June 12th, 2016
2 Samuel 11:26--12:10, 13-15;
When Israel pled for a king, this is what God said: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders…and some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war…He will take your daughters…He will take the best of your fields…He will take one tenth of your grain…He will take your male and female slaves and the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flock and you shall be his slaves.” Notice how many times the word take is in that proclamation: The king the people want so badly will take, and take, and take, and take, until he takes everyone in the kingdom for a slave to himself and to his courtiers. When Samuel told the people what God said, the people replied, “No! But we are determined to have a king over us so that we also might be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Be careful what you ask God to give, because God just might give it to you. In the case of the Israelites, God gave them kings. And what God said came to pass. The kings came, and they took and they took and they took until all the people were not merely slaves to the king, but slaves to kings from far away.
This is a great story—Nathan appeals to David’s own deep heart and sense of justice. David, you may remember, was a shepherd before he was a king, and you better believe Nathan had that in mind as he composed this story. He knew how to appeal to David’s sense of justice, which, we can admit, seems bloodthirsty. But Nathan shows David his guilt: the guilt that comes with acting as a god, without impunity, without care and caution for the consequences. You are the man, he says. You are the man who takes and kills. And at this moment, David’s story changes, from the successful king, to the long twilight of age, as he loses his grip of power and sees even his own son rebel against his rule.
Now, we don’t live in a culture of kings. But that doesn’t mean power and privilege don’t have sway among us. I spent much of my last week at Union Theological Seminary, hearing about the Gospel and the Ecological Crisis. And if you don’t know, you should know that, as the theologian Leonardo Boff says, the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor is the same cry. The story is a familiar one: those with power take. They take land and build toxic energy plants, often among the poorest and least powerful. We and the other powerful nations of the world benefit from taking these resources, taking fossil fuels from the earth, taking minerals from the Congo, taking hours of labor without fair wages from people all over the world.
We saw the toxic effects of privilege this past week when Brock Turner also saw someone he wanted, and took what he wanted. He also came from a place of great privilege, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. They have some of the best schools in the nation, and most people are upper middle class, not lacking for anything. But from this place of privilege came a monster, a predator. He committed an atrocity against a woman, and for it, even though he has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life, he received three months out of a potential 12 year sentence.
We might ask, is this justice? Of course it isn't. In the story of David and Bathsheba, for the consequence of David's gross abuse of power, of adultery, and of murder, God takes the child. Is this justice? My feeling is no, but the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. And often we are left with a question: we want the Lord to judge the world in righteousness and end injustice. But what kind of justice do we want--punitive or restorative? And how can there be restorative justice for people like David, like Brock Turner, for people that seem to go off the edge of forgiveness. Is there restorative justice for Kenneth Starr and the administration and coaching staff of Baylor University, and supposedly Christian school that turned a blind eye to sexual assaults by the football team? What kind of justice is possible for this?
We hear the story of the woman who was a great sinner. Luke doesn't tell us her sin--he only says that it was great. Our culture may assume it has something to do with sex, but women have a whole panoply of other abilities. Perhaps her sins made her wealthy, but in any event they made her famous. But notice how Luke makes sure to show how tenderly she approaches Jesus: she cries at the sight of Jesus. She covers his feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair and anoints him with perfumed ointment. She approaches him in faith and hope--and he says to her, your sins are forgiven. All her great, her very great sins are forgiven.
I believe the good news for us today is that the forgiveness of God is so vast, it is terrifying. We think often that the love of God is a tender, warm embrace, but we should really think of it as the embrace of the sea--a power so vast that we cannot even comprehend it. The sea cares nothing for us, but imagine, if you entered the waves, that it did care for you. You would be thrilled and terrified.
There is justice, and there is mercy, and we say that God’s justice is mercy. For days like today, that good news can be very hard to hear. David was a warlord, an adulterer, a murderer, and maybe even a rapist. Paul was killer and persecutor of a religious minority. That the people called Jesus the Son of David should terrify us—David, by our lights, was only good in the sense that he plead to God for forgiveness. And, the God we worship did forgive him. On days like today, the breadth of the forgiveness of God might be too much to bear.
But forgiveness is the purview of God, and God, who has unknowable power, power beyond any privilege we could ever know or imagine, showed us what it meant to have power, when he gave it all up for the sake of others. Forgiveness, letting go of sin, mercy: these are God’s chief ways of showing his power. What can that mean for us? Can we believe forgiveness is good news?
The Rev. John Flack