This morning’s Old Testament reading—the story of King David and the prophet Nathan--makes me think of James Joyce’s great short story, “The Dead”. Without retelling the plot in detail, “The Dead” shows us a man named Gabriel Conroy who, over the course of the story, is allowed to see into himself. Late in the evening after a party, Gabriel learns something new about his wife, Gretta: when she was a young woman, a bedridden boy, Michael Furey, loved her so deeply that he got up from his sickbed and walked miles to her house and stood in the rain outside her window the night before she was being sent away to school. He died within the wee
Gabriel has lived his whole married life with Gretta not knowing that story. At the very end of “The Dead” Gabriel realizes that he has never really known his wife or himself. He has lived his life emotionally disconnected from other people and his own feelings. When he hears this story of young love, he is opened to a new vision of his wife, himself, and the ultimate connection of all people. As Joyce describes it,
Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
In this one moment, Gabriel sees both his own selfishness and his ultimate connection to other people. The power of this sudden realization (Joyce called it an “epiphany”) is similar to what we see in the story of David the king and Nathan the prophet in this morning’s Old Testament reading. If you were in church last week, you heard the first part of the story. David is so attracted to the woman Bathsheba that he sends her husband to certain death in battle, his aim being to claim and marry Bathsheba when she is widowed. David’s plan succeeds, and Bathsheba becomes his wife.
In today’s reading, the prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him an allegorical version of his own story. Instead of using one of his many lambs to feed a traveler he wants to entertain, a rich man takes the one, precious lamb belonging to a poor man. David hears this tale and is enraged. He says, “The man who has done this deserves to die!” Nathan says, “You are the man!”
In an instant David realizes the extent of his own wickedness and sin. "I have sinned against the LORD." In the coming weeks, we will hear of the turmoil that descends on David’s family as a result of this selfish act. But for the moment, let’s stay with depth of David’s sudden view into himself. Like Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s story, David has a flash of insight. He sees himself as he is. He doesn’t particularly like what he sees. But there is grace in this revelation. He can take it in, and because he can take it in he is able to grow and change.
The story of David the King and Nathan the prophet has much to say to us this morning. I would like to talk with you about it in two of its aspects: as a personal story of self-understanding, and as a parable of the relation between the faith community and our public life.
As many of you know, the big news this week for the Halls is that Kathy and I will be leaving here next month to move to Washington where I’ve been called as the Dean of Washington National Cathedral. This has been a surprising piece of news to many, especially as we’ve been here not quite three years. The responses have been all over the place: congratulatory, sad, angry, even cynical. I certainly understand the range of those feelings. When we came here in late 2009 we were sure that this would be my last job and we’d be here for a good while.
I have to tell you that I did not go after the position at the Cathedral. When they asked if I’d be a candidate, my first thought was, “I’m very happy where I am. I don’t need to do this.” But as I engaged the search process, it became clear to me that this was something I needed to do. When I compared the Cathedral’s needs and my gifts, I realized that I have a particular set of skills and experience that the Cathedral needs at this moment in its history. And because Washington National Cathedral is the public face of the Episcopal Church in America, its recovery from last year’s earthquake and its flourishing as the nation’s church is important work on behalf of the whole church.
The point here is, that like David and like Gabriel I have gone through a time when I have had to look inside, where God has shown me some aspects of myself. I’ve had to wrestle with the tension between humility and ambition. We all have moments like that. The first idea this morning relates to David’s aha! moment. “You are the man!” "I have sinned against the LORD." A big part of what God does in our lives over time is help us mature in the faith to the point where we can accept and acknowledge ourselves as we are. The monk and writer Thomas Merton defined salvation as claiming our unique identity, living as one’s authentic self. The longer I’m around, the more I agree with him.
One way to understand sin is to see it as a kind of selfishness. Another way to understand it is as a form of self-hatred. We tend to think we are good or loveable or holy only insofar as we line ourselves up against an idealized set of criteria. As Merton shows us, one deep Gospel truth is that all people, all things, are good in and of themselves. We get into trouble when we distrust that, when we think we have to be someone or something other than who and what we truly are. God became human in a real, specific person, Jesus of Nazareth. By so doing, God blessed each of us in our uniqueness and showed us that living faithful to the logic of our lives as Jesus did is the only thing that ultimately matters about being human.
There’s a second idea in this David-Nathan story, too, and it relates to the work I am going next to do. Israel was always suspicious of kings. So as the role of king arose so did the role of prophet. For every king in Israel there was also a prophet, a person called and appointed to remind the king, both personally and socially, of God’s values.
Now I’m not so bold as to think of myself as Nathan to Obama’s or Romney’s David. But I do believe that we are at a point in America where the faith community must assert its role as the prophetic community reminding our divided and dysfunctional leaders of God’s values as they relate to our public life. This is not to be confused with a personal “speaking truth to power”, a phrase I have always disliked. (As Noam Chomsky says, power already knows the truth and they certainly don’t want to hear it from you.) It’s not speaking to anybody. It’s speaking with them. I believe that the faith community—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus—I believe the faith community can reassert its relevance in the 21st century by convening a conversation among the polarized and divided constituencies of our national life. The aim of this conversation is to find common ground for shared work that will advance the common good. Common ground for the common good united in common prayer is a very Anglican way to see the relation of faith and politics.
We are all part of something bigger than ourselves. From the Puritans to the Civil Rights movement, from the Great Awakening to the Moral Majority, Progressive and Conservative Americans have always seen a religious dimension to our national life. We in the religious community have retreated of late from our historical role not only as the nation’s conscience but as the people who can stand with those on both sides of the divide and pull them together in the service of a more just, compassionate, and free society. Nathan’s ministry to David in today’s Old Testament passage reminds us that you and I, as members of this church and as people of faith, are called to be the voice of God’s values in a broken world.
This morning, I ask that you think of yourself as someone God loves enough to tell the truth to, and that you can come from that revelation into empowered to bring your faith into the world. God loves you in the places you don’t even know about and accept. God loves other people that way, too. God calls all of us to be agents of love, justice, healing and hope in the world. God calls all of us to see that the truest thing about all of us is our connection to each other and to God, the source and ground of our being.
It’s all finally about self-acceptance and connection. That’s what Jesus modeled for us. That’s how we can live. Here is how James Joyce describes what goes through Gabriel Conroy’s mind at the end of his story, “The Dead”:
Snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills . . . It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. [James Joyce, “The Dead”, Dubliners]