Do you remember the first time that you felt guilty?
I do. Very clearly, I remember.
It was one of those things that happen in childhood—an act that I would have forgotten long ago, except that I felt so guilty. It was the guilt I felt afterwards.
I was in the first grade and my family lived in a very small village that had emerged because of the railroads on the line from Richmond, VA, to Greensboro, NC. The train came by about four times a day and while we could not see the train from our house, everyone in the village heard the train, no matter where we were or what we happened to be doing.
So, you can imagine that in a place so small like Pelham, NC, everyone knew everyone’s business, and I remember thinking that there were spies everywhere. My mother would often tell me that others were watching, especially God.
Shortly before this incident occurred, my family had been to visit my grandfather. My grandfather was a farmer and, no matter what time of the year we visited, my grandfather sent something home with us from the farm. In the summer we returned home loaded down with all kinds of vegetables and fruits that kept us all busy helping to put the food away for winter. Even in the other seasons my grandfather would send home treasures.
In the autumn the treasures included pumpkins and winter squash and apples. One of the rituals of my grandfather’s year was going to the mountains to get apples for the family and he had just returned from that annual trip.
The apples were big and round and crisp and smelled so fragrant. My mother knew how tempting they would be for my brothers and me to sneak and eat, so she made a point of telling us that we could not eat any of the apples until she had had a chance to freeze what she wanted for winter apple cobblers. And with the severity of her voice and the stern look on her face, we knew that we would get into trouble if she caught us sneaking apples.
One afternoon, as I got home from school, I noticed the apples had been moved to the back porch. The aroma of juicy apples hit me and it was all I could do to walk past the apples and into the house, but I knew that I couldn’t eat an apple until my mother told me I could, so I resisted.
I must have gone in and out of the house that afternoon a dozen times and each time I resisted temptation, until that time just before dark, when I knew that my mother was preparing dinner and would not really be paying close attention. I snuck out of the house to the back porch, grabbed the biggest apple I could and went across the back yard to the shadows of the garden, where I knew my mother wouldn’t see me.
And of course, I ate the crisp, juicy, flavorful apple that I knew I wasn’t supposed to eat.
As soon as I ate that apple and threw away the core I began to wonder if my mother had seen me or if one of the village spies had seen me. At that moment, I had just committed the biggest sin that I could ever remember having committed and I was certain that someone had seen me and that I would be in trouble.
And if they hadn’t seen me, God had.
I remember the warmth of the kitchen on that autumn evening and I remember my mother’s smile as I walked in the kitchen to perform my chore of setting the table. And I remember wondering if she knew.
I had disobeyed her. I felt horrible and guilty.
I must have been unusually quiet at dinner that evening, because everyone kept asking if I was ok. I didn’t eat much. I didn’t say much. I wasn’t hungry and I felt guilty.
At bedtime, I was still feeling guilty—horribly guilty. When my mother came to say good night, I couldn’t keep it in any longer and I confessed what I had done.
My mother just sat there listening to me. Finally, she told me that I was forgiven. She also told me that she suspected something like what I had done. She did give me a punishment. It was something very minor, but that whole incident and the guilt I felt has never been forgotten.
This memory came back to me because I have been preaching about King David this summer. Several weeks ago the scripture passage from II Samuel described the sin that caused David to feel the most guilt.
David was a great king and loved God deeply.
In addition to his music and poems and wisdom, David had great power as king—the kind of power that few people wanted to challenge, and it appears that this power went to David’s head, as we say, and caused him to think that he could do no wrong. That thinking led him to commit a horrible sin. The consequences of that sin unraveled his life and the lives of others involved, even the whole nation.
David needed to be confronted and held accountable for his sin and the damage that it caused. So, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David.
Nathan began by telling David about a poor man, who had one possession—a beautiful ewe lamb. It was so precious to the man that he kept her with him and let her drink out of his cup and eat from his dish. She played with his children and slept in his bosom. The lamb was precious to the man.
A rich man who lived nearby had a guest at his home and he needed to show hospitality to this visitor. The rich man had many, many sheep in his herd, but decided to take the poor man’s sheep to prepare for the banquet table.
Hearing this story, David became outraged and declared that the rich man should be killed or at least pay the poor man four-fold what he took.
Nathan responded by proclaiming: “You are the man.”
Nathan continued to speak on behalf of God, reminding David that God had given him his master’s house and the house of Israel and Judah. God gave him wives and children. God gave David respect and love of the people. God trusted David.
And if this had not been enough, God would have given him more.
