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 The Curious Case of Mephibosheth

Sermon - 7/22/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Samuel 9

I often begin a sermon by noting how familiar a particular text is. And that always presents an interesting challenge of how to hear a very familiar story in a new way. That's not the problem this morning :) If we have more than 3 or 4 people that even know this story, I'd be surprised.

It comes after David has become the King of Israel, following the death of Saul, the first King. Those who were here before I left on vacation I'm sure will remember my last sermon :), on the friendship between David and Jonathan. And the covenant in which David promises his friend Jonathan to care for any of the descendents of David -- the house of David will forever look after the house of Jonathan. That's what we call 'foreshadowing'. Are there going to be descendants of Jonathan in this story? Yeah, you bet. Name one. That's the challenge. So that's what this story is about.

2 Samuel, 9, we read:

David asked, ‘Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’ [Because all of the other descendents of Saul have been killed off. Typically happens, tragically, in the transition from one King to another, when it's not a peaceful transition]. 2Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, ‘Are you Ziba?’ And he said, ‘At your service!’ 3The king said, ‘Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?’ Ziba said to the king, ‘There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.’ 4The king said to him, ‘Where is he?’ Ziba said to the king, ‘He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.’ 5Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. 6Mephiboshethson of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, ‘Mephibosheth!’ He answered, ‘I am your servant.’ 7David said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.’ 8He did obeisance and said, ‘What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I am?’

9 Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba, and said to him, ‘All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. 10You and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, so that your master’s grandson may have food to eat; but your master’s grandson Mephibosheth shall always eat at my table.’ Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. 11Then Ziba said to the king, ‘According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.’ Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. 12Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. 13Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet.


So now you know one of the sons of Jonathan. Let's hear you say it: Mephibosheth :) Repeat after me: Mephibosheth, Mephibosheth, Mephibosheth. I know it's a challenge, sounds like you have a lisp. I had to work on it a few times.

It's a curious story. And it's actually not in the lectionary, which explains why you may have never heard of it before. It's not in the lectionary, but frankly when I looked at the lectionary passage for this Sunday, I thought this would be more interesting.

I always like to ask: why has a story like this been preserved? I mean, think about the period of time that David was King of Israel -- several decades. You can imagine that there had to have been a lot of stories from his reign as King of Israel. And many of them have been preserved, but many more have not been preserved. So why has this one been preserved? Is there some meaning for us in this, other than it's a nice story about the King, and shows how generous and kind he was? Tell that the Philistines, right? Or to Uriah (speaking of foreshadowing -- we'll look at that story next week, the husband of Bathsheba).

So, first, I'm convinced that stories like this are not retold in scripture just simply to make us admire David, what a great, generous King he was. That might be partially true. But rather the primary purpose is to teach and to inspire us. So let's take a closer look at the story and see what may we find.

There are two major themes that run through this story. The first is captured by the Hebrew word "hesed". Get a little catch in your throat, you get the Hebrew sound of "hesed". It's typically translated as steadfast love, faithfulness, loyalty, kindness. I actually used it in a wedding yesterday, another one of our young families in the first service, and I thought here's a chance to kill 2 birds with one stone -- working on a sermon, doing a wedding, you know :) I figured they're never going to come to church the morning after they're wedding, right? They showed up this morning! 15 hours after they were married -- I guess starting off their marriage right :)

It is a term most often used in connection with Israel's covenant with God. Where "hesed" describes God's commitment to the people. "Hesed" is not a feeling, like we think of love. Nor is it a duty, like we think of loyalty (2 words often used to translate it). Rather, it is a combination of attitude and action that reveals loyalty in a relationship. It is because of God's ""hesed" (God's steadfast love toward us) that we can be confident of God's love for us, in both word and deed.

And so David's mercy shown to Mephibosheth is fulfillment of his "hesed" to his friend Jonathan. But this "hesed" reflects more than his loyalty to his friend, for we read in the text, the King says: "Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness (there it is -- the "hesed") of God? So in other words, it is in the actions of the King towards Mephibosheth that he reveals the "hesed", the faithfulness, the steadfast love, of God.

Now, it's important for us to note that Jonathan's death (earlier in the story) does not release David from his commitment of "hesed" to the family of Jonathan.

Faithfulness, loyalty, personal relationships has traditionally been one of those values that Americans expect of their leaders (be they political, or civic, or religious as the case may be). And hence the moral outrage directed at public officials when they break their personal vows. Now, never-mind that the public at large is no better at keeping those vows than those who lead us. Still, we expect our leaders to hold to a higher standard as role models for the rest of us. And so, for instance, Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards earned the rather dubious distinction of setting a new low (even for politicians) for cheating on his wife while she was going through treatment for breast cancer. And all that good he had previously done as a prophetic voice for the poor and disenfranchised in many ways was undone by his failure to keep "hesed" (faithfulness) to his wife. By the way, in case you're wondering, that is an illustration I did not use in the wedding yesterday :)

David, of course, was not immune to such scandals. Again, we'll see that next Sunday. But here we learn from David's positive example, as we will see from the negative. And showing loyalty, then, steadfast love to family and friends is one of those marks of character that we justly hold high as a royal standard for us to aspire to.

Now, the second theme in this text is that of compassion -- the compassion David shows to this disabled grandson of the former King. Now, here's the critical question that I invite you to consider: Is this a simple matter of individual compassion and private charity shown to one particular and unfortunate person, or, is David's role as King essential to our reading of the story?

