The Psalm that we heard read today is one that is familiar to our ears, has been set to song and poem and used in liturgy since it was written. It was likely written by scribes during or after Israel’s exile into Babylon, but nonetheless it is one of the few Psalms that has attached a note tying it to a specific Biblical event – the coming of Nathan to David after the king had taken Bathsheba after murdering her husband Uriah. Some editor or scribe saw in these words a connection to Nathan’s words of condemnation to David, and the Pslam’s pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
This Psalm has been used extensively in litanies of confession, yet it is impossible to divorce it from the specific. What we hear in the Bible is the story from 2 Samuel.
Bathsheba was bathing – purifying herself after her period, and David saw into her window from his rooftop. He though, that is one hot lady. So because he could, he sent some servants for her, he forced her to have sex with him, and sent her away. When he learned that she was pregnant, he tried to convince Uriah, her husband to go and spend the night with his wife so that it wouldn’t be obvious that she had been with someone else. Uriah, an officer in the army, decided not to abandon his soldiers, even after David had gotten him drunk and again told him to go home to his wife. So David sent Uriah to the front, carrying the sealed order in his own hand that he should be sent to a place in the battle in which he would be sure to be killed. David thought none of this unseemly or wrong until the Lord spoke to him through the prophet Nathan, who told him a story about two men and their lambs…(2 Sam. 12:1-7a)
Indeed, Bathsheba, like a lamb to the slaughter was led to David to be used and discarded, her husband murdered, the child she conceived, we find out later, taken from her as David’s punishment from God for his sins. So when Nathan says, (2 Sam. 12:7-9) the psalmist hears Psalm 51 as David’s song of repentance and confession…the confessions of a rapist and murderer. For he 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…”
Hearing this psalm with the ears of Bathsheba, and of Uriah, I have been incensed. When I hear “against you, you alone have I sinned” I have felt as if insult has been heaped upon injury. Where, I wonder, every time I read this Psalm is Bathsheba’s voice?
Yet I can’t discount the power and the pleading of the Psalm. When a scribe in Babylon attributed the words to David, a statement was made about the human relationship to God, our longing for rightness with God and the need to say before God, “I was wrong but you are holy, make me holy, too.” The psalmist was recognizing too God’s ability to hear and forgive even a rapist and murderer whose sins were as great as David’s.
As I read the Psalm this week, I thought about how profoundly these words must sound to someone who has done such awful crimes and seeks to repent of them. At the PNMC pastors’ retreat in October a number of pastors told their stories of call into minisry. Jose Campoz’ grew up in southern California. When he was a young man he was engaged to a woman and making plans for their life together. The day before he was to be married, his fiance and her mother were killed in a car accident. This started a downward spiral in his life, into alcohol and drug use, violence and crime. Ultimately he ended up in prison after he assaulted and killed a man in a bar fight. While in prison he was repeatedly visited by a local Mennonite pastor and repeatedly he reacted rudely and mockingly to the man’s kind visits.
This went on for years, the pastor and then the pastor’s son after him acting as Nathan. He invited Jose to confess his past, to repent and to be again in relationship with God and a renewed place in community. Jose’s life became a testimony to God’s grace. “I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you. Deliver me of my bloodshed, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing of your deliverance.” Indeed through his experience of this grace, he is an example that grace is possible.
The person who connected this poem of confession to the story of David did so knowing that the confessions of a murderous sex offender will be heard. Confession before God and a true willingness to change, even of a person who has done as heinous crimes as rape and murder can still find forgiveness and grace. God is faithful.
We set great stock in reconciliation and mediation. It seems like the new Mennonite agenda in peacemaking is the reconciling of people who have fallen out with each other. Mennonite colleges and agencies are at the fore of programs that mediate and create peace between neighbours, victims and offenders, broken marriage relationships etc. Our worship is reflective of this leaning as well, and maybe even precedes it. The way Mennonite theology has prefaced the celebration of communion is to set relationships with fellow believers right before coming to the Lord’s table.
David’s sin was not against God along. It would have been inconceivable to him that his sin would not have hurt not only God, not only Bathsheba and Uriah, but the whole people of Israel. Yet Nathan tells him that what he has done is evil in the sight of the Lord.
When we focus all out attention on our relationship between people we forget that ultimately sin is what separates us from God. I was impossible that a sin against God would not also create tear in the fabric of human community and relationship. All sin, even that which was not directly against another person affected the community in its ability to be whole and pure and connected to God. So David’s sin of forcing sex on and woman, another man’s wife, no less, and then plotting to have the man killed was all the more horrible.
I sometimes wonder about what I have to confess when compared with the Joses of the worlds. I grew up in a Christian family. I have no dramatic conversion story. I’ve never committed any crimes – except speeding – what are my confessions to God? Yet it is our confessions that right our relationship with God. When David says, “my sin is again you, and you alone, O God, he is realizing the great rent he has put between himself and God in this particular crime against individuals. Even so if the sins are the minutua, acts of unkindness, pettiness, apathy, selfishness. Unlike Catholics, for whom confession is a sacrament, and even other Christian traditions which build confession into worship, Anabaptists haven’t often offered a place for confession.
Yet while confession is about the particular – David asking forgiveness for being adulterous, for sending a man to his death, for taking a woman against her will – Confession is also saying, sin is what it is to be human. “Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” In speaking this psalm of confession we say, God, I will always turn away from you, I will always do things to harm myself and others and be unfaithful to you. In spite of that, be faithful to me. Forgive me. Take my broken life as a sacrifice to you. Mend me and I will commit my life to change. It is as true for those of us who commit the petty everyday sins, the ones that it seems easy to let slide, as it is for the person sitting in a cell for murder, for assault, for dealing drugs.
This song is a cry for help to a God who is faithful. Just look at the imperatives: teach me, purge me, restore me, deliver me. It recognizes confession is a recognition of God’s grace. For in asking, God will grant it. In higher churches that use a set liturgy from Sunday to Sunday, confession is often built into the order of worship. We who create out our own liturgies often leave this part of worhsip out, not out of ill will or unwillingness, but because it is easy to focus on God without letting God focus on us, or to examine ourselves before God.
As we move into a time of praying our confessions, think of what Nathan might be saying to you. What story might the prophet be using to point to you and say “You are the one.” Let us pray together.
God of power and God of grace,
You see our broken and contrite hearts.
You look into us and know our very core.
You see where we hide the secret crimes of our hearts.
Shake us out.
Open us up.
Expose us to ourselves
so that we may be exposed to you.
Take these silent confessions, we pray.
God of power and God of grace,
You see our broken and contrite hears and you accept them
as the sacrifice that they are meant to be.
You will scrub us clean
and we will be bright and new,
open to you and completely forgiven.
We offer our thanksgiving,
Praying in the name of the one who came
so that all this would be possible. Amen.