David’s sin was against Bathsheba. It was a sin against Uriah. It was a sin against the people. It was a misuse of power. It was a sin against God.
There was nothing that could be done to avoid the consequences of this sin. Nothing. But God offered forgiveness and the space for David to feel grace.
We live in a world where feeling guilty and making confession are NOT popular. However, the message that comes to us from King David is very clear. Our power, our successes, our riches, our talents, our gifts do not give us the right to do anything we want to our brothers and sisters—to the children of God.
We read of this happening every day—of people in power and with wealth committing wrongdoings and expecting to get away with it.
Truthfully, the message of King David reminds us that it is not just people in power that have this problem. Sometimes institutions use power and influence to justify wrongdoings that hurt others and bring devastation to others’ lives.
Sometimes even the church has been guilty of wrongdoings that hurt others and bring devastation to others’ lives.
We are all in danger of committing sin that is harmful to others around us, to the environment, to the world.
And it saddens God’s heart, just as David’s sin saddened God’s heart.
Recently I have been reading a book called, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James H. Cone. Dr. Cone’s writings had a profound effect on me as I was studying ethics and theology in seminary. He died this past April and, as a way of honoring what I have learned from his writings, I decided to read this book—the last book he published.
Cone was an African American theologian who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was a deep thinker and a practical writer who wrote, clearly, about the sin of racism.
Reading this book has brought many memories to the mind of this southern child of the 1960s and 1970s. And many questions have come to my mind as well.
One of the many places I lived as the child of a Methodist pastor was a little place called Badin. As many southern towns were at that time, Badin was segregated into Badin, where the white folks lived and West Badin, where the African American folks lived. We all went to school together in Badin.
One evening, in the spring of 1972, my father was invited to come and visit the brand-new church that had been built in West Badin. So, my father and my mother and I drove over to this church, newly constructed in the middle of West Badin. The church was built of brick and had pristine white walls throughout the inside. It had that new smell and brand-new carpet. It was beautiful. I had never been in a brand-new church before.
Several things were unique about visiting this church. First, the church was not Methodist, it was a Baptist Church. And second, a black congregation had invited a white preacher and his family to visit. And third, it had a baptismal pool right there in the sanctuary, right behind the pulpit. I had never seen that before.
It was a fascinating experience for me. And the next day at school, all my West Badin friends already knew that I had been to see their church.
As the years passed and I heard my father mention that experience, I heard him talk about how grace filled that evening was because the members of an African American church had invited a white preacher into their midst without any hatred.
My father knew it was an act of grace. He knew of the kind of atrocities that these dear people had experienced. He knew their memories of white people were not particularly good—that for some the memories were filled with fear. He knew that white churches, Methodist and otherwise, had not been involved in bringing justice to these brothers and sisters and that, in many cases, the church was making matters worse by not taking a stand.
My father had trouble trying to tell his own congregation of the grace in which he was received. He received much criticism from them, but he stood firm with sharing the experience.
What my father felt that evening was the space between confession and action. He felt deeply that these African American brothers and sisters were offering forgiveness and reconciliation and had provided him space to feel grace.
David felt that space as well.
His sin was horrendous and brought pain to many, many people. The consequences were not erased, and neither are ours, but David discovered that even in the midst of this deep, dark sin God did not desert him. God was there longing for David to understand that his actions were wrong and harmful and hurt many people, but that in between confession and moving forward, there is space for grace.
David felt that grace in powerful and profound ways. His heart was truly grieved for the sin that he committed, but he realized that God did not turn away from him.
He felt forgiveness. He felt mercy. He felt grace
I can imagine that after David confessed his sin, his poet heart could not be stilled, and words poured through him that call us to confession and create in our lives the space to feel grace:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
And do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
And sustain in me a willing spirit. (From Psalm 51)
These words of David are an offering of one who recognized and confessed his sin. These are words of confession, grace, promise, transformation, and hope.
And these words are our words, too.
These words are so important to this story of David’s sin that manuscripts of 2 Samuel, found in synagogues during the medieval times, contained a large gap between David’s confession and the continuation of the narrative so that at that space in the reading, David’s words of confession and grace, found in Psalm 51, could be read to the congregation.
The presence of sin in this world and in our lives cannot be ignored, but the presence of God and the grace, mercy and forgiveness of God are stronger than sin.
In David’s words from Psalm 51, God
…desires truth in the inward being;
Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;
…Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
And sustain in me a willing spirit.
Thanks be to God for the space to confess our sin and feel the grace that God pours upon us abundantly.
To God alone be glory!