Great Man History

Sunday sermon for July 22, 2012
Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-17
Given at Slackwood Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ

By now you will all know something about the horrific events that have occurred in Colorado early Friday morning, that a young man entered into a movie theatre at a midnight screening and opened fire on a packed house, killing 12 and wounding 58 more. No words can speak to the grief, the abject ghastliness, the destruction of so many lives and so many families; no words of comfort can quell the disgust and vitriol that so many of us feel. But I feel something else too, and you may as well. I feel strongly like we’ve been here before, like this story has happened before, Columbine, Virginia Tech, the assault on Gabby Giffords, so many others, so many victims, so many communities torn apart. In each case we have with some frequency described these attacks as acts of senseless gun violence, and by this word “senseless” I think we mean that they lack reason or rationale. But I feel something else, I feel almost numb, like my eyes have seen these images too many times, like my ears have heard these words too many times, like my mouth has too many times tasted these tears, like I have become numb, sense-less.

We know how this goes far too well. And we know what will happen in the days and weeks ahead. In the days and weeks ahead we will start to write the first draft of the history of that day. Motives will be sought. Reasons will be offered. Soapboxes will be mounted, and points will be scored, as if they could be cashed in for something more valuable than the loss of a single human life. We will stand in the public square and rehash well-worn arguments. “Gun control laws would have prevented this assault,” or, “Gun control prevented moviegoers from properly defending themselves,” or, “Proper mental health care might have offered an chance at early intervention,” or, “Government intrusion in things just like health care could be exactly what he was reacting against,” or, “Maybe he was lost in the world of this movie,” or, “Maybe a bit of escapist fantasy is just what we all need.” This debate will fade, of course. It will fade alongside our promises not to forget. It will fade into whatever next occupies our imagination, and gradually, slowly, but not really very slowly at all, the complexity of this moment, the complex brokenness of this man, James Holmes himself will cease to exist, and all we will have will be the Dark Knight killer. All we will have is legacy.

I want to come back to Colorado, but, for now, legacy is at the very center of our text, even though the text is the story of David, the King, the savior of Israel, hardly a public enemy. At the very center of our text is the question of how David will be remembered, of how the story of David will be told. After all, he has just united the kingdom; he has risen from obscurity to save the people from civil war; he has brought the arc of the covenant back to Jerusalem; and finally, after so much instability, after so much wandering, it’s time to settle down. And so David proposes to build a temple to house the Arc, a sign that normalcy is upon them, that Israel has found her home at last, and not a subtle reminder of the King who brought them there.

But God turns the tables, and, speaking through Nathan, the court prophet, makes a different kind of offer. You, build me a house? I have been with Israel since before you were born, since before the days of your fathers, since the days of the ancestors. When did I ever ask for a house? You, David, I took you from the fields. You were a simple shepherd, and I took you from the fields, and set you ahead of all of Israel. I took you from the fields, and I led you to great victories in battle, and I have cut off your enemies before you. I took you from the fields. I have made your name great, like the great ones of the earth – when did I ever ask for a house?

I have made your name great, like the great ones of the earth. When I was in high school – I don’t know if they still teach this, but when I was in high school we learned something called the Great Man Theory of History. The Great Man Theory – so-named by its original proponents in the early part of the nineteenth century, so you can send your gender sensitivities in that direction – the Great Man Theory is, like any theory of history, an attempt to explain why history has unfolded the way that it has, what kinds of causes have effected the unfolding of the global stage. And the Great Man Theory answers this question by arguing that history has unfolded in the way that it has because, periodically, from time to time, individuals have emerged with gifts, talent, vision, far beyond their times or their peers, individuals who have catapulted their people into the next chapter of their respective stories. According to the Great Man Theory, history is done by giants, and you and I are just riding the waves.

An example: I came up to Princeton from Charlottesville, Virginia, a place I love dearly, and because I love it dearly, because I love it like family, I can say that Charlottesville has an unhealthy addiction to Thomas Jefferson. If the Great Man Theory of history is properly alive anywhere it is alive in the hearts and minds of Jeffersonian Charlottesville, home of the University he founded, home of the estate he designed and built, home of the ideals he espoused – whichever of them happen to suit your purpose on any given day. Thomas Jefferson is the very definition of local celebrity, and to speak with a degree of validity about the city or the University, to speak with the sort of credibility that accompanies import, to speak thus in Charlottesville is to at some point invoke the legacy, the will, and the philosophy of Mr. Jefferson – it’s an addiction, of historic proportions. It’s Great Man History, alive and in action.

But of course Jefferson is infinitely more complex than history often remembers him to be. On one hand, he is the author of the formative opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, words at the very center of the American genome, that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and yet the man himself owned many slaves seemingly without internal debate about the moral appropriateness of doing so. On one hand, he is the standard-bearer for so many of our imaginative ideals about self-determination and individual rights, but on the other we now know that he fathered children with one of his own slaves in what cannot have been anything but some kind of abuse of power. None of which is to offer some kind of punitive judgment; rather, the point is to note that in the order of Great Man History, Jefferson’s legacy matters a great deal more than the ripples and indiscretions of his person.

