A young girl rolls in the cool fountain water some distance from where our feet dabble. She calls over to us: “What does God look like?”
Her mom smiles and whispers to me, “She likes the light and easy questions lately.”
“Mom! What does God look like?” the daughter insists.
“I don’t know, honey.”
“Do you know?” her sincere eyes turn to me.
Well… God looks a little bit like your mom. And God looks a little bit like those ballerinas practicing in the grass. And a little bit like that man playing the saxophone. And a little bit like each person walking by and driving by. God looks a little bit like me. God looks a little bit like you.
I want to say that, but I hesitate, attempting to gauge what the mother’s reaction might be, and before I can resolve to risk it, the mother answers her again: “No one knows. God can’t be seen.”
The mother and I look to the girl, the girl looks down into the rippling water, and the moment is gone — but for the whisper in my head: Everyone who has eyes to see knows just what God looks like.
Before he was King of Israel, David was a shepherd boy. He was the youngest of eight sons; when he wasn’t doing the very unroyal work of tending sheep, I imagine he was picked on by his older brothers. And then, one day, an old man shows up and names him King. He was just an ordinary guy, more or less content with his position in life — then suddenly holds the responsibility of a Kingdom. David rises to the challenge in relationship, in military strength, in religious commitment — he is not only a good leader, he’s a good person, described as “a man after God’s own heart.”
Until one afternoon when David saw her bathing on the roof and her beauty overthrew him. Now, David knew how to keep his head about him. When confronted with the well-shielded, well-armed giant Goliath, he remained cool enough to lethally aim a pebble. We wouldn’t expect this man to commit a sin of fiery passion — yet he does.
Afterwards, in his guilt, he tries to cover his sin by sending Bathsheba’s husband to the front line of battle. All his life, David had worked consistently to bring about the Kingdom of God — conquering Jerusalem, naming it his capital, vowing to build a temple there. He’s the last person we would expect to order the slaying of one of his own men, the last person we would expect to commit a sin of cold calculation — yet he does.
We have, in our cultural collective, a certain types. We say things like “He’s the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back” or “She’s the type of person who would sell her own mother to make a buck.” We have similar types of people for the kind of person who commits adultery, or the kind of person who commits murder. David, we might say, doesn’t fit the type — yet he sins.
Which is why I sometimes hear this description of David: “He was one of Israel’s greatest Kings, except for that Bathsheba business.” But I take some comfort in “that Bathsheba business,” find solace in the fact that David fell into such terrible and — let’s just say it — such obvious sin.
I take comfort because David seems, on the surface, to be the exemplary person who has his life together. Scripture tells us that he’s handsome. He’s an intelligent strategist. A strong warrior. He’s King of the Chosen People of God. He has absolutely everything by which we would mark success — the title, the house, the body, the wealth, the respect. The strong prayer life, commitment to God. And yet his sins here reveal that he doesn’t have it all together — they show that he’s as human as I am.
David is a person committed to God. David exploits his power in order to fulfill desire; David exploits his power in order to conspire a murder. In all of this, David shares our humanity.
The King and I seem to have little in common. We’re certainly separated by three thousand years of time and half a globe of distance. We’re separated by culture, social status, power, authority, privilege, and gender. And yet, to fail to read David’s humanity as intimately linked to mine denies the ways in which, on my best days, I am just like him — beautifully and brokenly human. Caught up in sins of passion, conspiring in sins of calculation. Exploiting the power and privilege I do hold.
For although I am not royalty, but I do have power and agency in my own small domains, as we all do in our jobs, our friendships, and our family systems. I have the power to treat others with dignity and respect. Power to exploit or manipulate others for my own ends. Power to ignore others as though they don’t carry the image of God.
* * *
It’s an oft-spoken saying that preachers should have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and it was in reading the news these last few weeks that I began to see the gift offered us in David’s psalm. For what makes David a great leader isn’t the military strategy or the political savvy, it’s this moment, this psalm. What makes David a great person is the ability to see his actions as wrong, to admit to that wrongdoing, that sin, and to move toward reconciliation. What makes David a great leader is that he confesses his sin as publicly as the sin was made, that he sees his personal actions as intricately tied to the national systems.
I mentioned that I only began to recognize this modeling as a gift when I put my bible in one hand and my newspaper in the other. As I read about the act of terrorism at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston; as I read about the following acts of terrorism in burning black churches throughout the US South; as I read the countless tweets, facebook updates, blog posts, and journal pieces of African American people begging our nation to collectively realize we have a race problem — David’s psalm became such a gift.
In the same way David doesn’t seem to fit the type, we don’t seem to fit the type either for this sin of racism. Most people don’t identify as racist — even White Pride groups say they aren’t racist, they just love their heritage. And if even they don’t admit racism — what are the chances that the average American will? What are the chances that a people concerned with matters of social justice will recognize their own racist tendencies?
And when I look at the people gathered here — well, I doubt any of you are donning white sheets and setting fire to the lawns and churches of your black neighbors. There are no confederate flags among us, on our cars or our clothing. We just don’t fit the type of person who is racist.
