* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on October 19, 2014 *
Text: 2 Samuel 12:1-9
Well, I’m sorry to say you’ve been duped again. Last week, we had a seemingly innocent story about heritage, which Pastor Tim turned into a sermon about stewardship; and I have to apologize because this week we have a definitely not-innocent story about David, but the message is just as tough. Today we’re talking about forgiveness and how scandalous it can be. So, in that light, please pray with me:
You are a God of forgiveness,
and we often struggle with that.
Affront us with your grace,
that we may be grace to others and ourselves.
So, like I said, this is a sermon about forgiveness, so before we get into some tough and heavy themes, I’d like to propose a toast. “Here’s to you!”
That’s a trick, by the way…sneaking a drink of water before beginning a sermon. Another one for the ‘things-they-don’t-teach-you-in-seminary’ file.
But speaking of toasts, I haven’t ever given a toast at a wedding, but I have been toasted before. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection on me and my ‘best-manability’, or a sharper reflection on my close friends and their ability, or rather inability, to be in those long-term, meaningful relationships in order to get to the point of engagement, and then marriage…probably the latter, but at any rate…
We toast to honor people. It’s a sign of respect for someone or something. At the Lutheran School of Theology, where I’ve been studying for the past 2 years, our toasts often start with someone standing on a chair, and saying over the crowd in a loud voice, “The Lord be with you!” To which everyone predictably responds…“And also with you!” It’s an invitation into a respectful moment, and clearly a sign that we’re all liturgical nerds and need to get out more. Maybe you have your own customs or traditions surrounding toasts. “Prost!” Or “Skol!” But the point is, these moments are sacred. Sacred, and yet as ordinary and everyday as going out with your family and friends.
American theologian and writer, Frederick Buechner, who’s also a Presbyterian minister, by the way, in his short reflection on this story of Bathsheba and David, imagines the moment when David first sees Bathsheba. David toasts Bathsheba’s beauty, knowing that the cost of his ensuing infidelity would be exorbitant, but not being able to really, fully comprehend just how costly… A toast, and a cost, only truly understood as David lay on his deathbed, rapidly approaching the end of his tumultuous life…
See, we toast to honor people, but what if the people or things that we’re toasting aren’t particularly honorable? David certainly fits the bill, doesn’t he? I mean, he certainly came by his power honestly. God chose him, remember? If you read my blog this week, you know that 1st and 2nd Samuel are all about the fledgling monarchy of the people of Israel. Even though, at the beginning, when the people are clamoring for a king, God, through the prophet Samuel, warns them that having a king will be like being back in slavery in Egypt. “He will take your sons, he will make you plow his fields, he will take your daughters, he will take your slaves and livestock and whatever you produce in your fields, and you will cry out for the Lord to save you. But I want you to remember this day, remember this warning, because in spite of all of this, just so we’re clear, you’re still demanding a king…”
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
So even though David was chosen by God, was beloved by God, and was a man after God’s own heart, David is just as susceptible to temptation as you, or me, or anyone, and was just as likely to act on those impulses.
Because that’s what we do…
And sometimes, that’s an affronting thought. You know, Nathan doesn’t often get a lot of airtime in sermons on this text. He’s often a glossed-over character. But consider, for a moment, Nathan’s role in the story. A prophet, sent by God, to tell the king, that what the king had been doing, adultery and lying and murder, were actually not ok, and that just because you’re the king, doesn’t mean you can completely disregard the commandments of the one who gave you this power. Yes, it can be good to be the king, but that doesn’t exempt you from the consequences. Like Pastor Tim said a couple of weeks ago, “Everything is forgivable in the kingdom of God, but not everything is permissible.”
I’m sorry…??? Far be it from me to rewrite the Bible, but if I’m the king and someone comes and talks to me like that, we’ve got problems. But he doesn’t. David instantly recognizes his sin, and is immediately repentant. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he says. It’s an affront to think that anyone would presume to tell the king anything about the king’s wrongdoings. Yeah, it’s an affront when we are told deep truths about ourselves.
Throughout these weeks that we’ve been working through this Narrative Lectionary, I’ve noticed a recurring theme. From being a blessing, to trusting God, to setting some ground rules, to living an integral life…the question keeps coming up: how are we to be together? I think sometimes, we’re called to be Nathan, confronting each other with some hard truths, because at the end of the day it’s not just you, or me; it’s all of us, together.