And not only is Thomas Jefferson more complicated than the Declaration of Independence, but the Declaration of Independence is more complicated than Thomas Jefferson. We can’t pretend that the man wrote inside a vacuum; the whole history of Enlightenment philosophy presses down on those words. They are laced with the economic opportunity of a continent unexplored by its white colonizers. They carry on their backs the hopes of settlers who fled European political battlegrounds seeking opportunity and sanctuary. Jefferson may have written them down, but only because they were waiting to be written, which is precisely the kind of argument that struck down the Great Man Theory, not fifty years after it was originally suggested. As a theory of history it is now formally discredited, because history is more than a tidal-wave of giants, it’s something more complicated, and something a little bit less obvious. I suppose the only reason it’s still in textbooks – or at least the only reason it was in mine – is so teachers can prod their students into asking exactly these kinds of questions.

Or maybe it’s still in textbooks because, deep down, Great Man history is still the story we tell ourselves about who we are and how we got here, particularly in this land of self-determination and celebrity. In some ways this is the language of modern times, that our legacy is built in sound bytes, that our greatness is something to be packaged, to be branded, to be marketed, that legacy is what the world will read about us on Facebook, that legacy is the version of ourselves that we can say in 140 characters or less. But underneath this modernity is the long-standing fable of America, the long-standing myth of greatness in this land, that each of us has a story that is ours alone to write, that each of us is limited only by the ambition of our imagination. I have heard it said that this country in every moment faces the decision of whether to live as a group of individuals or whether to live as community, but we all know that that decision was made long ago, that this is a land where individuals set out for greatness, for legacy, for themselves, a land where I’m the only cause I’m interested in – and if you can identify that quote, then you know also know the trajectory of where that great film goes – a land where I’m in it for me, for my greatness, for my legacy, for the package I can sell to the people who write my chapter in the history book, a land of limitless ambition, a land where the I’s have it.

David is certainly no stranger to ambition. You don’t go from shepherd to king without a bit of ambition, and now this, David wants to build a temple for the arc, David wants to be the one finally to give God a home. God turns the tables, of course: you don’t get to build me a house; I will build you a house, and at first God’s response only seems to underscore David’s ambition. I will build you a house, your family, your throne, established forever. It seems like the perfect gift for a king who wants everything. But don’t overlook the big picture: in the history of David’s rise to power, in the history of David’s ambition and victory, in the history the next chapter of which would have been David’s construction of this great temple, all of a sudden we’re no longer in David’s history. All of a sudden, as God replies, as God lays out this promise to David, all of a sudden it’s entirely clear whose history we have been reading the whole time: this is God’s history, the history of God’s faithfulness to all of Israel, the history of God’s legacy to all of the coming generation, the history of the household that God built.

The history of that household doesn’t end with David, of course. In the part of the letter to the Ephesians that we read today, the text says that we are all members of that household, citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, that the whole structure is joined-together into a holy temple to the Lord, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone. Joined-together! In Greek we would call this a perfect passive – which is to say, perfect because it’s already happened, and passive because we didn’t make it happen. And in plain English I would call this one of the most scandalous verses in the New Testament: not just because of the universal scope of membership in God’s household, but because we are joined-together, because we are beholden to one another, because we are bonded, inseparably, one to another, in the history of God’s household, in the history of God’s great faithfulness.

Great Man history is a lie. More than that, it’s a thousand little lies that we tell ourselves to convince ourselves that in the grand scheme of history, we’re in charge, that each of us, any of us, can be among the great ones of the earth, that ambition and self-determination are the currency of the land, that history itself is simply a matter of willpower. But I say to you that history itself is on a far grander scale. You may hear it said that this country in every moment faces the decision of whether to live as a group of individuals or whether to live as community, but I say to you that that decision was made long ago, at the foot of a cross, at the decisive moment when God’s history became ours, when God’s household became ours, that moment when in Jesus Christ we were once and for all time joined-together. We are that community, joined-together in the infinite complexity of humanity: of David, the great king and sinner, chosen by God and doomed by pride; of the prophets and the saints, of the martyrs and the apostles, we are joined even to the furthest reaches of God’s household, beyond the threshold of our imagination. We are that community, joined-together, in our greatness and our brokenness, in our blessedness and our sinfulness. Our legacies are infinitely more complicated than the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we got here. But we’re not living in the story that we tell ourselves. We’re living in God’s story, God’s history, and it’s not the history of great men or great women. It’s the history of broken ones, infinitely fallen, infinitely redeemed, infinitely joined into the household of God.

We know how this goes. We know what will happen in the days and weeks ahead. In the days and weeks ahead we will start to write the first draft of the history of that day, of that tragic shooting in a Colorado theatre. Battle lines will be drawn. Calculations made. Points scored. Each one an attempt to find meaning, to find message, to find the legacy of that day. But our task is more complicated. From whatever perch you watch the proceedings. From whatever remove. From whatever comfortable distance you find, remember that we are but one shared story, that the definitive act of history has joined us together in the infinite complexity of humanity. That we are joined-together with the families of the fallen. That we are joined-together with the survivors of trauma. That we are joined-together with doctors and caregivers, with law enforcement and rescue workers. And that we are joined-together even with James himself, in brokenness, in tragedy, in loss. We are joined together in this one great household, and so we mourn, as for our own brothers. We weep, as for our own sisters. And yet in Jesus Christ we dare to love and to hope again, as for our own children, living together in this household that God has built. Amen.


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