Thursday, August 6, 2015

Let's Talk About Sin

[The message I gave in programmed worship on August 2, 2015 at First Friends Meeting.  An audio recording of the message is available on the First Friends website.]
2 Samuel 12:1-13 (NRSV)

And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”  Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man.  He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.  Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.  Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun.  For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”  David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
This morning we are talking about a challenging topic: sin.  A lot of the time, Quakers do not like to talk about sin.  We prefer to start with the Light within: there is that of God in each of us, and if we listen for that voice of God, we will hear.  But sometimes that Light within is what shows us the ways that we have strayed, the ways that we have missed the mark.  And there are a lot of people missing the mark in this passage.

I also think it’s important to talk about sin because, as one of my professors in seminary said, if we don’t have a theology of sin, then we tend to locate sin outside of ourselves.  We see it in other people or other kinds of people rather than in ourselves.

A lot of people know the story that came before this one, the story of Bathsheba, but let’s talk about that first so we have some context.  It’s a hard story.  David had become king of Israel.  He was the ruler with all the power, and he had wives, property, and a house.  One day as he looked out, he saw this woman Bathsheba as she was bathing for a purification ritual, and he wanted her.  So he sent out his men to her and brought her to him.  He knew she was married to Uriah, but he did this anyway, and he slept with her.  Then when Bathsheba told David that she was pregnant, he first tried to get her husband to come back to make it seem like the baby was his.  But when Uriah refused, David then arranged to have him killed in the front line of battle.

So we go from that story to the story of Nathan confronting David.  This is the second time that we have seen Nathan confront David: we saw that a few weeks ago when David wanted to build a house for God and Nathan said no, David would not be the one to build a house for God.  And so Nathan comes again to David and he tells him this story and gets David to be sympathetic.  Then he tells David, “You’re the one who did this.”

Often when I hear sermons on this passage, they focus on that first part: on the story and on David, and how Nathan kind of tricked David, and they ask us to sympathize with David.  But what struck me when I read this passage again is that even though this is a story about Bathsheba, the passage never says her name.  The passage says she is the wife of Uriah.  It is not only Bathsheba who is treated as property in this passage, but all of the wives are treated as property.  As punishment for David’s sin, Nathan says that his other wives will be taken before his eyes and given to another and another person shall lie with his wives.

David wrote a Psalm after this story.  Psalm 51:3-5 says,

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.
In this Psalm, David is saying that he sinned against God alone, but I disagree!  David sinned against Bathsheba and he sinned against Uriah.

I have struggled with the idea of sin.  I came from a denomination that was much more focused on sin than Friends sometimes are, and there was a lot about making everyone feel bad and guilty.  I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful.  But I read a book recently that really helped me rethink sin.  The book is by Serene Jones and it is called Feminist Theory and Christian Theology.  I am going to draw on some of Jones’ ideas on oppression and sin to approach this passage.

Bathsheba lived in a patriarchal system.  She lived in a system that did not recognize her full humanity.  In her book, Jones reminds us that there is a tension between individual and personal sin and collective and institutional sin.  We see David’s individual sins here: murder and rape.  Those are sins that are easy to identify.  But there is also a sin here: both David and Nathan are within this patriarchal system.  Denying Bathsheba’s humanity is a sin and it is contrary to how God wants the world to be.  Jones says that we believe, as Christians, “that the brokenness we experience is not right, that there must be another way for us to live, a way that enables the flourishing of women and of all people.” (93)

So David confesses his sin to God and he is forgiven, but Bathsheba is still hurt.  Bathsheba is powerless, she is marginalized, and she is subject to sexual violence.  These are faces of oppression that we still see in lives of women today.

The Psalm also says, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”  That, to me, sounds like original sin, which is another thing that I have really struggled with.  And I think especially for many women, sin talk has meant people telling them that they should be ashamed of their bodies and ashamed of their sexuality.

That is a way that this passage is often interpreted.  I read a commentary yesterday saying that Bathsheba was a righteous woman: there is no indication that she was unfaithful to her husband.  That was healing for me to read, but it still kind of said that it was her fault.  The commentary said that she was doing this ritual washing at the wrong time, and that was why David raped her.

I can’t believe that.  I can’t believe that it was her fault.

This book by Jones has been helpful for me because it takes some of the traditional male approaches to theology and she re-maps them from the perspective of women.  A powerful example for me was contrasting how the theologian Calvin saw sin (this is a kind of traditional version of sin) with a woman’s experience.  Calvin described sin as looking into a mirror and seeing oneself, and the sin that one sees is pride.  This is a version of sin that really comes from the perspective of a man with a lot of social power and a loud voice.  But for many women, the sin is not pride.  Women are much more likely to have an incomplete sense of self, and the sin is not being able to see one’s full self.  So Jones suggests instead an image of a mirror that is fragmented.  That we are looking into a mirror and not seeing our complete selves.  That we are looking into a mirror and not seeing the world as it should be, not the way God intends it to be in its wholeness.

Jones also re-maps the idea of original sin in a way that is helpful for me.  She says that we recognize that we are all born into systems of oppression.  I named some of those earlier in oppression of women: women are oppressed by being powerless, by being marginalized, and being the subject of sexual violence.  We are all born into a world where that happens.  It’s not something that we can avoid.  But we have the opportunity to resist these systems of oppression as they come up in our lives.  As people make small comments or we see something that we know is just not right, we can speak up against these systems of oppression.  Or we can perpetuate them.  We are in them, regardless.

The last time we talked about David and Nathan, I asked who we identify with in these passages.  And I ask that again: who do we identify with when we hear this story?  Do we identify with David, the ruler who has lots of power and is recognizing his own individual sin?  Do we identify with Nathan, a prophet who is confronting David and is doing the right thing, but is still complicit in this system of oppression of women?  Do we identify with Bathsheba, the person who has been sinned against but is not named?

When have people sinned against us and then made it all about them?  When have we had to confront people in authority about the ways they have perpetuated systems of oppression?  How do we do this within the relationships that we already have?  

Last week in Deborah’s message, we heard the passage in Ephesians 4:1 that begins, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called . . .”  How do we walk worthy of our calling?  How do we name uncomfortable truths?  How do we recognize these systems of oppression that we are in?  It’s not just oppression of women, but oppression of people of color, and people with disabilities, and people with diverse sexual orientations.  We may be called to speak out against any one of these, or we may be called to speak out where they intersect.  How do we listen to what our calling is?

As we enter into a time of open worship, I invite everyone to listen for the voice of God.  Listen to how God is calling us in these hard places.

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