Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, 5 August, 2012
Readings for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Lectionary Year B: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a, Psalm 51:1-13, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
Last Sunday our guest preacher, Padre Kevin White, spoke to us about the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The thing that really hit home for me about Padre Kevin's sermon was the fact that when the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, he is basically saying "Father, I wish you were dead". For me, that turned it from being a story that is simply about a young person's folly to being a story about how the worst things imaginable can come out of our hearts and mouths. As Padre White told us, the forgiveness of the father (and I agree with Kevin that the parable is really about the father) is all the more remarkable, more grace-full if you wish, when we think about what the son really says to him at the beginning.
Last week, we also heard in our first lesson the story of King David seeing and lusting for Bathsheeba in 2 Samuel, raping her (not to put too fine a point on it) and getting her pregnant, and then arranging for her husband to be killed in battle so that he can have her. Today in our first lesson we hear the aftermath of that story, when the prophet Nathan speaks for God and confronts David with what he's done. Just as in last week's story of the Prodigal, when the younger son "came to himself" and realizes what he has done ("Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you" (Lk 15:18), so Nathan's parable of the rich man robbing the poor man brings King David to a difficult moment of self truth, and likewise he says "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam 12:13)
So both stories are about people realizing what they have done, coming to a moment of admission and confession, and then turning back to God. The difference is that whereas the younger son in Luke 15 gets off scot free (to the annoyance of the older son), David in 2 Samuel is punished. Nathan tells the King that "the sword shall never depart from your house" (2 Sam 12:10), meaning that his reign will not be a happy one, for his family and his kingdom will be troubled by strife and war. Indeed we see what Nathan means about the sword in next week's lesson, when David has to go to war against his own son Absalom, who rebels against him.
I am not sure I have an explanation for this difference between the two stories, except to say that today's reading from 2 Samuel points to the reality of sin. When humans engage in acts of selfishness and cruelty, those acts always affect others. Sinful behaviour has consequences, and those consequences include innocent victims, or, if you like, collateral damage. The parable in Nathan's sermon, about the rich man stealing from the poor man, is really about David stealing from Uriah. The consequences of that moment of lust on David's rooftop include the death of Uriah (and presumably of the soldiers he was forced to lead into the worst of the fighting), the misery and disgrace of Bathsheeba, the death of the child she has with David, and a future of war within David's own family. Those are the consequences of sin, a willful tearing of the fabric of family and community, that we see played out all the time, as the news from the streets of Aleppo reminds us today. When human beings behave badly, innocents get hurt and killed.
Nevertheless, Nathan has words of mercy for David. "Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die" (2 Sam 2:13). As I read it, "shall not die" has a spiritual meaning as well as a physical one. David's soul has been judged and found guilty ("You are the man!") but he will be forgiven. God will not abandon him. God's love and goodness can work with a flawed son such as David, just as the Father in Luke 15 does not abandon the younger son. Today's reading from Psalm 51 reinforces this lesson, reminding us that no matter how we bad we can be, and how disgusted we are when we realize what havoc our sins have caused with those around us, we can turn to God and be forgiven, and be changed by God's love and God's fresh start.
In the eucharistic liturgy of the Anglican tradition, our moment of confession is a formal, collective prayer, in which we are called to think on those offences we have made to God and to our neighbour. There is also provision for one on one confession with a priest if the person needs us, but usually we confess our sins together. If there is a temptation to rush through the moment, we should resist that moment, and think, like David, of the consequences of whatever we have done or failed to do. It's a moment to think of the cost of our sins on ourselves and on others, and to think of what it costs God, the uncorrupt and righteous judge, to set those sins aside and forgive us.
In John's gospel, Jesus says that he is the bread of life. In our eucharist, the feast of bread and wine (however symbolic that feast may be) follows our act of confession, just as in the story of the prodigal son the feast follows the son's return and confession to the father. The eucharist can be thought of as a reenactment of the story of the prodigal in Luke 15, as the as lost realize they are lost, return to the father, and are fed through the sheer generosity of the father. The story of Christ's self-offering to be that feast of bread and wine, as told in the eucharistic prayer, reminds us of the cost of the feast and of the forgiveness that awaits us. This is grace, and it does not come cheap, but it comes from a Father who does not begrudge the cost.
David's story, unfortunately, is set. David is forgiven by the same loving and merciful God, but he has to face the consequences of his action. We too may have to a price to pay for our actions, and ammends to make. That's part of our work as Christians. But God wouldn't set this feast before us if he didn't love us, and if he didn't see in us the potential to be what he had created. The bread of life forgives us, strengthens us, and carries us forward. Unlike David, our stories our not set. They start afresh, and thanks be to God, they can end happily. Amen.