I want to start with a difficult question this morning. Are you ready?
Who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that difficult of a question, but I want to be sure you heard the question I was trying to ask. I didn’t ask, “who tells you when you’re wrong?” or “who’s always telling you that you’re wrong?” I asked, “who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?”
What I’m asking is, who do you trust enough that you allow them to offer you correction? Who gets to tell you the things about yourself that you’d rather not hear? That you’d rather not know.
Who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?
I think most of us keep that list pretty short, and for good reason. It’s a hard world we live in, and it takes hard work to establish the kind of self-confidence that allows each of us to go about the business of being ourselves. If we allowed just anyone’s assessments of our work, of our families, of our parenting, of our relationships to count… well, many of us would have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, right?
We have names for the layers of self-protection we establish to shield ourselves from other people’s assessments. We tell children they need to toughen up, develop a thicker skin. As adults we organize ourselves into hierarchies, so that we know which people’s opinions count and whose opinions can be disregarded. This is all part of the process of establishing the divide between the “personal” and the “public.”
If you were here last week, then you heard part one of the story from 2 Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba. David, who while a younger man the scriptures took great pains to describe as unfailingly faithful — even toward those who were not faithful to him, has lost his integrity as he has gained power. Being a king has replaced being a shepherd, and the longer David plays this power-drenched public role, the further away he is pulled from the overlooked, ruddy-faced boy who tended to his father’s flocks. His role disconnects him from his soul.
At the end of last week’s sermon I invited you to pay attention to the places in your life where you feel yourself pulled to perform your “public” identity. Knowing that it’s hard to observe yourself in the present moment, I asked you to try to remember to slow yourself down, to check in with yourself, and to ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?” I asked you to notice what thoughts or feelings arose for you in response to that question of being yourself, and to consider writing those thoughts and feelings down.
Those inner responses to the question of what would happen if we were truly ourselves in any given situation are a kind of tally of the price of our integrity. These inner responses speak to us simultaneously of the price we are willing to pay for our public personas and the price at which we will sell out our inner selves.
We see examples of this played out in public every day. For the last nine months, the country has been served weekly updates in the child abuse scandal at Penn State University. Like the story of David and Bathsheba, the story from Penn State features men of power, wealth and influence taking what they desired and doing whatever it took to cover up their misdeeds. Like Uriah, the victims are men sent to the front lines of a terrible and violent battle. Like Bathsheba, the victims’ stories have been treated as the backdrop to the stories of the crimes of more famous, powerful men.
As we, the public, watch the drama unfold, it is the question of integrity that has troubled us the most. We wonder, “how could a person do such a thing,” or “how could they have known this was happening and done nothing?” It’s horrifying to us that any person with a conscience could have stood by and allowed a predator access to children.
I wonder about the messengers who procured Bathsheba for David. Do you remember that detail from last week’s story? David sees Bathsheba bathing from the rooftop of his palace and he makes inquires after her. One of his courtiers responds, “is not this Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sends messengers to bring Bathsheba to him, knowing she is a married woman, and knowing she cannot refuse her king.
But what were the messengers thinking? I suppose they were divided between their roles as attendants to the king and their souls as people with their own consciences, their own convictions. What answers might they have heard arising from their own hearts if they had bothered to ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?”
David’s messengers remind me of the grad assistant in the Penn State scandal — the relatively unknown man, the one who wasn’t making hundreds of thousands of dollars, but was simply working with and around men of great power and influence — who saw a child being harmed, but rather than reporting it to the police, kept the matter internal; instinctively, perhaps even unconsciously, protecting the interests of the powerful over the weak.
What would happen if the messengers, if the grad assistants, if middle and upper management, acted on the mandate of their souls instead of the dictates of their roles? What would have happened if they were truly themselves in these situations? What price would they pay?
The world watched something of the like take place about ten years ago, when Time magazine named three women its Persons of the Year. Sherron Watkins was the Enron vice president who sounded the alarm on that company’s improper accounting methods. Coleen Rowley was the FBI staff attorney who brought to light the agency’s failure to investigate credible information on one of the September 11th co-conspirators. Cynthia Cooper called out corporate giant WorldComm on cooking the books to conceal $3.8 billion in losses. Each were whistleblowers on the unethical and negligent behavior of their corporate and governmental superiors. They were women who spoke truth to power at great risk to themselves and their careers.
In an era defined by abuses of power and cover ups, these women’s actions earned them the title, “Persons of the Year.” In a world of spin, we are all hungry for someone to tell it like it is. The question, however, remains: who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?
