose collection of tribes to a kingdom. In this seventh chapter of Second Samuel, David is riding the crest of the wave. “Now when the king was settled in his house,” the passage begins, “and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.” Just a chapter later, we learn this isn’t exactly true, so this is a clue that this story might have been dropped in here, at another time, for some reason. But in any event, at this point in his reign, David’s approval ratings are sky high. Eventually this goes to his head, and we’ll get a glimpse of that next week in the incident with Bathsheba. For now, the world is David’s oyster. His counselor, the prophet Nathan, obviously believes this, too, and so when David proposes to build God a house at least as grand as his own cedar-paneled executive mansion, Nathan doesn’t even have to pray about it before giving David the go-ahead. Nathan comes pretty close to saying, “If you do it, God approves.” Now, this is pretty scary when you think about it. Some of us remember the outrageous words of Richard Nixon in the David Frost interview: “If the president does it, it is not illegal.” If David does it, it is the will of God. By definition.[2] Read more →

David’s Dance


Lesson: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

This morning we continue our journey through Israel’s transition from a group of tribes to a kingdom. We’ve seen the people demand a king, even after God warns them it’s a big mistake. We’ve seen God decide to go along with the king idea but the first king, King Saul, doesn’t work out and so God has the shepherd boy David anointed in secret. Young David fights with King Saul against the dreaded Philistines, but eventually it dawns on the Saul that the hugely popular and politically savvy David is a threat. David flees from Saul, hiding out with the Philistines.[1] Yes – the same Philistines.

Saul is so badly injured in a battle with the Philistines that he asks that he be killed, because he can expect worse than death from the enemy.[2] Saul’s sons have been killed as well and so the door is now wide open for David to grab the throne, which he does. He’s crowned king at Hebron, which serves as his capital. Then he accomplishes what Saul could not: soundly defeating the Philistines.[3] On the heels of this victory he decides to change the capital to Jerusalem and celebrates this by moving the neglected Ark of the Covenant to a place of honor there, making it truly the City of David. That’s where we catch up with the story this morning.

Anyone who’s seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark”[4] knows that the Ark of the Covenant is a wooden box covered with gold and you seriously don’t want to mess with it. The ark was a precious and powerful symbol of God’s presence. It’s first described in the book of Exodus.[5] The Israelites were instructed how to build the ark so they could carry the covenant – the law God gave them at Sinai[6] – as they traveled through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The ark is described at several places in scripture as God’s throne.[7] God was believed to sit right there on what was called the mercy seat, between the two winged cherubim on top of the ark. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” agrees with scripture to the extent that the ark represented the kind of holiness that can be a holy terror. The ark helped win the battle of Jericho,[8] and when the Philistines captured it, it made everyone who came near it so sick that they got rid of it. If you touched the ark,[9] looked at it the wrong way,[10] or talked about it the wrong way,[11] it just might be the last thing you did. All this sounds pretty foreign and pretty ancient but then, we are dealing with a very foreign and very ancient text. The idea behind these stories is the Old Testament theme that no one can see God and live.[12] Read more →

My Hand Shall Not Be Against You

1 sam 24 image web

Lesson: 1 Samuel 24

Today’s service was an At Table worship where we gathered around tables, shared food, and worshipped in the spirit of ancient Christian meals. The scripture lesson was told as a (truncated) story, “Along in a Cave,” from The Children’s Bible Story Book. The bulletin image was from the pages of their book. (Anne Degraff, editor, illustrations by Jose Montero)

The homily, or storytelling, was a reading of a second story. Here is my introduction and a link to hear the story told by the author with visuals from the book.

I want to share with you a second story today. We’ve already heard a story from the Old Testament. This story was inspired by true events from a protest and counter protest rally in Tennessee in 2007. These stories may seem very different at first, but there are elements in both that I’ll point out. Both stories engage questions of justice (right/wrong), persecution, rights, God’s will, anger, violence, and responses to anger and violence, interruptions in the pattern of violence. In other words, freedom, equality, and the pursuit of God’s love in our world.

