When I first became a Christian at the age of 17 I had a pretty strong moral compass. I was raised by atheists who had extremely high standards of ethical behavior. And because I was the oldest daughter, I strove to meet all of their expectations of honesty, hard work, frugality and integrity. And mostly I did, primarily because I wasn’t creative or crafty enough to do anything really wrong without being caught.
When I became a Christian, there was a whole new set of standards to live up to. These included loving your enemy, caring for the most vulnerable, praying for others, gratitude and generosity. These are tough enough still for me but there were some other requirements that became very confusing and difficult for me.
One church insisted that rock music was of the devil and I would have to destroy all of my albums that weren’t Christian. Another church youth group became convinced that even kissing outside of marriage would lead to immorality so they encouraged all of us young people to refrain from any physical contact with the opposite sex. And, by the way, contact between members of the same gender was so outrageous that it was hardly even mentioned!
Smoking was forbidden. Drinking alcohol was both illegal and immoral. In some of the churches I visited, even being a member of the “other” political party was a sign that you were slipping in your Christian faith.
I began to get the impression that being Christian was about being perfect and sinless. Because I loved Jesus and I admired so many of the people who followed him, I really, really tried to be good all of the time. I agonized over my anger towards my siblings. I felt ashamed of my lust and passions. I tried to bring together the politics and convictions I had learned from my family with some of the radical politics of the newly developing “Moral Majority.” I even attended an entire week’s program for college students that laid out a manual of proper Christian behavior in an enormous notebook with headings and sub-headings for every possible situation and Bible proof texts for each one.
It was exhausting and confusing and very difficult. The love of God which had transformed my life and given me light and hope and a new identity was being crushed under a heavy weight of law and judgement. This was not freedom in Christ or the abundant life or the joy of the Spirit. This was justification through the law and it was nullifying the gift of God’s grace in my life.
Fortunately for me, I discovered the great depth and breadth of the Christian tradition through the spiritual guides in the authors I was reading. One of these influences was Madeline L’Engle and I tried to read nearly everything she wrote. I found out she was teaching a writing institute in Vancouver BC and I got on the waiting list. Fortunately I was accepted and I heard directly from her an entirely different approach to the Christian faith. She wrote stories of real challenges, flawed characters, God’s transforming grace, hope and beauty.
She gave us an assignment to re-write one of the stories of the Old Testament so I started reading the Bible for its stories, rather than just for moral guidance and direction. And, boy these were some stories, filled with turmoil, tragedy, comedy, sex, violence, redemption, and yes, true love! In order to procrastinate from my homework I decided to go swimming in the beautiful pool at the University. As I got into a rhythm in the water I had a sudden realization. All those heroes and heroines in the Bible were NOT perfect people. In fact, all of them were notoriously flawed. There was not one Moses or Noah or Rahab or Miriam or Saul or Solomon that hadn’t screwed up royally.
And one of the very worst, the most scandalous sinner in the whole Old Testament was also one of the most favored and graced of God’s lambs, David, the shepherd boy chosen to be the golden King of Israel. David the boy with the sling. David the beloved of God. He is also the king who forcefully took Bathsheba and impregnated her. He is the warrior who deliberately sent an honored soldier to death to cover up his rape. And he thought he could use his power and influence to get away with it.
But he could not hide from God or God’s prophet. Nathan tells a heart-wrenching story about a poor man and his beloved only lamb that is taken by a powerful and wealthy man. When David passes judgement on the rich and powerful sinner in the story, Nathan utters one of the most damning phrases in literature, “You are the man!”
What follows is a description of the consequences of David’s behavior. It’s heartbreaking to hear the damage that cascades not only through David’s life but through the life of Bathsheba, their son, their larger family and the nation. Murder and treachery multiplies. Violence and disrespect towards women spreads.
And yet, all is not lost. Even in the culture of “an eye for an eye,” God demonstrates grace, forgiveness and a reason for hope. David’s repentance allows God to work in him and through him despite his despicable and evil behavior. Later in this service we will sing a bit from Psalm 51, which is one of David’s most famous songs of repentance. He honestly and humbly acknowledges his fault without blaming anyone else or offering excuses. He doesn’t look for a scapegoat or rationalize his behavior or claim that his exalted status as King gives him special dispensation. He recognizes that his sin goes deep into the moral fabric of the universe and is a sin against God the Creator.
David is the ultimate example of every human’s double identity as both saint and sinner. None of us gets a clean bill of moral health. Some of us have more visible, scandalous and socially unacceptable moral failures but none of us is exempt. We have all fallen short of the glory of God and of our best and truest selves. Simply trying harder or being in denial won’t make it all better. Our only hope is in the grace and mercy of God in Jesus.
Forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration all begin with an honest cry of confession. Our humble and heartfelt recognition of our responsibility for the mess we have made of things is the open door for God’s grace to get in. When we scapegoat someone else, rationalize away our own culpability or romanticize the ugliness of our behavior we remain closed off and unable to receive the salvation we so desperately need but refuse to ask for.
When we refuse to acknowledge the way we have wounded others and sinned against God and our neighbor we are trapped and doomed to continue to suffer the consequences and repeat the patterns. There is not one of us here who can escape based on how smart or good or church-going or moral we are. Like the woman of the city – the notorious sinner of Jesus’s day, we each have the opportunity to fall at the feet of Jesus and to pour out our sins and our sorrows, weeping and hopeful at the same time. It is Christ who raises us up to our feet, who proclaims the forgiveness of our sins, tells us that our faith has made us well and sends us forth in peace.
We at St. Luke’s are a home for all saints and sinners. We get to practice confession, forgiveness, humility and reconciliation on a regular basis. It is not easy. In fact this church has a history of folks disagreeing and departing rather than staying to continue the hard work of making peace. But there is nothing sweeter than the renewal of a right spirit within an individual and a community. There is no sharing of the peace that is more powerful than when those who have been cut off from one another are reunited.
Today as we do every Sunday throughout most of the year we will have a general confession. We come together to corporately acknowledge that each one of us is both saint and sinner, desperately in need of God’s grace and mercy. We offer a common prayer of acknowledgement and a common hope for forgiveness. It will be my privilege as a priest to offer general forgiveness the name of the triune God. Today only there will be an opportunity after the confession for individual prayers for healing and absolution by the font. No one must come. No one will think you are a greater or lesser sinner either way. We are all in this together folks. In fact, I’ll start by asking Ivar to grant me absolution. Please feel free to use this short time as you most need, in quiet, in reflection, in prayer. May you know the healing power of God’s grace and the merciful forgiveness offered in the strong and loving name of Jesus this day and always. Amen.