When the prophet Nathan comes to confront David, he is a trusted advisor. It was Nathan who’d brought a word from the LORD to David, when David planned to build a “house” for the ark of the covenant. It was Nathan who shared God’s vision for an everlasting house with David. Nathan was able to speak truth to power because in his role as prophet and advisor, he never forgot that his soul rested in the LORD, the God of Israel.
Still, when Nathan comes to confront David about his rapacious, dishonorable and ignoble conduct with Bathsheba, and his violence against Uriah, he tells a parable. He tells the story of a wealthy man and a poor man. The wealthy man had many flocks, but the poor man had only one little lamb which he loved like it was his own daughter. Nathan reaches into the king’s heart and touches his covered up soul, the soul of a shepherd who still, somewhere, remembered what it meant to care for a thing and to love it though it was powerless and completely dependent. He touched the soul of the king as it had existed before it had been scarred by the objectifications of war and plunder, where people’s lives are treated as spoils for the conquerors.
David hears the story of the wealthy man’s greed and violence and pronounces his judgement, “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.”
Just as an aside, I want to comment on a translation thing here that I found interesting and amusing. It’s an odd judgement that David passes. First he says that the man deserves to die, then he says that the actual punishment will be a fourfold repayment. Giving the death sentence for the theft of a lamb seems like overkill, but reducing the sentence from death to a 300% return on the loss seems arbitrary? What gives?
Apparently, what the NRSV has translated as “the man who has done this deserves to die,” is literally rendered something like “this man is the son of death.” Some Hebrew scholars suggest that “son of death” is a pejorative, as when we call someone a “son of a gun” or worse. In which case, David essentially swears against the man, passes judgement on his character, and suggests that a penalty be paid.
That’s when Nathan hits him between the eyes. “You are the man!” And from there he pronounces God’s judgement on David and names the penalty that will be paid. Because David has cut down Uriah and stolen from his household, God proclaims that the sword will never depart from David’s house and that his own wives shall be taken from him. What David has done in private will be done to him in public.
Finally David is able to recognize how far he has strayed. He is no longer the shepherd, but the sheep in need of rescue from his own self. Whatever excuses, whatever rationalizations or justifications he’d made for his behavior, David can finally see with clear eyes the distance between his soul and his role. The divide between his private behavior and his public persona. In recognition of what he has done, David confesses, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
Consider for a moment how desperately the world needs Nathans. How grateful we are for Sherron Watkins, Coleen Rowley, and Cynthia Cooper for uncovering the dysfunction in our systems of commerce and governance. How we wish someone had stepped in and spoken up at Penn State before some many childhoods were lost. The world needs more Nathans, because the world is full of Davids and Bathshebas and Uriahs… and messengers. The world is full of people with power, and victims of power, and — perhaps, most relevant for many of us — messengers, middle management, people just doing their jobs and keeping their heads down. Looking the other way. Completing the task, not questioning it.
A story like David and Bathsheba’s, Uriah and Nathan’s, has so many entry points for each of us. Rarely are any of us just one character in this story. We are victims of power left unchecked. We are cogs in the machine. We are authorities not to be questioned, by our children perhaps, or our students, or our patients, or our employees. Hopefully, we are truth-tellers as well.
In the epistle to the Ephesians, the author recognizes that we each fulfill different roles in community, we are given different gifts for different ministries. This diversity of gifts and variety of functions are meant, however, to serve a unity of purpose. The author exhorts us to “speak the truth in love” and to grow up into Christ, the one in whom soul and role were ever united. This passage from Ephesians concludes, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
It is a letter that speaks to us of the unity, of the integrity of the body — of our own bodies and our own lives, and of the body we inhabit with one another, which is the body of Christ. In our worship each week we try to embody this with practices of confession and absolution that precede the meal we share together at this table, where we feast upon the bread of God that “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” which is not simply bread, but is in fact Christ Jesus, the undivided life of God, broken and distributed for the sake of the world.
Sisters and brothers, I don’t know who gets to tell you when you’re wrong. If you share my luck, you are surrounded by friends and family who have learned how to call lovingly to you, to remind you of who you were when you were still young, still unscathed by the battles of life, who can shepherd you back to the sound of the genuine — that voice that resides inside yourself that is your soul, the place of God-created truth that lies at the center of your being. If you cannot hear it from anyone else then, I pray, listen to that voice which is God calling you back to yourself and learn once again to confess all that separates you from yourself.
Whatever you have imagined would happen if you were truly yourself, the price of not being the self you were created to be is so much higher — for you and for those around you. Your integrity and our health is inseparable, because we are inseparable. We are one body, being built up in love.