Beth A. Faeth, October 8, 2017
Scripture 2 Samuel 12:1–10
Throughout the years, I have encountered a lot of people who avoid the Bible for a variety of reasons. Some dismiss it as not relevant to contemporary life, some find it too patriarchal and misogynistic, some find the language a barrier and a struggle to understand. Some are uncertain of how to enter into the story or do not realize how the historical, social and political context of the time of the writing has such an influence on the scriptural meaning. And some people have told me quite bluntly that they find the Bible boring. It is to these folks I issue an invitation to read the story of David, found in the Old Testament in the books of First and Second Samuel, and part of First Kings as well as First Chronicles. David’s story is wrought with intrigue, deception, politics, sex. In other words, it can hold your attention. David, the wee little shepherd boy with a beautiful voice whom God personally selected to be the ruler. David, the singer of psalms, God’s favored one, the hope of Israel. David, who slew giants and fought hard battles and who had seemingly no moral compass . . . and, at times, zero self-awareness.
David’s story contains all the movements of a relationship with God. He is a beautiful and beloved child who lives into the call God issues. After various coming of age adventures, he succeeds and becomes the leader of his people, living up both to his heritage and his eventual descendants, including Jesus Christ. Like a figure in Greek drama, David begins to believe his own press—then files for an exemption from the very Ten Commandments he has triumphantly delivered to his new capital city.
Do you know that sinking feeling when you are in the midst of a situation in which you know you have done something wrong, and, while you would really like to blame the outcome on someone else, your personal ethics force you to own up and claim responsibility? Yeah, David didn’t have that.
Instead, David believed he was above the law, could live outside of the law. And after seeing a beautiful woman named Bathsheba, he orders his servants to “take” her from her home and deliver her to him. Use your imagination as to what happens next and don’t be surprised to learn that she becomes pregnant. When David’s scheme to have Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, take responsibility for fathering this unborn child fails, David sends him into battle to have him killed. David is now an adulterer and a murderer.
And is a man who completely lacks self-awareness.
Nathan’s role is to help David acknowledge the full horror of his actions, and it is this interaction that is depicted in this morning’s scripture passage. The prophet Nathan approaches David with a story, a story of a poor person who has been wronged by a person of wealth. David, upon hearing Nathan’s story, indulges in righteous anger. Of course this is unjust, he decrees. The rich person, with all the wealth at his or her disposal has no right to rob the poor person of the one cherished possession. The rich person must repay the poor person—four-fold. When he heard the story of the poor person’s innocent lamb, David responded from the foundation of all he knew, from the part of his soul deeper and higher than his self-interest. To take what does not belong to you, to hurt another person, these things are wrong. They are worthy of punishment. And still, even in his judgment, David doesn’t understand the parable is about him. He had power, and that power made him both arrogant and ignorant. He believed he was entitled to take whatever he wanted. He was willing to kill to get the result he desired. Nathan condemns David with four words: “You are that person!”
Here is an ancient story that could be ripped right from today’s headlines: this breach of personal and professional ethics; the skewing of what is right when there is personal interest or power at stake; the inability to acknowledge appalling, destructive behavior. We see it in individuals and in corporations when they lose sight of their connectedness to one another and allow greed to overtake them. We see it in organizations and institutions set up to serve but losing sight of their purpose, using their power to abuse and corrupt. Sadly, these have become everyday occurrences, everyday stories. We read the morning paper and we watch the evening news and we shake our collective heads and wonder what is happening in the world. All the talking heads dissect these stories and try to explain them away, water them down with excuses and justification. And what I notice happening is that we also have become numb. We initially exclaim dismay at the most current display of immorality, but we are quickly pulled into distraction by our own life story. Or maybe this fast-growing calamity of losing our moral compass and not holding people accountable is more about the unbearable fact that if we acknowledge another’s sins . . . well, then we might have to confront our own. In our individual and collective blindness, we need a Nathan.
What David didn’t realize was that, in telling him the story of two families and a lamb, Nathan the prophet was, in fact, holding before David a mirror: a mirror that reflected clearly David’s despicable actions. Nathan wasn’t there to pose hypothetical questions or to ask David to judge a theory. He was there to hold a mirror up to David, child of God, and to force him to take a look and confront his own wrongdoing. This was a call to confession, an intervention of the heart and soul. Nathan is charged with the uncomfortable task of making David take accountability for his immorality. And it worked. “I have sinned against God,” David woefully admits a few verses after this morning’s pericope ends. Tradition suggests that in his eye-opening moment of self-awareness, David repents, poetically, in the words of Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. . . . You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. . . .
