David mourning

Between the Narrative and the Psalm

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Samuel 11:1-15 , Psalms

“I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic… I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs. I had a liaison with another woman. I was painfully honest with my family and I asked my wife’s forgiveness. I have been stripped bare….”

– John Edwards, August, 2008

“I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong. There is no one else responsible for my sins. I am responsible…. I don’t think God is through with me. I really believe he thinks there are still some good things I can do, and whatever happens with this legal stuff going forward, what I’m hopeful about is all those kids I’ve seen…in the poorest parts of this country and in some of the poorest places in the world that I can help them in whatever way I’m still capable of helping them.

– John Edwards, May 2012

In the summer of 2008 I departed from the lectionary to preach a sermon series on David. That was the summer the scandal involving then presidential candidate John Edwards broke. The David story is among the readings for this summer’s lectionary cycle, coinciding with the news of Edwards’ trial that filled North Carolina media.

Like it or not, I wonder how to read one story in the light of the other. Do we pass off Edwards as just another politician doing religious things? Do his emotional confessions stem from political expediency or from refiner’s fire? Are they expressions of hand-in-the-cookie-jar panic or scalpel-in-the-heart contrition? And if we hear John Edwards’ words with nothing but suspicion, can we hear the David story with anything other than the hermeneutic of suspicion?

Such questions raise another one: how are the stories “reported”? What is the expected form of “news” today? Sportswriter Jane Leavy sat on some crushingly unflattering interviews with her hero, Mickey Mantel, for 27 years until she published her biography of Mantel in 2010. She explained, “In 1983, it would have been a firing offense to write what had really happened. Today it would be a firing event not to write it – one measure of how much the landscape of public discourse has changed (The Last Boy, xxiii).

So, given the landscape of our public discourse, how do we receive these confessions? Another Edwards – Jonathan – sets a stringent criterion:

The more excellent things are, the more manifold will the counterfeits be.So there are perhaps no graces that have more counterfeits than love and humility, these being virtues wherein the beauty of a true Christian does especially appear.

It hardly needs to be stated that the same criterion also applies to those who dare to utter a prayer of confession on any given Sunday. We’re all in this confession thing together.

The story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah is a terrible turning point in the entire David narrative. All along the way, David has avoided the “bloodguilt” of killing King Saul. Now, in full power as king, he dispenses his deadly decisions. One of the striking characteristics of the way this story is told is the frequent use of the word “sent.” David sends this messenger here and that messenger there. So many of the monumental actions take place, for David, at least one step removed.

It is all too easy to gloss over the utter horror of the havoc that is wreaked in the world. The iconic photograph of Tom Sullivan in mid-scream, yelling for and waiting in vain for his son Alex to come out of the Aurora movie theatre, is a chilling image of the agony sin inflicts. Photographer Barry Gutierrez said Sullivan’s wail “ was so gut-wrenching, it rocked me right to the bones. I started to cry. I’ve cried many times thinking about it.”

A church that forms people in the practice of confession makes room for deep pain, the pain which is on the other side of the camera or screen than the one from which we usually look out at the world. This is no small task given what poet Carol Bly calls “the dreadful cheer of generic American Christianity.”

But there is something else at work in the David story. Walter Brueggemann reads the narrative through the lens of power and personality and providence. At the center of this entire narrative, he says, is “an intruding agent who can transform.” Very present amid all the “seething brutality” is “the insistent power of Yahweh, who creates and destroys.” Sometimes hidden, sometimes through “nameable historical agents,” this active transformative providence is at work. God “sends” Nathan to puncture David’s self-deception and callous numbness.

Brueggemann contends that the managerial and therapeutic models of life so prevalent in our time screen out “the savage, ominous power of violence and vengeance.” In trying to “explain” everything, they make the Bible simplistic and reduce life to mere psychological transactions. Reading the David narrative, he says, brings us to the “recognition that there is one more character in our life story than our modernity concedes.”

Remember that “the David Story” is found not only in the texts of 1 and 2 Samuel but also in the Psalms. Tradition connects 2 Samuel 11 with Psalm 51, but many other “Psalms of David” give voice to the agony and hope of genuine confession. To call David a poet is to say that he shared in God’s creativity through words. To call him a psalm writer is to say that he prayed the vulnerable, passionate prayers of a confessing sinner who lived his life – sins, confessions and all – before God. In fact, Brueggemann claims that David “embodies the antiphon of Israel’s faith – moving between the raw narrative and the sure Psalm” (Power, Providence & Personality, 85).

A powerful example of the all-encompassing reach of this antiphon between narrative and Psalm – and here I tread fearfully and respectfully – is related by Charles Marsh in his magnificent book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today. Marsh reveals the insight that changed the way he understands (and lives) history and theology:

…if you are a southerner, white, and Christian – and I am all of those – you owe the credibility of your faith to the courage and conviction of your black brothers and sisters. Without their witness, your own religious claims ring hollow; without their sacrifice, your piety becomes self-referential and shrill; and without their devotion, your pursuit of holiness lacks the scrutiny of historical contrast that prepares the way for repentance and revival.

His insight allows him to narrate the story of the Civil Rights Movement in a way that is absolutely thrilling. However, he does not flinch over the sexual promiscuity which is the most troubling aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life. In a brief but direct reference, he writes,

Yet the story will never be complete until we confront the difficult truth that King’s final apocalyptic judgments also register a slight demurral on his own sinfulness and complicity in violence…

Marsh explains further,

King kept the finger pointed on the dark powers around him while mostly avoiding the prophet’s harder truth; that the sin outside remains always the co-conspirator of the sinner standing here… The same God who preaches ‘the good news to the poor” and “proclaims release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and “liberty to those who are oppressed” also “desireth truth in the inward being.”

How stringent and piercing is the true confession that does not exclude even the one who is much more the prophet than the politician. How deep the hope that the “one more character in our life story” makes it possible for even us to live honestly before God and others. The people after God’s own heart, after all, are not those who are morally perfect, but those who can still be moved to genuine repentance. They are the ones who walk in the vast land where a transformative God is at work in the jagged, ambiguous places – between the narrative and the psalm.

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