A Moment of Honest Ugliness


Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, First of Eighth Month, 2021


Speaker: Brian Young


Scripture: II Samuel 11:26-12:15a & Psalm 51:1-12


26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 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, 12:1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”


7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within 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 very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” 15 Then Nathan went to his house.



The Prophet Nathan rebukes King David. Eugène Siberdt.



Good morning, Friends!


Have you ever seen an image of yourself, and not realized it’s you? Perhaps your reflection, somewhat distorted in the window of a passing car; or that moment when you walk in from a bright sunlit street into a dark interior, and are confronted with yourself in an

unexpected mirror. This happens to me most often these days when I turn on the camera in the worship room and look at the image on the screen, forgetting for a little bit that I’m in the field of view, somewhere.


It lasts just a moment, usually, and then you realize what’s going on. (Oh yeah, I wore a plaid shirt today... good thing I remembered to comb my hair!) And at that point the stranger in the mirror is you—you’ve been re-oriented to yourself. Incidentally, many of us who have spent a lot of time on Zoom in the COVID era have found that having to look at oneself onscreen can be distracting, and even quite taxing. It was a real godsend when they added the feature that allows you to hide your own view of yourself. That was helpful to me simply because I tend to get self-absorbed really easily, so the less time I spend looking at myself, the better.


Now, there are also the times when we’re forced to recognize an unflattering or even damning reflection of ourselves. Most of the time, that’s not because we’re looking for such animage; often it’s because someone is holding up the mirror and we can’t look away. There I am, with my hand in the cookie jar—or much worse. Holding up the mirror in this way is a prophetic task; part of the role of the prophet is to confront an individual, or society as a whole, with the honest ugliness of what that person or that group has done. That confrontation re-orients us to ourselves; puts things into perspective; shows us as we truly are, at least in a particular moment.


And that is what Nathan the prophet does in today’s passage from II Samuel. You might remember that the early Israelite kings, Saul and David, were each accompanied by a prophet; Samuel does this work during Saul’s reign, and then for much of David’s time, it’s Nathan. Part of their task, as is the case with all Biblical prophets, is to communicate God's word to the people. Last Sunday, we reviewed how Samuel does this when the people ask for a king—he gives them an entirely unvarnished picture of exactly what being subject to a human king will mean for them. Samuel and Nathan both also have the task of bearing God’s word to the king; to some extent they serve as court advisors, but there’s also the sense conveyed by that treasured Quaker cliché of “speaking truth to power”.


So here, Nathan's task is to hold up the mirror to David's sin and to call him to repentance. He does this very skilfully, by telling a parable that completely draws David in. Now, parables—stories or extended metaphors illustrating some kind of deeper meaning—are more familiar to us from Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, but they do appear in a few places in the Hebrew Bible. And the story of the poor man and his ewe lamb, and the rich man who takes her away and slaughters her for his own convenience, is one of the most effective pieces of storytelling in the entire Bible, I think. By the time Nathan gets to the end of his brief story, David is all ready to find this guy and make him pay. And I’m right there with him—and maybe you are, too. What could possibly justify such an action? Who does this guy think he is?


Then, Nathan delivers the kicker. This is one of the places in the Bible where I still hear the language of the King James version: “THOU art the man!!!” I imagine Nathan with his arm outstretched, pointing to David’s heart (much as on the cover of today’s bulletin)—“THOU art the man...” And then, in the word of the Lord that follows, the prophet makes it crystal clear. He holds the mirror up to David, in the wake of the king’s rape of Bathsheba and connivance to murder her husband Uriah—which Nathan says is just as if David had killed Uriah with his own sword.


And David can’t look away. He sees himself, in a moment of honest ugliness. And he has to acknowledge the depth of what he has done. Further, he has to hear the judgment of God against him, as Nathan interprets it: a future of continuous trouble from within his own house, and even the death of the child that Bathsheba has borne to him.


In contrast to Nathan’s torrent of words, David has only one thing to say: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Full stop. It seems that Nathan has said everything else, and what could David possibly add? But tradition says that it was at this point that David composed Psalm 51, which we heard part of earlier this morning (the first twelve verses). In the Christian tradition, Psalm 51 is numbered as one of the seven “penitential Psalms”; these have been used for centuries as liturgical prayers, for the confession of sin and the seeking of reconciliation with God.