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
There are times in our lives when we completely lack self-awareness. Maybe events in our story have confined in us the ability to see past our hurt, our anger, our grief. Perhaps we have justified an action because we have reacted from deep pain or a sense of injustice. And sometimes we manage to convince ourselves that what we have done is for the best: That the end justifies the means. And sometimes, we are simply clueless about something we have done that has wounded another. Enter our own brave Nathans, the ones who come along and hold up a mirror to our lives . . . to let us see what we’re really like. These are the people who will be honest with us when we are out of line, those friends who know us well enough to see when we are making a mistake, and those mentors not afraid to put things into perspective when we need it most. Empathy is essential, but sometimes we are called to help another understand the consequence of actions. And we must also become increasingly aware that our own words, our deeds, our actions—both long thought-out or impulsive—have tremendous impact on others. We must broaden our self-awareness so as to understand how what we do and say affects another. It’s hard work to mend a relationship with God or with another when we have sinned, not because God or the other is unwilling to forgive, but because we need to be courageous enough to do the work of confessing what we actually did wrong. That’s a spiritual strength and courage I admire. And many times, we do not get there alone. We all need a Nathan.
One week ago a man with a motive still unknown but with rage and hatred in his heart riddled thousands of bullets into a crowd gathered to enjoy a night of country western music. He assassinated 58 people and injured nearly 500 others. One man. One man with many guns. And collectively the nation grieves and we shake our heads. I read the news on my smart phone Monday morning, and I confess my first thought was, we are all just lying in wait for it to happen to us. My second thought was, I can’t ever let my daughters attend another concert. My parental heart sinks with fear as I consider that nowhere is safe for my children. On Wednesday evening hundreds of people gathered in this sanctuary for a candlelight vigil of both prayer and call to action. We heard from Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders who collectively grieved with the crowd and also charged us to not stay silent, to no longer hide on the sidelines, but to take a stand for justice, to be a witness for gun control in our country. As each one came to the pulpit I could feel the mirror being held up for each one of us to see our reflection, to examine our own complacency in the epidemic of violence that pervades our country. I will admit I have let others do the difficult work of education and legislative action. But we cannot afford to be passive now. Those involved in leading that vigil were our real-life Nathans. And, if anything, I am certain that just as one can wreak havoc and destruction, so can one sow goodness and healing and culture shift and societal change. And if that one becomes one hundred, one thousand, one million, then we can know a day when mass shootings are no longer a part of our legacy.
In a conversation I had on Monday morning, when everyone I encountered was reeling in bewilderment from the news of the Las Vegas shootings, I was reminded through a stranger—who quickly became a Nathan—about the power of the spiritual community, specifically our spiritual community. That we are bound to one another by covenant—and that invisible but sacred connection requires a certain code of ethics in the way we are in relationship with one another. Now more than ever, especially in this time of transition and change, we are to be loving and kind to one another, holding up a mirror to one another that reflects love, grace, compassionate communication and commitment. Because we promised to be vessels of God’s love when we entered into this covenant with one another, when we accepted the invitation of membership into this community, we are a part of whatever is unfolding next for Plymouth Church. We are all a part of what is unfolding next. May the wider community see in us all the things that have made us a daring spiritual community for 160 years. May we not act as if we are above or beyond or apart from the covenant that binds us.
David, even amidst his political power and wealth, could hide no longer from the wrong he had done. There was no escape. All he could do was throw himself on the mercy of God and seek forgiveness.
Among the sleaziness of our story today, in all the scandal and outrage, in all the shame and wrongdoing, there is something we must remember: We are loved by a God who knows us with all our faults and failings, a God who loves us nonetheless. A God who promises forgiveness when we face up to who we are. It is never too late for self-awareness, never too late to make amends, never too late to embrace change. Like me, you may be wondering where the good news is in these frightening times. For me the good news comes through messengers like Nathan calling us to accountability, and in doing so reminding us that none can stray so far that God cannot reach us with rehabilitating love, drawing us back into full communion. But first, we must be willing to look in the mirror.