See, we mess up. It’s inevitable. Despite our best intentions and best efforts, every day we fail to live as God would have us live. Like Paul says in Romans, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Whether it’s walking past the hungry person on our way to work, or sacrificing time with our family for just a few more hours at the office, or perpetuating that awful rumor we heard, or closing the door on the possibility of reconciliation, or letting that anger fester, or (fill in your own blank here)…
But thank God, that’s not the end of it. Thank God that God doesn’t abandon us, especially in our darkest moments or our moments of deep sinfulness. David was a terrible person, there’s no question, but God still forgave David. There were consequences for what David did, certainly, but God still forgave David. And even after this incident, David continues on as a central figure in the Jewish and Christian narratives. I mean, one of the phrases that gets lifted up in the gospels as evidence that Jesus is the Messiah is that he was “from the house and lineage of David.”
Buechner, at the end of his essay on Bathsheba and David, says this, “It wasn’t just Bathsheba he’d been toasting or the prospect of their life together, but a much more distant prospect still. He had been drinking, he realized, to the child of their child of their child a thousand years thence, who he could only pray would find it in his heart to think kindly someday of the beautiful girl and the improvident king who had so recklessly and long ago been responsible for his birth in a stable and his death just outside the city walls.”
God takes what is broken and shattered and may look like nothing to the rest of the world, and says, “Oh, I can work with this. Out of this, I will restore the world.”
How beautiful! Out of an act of forgiveness, God brings wholeness and reconciliation to a world in pieces.
How are we to be together? Forgiving. See, because the recognition is we all need to hear some hard truths about ourselves; but if all we’re willing to be is condemning of each other, well then, that doesn’t sound much like Jesus, so thanks but no thanks. There’s a reason that the ritual we’ve been practicing at the beginning of worship every week is called ‘Confession AND Forgiveness.’ The recognition is that, yeah, we’ve all messed up, but that also means that God forgives us…all of us.
But that’s not to say that any of this is easy. It’s absolutely not. Often the hardest thing for us to do is forgive. And often the hardest person for us to forgive…is ourselves. We think, “Well, sure God can forgive David, and sure Jesus talks about forgiveness a lot, but these are just stories, and I’ve done some things, you know, and surely God’s not talking about me…right…?”
Yes… You are forgiven. Just like David. Just like the soldiers and religious leaders and powers that put Jesus to death. Just like any of us. You…are forgiven.
David was the classic “flawed hero” of the Old Testament. We look for that nowadays, don’t we? In our movies, TV shows, novels, whatever…we look for, and almost lift up, the flawed hero. You know why I think that is? I think it’s because the flawed hero looks so much like us, that sometimes we can’t stand it, but we lift up these people because if she can do it, if he can do it, then maybe there’s even just a small sliver of hope for someone like me…
Another thing about toasts is that they tend to bring out the best in things. Our best speeches, the best glassware, the best spirits… We talk that way about church too, don’t we? Our Sunday best… God deserves your best… Don’t we come here on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights or whenever with our “church faces”? Don’t we put on our best so that no one sees that underneath it all, we really don’t have it all together?
And that, to me, is the greatest affront in this world. That somehow we try and tell ourselves that God can’t see right through all of this, right into the very heart of us, and loves us still. Dear people, if you hear nothing else this morning, hear me now: God loves you. All of you. Even the parts you keep hidden. Especially the parts you keep hidden. The broken parts. The parts you think are ugly or unworthy or unsightly. The shattered pieces. God loves you. So much. And God has forgiven you. Forgive yourselves. Forgive each other.
One last thing about toasting; in some circles it’s seen as an affront to toast with water. It’s disrespectful, or something. But isn’t that what God does in baptism? I mean, our font even looks like a chalice. Doesn’t God toast us with water and says, “Precious child of God, you are mine. Your sins are forgiven and nothing, not even death, can separate you from me.”
It’s also considered an affront to toast with an empty glass. But isn’t that what we bring every week to Christ’s table of grace? Nothing…? We bring our empty, and broken, and shattered selves…seeking restoration and wholeness through the one who brings life from death, who takes our broken pieces and makes them whole, who holds us as a parent holds her child and says, “You are mine…and I love you.”
“Here’s to you.”