Our second story is told in the form of a poem written by a singer/songwriter and activist David LaMotte. This story is about two parades – one is of a bunch of KKK members and the counter demonstration is a bunch of clowns. The poem is called, “White Flour”: [link to the LaMotte reading from his own book:]

The author of the poem, David Lamotte says that, “Peace is not placidity, and peacemaking has nothing to do with inaction. … Peacemaking is not passive. It is about engaging conflict in ways that are constructive rather than destructive. Note the verb there: engaging.”[i]

Engaging something – especially when we might be afraid – is an especially brave and vulnerable choice. Vulnerable because of the risk involved: the risk of failure, the risk to love “them,” the risk of interrupting the cycle of violence, the risk of being misunderstood and dismissed.

At your tables, I invite you to consider these two stories. I wonder if you can name actions that are: Vulnerable? Brave? Where do you see God in these stories? How might you be more brave and more vulnerable in your life with God’s help?

© The Rev. Diana C. Bell, 2015

[i] LaMotte, David. “Kansmen, Crips, Clowns, Memphis and Me,” from the blog at


What Will Survive of Us is Love

Arundel TombLessons:  1 Samuel 18:1-9; 2 Samuel 1:17-27 

It is good to be here at FPCSA on this Pride Sunday – on the Sunday after the Supreme Court’s decision holding that same-gender couples have the fundamental constitutional right to marry. Just like everyone else.

It is good to be here in this congregation – where you have worked so hard for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and our families – in the full life of the church and in the world — where you have done so much so that we – so that I – might freely serve in the church – where you have loved us and our families and affirmed our marriages and our ministries.  It is good beyond words to stand with you here in worship this morning.  Thank you.

And, it is good to be here with you – dear friends – in this incredibly painful week – as our nation continues to reel from the terrorist attack at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston – as we continue to mourn the deaths of 9 remarkable, loving, faithful people – and as we are left with the task of at long last doing something about the raw and gaping wound of racism that has plagued this Nation since its founding.  When we face times like this, and challenges like these, it is good to be together.

Read more →

David and Goliath


Lessons: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

Who doesn’t love an upset? Who doesn’t love it when the underdog wins; when the little guy wins? We’ve just lived through our own David and Goliath story here in the Bay Area with our Warriors defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers. Doesn’t it feel good to be on the team of the little guy who slayed the giant? Even if the NBA is the only place Steph Curry, who’s 6 foot 3, would be considered a little guy, and even if LeBron James apparently is one of the nicest human beings on the planet.[i] The little guys won! We love that.

And we love this Bible story. If you learned it in Sunday school, you remember it forever, and if you didn’t learn it in Sunday school, you still couldn’t avoid knowing something about it because the phrase “David and Goliath” has become synonymous with improbable victory of the little guy over the giant. Read more →

As God Sees


Samuel Anoints David. Fresco.

Image licenced to Sue Edelen IMAGE QUEST by Sue Edelen

Usage :  - 4600 X 4600 pixels (A3) 

© Art Resource, NY / Art Resource

Lessons: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

In last week’s news we heard that the immense hack of millions of government personnel files likely included the background checks the government does for security clearances.[1] This caught my attention because I was the subject of a federal background check when I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney a million years ago. The form you fill out for a security clearance asks for names and contact information of every supervisor you’ve had on every job, including summer jobs, and of all your family members: parents, siblings, spouses, ex-spouses and kids. It asks for the address of every place you’ve ever lived since 1937, which, for the youngsters who might have trouble figuring out how old I am, is many years before I was born, and that means I had to scramble for the addresses of every place I’d ever lived. Then the FBI contacts all the people you name – visits most of them in person – plus your next door neighbors whether you know them or not, to verify what’s on the form and ask questions about your character.

When it’s all over, you have the feeling that the government knows pretty much everything there is to know about you, and still, it turns out not to be foolproof.  People are given security clearances who should not be given security clearances.  Today, we learn about the process the people of ancient Israel use instead, and it isn’t foolproof, either. This morning we continue our summer sermon series focusing on the Old Testament stories that tell us how Israel went from being a loose confederation of tribes to becoming a kingdom – the stories about Saul, David and Solomon. Last week, in spite of the prophet Samuel’s misgivings and God’s dire warning, the people demanded a king. This week we pick up the story after Saul has been anointed as king, and already proven to be a colossal disappointment. So disappointing that God is over him, has moved on and already has someone else in mind to take his place. Read more →