“Lessons From Mema: The Machine Doesn’t Fold the Right Way,” 2 Samuel 11

Chrissy brought up a TV show last week so I felt it only right to respond with an example from my go to Netflix show, The Office. There’s a specific episode I’m thinking of, where a very minor plot involves Pam, the secretary, going to great lengths to keep Michael, the manager of the office, from meeting with a representative from their phone company. Why would she attempt to control her boss’s schedule like that? Well, the phone company had come out with a new automated system that allowed calls to get where they needed to be without having to have a person forward them. Now we lice in the world of those systems and know that we might have been better off before the machines took over, but Pam looked at that technological advancement, assessed how much of her job consisted of answering phones and transferring calls, and set out to make sure that that threat to her employment didn’t make its way into the offices of the Dunder-Miflin Paper company of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Mema was also a secretary, y’all are aware of that at this point I think, and she also had a technological nemesis: the folding machine. First Baptist Clinton used, and I think still uses, a trifold bulletin, so a big portion of my grandmother’s job, on Thursday afternoons, was to sit down with her thumble(?) and fold the couple hundred bulletins that were required for a Main St. First Baptist Church. And it was tedious work as you might imagine, making sure that all those bulletins were folded the same way and looked identical, it took a full afternoon. And so at some point, trying to remove that tedious work from her weekly tasks, some good natured soul purchased a folding machine for the office. And with the right settings Mema could just slip the full page of the bulletin in and it would be folded up the same way every time without any effort on her part beyond lining the pages up and sending them through. And she hated it. Refused to use it. She hated that machine so much that after she retired, and this is where I was introduced to the process, after her retirement she still went up to the church on Thursday afternoons and folded all those bulletins by hand instead of letting her successor use the machine. And Thursdays were also the days she most often picked up my cousin and me from school, so we would spend our time with her roller blading in the gym at First Baptist Clinton while she folded. And I think I’ve shared before, those are my earliest memories of being at church, and they’re definitely my earliest memories of ministry, and it was all built out of some sort of disgust for the way the machine folded those bulletins. She didn’t like it. She didn’t think the machine folded consistently. She felt like the bulletins came out looking uneven. She was willing to do the extra work because she believed it was the best way to do it, more than that it was the right way to do it.

“It was spring, at the time when kings went to war.” Specifically it was late spring, probably May or so, after the wheat and barley harvest were finished. War couldn’t be a full time business in these days, armies were made up predominately of common people, not professional soldiers, so there was a brief window where they had the time to join kings in battle. Now David had a bigger collection of fighting men than Saul did but he’s still dependent on normal folk being able to make up the bulk of his fighting force so he’s still restrained by the calendar and has to act between the main grain harvests of the spring and summer fruit harvests that come up like mid to late August.

“It was spring, at the time when kings went to war, and David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the army. But David remained in Jerusalem.” It’s the time of year when kings go to war, and David has a war to go to. He’s in the midst of a campaign against the Ammonites, who lived in modern day Jordan, who, when David sent a group of emissaries to establish a relationship with the new king, had shaved half their beards and “cut the buttocks off of their garments” and sent them back to him as an insult. So David has a personal conflict with these people, he’s had success, we see here in 2 Samuel 11 they’re really down to the end of the war, besieging the capital, it is almost time for the war to end. It’s time for war, there’s a personal reason for the war, we know David is a warrior at heart, and yet he sends the army off and remains alone.

Why doesn’t David go to war? What most folks agree on is that David has become a victim of his own success at this point. David is too significant to risk on a siege against a weaker enemy. Sieges were the most dangerous parts of war for kings. No one actually wanted to kill a king in battle, you wanted to capture him so you could receive a ransom, so in battle even if a king was a front line, right in the thick of things kind of person, he was usually safe. Sieges had a lot more random stuff happening. Stray arrows are flying around, that’s how Richard the Lionheart died, you’re sitting in one place with questionable hygiene so diseases are rampant, and most importantly you’re not really doing anything until you’re ready to really take the city. So this siege is probably waste of David. There’s the risk that he is somehow hurt or killed with very little upside to that risk and there’s the chance that somehow they mess up and lose. At this point this war is pretty much won, if David oversees every moment and wins he’s just done what everyone would have expected and if he loses then his reputation will take a huge hit. So there’s very little potential reward for David to be in the field and much more potential risk. It makes sense for David not to out with the army. But it still isn’t right. In fact its one of the things that the Israelites were warned about when they asked for a king, the risk that a king would ask them to fight battles he would stay behind for. In this moment David falls out of the status of a great king, and exceptional king, and has become what Israel asked for, a king like all the other nations have, a king who is driven by what’s practical or smart or easy and not by what’s right.

And you probably know the rest of the story. Because David isn’t out in the field in the spring when kings go to war he gets bored in his palace and goes up to the roof for some air and he looks across the city and sees a woman bathing. And he’s interested. And interest leads to desire and desire leads to action and by the time the story is through David has committed adultery and murder and suffered the loss of a child and put into place a pattern that’s going to cost him two more sons and almost cost him his throne, and it all starts with this decision not go out to battle. A decision that had a lot of merit at the time. A decision that made a lot of sense. A smart decision, an easy decision, but ultimately not the right decision.

You know, its too simple to act like life is a series of choices between obvious right and obvious wrong. It would be nice if every decision we face had obvious consequences for the good and bad and we could easily make our decisions but sadly we live in a world with a lot more shades of gray than we’d prefer. Sometimes choices aren’t wrong but aren’t right either. Sometimes actions are justifiable but not good. If you’ve been with us on Wednesday nights you know we’ve spent the last two weeks looking at Ruth, and the choice she makes to do the right thing and stay with her mother-in-law even though she doesn’t have an obligation to and even more her life might be better if she makes a different choice. Something being easy doesn’t make it right. Something being justifiable doesn’t make it right. Something being logical doesn’t make it right. God calls us to a standard of faithfulness that goes beyond the letter of the law or the balance of a pros and cons list and instead makes us search for what is right and true and good. A standard that challenges us to “be perfect,” as Jesus says in Matthew 5, because God is perfect. Is that attainable, probably not. But that doesn’t mean we give up on it. That doesn’t mean stop trying. That doesn’t mean we settle when something greater is still out there. Folding machines make life easier but they don’t do the best job. Kings aren’t always necessary on field but they should still be there. The right thing isn’t always easy, but that’s why faith has to lead us to it.

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