In other words, is this more than an act of private charity? Is this the beginning of government-sponsored healthcare? Well, maybe. Because David uses the power of government, his power as King, to direct the servants of Ziba to direct the nation (whoever is holding the land of Saul), to give that land to Mephibosheth. He couldn't do that if he were not King. It's because of his power as King, the power of government.

Now, am I reaching a little, to try and use this in the healthcare debate? Well, yeah, maybe. It wouldn't have been the first time :). But when we get to the great prophets of the 8th century -- Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Amos -- it's clear that they expect all those in power to act towards the poor and disenfranchised precisely as David does toward Mephibosheth.

So, for instance, we read in the prophet Isaiah in chapter 3: "The Lord rises to argue his case. He stands to judge the peoples. The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people. It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?, says the Lord God of hosts".

So David has set the pattern of later Kings to follow by showing his compassion to Mephibosheth, who, by rights, is a contender for the throne. But he shows him his compassion. And so the ruling class will forevermore be held accountable for the well-being of the weak. Now, is that still true today? Or have we succeeded in shifting that responsibility to individuals, so that misfortune and poverty is no longer a sign of injustice by the powerful, but moral failure by the weak? Blaming the poor, the victims.

Ayn Rand's epic novel "Atlas Shrugged" makes perfect sense: a society that depends on government to provide everything for them will ultimately collapse. That's absolutely true. But is that the society that we in fact are creating? Now, maybe Ayn Rand believed that, and maybe many of her followers. I absolutely do not.

Instead, instead what I fear is emerging is increasingly becoming evident in things like the LIBOR scandal in Britain. Now, I know you're all following the LIBOR scandal, right? LIBOR stands for "London Inter-Bank Offered Rate". It's simply an average of the interest rates paid by London banks to borrow money. Why should we care? Why is this coming up in a sermon? Well, this is the gold-standard, so to speak, of interest rates. It is the rate used internationally to determine other rates on things like our mortgages, student loans, or any other financial product -- in some way they are impacted by the LIBOR rate. And how that rate is determined, then, has enormous impact on what consumers pay, and what banks earn.

A change in just 1/100th percent in the LIBOR rate can earn a bank millions of dollars. Well, it turns out, according to these charges, that the banks that set the LIBOR rates have been lying about that rate. And the regulators who knew they were lying, said nothing. Huh. And the result, if these accusations turn out to be true, consumers have paid trillions of dollars in excess fees to banks. The property of the poor, the vineyards, winding up in the palaces of the rich. It's precisely what Isaiah is talking about.

This is my fear -- what we have now is not a system where government is doing everything for us, but where mega-banks, mega-corporations, mega-rich are manipulating government and markets to do everything for them. That is my fear of the type of world we are creating. And with the projections of several billion dollars expected to be spent in the upcoming Presidential election (as a result of the Citizen's United decision, the most dreadful, ill-conceived, harmful decision of the Supreme Court, and that's just my polite description for it, since the Dred Scott case that made slaves ineligible for becoming citizens of the United States) it is now just a matter of time before voting in this country will become as meaningless as it is in those communist countries we so love to dread.

But I am not a person who lives by fear. For it is in that 'hesed' of God that I believe we have good reason to live by hope. And even if elections may be up for sale, at least temporarily, I still have hope. And this is my hope: that our own sense of compassion and justice will see cases like that of David's care for Mephibosheth as not simply matters of individual charity and goodwill, but as the responsibility of the strong to the weak, the rich to the poor, the privileged to the disadvantaged.

There was a great illustration, a very moving story of compassion and charity in the news this week, of that young boy in Mexico, with a horrible growth, a tumor, that left untreated that it grossly disfigured him, and was now was threatening his life. Fortunately, some church group, I think it was in Texas, saw the young man and then began moving the wheels and raising the money, and take note -- through the cooperation of church and state -- were able to get him out of a very dangerous part of Mexico, to bring him into this country for life-saving treatment.

Now here's the thing: for every innocent child saved through some heartwarming charitable act of others, there are hundreds if not thousands who suffer and die unnoticed by the news or any of us.

So, how do we build that kind of a world where someone like that child does not have to depend on a chance encounter with people who have both the empathy and the means to make a difference?

How do we build that kind of society (at least in this country) where such a child does not have to wait until half of their childhood is gone, and their affliction becomes life-threatening as well as horribly disfiguring, not to mention very expensive to fix, before something is done?

It's called universal healthcare. So this is my fantasy: given that the Obama healthcare plan, modeled on Massachusetts (developed by then-Governor Romney), maybe candidate Romney will surprise us all by revealing his plan not simply to repeal Obamacare (as he has pledged to do), but to replace it with something even better, and truly universal (which the Obama plan is not). I told you, it's a fantasy, but you know :) Who knows, sometimes politicians can do amazing things, and I do believe he is a compassionate man. So maybe, maybe.

While on the topic, I have to say "kudos" to both candidates for suspending their campaign while the nation grieves that terrible tragedy in Aurora Colorado, and our hearts and prayers go out to those families in that community.

And while the debate rages over gun-control vs concealed weapons, violence in movies, incarceration vs more funding for mental healthcare (which I think is probably obvious in this situation), the critical question for us is: how do we get ourselves out of this mess, with needs ever escalating and public resources diminishing? And we fight over what kind of country we want to be, and whose vision will bring the common good that we all seek.

The answer, the answer, I believe, is "hesed". Being faithful and loyal to God and each other. Showing steadfast love for one another as taught by Jesus is perhaps the only thing that can save us. Learning to live as God desires us to live. Building relationships that matter. Living with compassion for those without the privileges that we have.

And maybe, maybe from the curious case of Mephibosheth, we will discover the world that God intends to be.

May it be.


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