Sunday, August 5, 2012

Does anyone here remember the Good Old Days?

Remember when there were more kids of lots of different ages running around this Church? Remember when the pews were fuller, and the budget heftier and we could afford a full-time rector?

Remember when the Diocesan budget was more flush, and they could support more ministries, a great camp out in Ortonville, and more resources for the parishes?

Remember when economy was better? Jobs were easier to find, and more likely to last. Schools were better funded, political discourse less bitter, and great cultural institutions like the DIA had ample funding from the state and corporate donors and didn’t depend for their survival on enough people who support them remembering to get out and vote this coming Tuesday?
Remember the good old days?

Why aren’t things today as good as they were back then?

This isn’t a new question. When I write a sermon, frequently there’s a soundtrack that comes to me as I’m organizing my thoughts. Most of the time I am merciful enough not to try to sing the songs that inspire me as I’m writing, and today especially that’s a good thing. Picture Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton standing around a piano singing the theme song to All in the Family: Those were the days. I suppose there’s something rather meta-reflective when my example of nostalgia itself comes from a TV show that first aired before I was born.

But neither we nor Archie Bunker have a monopoly on nostalgia. A major theme in Hebrew Scripture involves contemplating the miserable circumstances of the Jewish people at the time scripture was compiled, and wondering why things weren’t as good then as they were back in the Good Old Days. What’s unique about Hebrew Scripture’s approach to the Good Old Days is that rather than some vague notion of yesteryear, there is a concrete time that makes up their Good Old Days: The reign of King David and his son King Solomon. The Books of First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah constitute one major thread in scriptures showcasing the Glory of Days Gone By, and prescribing what the people need to do to bring back the days when a unified kingdom reigns unchallenged from the Jordan River to the Great Sea.

In the Chronicler’s account, the way to bring back the Good Old Days is to purify the people of God : to cast out the impure in deed or ancestry, so that the assembly of God’s People only consists of worthy, good people. That’s the way to get back to the old days. But today’s lesson from the book of second Samuel serves as a challenge to the nostalgic account of the Chronicler. It reminds us that the reign of King David wasn’t as ideal as we might want to remember it. That David was hardly the perfect defender of God’s Law that the Chronicler might wish to hold him up as. That the assembly of the People of God was not just for the pure of deed and ancestry, because the idealized king himself was pure neither in deed (as demonstrated in the lessons from this week and last) nor in ancestry (as accounted in great detail in the book of Ruth). Chronicles, which often parallels the stories in Samuel and Kings, does not include the story we heard this week and last; it includes the very first line, then changes the subject. The Chronicles account wants to feel good about the monarchy, and this story doesn’t hold up King David as a shining beacon of moral conduct. It doesn’t portray the assembly of God’s People as properly pure.

The lesson the story passes along to us today is similar: Church isn’t for Good People. The assembly of the People of God isn’t a place where the pure gather and the unclean are excluded. A sinner’s place is in the Church! Whether we look at the example of Moses, or David, or Peter, or Paul, Scripture tells us again and again that the chosen ministers of God’s word time and time again are people who have managed to do terrible wrong. All of us who are call to be people of God are simultaneously sinners and God’s ministers.

In the past month, I’ve returned to a spiritual discipline that has been very meaningful to me over the years, when I’ve been able to keep it up: I’ve been regularly praying the Psalms in the morning and the evening. Last week, Pastor Diane told us all about why we all should keep a copy of the Book of Common Prayer around the home. One of the many benefits to our amazing prayerbook is the fact that it contains that most ancient of hymnals, the entire Book of Psalms. The book captures a very full human range of emotions, from joy to despair to fury to compassion, and the book connects us with humans seeking the divine thousands of years before our time. The Church prays the psalms together every time we gather for prayer, and the prayer book contains several guides for how a household, individual, or community could pray the psalms in a structured way over the course of time. These works of Hebrew poetry are legendarily attributed to King David, but none are more closely associated with David himself than Psalm 51, which we recited part of today. Psalm 51 is a psalm of repentance, and is tied to today’s lesson. This is ascribed to be what David prayed after Nathan called him out on his sinful actions. Let’s hear it again, putting ourselves in the place of David. We’ve done terrible evil. We are truly sorry, and yet we know that despite the evil we do, God has good that we are still called to do:

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your
loving-kindness; *

in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *

and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions, *

and my sin is ever before me.

4 Against you only have I sinned *

and done what is evil in your sight.

5 And so you are justified when you speak *

and upright in your judgment.

6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *

a sinner from my mother’s womb.

7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *

and will make me understand wisdom secretly

8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *

wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *

that the body you have broken may rejoice.

10 Hide your face from my sins *

and blot out all my iniquities.

11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *

and renew a right spirit within me.

12 Cast me not away from your presence *

and take not your holy Spirit from me.

13 Give me the joy of your saving help again *

and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

14 I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *

and sinners shall return to you.

15 Deliver me from death, O God, *

and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness,
O God of my salvation.

16 Open my lips, O Lord, *

and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

17 Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, *

but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.

18 The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

19 Be favorable and gracious to Zion, *

and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

20 Then you will be pleased with the appointed sacrifices,
with burnt-offerings and oblations; *

then shall they offer young bullocks upon your altar.

This is David’s prayer of forgiveness: the prayer of one condemned by his sins, and the prayer of one still aspiring to be a minister of God’s grace. Not just “forgive me” but “I will teach your ways to the wicked and sinners will return to you.”
We stand condemned, we stand forgiven, we stand called to be ministers of God’s mercy and justice.

In our baptismal covenant, we pledge to seek God’s forgiveness not if we fall into sin, but whenever we fall into sin. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. We are sinners, and we are ministers of God’s mercy.

David exemplifies this call to be a minister of God’s justice and mercy in response to the case Nathan brings before him: the metaphorical rich man who stole a poor man’s only lamb received his sentence from King David: “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.” He deserves to die, but shall live and make restitution. God’s justice demands that we speak up for those who have been wronged, and not let off the hook those who do evil, but God’s mercy demands not that we condemn them, write them off as irredeemably evil, even if that is what they deserve, but that we believe and expect that they can and must do good to help the world recover from the evil they have done. This is the formula for messengers of God’s justice and mercy. Mercy and justice work hand in hand to lead not to retaliation for sins nor for ignoring and hiding sins, but to restorative justice.

And then, when prophetic voices like Nathan’s tell us that the judgement we deliver is, in fact, aimed at we ourselves, the formula is no different. We deserve condemnation for our sins, but we, like David, like Moses, like Peter, like Paul, we shall live to do good.

Our story from Kings cautions us against dwelling on restoring some glorious past. Despite Joni Mitchell’s great lyrics in the song Woodstock, we don’t “Got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” The message from our God is that our best days are not behind us. The Messianic Age, the Reign of God, is still to come. And we, all of us sinners, like David, are called not to sit in a pile of ashes mourning our sins, but to be agents of restorative justice to help bring about the Reign of God. We are called to be ministers of God’s justice and mercy holding ourselves and others accountable for the evil we do, not dwelling on condemnation, but focusing on what we can make right.

All our past experiences of God’s glory are but a foretaste of the feast to come. Let us journey on together, working to bring forth the coming age of God’s justice and mercy, for the reign of God is at hand. Amen.