So David’s story gives me pause. David doesn’t fit the type of person who would be an adulterer or a murderer. Before Nathan came to him, I don’t believe David thought of himself as an adulterer and murderer. But when confronted, he responds: “Have mercy on me, O God…blot out on my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, my sin is ever before me.”
This confession is part of our holy scripture; it was public in the kingdom in which David reigned. Because he held public office, as it were, his sins were publicly known — people talk. And in his psalm, he models for us what repentance looks like by showing the way in which true confession is AS public as the sin. For him, the people likely all knew or had heard whisperings; his confession had to be public.
For us it is likely smaller. I recently read a piece about race in Seattle. The reporter, in researching, wrote that she had approached a young African American man and told him, “I’d love to interview you; you’re so eloquent,” and then immediately hears herself sound, in her words, “like one of those people who said candidate Obama was so well-behaved, well-groomed, polite — for a black man.”
She could have just gone on with the interview. She could have caught herself in her head, confessed to God (privately), and said nothing to the man. He would have answered her interview questions, probably eloquently; she would have gotten her quotes for the story; no real harm done. Just her lingering feeling of self-consciousness after using a word with a history and his lingering feeling of needing to perform for white people to notice to him.
Instead, the reporter quickly confesses to the man: “I can’t believe I just called you eloquent.” He gives her a knowing look, and then begins to laugh, a bubbling outpour of grace, and she is freed to join in his laughter — the reconciliation complete in laughter’s grace. And they carry on with an interview that, I imagine, was somehow more comfortable and authentic than it would have been had she refused to confess her sin as publicly as it had been made.
So, a confession of my own: I have, this week even, chosen a different route to walk because I saw a black man ahead of me; I am a racist.
Another confession: I am a white person talking about race, and I am very uncomfortable. This discomfort and unwillingness to talk about race is part of what makes me racist. And part of what makes me privileged; white people get to choose whether or not we discuss race.
Another confession: I’m only able to speak in this room, at this time, because education systems have privileged me — at least in part — because of my race.
I confess these sins; the reporter confesses her sin; David confesses his sin because the recognition of sin as sin and the appropriate confession of it are not only the first steps toward reconciliation, they are the direct cause of reconciliation.
I’m encouraged to confess my sins and to name my iniquities, because David does the same for sins that are, if we were to use a measuring stick (which we aren’t supposed to do, but if we were to), David’s sins would be “worse.” Adultery. Murder. And yet David is restored to God; it seems that nothing is beyond God’s capacity and willingness to forgive, even when justice cannot be served. David is restored to the community and reconciled to God even though Bathsheba’s marriage and Uriah’s life cannot be restored. God’s forgiveness of David is so complete that God blesses the union of David and Bathsheba in the form of their son Solomon — the wisest of all Israel’s kings. In a sense, we could say that wisdom is the result of confession.
That David is reconciled even though justice cannot be done — this lends me tremendous hope for the possibility of racial reconciliation. It will not be easy. It will require recognizing personal acts as sinful. It will require looking at national systems as sinful. It will require true confession and repentance. It will require a breaking open and cutting away of the callouses around our hearts, will require, as David says, brokenheartedness. David says “A broken heart, O God, you will not despise.” Today we might say, “A soft heart, O God, you will not despise.” It was modeled for us in Christ, who emptied himself, who refused to exploit his power so that he could be with us in our humanity and our suffering.
When it comes to racism in America, justice cannot be served this side of the coming of God’s Kingdom. We cannot undo slavery. We cannot reclaim the four million or more lives that were lost in crossing the Atlantic in cargo holds. We cannot bring back Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, or Eric Garner. We cannot bring back the nine victims of Mother Emanuel Church– Sharonda, Clementa, Cynthia, Tywanza, Myra, Ethel, Daniel, Depayne, Susie.
Have mercy on us, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out our transgressions.
Wash us thoroughly from our iniquities,
and cleanse us from our sin.
For we are learning to know our transgressions,
and our sin is ever before us.
Indeed, we were born guilty,
sinners when our mothers conceived us.
Let us hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that have been crushed rejoice.
Create in us clean hearts, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within us.
Sustain in us a willing spirit.
Then we will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver us from bloodshed, O God,
O God of our salvation,
and our tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
You have no delight in sacrifice;
if we were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Normally I would record my sermon before posting it, but it is the end of the term and I still have twenty pages to write. So, here is my sermon from Advent 1, preached at St Paul’s Seattle, on the texts of Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37.
We were lying in the middle of the road, soaking wet, unwilling to blink.
It had been a long day of hiking and was sometime after midnight, and my two companions and I had just been for a night swim in the Puget Sound. Once we had the courage to jump in the water, we had been surprised that each splash resulted in outbursts of tiny blue lights — bioluminescent creatures filled the Sound. I had never seen it before — each motion through the water resulted in unanticipated beauty. It was like swimming in fairy dust. It was like swimming in stars. If I had formed a prayer that night it would have echoed Isaiah, who says to the Lord, “you did awesome deeds that we did not expect.”
