The Foundation of Integrity: An RCL preaching series for late summer

Bronze sculpture of King David against pink background
Photo by Tita on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

This four-week sermon series is based on the semi-continuous First Reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B) for July 21 through August 11, 2024.

In a time of complicated political debate, fierce animosity, and hard ironies, we preachers have an opportunity, not so much to enter the debate, as to offer perspective on human nature, temptation, and the hope for understanding across boundaries in our community life. That kind of insight begins when we hear these ancient stories from people who struggled with all the temptations and ambitions we know, and tried to be faithful.

The sermon series theme is integrity. Ordinary Time is a great time to delve into the work of living in light of the Gospel and the example of Jesus. The Old Testament stories in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings offer some gritty examples of ethical and moral challenges, the kind that people face today. They cover the period of time often regarded as the pinnacle of Israel’s power in the world, during the reigns of King David and his son King Solomon. 

In this time of influence in the Middle East and four decades of relative peace, the stories also expose the temptations that come with power, the importance of honesty, the cost of corruption. These stories practically preach themselves and offer so many interesting plot twists that they will keep congregations riveted, But the challenge here is to preach them carefully, because they have a lot to say to us at this moment in history.

In this series each of the passages offers us a way to highlight an aspect of integrity.

[7/21/24] The Foundation of Integrity: Humility

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

The foundation for living with integrity is having humility.

Bible background: As David stops roaming the countryside and fighting his enemies, Israel transitions to a nation with a settled king and the Ark of the Covenant is brought to rest inside a building built by human hands. Symbolically, it is a big deal to bring the Ark inside. In this transition we see that God has faith in David. So, what is at the heart of the bond between David and God? 

Few Biblical characters are more complex than David, but here we see that at his core, David is  a man of integrity. Here are some interesting and preachable points in the passage:

  1. David is humble because he knows his place before God. He questions his new role as a settled king who is appointed custodian of the Ark. In 2 Samuel 7:18 David prays, saying, “who am I” to be chosen for this role? That is the fundamental question of someone who lives humbly and knows his place before God. Humility requires us to remember that we have not earned life’s windfalls. They are gifts.
  2. We all need people in our lives we can trust to tell us hard truths. There are times when you need a colleague, a pastor, a counselor or friend who can say something that is hard to hear, but that we need to hear.  This passage introduces Nathan, a prophet who keeps King David humble. Nathan plays a unique role in the palace. He keeps David’s power in perspective. Nathan takes his authority from God, and counter-balances the king’s authority with a prophet’s wisdom and insights. Nathan proves to be invaluable to David. You wonder what our world would be like if more leaders knew the need of a prophet? In all the relationships where we have power over others—in our families, at work, in our communities, we all need advisors who are not afraid to keep us humble.
  3. Prayer is essential to a life of integrity. That same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan … there begins a prayerlike passage, where we hear what Nathan hears from God’s voice.

The practice of prayer helps us maintain humility.  This passage includes the insights that come to Nathan, and by extension David, from God’s perspective. When we immerse ourselves in God’s view, we stand humbly on holy ground. 2 Samuel 7:18 and following demonstrates the way prayer is a foundation of David’s faith. 

The passage includes the vision of a time of peace. Humility sets the stage for integrity and it also ushers in peace—in our homes, our work, our community, in the world.

[7/28/24] The Challenge to Integrity: Hubris

2 Samuel 11:1-15

In her 2024 Festival of Homiletics sermon titled “Bathsheba Wasn’t on the Roof,” Dr. Anna Carter Florence explains that Bathsheba was a victim, despite centuries of speculation that she might have been tempting David to see her while she bathed. Bathsheba would have been modest and sequestered as she bathed. David was spying on her; she was not luring him. The happily married wife to one of David’s generals, Bathsheba did not seek this liaison. Nor did she benefit from it. She was not seeking to marry up. Nor was she hoping to become widowed from Uriah. There is no evidence of that.

The second sermon in this series on integrity illustrates the threats to integrity. Nowhere is this clearer than in the story of King David and Bathsheba, where David’s unbridled hubris undermines his military leadership and his moral authority. His integrity is compromised from the moment he sends for Bathsheba. But his hubris becomes especially egregious when he plots to cover up the tryst, and then schemes to have Bathsheba’s husband killed. The worst of the hubris is not the lust, or even the sex. It is the murder he plots and orders. 

What can we learn about integrity here?

