The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 2, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
This week Jim and I watched the movie The Butler, which came out a few years ago – a film based on the true story of a black butler who served at the White House through eight different presidents. Through his eyes, we see the racial history of America unfold, from cotton picking on a plantation to the election of our first black President. There’s one scene set during Reagan’s administration, where senators are urging Reagan to sanction South Africa because of apartheid. We must do this, they say, because it will make such a statement about race in America. The butler Cecil Gaines stands there silently, but you can see in his face his long years of watching what America has done to him and his family. The impassioned senators, however, do not see it. They’re thinking about South Africa and how awful it is, and the moral imperative to condemn the race relations in that other place. As we have so often been ready to condemn other countries for their human rights abuses – while not fully owning what we ourselves have done.
That is, of course, all too familiar a path for us human beings. All too easy to see the mote in our neighbor’s eye. All too difficult to acknowledge the log in our own. But sooner or later, we have to get more honest about our sin.
Today’s Old Testament reading tells a story of that kind of reckoning. Last week we heard the racy story of David and Bathsheba, of how David takes another man’s wife for himself, gets her pregnant, and then has that man killed to cover up his sin. This is the chosen king of Israel, God’s own beloved – who acts now as a greedy, power-mad autocrat, using other people and destroying them in pursuit of his own pleasure. This is a long way from the David who heard God’s call through Samuel and was anointed king; a long way from the David who wanted to build a temple for God. So God sends the prophet Nathan to speak the truth to David’s closed mind – and Nathan does so with a story. ‘A rich man with a lot of sheep stole the one sheep owned by a poor man – owned and loved and cared for by that poor man as his own child – just to slaughter it and serve it to his guests. What do you think should happen to him, O king?’ David responds immediately: ‘He deserves to die! What a horrible thing to do.’ ‘You are the man,’ says Nathan to David. ‘This story is really about you, O king.’ What a trick – get David indignant about the sin of another man, and then skewer him about his own. And David immediately gets it. He could hotly deny it; he could have Nathan killed for this shaming. But instead he responds, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’
In our own lives, sin might be something as huge and hideous as committing adultery and arranging for murder. More often it’s something smaller, a mean word spoken or a kind word withheld, a set of thoughts and prejudices about others. But sin can also be something that we’re a part of even without really meaning to be. The theologian Enrique Dussel talks about inherited sin, the sin of the structures that we are born into: how some of us live at the expense of others, simply because of how our world has been set up. It’s the injustice built into our nation, in our economy and in our relationships with one another. Racism is one part of that legacy. We may try our hardest to root it out of our own hearts, but it is built into the system we live in. And we are seeing that over and over again in our news these days.
Sometimes we do get it when we’ve done something wrong. We hear the message loud and clear inside ourselves, sometimes even before we act, and we know too well how badly we have behaved. Other times we have to hear it from others to see for ourselves. It’s never easy acknowledging that we have done wrong, us individuals or us as a community, culture, and nation. And it’s especially difficult to hear it from others. So difficult that often we just don’t choose to hear it at all.
The British newspaper The Guardian is being our Nathan, this summer. At the beginning of June they released a database that they have been compiling of police killings in the U.S., and their analysis of the figures – something our own government hasn’t been doing. The analysis was pretty clear – that black Americans, who make up 13% of our population, are killed by police in 29% of the deaths. That black Americans are twice as likely to be unarmed in those confrontations as white Americans.
To me these figures point not only to problems in our police forces – they put in stark relief the problem of our whole nation with race. In crisis moments like these police confrontations, people act out of deep biases. We collectively are acting out our hatred and fear of the other. We are acting out the legacy of the deep stain of slavery, and the system we have lived in for centuries. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to acknowledge that sin.
Nathan says to David, you are the man. You are the one who committed this act. And David hears it. We need also to hear it: You are the man. You are the woman. Your country is the one where this happens. We don’t want to see that the field is not yet equal; too many want not to acknowledge the continuing racism in our history – but it’s like lancing the wound to begin the healing. Until we acknowledge our wrong, we can do nothing to make things better.
And things can be made better. Consequences to our sin follow first, of course. When we do something or are part of something hurtful, others suffer, and so do we. David’s story is painful – Nathan tells him that his sin will result in division and violence in his own household, and finally, in the death of the child he has conceived with Bathsheba. And indeed, all these things come to pass – nothing David does by way of penance stops the consequences from taking shape.
But David continues on as king – things do get difficult, but he rules and does his best. And he and Bathsheba have another child, Solomon who becomes king after David’s death. On his deathbed, David tells Solomon, ‘Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God.’ David’s faith, David’s relationship with God, endures despite all the wrongs David commits. He is still able to do good; all is not lost.
God does not abandon David because of his sin. And God does not abandon us. If we can hear and acknowledge that we are the ones who have sinned, then we might also hear what God says next: I am still with you. Your sins are forgiven. And the sin is not the end of the story.
When we can accept forgiveness from God and move on, then we are free to restore the relationships we have harmed; we are free to work for a better world; we are free to live again in harmony with God’s ways. We acknowledge our sin; we allow ourselves to be forgiven; and then we try to do better. It’s how we go on in our friendships and with our families: if we can let go ourselves of the hurt we’ve caused, accept God’s forgiveness for it, then we can truly seek forgiveness from the one we hurt. And it’s how we can go on in our nation as well. Freed of the sin, we can forgive and seek forgiveness from others. We can go the extra mile to renew and restore the love between people. We can’t guarantee that others will also forgive us, but we can do our best. All is not lost.
There’s no escaping from our sinfulness, unfortunately – neither the individual list of things each of us has done and left undone, nor the larger system of wrongs in our world. But there is always the promise of forgiveness. And there is always the possibility of new life. Acknowledging the sin of our fear and pain isn’t meant to mire us in despair. It’s what can allow for a new start. ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God,’ our psalm today reads. ‘Renew a right spirit within me.’ Over and over again we pray this, and God does renew us – allowing us to renew our world as well. May we have ears to hear, and hearts to love.