Afterward, the three of us walk back to camp, still full of joy and laughter. One companion remarks that on a night full of such unexpected, unearned goodness, he bets we could see a shooting star.
So, with the fresh memory of the goodness of our swim, we stopped and lied down right where we were, right in the middle of the road, and we watched the sky. And we waited. Eyes straining intently into the night, fighting against exhaustion. And we watched. And we waited.
Isaiah, again, says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait.”
And we watched. And we waited.
Isaiah speaks of a God who does awesome, unexpected deeds for those who wait.
Jesus, too, speaks of waiting in our gospel text this morning. “Be on guard!” he warns. “Watch! Stay awake!”
Jesus’s tone seems perhaps anxious, and maybe rightly so, if the predictions of end times are as we have been told. His description of the End of the Age is filled with signs that are conventionally used throughout the teachings of the prophets of Israel: war, earthquake, famine, betrayal, death. These are images typically associated with God’s judgment. The end of the age is coming, and it a dark portrait of judgment to come.
I can understand how some believe that we are in the end times. Famine is present — in this country alone, one in six families suffers from food insecurity. Drought, too — globally, 1 in 9 individuals do not have access to clean water. War, it seems, is always either present or near. Many of us have perhaps intimately known betrayal, whether from an individual we trusted, or betrayal of systems that are meant to uphold justice and instead move in ways that perpetuate injustice.
Perhaps you feel as I do: compelled toward despair. In the face of problems so large, what can possibly be done? I imagine Jesus’s audience– They lived under an imperial system geared for maximum exploitation. Their leaders were corrupt. The people were possessed by fear. Perhaps this sounds not so very far away. In the face of such problems, what can possibly be done?
Jesus’s encouragement to “stay awake” and “watch” do not seem to match with the despair I associate with end times. On the one hand, watchful wakefulness isn’t active enough, doesn’t do enough, doesn’t accomplish anything. At the same time, asking me to stay awake and watch– what purpose can this possibly achieve?
As I sit with Jesus’ words, I realize that his images of God’s judgment are not the whole story, for Jesus pairs them with images of hope. He speaks of birth, of ingathering, of mercy in the midst of suffering, of a new season. Jesus says: where the world sees death, there is the possibility of new life. Where the world sees despair, there is also hope.
When we despair, it is, perhaps, tempting to give in to exhaustion, to give up hope for seeing new life, for seeing peace and justice — or even just for seeing a shooting star alight the night sky. It might be tempting to close our eyes to the wicked problems of the world and slumber in relative peace.
Remembering that night my companions and I were lying in the road, covered in saltwater– I was exhausted then, too. I thought: I don’t really need to see a shooting star. And yet…the goodness that had just happened was so entirely unexpected and so full of new life that I was certain, absurdly certain, that goodness would come again if I could stay awake. Because of course I would miss the shooting star if I fell asleep — even if my companions awoke me immediately, I’d have missed it. So I stayed awake. And watched, and waited.
So I hope you see that watching and waiting doesn’t necessarily mean being passive. Staying awake is quite an active process, fueled, I believe, by longing. By desire. By anticipation. Longing for the goodness that is to come even as we remember the goodness that has past. Or perhaps the goodness that has already happened enables us to stay awake, perhaps past memories of goodness fuel our ability to watch, to wait, to stay awake. Goodness has surprised us before, the Lord has done awesome deeds that we did not expect. And so we stay awake. And we watch. And we wait.
The cries of protesters in our city and around our nation have demonstrated that lament is the natural outpouring of longing. Despair recognizes the world as it is and turns cynical, but hope recognizes the world as it could be and turns to lament. Lament is longing, while holding on to hope that the desire will be satisfied. Lament is the outcry of those who have eyes to see the world as it could be. Lament names the ways in which we have not yet arrived and helps us get on our way. Lament calls us toward new life. This is not a passive hope, this is standing in what looks like death and searching for new life. This is not a passive stare, but eyes searching for light that seems like it might not ever come, and yet — and yet — we are certain new life will come. Christ promises it will be so, and God has surprised us before, not least of all, God has surprised us by tearing open the heavens and coming down. God has surprised us further by tearing open the heavens through the womb of a powerless, unwed woman.
We think quite a bit about that unwed woman during Advent, this woman who was praised for her faith and sang (what we know as) the Magnificat in response. The Magnificat has often been explained to me as a prayer of glory to God, a sort of praise song. But it is also a prayer both longing for and invoking a God who can bring justice and peace. It is the outpouring of hope into a lament. This Advent, I hear the protesters sing with Mary:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.
As we enter into this season of Advent, this season of longing for God to be more fully with us, longing for God to be birthed into new life, my prayer is that we be stay awake, that we watch. That the memory of goodness lends us a certainty that enables us to hear and join in hopeful, longing lament.
And so we watch. And we wait. We wait with active hope, hope foolish enough to lament to the God of the Universe; hope foolish enough to confront systems of injustice; hope foolish enough to cause God to become human. We watch, and we wait, our eyes staring intently into the darkness, straining toward the light, seeking a star to appear over Bethlehem, unwilling to blink. And we watch. And we wait.