Sunday, June 17, 2007
Happy Father's Day to all!
Here's today's homily. There was a choice of Old Testament readings, both pretty ghastly, but I chose 2 Sam. 11:26-12:10, 13-15, because it's ultimately more hopeful. The Gospel is Luke 7:36-8:3.
Today’s Old Testament reading brings us into the middle of a story that would do any soap opera proud. David, the King of Judah, wants to marry Bathsheba, but Bathsheba is already married, to David’s faithful follower Uriah. So David arranges for Uriah to be sent into the thick of battle and then abandoned there to die. David has murdered Uriah, as surely as if he struck the killing blow himself. God sends the prophet Nathan to call David to account for his wrongdoing.
Sent to communicate God’s anger, Nathan doesn’t lecture David on the sin of murder, or even the sin of adultery. He doesn’t directly scold David for coveting his neighbor’s wife. Instead, he tells a famous and beautiful story about a poor man who has only one lamb, which he loves like a child. A rich man who has many animals, but who does not want to sacrifice one of his own flock, seizes and slaughters the poor man’s beloved lamb to feed a guest.
David, very properly horrified by this story, demands that the rich man be punished. And Nathan says, simply, “You are the man.” Or, in more modern language: “You’re it.” The sin David has recognized in the story is his own sin. Nathan told the story precisely to jolt his audience into awareness.
And David, because he is not just a murderer and adulterer but also a great and wise king and loyal follower of God -- a very complicated person, like most of us -- realizes the truth of Nathan’s accusation. Smitten with remorse, he repents of his crime, and because he has repented, God forgives him. David himself will not die to atone for his deeds, God says. Instead, David and Bathsheba’s infant son will die.
This is an appalling story for Father’s Day, especially on a morning when we’re about to baptize a child. We’d all rather avoid this part of the tale, prefer to end on the happy note of David’s repentance and forgiveness. But the Scriptures, and the editors of the Episcopal lectionary, haven’t allowed us that luxury. We have to wrestle with David’s loss.
In my own wrestling, I’ve come up with two ways to make sense of this story. The first is cautionary. The death of David’s child reminds us that although God indeed forgives us when we repent, our deeds still have consequences. Our faith commands us to love God, our neighbors and ourselves. When we act unlovingly instead, real harm is done in the world. We can’t wipe away the injuries we have caused just by saying “I’m sorry.” Yes, God accepts our repentance, but sin still hurts, and it’s usually the innocent who suffer.
My second attempt at exegesis focuses on our own response to the suffering of the innocent. Nathan tells David the parable of the lamb to evoke a response; perhaps the Bible tells us the story of David’s infant for the same reason. Just as David protests the injustice of the poor man’s loss, so we protest the injustice of David’s loss. It isn’t fair for a rich man to take a poor man’s prized possession! It isn’t fair for a son to die for his father’s crime! This is a natural, unavoidable reaction, and I think it’s the reaction the author wants us to have.
Perhaps the point of the story is precisely to rebuke any of us who have ever punished children -- or adults -- for the crimes of their relatives, who have ever treated another person unlovingly because of inherited characteristics: nationality, race, religion, family background. Like David, we don’t have to have performed these deeds directly. If we have delegated them to other people, such as elected officials, we’re still guilty.
David and Bathsheba’s child couldn’t help his parentage. He couldn’t help where or to whom he was born. But children killed in war -- in Germany or Japan, Vietnam or Iraq -- can’t help those things either. In this country, children without adequate shelter, food or health insurance can’t help having been born into poverty. Inner-city children who never acquire the basic skills they need to get a job can’t help having been born into embattled, struggling school districts. The children of inmates, seventy percent of whom will wind up in prison themselves -- sometimes because of inadequate adult support -- can’t help who their parents are.
David recognized himself in Nathan’s story. Do we recognize ourselves in David’s story? Are we it, as Nathan said David was? And if we are, how should we respond?
David repents of his crimes and mourns his dead. And then he and Bathsheba have more children, who have children in their turn, in a line that leads directly to Jesus. The Bible traces that line, telling very colorful stories along the way, but some themes remain constant. The Gospel we just heard, like the Old Testament lesson, is about repentance and forgiveness. If we’re wrestling with our own guilt, it contains very good news, because it tells us what to do.
The Pharisees were devout, observant Jews who loved God and prided themselves on following God’s commandments, including purity laws. The Pharisee in the Gospel obeys God by offering basic hospitality, asking Jesus to share a meal with him. He’s appalled when a woman of ill repute shows up at his house, making a spectacle of herself by kissing Jesus’ feet, bathing them with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with expensive lotion, presumably purchased with ill-gotten gains. This is terrible, thinks the Pharisee. How can Jesus let this woman touch him? She’s unclean. Doesn’t he know that?
Jesus does know that. Furthermore, Jesus knows that the woman knows her own guilt. She knows she’s it. She also knows that God forgives her, and her gratitude for God’s lavish act of love expresses itself in her own lavish love. “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
All of us have done wrong, somehow, to someone. But if we recognize our wrongs -- if we say, “Yes, I’m it, and I’m sorry” -- then God’s love and forgiveness can transform our guilt into joyous love shown other people. The more aware we are of our own faults, of how much we have been forgiven, the more grateful and loving we will be in response to God’s great grace.
Baptism is a sacrament of cleansing, of forgiveness. The baptized have promised, in person or through the proxy of their parents and other sponsors, to renounce evil. In a few minutes, all of us will promise to continue repenting of our sins, and to signal that repentance by performing specific actions in the world. We will promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, no matter where or to whom that human being was born. We will promise to express our gratitude to God in lavish love of our neighbors.
That love can take many forms. We may volunteer in a homeless shelter, hospital, or prison. We may pledge to visit a nursing home once a month. We may sign up for the special Big Brothers/Big Sisters program that provides stable adult friends and mentors to the children of inmates. We may volunteer in at-risk schools. We may send money to Episcopal Relief and Development, or Doctors Without Borders, or Heifer International, all organizations that work to help children -- and adults -- in other countries.
Whatever actions we take, we will take them not because we are such good people, but because we know that we, too, have done wrong, and because we are so grateful for having been forgiven. On this Father’s Day, we will begin our repentance with the acknowledgment that we are all children of one father, called to love all our relatives, near and far.
Happy Father’s Day. We’re it.