Now of course, Quakers aren’t much for liturgy, at least not of the high-church variety. (If anyone tells you Quakers don’t have liturgy, they’re wrong—but we generally don’t do liturgy the way other Christians do.) But in private devotion, Psalm 51 is one that I return to myself, now and again, and perhaps some of you do, too. I usually need these words when I have seen myself in the mirror and recognized myself in a moment of honest ugliness: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps 51:3). Can’t look away—have to acknowledge where I am, and what I’ve done, or left undone—have to acknowledge my need to be reconciled to God.


And most of the time, I also need to be reconciled to another person. Some of you know (some of you probably know more of the story than you probably want to know) that Stephanie and I have an apartment in Chicago and are in the process of moving to a new one, a condominium that we’ve purchased. We’re paying rent for the current apartment, and for some time now, our washing machine has been broken, and we’ve been trying to get the landlord to fix it. There’s a whole story here, which I’ll spare you—but this past week, they finally said they were going to have a technician repair it. “Great,” I thought, and just a few minutes after I heard from the landlord’s answering service, the guy that I thought was the technician called me.


He said, “Yeah, I'm the person that takes care of things at your building.” We talked for a few minutes about the problem. I told him what I had done thus far, which was not much, other than to get the old water out of the machine—I had just bailed it out by hand.


And so then he says, “What do you want me to do?”


At that point, I lost it—I screamed at him (please forgive the language),


“I WANT YOU TO FIX THE DAMN MACHINE!!!”


...and some other things, which he didn’t even hear, because by that time, he had hung up. And in that moment, I saw my ugliness.


For a while, after I realized that there was no more screaming at him because he had hung up, I alternated between righteous anger (well, I told him off real good, didn’t I?) and remorse (I shouldn’t have screamed at him, that wasn’t right, my sin is ever before me).


Then I got a text message from him—not screaming back at me—but explaining: I’m just the building management guy, not a qualified repairman. The landlord keeps sending me these requests, and I’m not qualified to take care of them. I realized that this is the guy who sweeps up and changes light bulbs and shovels snow in the winter. This guy knows nothing more than I do about fixing washing machines; the landlord’s been giving the job to the wrong guy.


That text message supplied me with an amazing moment of grace—I was able to write back and apologize, to seek the reconciliation that I knew I needed. In addition to reconciliation with God in the quiet of my own heart, I so often need that kind of reconciliation with another person, when I have sinned.


So that’s why I have to question whether Psalm 51 really fits this situation. Is it really the case that David has sinned against God—God alone—and done what is evil only in God’s sight, as it says in verse four? I don't know about you, but this seems unsatisfying to me. David himself is gung-ho for restoration of the harm done, when he is still caught up in the parable—before Nathan pulls the cover off of the mirror, and David realizes, it's me.Don’t we also hope for some acknowledgment of his sin against his fellow human beings, against Uriah, and Uriah’s family, and Bathsheba herself? I want Nathan to also point those things out to him—that he needs to be reconciled to other people, rather than it being solely about David and God.


But we can't overlook sincere repentance, and we are treading on dangerous ground when we make ourselves the arbiter of the repentance of others. I have to trust that David’s brief acknowledgment, out loud, is connected to a whole lot of inward reflection and remorse. Indeed, if the words of Psalm 51 are in fact David’s words, I imagine that he knew his transgressions, and his sin was ever before him—even at the point that he was looking upon Bathsheba bathing, and hatching the plan that led to Uriah’s death.


In our world today, and especially in our political culture, it seems that there is a lack not only of true repentance, but also a lack of true grace. Apologies aren’t really apologies, and forgiveness isn’t always forgiveness. At least in politics, the bar for forgiveness seems so high that few of those who have made an offense could ever attain that bar. And it seems to me that that sometimes affects the way we respond to one another in the church.


And I have to confess that I don’t have this figured out. I am not pleading for cheap grace for those who have harmed others and need to be brought to account. Accountability is important for reconciliation. The injuries done especially to women and children and other viulnerable people through the decades by the powerful—usually powerful men—must not be ignored.


And yet, if we believe in a God who bestows grace and forgiveness—if we read this story and we emphasize the forgiveness that David received—we must be willing to extend grace and forgiveness ourselves. The place to begin, for me, is to remember that when I am concerned with a speck in my sister’s eye, there is likely a two-by-four in my own. That parable (that aphorism) of Je