  1. Hubris happens when we play god in the lives of others.
  2. Hubris is the opposite of humility.
  3. When you start to make excuses, it can become a slippery slope.
  4. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is to stop and step back and question what we are doing. David had many opportunities to stop this trainwreck, but that would have required humility.
  5. Integrity can become a habit, but so can greed and abuse.

This story almost preaches itself, and it resonates with so many people. Anyone with power over someone else can relate to this one. You don’t have to be an adulterer or a murderer. You just have to know someone who has forgotten how to be decent, and allows their mis-step or greed to drive them to do things that get worse and worse, things they are not proud of but can’t seem to stop.

[8/4/24] Integrity Depends on Honesty

2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a

One of the best scenes in all of scripture is this one when the prophet Nathan comes to David with a word of truth. Nathan brilliantly deduces that David would not hear him if he came directly to tell him how wrong he had been when he raped Bathsheba. So, Nathan tells a story David can understand. David doesn’t feel criticized—and therefore defensive—as a result of the parable about a greedy man who took what was precious to someone else, and used it. Once Nathan reveals it is indeed David who has committed this sin, he can receive the truth.

Integrity is not the result of perfect people living exemplary lives all the time. It is the work of ordinary people who stumble and fall, who miss the mark and try again, who are humbled by their mistakes and strive to improve.

  1. In order to have integrity you need to be honest about what you have done and own your mistakes.
  2. Sometimes empathy for someone else can help you see your own mistakes. David realized his mistakes when he felt the injustice in Nathan’s story. In order to live with integrity, you need to be willing to feel the pain of your mistakes, especially the pain you have caused.
  3. Integrity requires a fearless accounting of our actions. One of the steps in 12-step programs requires us to look honestly at our actions, the good and bad.
  4. Integrity depends on developing a true and honest conscience.

[8/11/24] A Key Component of Integrity: Honor

2 Samuel 18:5-9; 15; 31-33 

In this complex story about David’s children and their siblings and half siblings we see that the Bible is as gritty as life gets. The preacher will be well- served to read the whole story of the Rape of Tamar (II Sam 13) and the subsequent response of Absalom, murdering his half-brother, and then the rise of Absalom that leads up to this passage about his death. Without the context the story of Absalom’s death makes very little sense.

David had children by many wives and the normal sibling rivalry in all families was compounded by David’s sexual avarice.  As these young men and women lived together, the atmosphere of predatory sexual behavior seemed to be inherited by example or by unconscious assimilation. 

Absalom the oldest had a sister Tamar, who was distinguished for her remarkable beauty, and Amnon, one of her half-brothers, lusted for Tamar. He lied and manipulated in order to seduce Tamar. Then, like many abusers Amnon loathed her once she was no longer a virgin. Tamar was destroyed by this experience and her sibling Absalom determined to avenge her honor by killing Amnon. Then, as Absalom continued to grow in strength he began to challenge his father, though both men harbored affection for each other. David, in particular, had a heartfelt connection to his eldest and issued orders for his protection, even when their troops went into battle against each other. 

The preacher who is tempted to turn this into a simple allegory about right and wrong will not do justice to the complexity or richness of this part of the Bible narrative. In places where preachers hope to find simple advice about piety, their efforts are foiled in texts like this which are too convoluted and realistic to be simplified.

We might assume that Absalom was defending his sister’s honor the only way he knew, by killing his half-brother, but the story invites a discussion about other alternatives for addressing this horrific abuse in their family. Could Absalom take his concern to David? Was there an opportunity to gain David’s support in pressing charges against Amnon and calling him to account? Could he align with his father in setting a new standard going forward? Could they bring Tamar into the conversation and ask her what she would want for retribution? There are qualities of a Greek drama here, and perhaps, like the story of David with Bathsheba, Absalom might have stopped and done something different at several points in this story. 

A preacher can address the issues of honor in this story. What does honor require of us? What is the difference between cheap honor and blood vengeance?  How can honorable people assume responsibility for a different kind of justice?

Other points that preach from this passage include: 

  1. The Bible is messy because our lives are messy.
  2. Honor is never simple or simplistic. Absalom begins by trying to rescue his sister’s honor, but in the process, he escalates the damage by killing his brother.
  3. How he dies is a point that will preach too. Absalom was proud of his big thick head of hair that he cut only once a year. The barber weighed the hair at 200 shekels, or 6 lbs. This detail in the story reminds us that often our greatest pride is also connected to our biggest weakness. Our blessing may be connected to that which becomes a curse.
  4. Honor requires patience. Absalom had everything, including his father’s love, but he was so determined to prove himself that he forfeited his inheritance. He might have been the next king had he shown more patience or the willingness to resolve things differently.