Pentecost 4C, Proper 5: 2Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Psalm 32; Gal 2:15-21; Lk 7:36-8:3
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, June 12, 2016
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Then he said to her, ˜Your sins are forgiven.’
When my dog Banshee was just a puppy, I taught her to come to me using a special whistle. I would let her wander a little bit further each time, whistle for her and give her a tasty treat. She got really good at coming to get her treat. Over time, I gave her the treat less and less, yet she still returned every time I whistled for her. I taught her this, in part, because when we are at the beach there are no fences between our yard and the neighbor’s yard. Banshee and the other dogs get to wander freely, but I needed to make sure she would come back to me.
Banshee loves the beach. She loves to chase the little black crabs under the pier, she likes to swim and fetch the stick, she sits on the end of the pier and barks at passing motorboats or the osprey flying overhead. But her most favorite thing at the beach is finding and rolling in dead fish.
Being a hound dog, she has quite the nose for sniffing out dead fish and I can usually tell when she has caught the whiff of one”she takes on a certain dead-fish-on-the-prowl look and I immediately start whistling for her to come back. Often, she’ll stop dead in her tracks as soon as I whistle and cast a look over her shoulder at me that says, What? I’m not up to anything. Sometimes, she’ll come running back to me and I lavish her with praise, What a good dog! But other times, after looking back, she’ll put that nose down and start sniffing again, tracking the smell of the dead fish. I whistle a second time and, she may put her head up and give me a scornful look communicating that I’ve no idea what I’m interrupting; other times she’ll just keep going”the temptation is too great. Dead fish are, after all, the greatest treasure that can be found at the beach.
When that temptation proves too great, Banshee will race to the dead fish and proceed to roll in it so that she reeks of a disgusting smell that can be compared to nothing else on this earth. I’ll continue to call her, and sometimes even have to go and get her, but whether she comes after being called or I go to get her, I always pet her and lavish her with praise. You see, if I were to punish her or fuss at her, I know the next time I called and she had to decide between the dead fish and me, she’d just go for the dead fish. But by always praising her for coming back to me, even if she has rolled in the stench beyond a thousand stenches, I know I’ve at least got a chance that she’ll choose me the next time.
But that is not to say that her actions don’t come without consequences. Though I don’t punish her for rolling in dead fish, she does have to take a bath before I’ll let her in the house again. And for Banshee, a bath is a punishment. As much as Banshee loves to swim in the bay, she feels the exact opposite about taking a bath”she associates water from the faucet and being lathered up with soap akin to having acid poured on you and then your skin flayed. Its not my desire to punish her that leads to her momentary despair of bath time, but her free will. Her actions come with consequences, not as punishment, though in a way, they do serve to purify her.
David finds his actions come with consequences as well. In the Old Testament reading this morning, the wife of Uriah is Bathsheba and if you remember in the David and Bathsheba story, David ensures Uriah’s destruction so that he can have Bathsheba for himself. Nathan, the prophet, has been sent by God to tell David he has displeased the Lord. Nathan tells a story of a poor man’s sheep that so incenses David he pronounces a judgment of death upon the guilty one to which Nathan declares that David is the guilty one. David readily accepts the guilt. He declares the he has sinned against the Lord. He does not try to deny it or excuse his behavior, but his sin comes with consequences”his child will die.
What we don’t read is how David fasted and wept and sat in ashes during his son’s illness hoping to regain the Lord’s favor so that his child will live. And though the Scripture never implicitly states that God took the child’s life, that does seem implied. The child dies and David and Nathan, at least, believe it to be because of David’s sin. Maybe. Maybe that is exactly what happened”the sins of the father are punished through the life of the son. Or maybe, because people of the Old Testament didn’t have access to scientific reasoning, it just made sense to make God responsible for everything that didn’t make sense.
