Highway 212 is transitioning, in some sections, from two lanes to four lanes. Since I drive this road at least five days a week, I am learning how to make good use of long “stops” as road construction crews do their magic and create the new highway.
One of the ways I spend my time waiting is to simply observe the scenery. Harvest has begun. There are hay bales everywhere, and combines and the like. The fields the farmers sowed are well organized—all one plant—corn, hay, sunflowers. However, the fields left to their own device are a mess. They are weeds.
I am reminded of a story in the Old Testament, the Book of II Samuel—the story of the time King David left the presence of God…and made a mess:
It’s summer, and David decides not to go into war with his army. After a nap, he moves out onto the roof of the palace. From his rooftop he can see a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop of her home. He inquires about her, and learns that she is married to one of his soldiers--Uriah.
He sends for her—and she conceives a child. She sends a note to David about the conception. David moves her husband to the front line of battle, has the other members of the line draw back—to insure this man’s death. Here’s the rest of the story recorded in II Samuel 11:26-12:13:
When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord…
Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him, and said to him: “There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity against you from 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 sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.’”
So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.
Psalm 51 is attributed to David. The words in the NRSV that introduce the psalm say, “To the Leader: A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had been intimate with Bathsheba.”
What does David want you and I to know about sin (preferring one’s own will to God’s) and life with God?
I hear at least three insights:
First, God is approachable because God is merciful.
Second, sin is a part of the human condition. We are born “messy.” I wonder why?
Third, maturity seeks spiritual truth.
I’m going to move quickly through the first two insights, and spend a little more time on the third.
First, God is approachable because God is merciful. It’s not uncommon in a home where there are two adults raising children for one of the adults to be the bad cop, meaning quick to anger, while the other parent is the good cop, the one who is slow to anger. In Psalm 103:8 the author declares that “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” In the Parable of the Prodigal Son we are introduced to God who “sees us, the wasteful ones, far off in the distance, having exhausted our hearts in petty pleasures, returning home---and beats us to the end of the driveway, arms open wide.” In other words, we can count on God being a “good cop” and a “forgiving parent.” God will work with us. We can always return to the conversation, and the conversion. Have you found that to be true? I think we all have. After all, we are still in a relationship with God—and we’ve all taken our turn as the wasteful child…more than once.
Second, sin is a part of the human condition. We are born “messy.” It’s how we grow. As 12th century anchoress and author Julian of Norwich puts it, “I once asked Christ why sin wasn’t left out of the creation. It causes so much pain.” The answer that came back to her surprised her, “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” God doesn’t shame or blame or send wrath, Julian learns. God nurtures. We forget. We try things God’s way and then we get negligent and try it our way. Hopefully, every time we try things our way we get the proper feedback so that we return to God. Every time we realize that we can, in fact, return to God our hearts are stretched in love. We remember where home is—what it feels like. Home is with God; with compassion—not with the Ego; with self indulgence. We become better people—we become God’s people.
Third, maturity seeks spiritual truth. I want to offer a definition of maturity through the spiritual lense. A mature person is a loving person. A mature person is someone who has removed themselves from being the center of the universe and returned God to that powerful position. A mature person is someone who lives from their heart—in touch with human need, like Jesus.
As the life of David teaches us, and our own lives, most people don’t live from their hearts for a great length of time without a huge struggle. We give our hearts to God and then we take them back, correct? One month its prayer and devotion to God—the next year we put our head down and plow through life on our own terms. It’s only after we mess up and hurt, and mess up and hurt that we begin to say to God, “OK, maybe I’ll try things YOUR way,” or “Take me as I am and make of me what, by myself, I cannot” AND “Help me, I am making myself and everyone around me SICK.” In alcoholics anonymous we hear, “We honestly admitted we were powerless over alcohol and sincerely wanted to do something about it. In other word we admitted we were whipped and had a genuine desire to QUIT for good.”
When we invite God into our pain one of the first things God MUST do is help us name what ails us. God will lift up the hood and look around, noticing what motivates us. Is it God, or is it something else like envy or fear or me, me, me, me?
In her book The Cloister Walk, author Kathleen Norris tells a little story about how sneaky the ego is. Norris became quite famous after she wrote the book Dakota: A Spiritual Autobiography a story about finding prayer and presence in Lemmon, South Dakota (she inherited the family farm.) Norris’ book had a lot of people waking up the fact that we are shaped by geography—some of us would say the mountains are our spiritual home, others the dessert, or the plains, or the beach. As the book rose in popularity, Norris was treated to two years worth of book promotion, which meant traveling.
Norris has a sister who is, as she writes, “borderline.” Deprived of the oxygen she needed at birth, her sister Becky struggled with loneliness “in ways you cannot imagine,” states Norris. “But she had her own intelligence and I came to respect it.” One day Becky sent famous Kathleen a note that read, “Dear Kathy, I feel hurt because you wrote a book and I didn’t. Happy for you and I try read your book but I was bored with it. Mom and Dad and everybody talking about it. I feel left out but it will pass. Hope you understand how I feel about your book. I telling you how I feel and I starting to cry while I write this letter. “
What a laugh! Her book was boring! Kathleen Norris writes, Becky was “calling me back to the things that are important in life.” And then she quoted a dessert mother, “It is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honor and at the same time bear heavenly fruit.”
Jesus observes, “We cannot serve two masters.”
Simply put, God wants to bring us back to what is really important: God---love, helpfulness, patience, kindness, simplicity, forgiveness, justice and peace, a balanced life. And God will wrestle us to the ground for spiritual truth, or spiritual integrity- having a high regard for God AND acting on that regard.
Within, of course; on the inside—because our actions flow from what we treasure. Jesus didn’t say, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.” Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart, your effort, be.” The older we get—the wiser we get—the more we want God, correct?—and the less we want all of the other stuff. Why is that? Power, status, and wealth are short-lived and empty…but we usually have to give these things one more try…until we are tired of ourselves…and hungry for God.
So many people paid a heavy price for David’s indulgence—Bathsheba’s husband, Bathsheba herself, the son she bore David. David was sick—sick for what he had done. “Create in me a new heart,” David says to God with great expectation. Not because he deserves God’s help—but because healing is what God does, and because spiritual truth (integrity) benefits EVERYONE. We might hear David’s prayer to God in psalm 51 like this, “Give me YOUR heart.”
How do you think God does that? Now this MIGHT be worth talking today around the tables. How does God create new hearts, loving hearts, in us?
Prayer: God, there is an obvious beauty in following you. We see your beauty in Christ. Can your beauty live in us? Create in us a new heart. Amen.
(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana on August 2, 2015.)