Sermon preached August 2, 2015
Texts: II Samuel 11:16-12:13a
“Reflections of My Life,” The Marmalade https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79NiN7ISW7E
I was ten when that song was released, but I’ve heard it often enough over the years. I like its tunefulness and the name of the group – “The Marmalade.”
Reflections. In Mark 7, Jesus tells the disciples that it is within, within the human heart, that come the things that mess us up, that defile us. It is in the human heart that we can find “evil intentions.” Of course, other things are also found there. Paul encourages the Philippian Christians, to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). He invited Roman followers of Jesus to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” and to “let love be genuine” (Romans 12: 2, 9). From within the heart can come beauty and goodness, compassion and love.
Attending to the heart and mind and soul – self-reflection seems an important spiritual discipline. The late-thirteenth and early fourteenth century German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: To get at the core of God at God’s greatest, one must first get into their own core… for no one can know God who has not first known himself or herself (The Choice is Always Ours, 105). St. Ignatius, an important influence on John Wesley, encouraged prayer-filled mindfulness and self-reflection in what has come to be known as the Daily Examen. It involves reflecting on the presence of God in your life, on reviewing life with gratitude, on paying attention to one’s emotional experience.
A degree of self-reflection seems important to develop in our faith, to deepen our journey with Jesus. For instance, if all we ever ask when we read the Bible are questions about history or theology and never about our own lives, we are missing something vitally important. I love the intellectual questions, but I can keep them theoretical, at arm’s length. I also need to ask about what’s going on in my heart, mind, soul, life.
Like most spiritual practices, this one can be misused. We do not want to become the Christian spiritual equivalents of Narcissus, so enamored with looking within that we never engage others and the important tasks that are a part of the life of faith. I also think, as with most spiritual practices, temperament plays a role, so that some of us need more self-reflective time than others for a healthy spirituality. None of us can avoid it all together, though.
II Samuel 11:26-12:13a is a powerful example of the need to engage our faith thoughtfully, personally and with self-reflection. David is told a story by Nathan that outrages him. A powerful man has acted unjustly and should re-pay the damage he has done. In one of the most dramatic moments in the Scriptures, Nathan turns the story in on David – “You are the man!”
There is a lot of pain and hurt and injustice in the world. As followers of Jesus, that is of concern to us. We want to engage in reconciliation where there has been oppression and racism. We want to see the hungry fed, the homeless housed. We want to take good care of the planet and pass it on to our children and grandchildren. We care about poverty. We are outraged by abuse. This is all to the good. There is also the more difficult task of looking within to see where we have been influenced by racism, sexism, heterosexism, where we act in ways that perhaps don’t contribute to the common good. This is not meant to be an exercise in guilt, but an opportunity for growth – though it can be difficult and uncomfortable.
Once upon a time there was a king who offered half his kingdom and his daughter in marriage to anyone who could steal something without anyone finding out about it. The offer was widely broadcast in the kingdom and soon young men began showing up proclaiming their cleverness. “I stole this beautiful necklace, and no one knows about it.” “I stole this magnificent horse, and no one is the wiser.” To each young man, the king would simply say, “No, forget it.” It was quite confusing. One day a young man arrived in the court of the king with nothing. “I have nothing at all, your Majesty.” “Why not?” questioned the king. The man replied, “It is not possible to steal something with absolutely nobody knowing about it, because I myself would always know.” This was what the king was looking for, someone with wisdom and conscience, not cleverness. (Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness, 175).
When we make time for self-reflection we will find in our hearts, minds, souls, and lives beauty, goodness, love, wounds, scars, and sins. Self-reflection is a humanizing activity. We find elements of shared humanity in knowing our own joys, sorrows, triumphs, foibles, wrongdoing, and goodness. Self-reflection will have its uncomfortable moments. Just imagine David’s moment. In the turn of a screw, David goes from outraged champion of justice, compassionate king, to someone who has to come to grips with his own deepest betrayals and treachery.
The Noble Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to a Polish poet named Wislawa Szymborska. She died in 2012. I had never heard of her until that award, but what I remember when she received it was an interview with American poets who had translated some of her work. This was on the PBS Newshour. I have never forgotten one of Szymborska’s poems read during that interview. It is entitled, “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” https://docs.google.com/document/d/14ROzpO8dSdJjm6_dgW-xBPndYqNRSKozlhIMRZtSjUo/edit?hl=en_US&pli=1
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a toon,
in every other respect they’re light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is number one.
(Symborska, Map: collected and last poems, 227)
Self-reflection is a vitally important spiritual practice and discipline, and that includes those moments when conscience reminds us of where we have fallen short. But God does not intend for us to stay mired in our disturbed conscience. God puts away David’s sin, it says in II Samuel. The consequences will remain and ripple, but forgiveness is there for David in God’s love and grace. Forgiveness is always there for us in God’s love and grace.
Forgiveness – not cheap, not easy, but always a possibility in the grace and love of God. If self-reflection is a vitally important spiritual practice, so, too is accepting forgiveness. I have spoken of forgiveness often, but don’t think I’ve ever quite emphasized our need to accept forgiveness as a spiritual practice. I believe it is, and just as with offering forgiveness, it is a process. It is a vitally important process, though, because we don’t want to get stuck every time we do something wrong in a cycle of self-recrimination and self-abuse.
In another place, Meister Eckhart writes, “God does not work in all hearts alike but according to the preparation and sensitivity God finds in each” (The Choice is Always Ours, 383). Essential to our heart work are the practices of self-reflection and accepting forgiveness. May God grant us the grace and courage to engage in these practices in ways that help transform us by the renewing of our minds, in ways that help construct the mind of Christ within us, in ways that help us grow in genuine love. Amen.