Proper 6 / 4th after Pentecost — 12 June 2016
St. Peter’s, Bettendorf – 9:00 am
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15 | Psalm 32 | Galatians 2:15-21 | Luke 7:36-8:3
David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin.”
How many of you remember, perhaps in school, reading James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “The Creation”? As some of us recall, it begins:
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'll make me a world.
And he looked around and said:
I'll make me a world.
It’s a really lovely poem, and if you don’t know it I encourage you to look it up. The problem with it is that although it’s great poetry, it is not great theology. ("Oh, no! A religious Grinch!” you say!) But here’s the thing: God did not create the universe because God was lonely. God was, is, never lonely. (This all has to do with the doctrine of the Trinity, and I would investigate with you how that is, but when Meg gets back she would say, “Why are you still here? And why is our congregation all asleep in the pews?”)
In truth, God made the world – God created the whole universe – not out of loneliness but as an outpouring of the Divine Love which is the essential nature of the Triune God. God created us, and indeed the whole world – in order to share God’s love, to share being.
The Scripture readings this morning are about sin.
We all probably remember the story of David and Bathsheba, which is where the first lesson comes from. (If you’re not quite sure about the whole story, when you get home, look it up in Second Samuel chapters 11 & 12. Do not get the “David and Bathsheba” movie from Netflix. Nothing against Netflix, but the film, with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, is really pretty awful!) David has an affair (“affair” may not really be quite the right word for this) with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his generals. Anyway, Bathsheba gets pregnant, in circumstances in which it will be obvious to her husband Uriah that he is not the father. Oops. So David covers this up by arranging for Uriah to get killed in battle.
Very nice, David. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” “Thou shalt do no murder.” For somebody who is supposed to be faithful to the Lord God of Israel, David, at the moment that’s not going too well for you, is it? Which is exactly what the prophet Nathan tells him, trapping him with the moving story of the poor peasant with the ewe lamb. “You are the man!” Well, David repents, and the Lord forgives him (though not without consequences, and actually the Lord does not come out of this whole business with clean hands either. But that’s another sermon for another time). The point is, God can forgive even heinous sin. And David’s sin is pretty heinous.
In the Epistle this morning, Paul is writing to the Christians in the new churches in Galatia (what’s now the middle of Turkey), reminding them that we are justified, that is, brought into right relationship with God, not by adherence to the works of the Law (i.e the Law of Moses, but by extension any other law) but by God’s grace accepted in trust. (This is also a major theme in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and it was the favorite theme of St. Paul for both St. Augustine and for Martin Luther; but it is not Paul’s only major theme!) The bottom line is that we do not earn God’s favor by what we do, or say, or think, or believe (which is different from faith, but that’s another sermon…). God loves us. God created us so that we might share in his love. And so God forgives. But… (Well, I’ll get to the “but” in a minute!)
In the Gospel today we hear a story about Jesus at a dinner party at a Pharisee’s house. The Pharisees apparently loved to invite Jesus to dinner, so they could grill him and give him a generally bad time about some of the things he was saying and doing. Jesus enjoyed going, because he would always beat them at their own game. Anyway, at dinner a woman who was a known sinner (“sinner” can mean all sorts of ways of being not-observant of the Law of Moses, but in this case, yes, that may well be what kind of a sinner she was, or at least had been) – this woman comes in and washes Jesus’ feet with oil and her tears. Well, the Pharisee gets all in a snit that Jesus would put up with such a scandalous thing, So Jesus tells the story of the creditor with two debtors. You heard the story, and where it leads. The bottom line once again: God forgives.
(I might note, and I trust you already know this, that there is no basis whatsoever in the Gospel text for identifying this repentant apparently “fallen” woman with Mary Magdalene, who is named in the next, but unrelated, account that is also part of the Gospel reading this morning.)
I suspect that most of us know people who are afraid of God. Maybe sometimes those people are us!
(An aside, to clarify: The Scriptures, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, often speak of “the fear of the Lord,” as in, for instance, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The Hebrew word here that we translate “fear” has the sense of “reverence,” not “being afraid” or “terrified,” for which Hebrew has different words. In the Gospels the typical context of the Greek word for “fear” is “Do not be afraid!” The kind of “fear” I’m talking here about is being scared of God.)
Yeah, and maybe for some folks that’s appropriate, although often enough those who have good reason to be scared of God typically aren’t – they haven’t a clue! But there is a very long tradition in popular spirituality – Christian and sometimes sort of semi-Christian – that “God is out to get us.” We are afraid that when we come to judgment, or even still in this life, God is looking up our records and finding all kinds of stuff to hold against us. We spend our lives looking over our shoulders heavenward – a spirituality of fear and guilt, often very unspecific guilt. (Does this sound at all familiar?)
And even the mainstream Christian tradition is responsible for a lot of this. Dante and other poets and Michelangelo and other artists of the Renaissance got a lot of mileage out of sinners being thrown into hell. The other day I re-read the famous sermon by the eighteenth-century New England Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” A terrifying piece of work! Yes, Edwards quotes a lot of Bible verses (and of course as Shakespeare’s Antonio reminds us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” [The Merchant of Venice I.iii.99]), but after page after page of threatening people about how God is dangling them over the fires of hell, Edwards gets around in one final paragraph to urge them to flee the wrath to come by conversion to Jesus Christ. But is the Kingdom of God well served by frightening people into repentance? I don’t think so.
God loves us, and God created us to share in the divine Love. God did not create us for condemnation. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:17].
A couple of minutes ago I said “God forgives…but.” Here’s the “but.” God’s love for us is unconditional. But part of that love is that God created us free. (God created the whole universe free, but that’s another sermon, or lecture, or book, for another time!) God created us free. We are not God’s puppets. You can’t love a puppet. God will not compel us to accept the divine love or to share in the divine life. If we choose to live all on our own rather than to share in God’s love, God will let us do that. But with this warning: It will not turn out well! So we must not think that we can do anything we want, and God will just overlook it. The problem with defying the will of God is not that it makes God angry (though I’m sure it makes God sad), but that it is ultimately destructive of ourselves, and of others, and of God’s world.
God loves us. Do not be afraid. Trust in God. When we mess up – and we do mess up – even when we mess up really badly, like David – if we turn back to God, God will forgive us. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” [Ezekiel 18:23]