It’s a bit of a stretch for me to take this story on face value and try to reconcile myself with a God who calls for the life of a child to pay for the sins of the father. And when I juxtapose this story against the Abraham and Isaac story, I am reminded that God has abolished child sacrifice”so the death of this child as punishment or atonement just doesn’t seem to fit. Maybe human sacrifice was once the way we were oriented toward God, but it has never been God’s orientation toward us. Abraham and Isaac teach us that. Even in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he reminds us that Jesus’s death is not sacrifice but grace. If it were not, then Christ died for nothing.
Even if God didn’t take the life of David’s son as punishment, David and Nathan interpret it that way. In part, I think there is something to acts of penance. But that penance says more about us than it does about God. When we have done something we feel shame or guilt over, it often takes some outward word or action for us to heal inwardly. This is, in part, the premise behind Alcoholics Anonymous. It is why the Church offers confession. Penance can often be the path to purgation and thus to wholeness. But it is not the only path. Please hear me, our sins are forgiven through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We are to be reminded of that each week as we celebrate and participate in the Eucharist together. And yet, for some the nature of their sin requires something more”not for God, but for their own healing.
Bryon Widner is one of those people. Growing up an orphan, he was easily led astray by a Nazi, skinhead gang. He funneled his anger at his own circumstances into a hatred for the world. But somewhere along the path, Bryon’s heart was changed. As a skinhead, he was covered in tattoos to and including his face, neck, and hands. When Bryon renounced his Nazi, skinhead ways he changed on the inside and that made him realize he had to make a change on the outside. Over two and a half years, Bryon would undergo 25 surgeries at Vanderbilt to remove his tatoos. The process was painful and humiliating. After the first procedure, the doctor realized that it had been so painful he undertook subsequent procedures only when Bryon was under general anesthesia. He warned Bryon that he would look like a prize fighter that had lost the match and feel like he had the worst sunburn possible. But Bryon was adamant and continued the process until all signs of tattoo were gone from his face, neck, and hands.
Bryon still has minimal scarring, he can’t expose his skin to sun, and he suffers from migraines. When asked if this experience had been like paying dues, Bryon says he looked at it as a penance. I took the pain as a reminder that I had caused enough so I might as well have some. In his mind and heart, this was penance for the pain he had caused through the years. Bryon says that he had lived with no remorse, a borderline socio-path and yet, he had found God in his tattoo removal. He had had a hole in his soul but God made his presence known to him.
Bryon’s transformation was sparked by his marriage and the birth of his son. In some ways, Bryon and David have that in common. David’s marriage and the birth of his son may not spark his transformation, but the loss of that child certainly seems a turning point for David. The rest of his life will be dedicated to walking with God for God’s purposes not David’s.
We hear that in David’s words of Psalm 32. Before David’s meeting with Nathan and his confession to sinning against the Lord, David described his guilt over Uriah’s death as a diminishment of his own life, While I held my tongue my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. He felt the heaviness of the Lord upon him but then he acknowledged his sin to God and no longer concealed his guilt. He confesses his transgressions to the Lord and he is forgiven. From then on, God will be his instructor and his guide. David will not be stubborn or try to resist the will of the Lord. He has learned that resisting God, living into his sinful nature limits his freedom, it is like being fitted with bit and bridle as if you are a horse or mule”not operating under your own free will but losing that freedom and being forced down a path you did not want.
Instead, following the Lord results in gladness and righteousness, joyous worship. Psalm 32 reflects the transformation David has experienced. That transformation was predicated on God’s forgiveness, but the penance that David attributes to God”rightly or wrongly”is the loss of his child. Loss of a child becomes a motivation for David’s confession and forgiveness just as the birth of a child seems to be the motivation for Bryon’s.
Our sins have consequences”just ask Banshee at bath time”and sometimes we need to do penance to purify ourselves”just ask Bryon the reformed Nazi skinhead. Those consequences or penance are not because God requires it of us but because we require it of ourselves. Our actions matter just as much as our faith. And in this world and the one to come, we not only get to live with God, we also have to live with ourselves.