October 21, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 1.7 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Time’s Up: The Lost Art of Contrition” // II Samuel 11-12; Psalm 51:1-10
[Content Warning: on the reading and on the sermon – not graphic, but uncomfortable]
Perhaps you’ve seen her in movies or paintings. Or, more accurately, perhaps you’ve seen her skin in movies or paintings, damp and glistening from the water, curves like artwork, bare or barely covered by thin undergarments or towels. The storyteller wants us to know she’s very beautiful, as if that will justify what is about to happen to Bathsheba. She has no idea as she is bathing that she’s the object of some womanizing monarch’s lust. What we never see is the image of that soldier’s helmet when she first opens the door, the way the spear tip glints in the broad daylight in a way she’ll never be able to forget. What we never feel is that numb surrealness as she walks between those soldiers to the palace door, a cry for help stuck in her throat, or the frustration she has with her own brain, her own memory, how she could never remember afterward how actually she got from the gravel street into that inner chamber, but cannot forget the faces of the neighbors she passed and the way that no one, not a single one, intervened. We never see the hot tears falling into the basin as she tries to wash afterward, tries to wash away the violation and the shame. We aren’t there as she checks daily, multiple times daily, and with growing dread, for evidence of an empty womb. We don’t get to feel the black hole open up inside her when they bring word finally that Uriah is dead, and she suspects… oh she doesn’t know but she suspects, she loses all of this… her whole life, her future… solely to protect a king’s pride and reputation. We don’t usually get to see and feel all of that. Because we have not reckoned with the way our scriptures have been interpreted to condone and excuse sexual violence. We have rarely… perhaps never… been invited to say, “Me, too, Bathsheba. Me, too.” (Pause)
One year ago, the actress Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet that became a storm. In the wake of newly publicized stories about the sexual harassment and abuse of powerful directors in Hollywood, millions of people followed her in raising their hands to be counted among those who had experience sexual harassment, assault and abuse. More than 12 million in 24 hours on Facebook. Half a million in 12 hours on Twitter. Those numbers have only grown since, with different variations on the theme. If you search the hashtag #churchtoo, for example, you will be devastated by the frequency with which religious organizations and bodies cover up this kind of abuse. Tarana Burke actually started this movement more than a decade before Alyssa Milano’s tweet as a way to help especially young black and brown girls know they were not alone in their suffering of harassment and abuse. And in the year since her movement became a storm, a weird thing has happened. “What we’re often left with then, a year out from the hashtag, is an explosion of coverage of #MeToo, but a narrowing of how we talk about sexual violence,” Burke says, “One has, in many ways, slowly supplanted the other.” The more often we hear the hashtag, the less often we hear the words “sexual violence.” The more often someone shares a story, the less frequently someone owns up to the harm they’ve caused, it seems. The Economist shared some dispiriting research that among some groups and populations, some people are more likely today to believe false accusations are a big problem than they were a year ago. (False accusations are not statistically significant in any way.) Tarana Burke herself is a bit worried, she writes in a few publications this month, that we are going to lose the opportunity we have right now to really change. [journalists are using the shorthand #metoo much more than sexual violence, as if we are tiptoeing once again, accepting as inevitable once again, the sexual exploitation of the power-full over the power-less.] Which is why these recent hearings for a new Supreme Court Justice so enraged me. The Kavanaugh hearings were not political table tennis. I don’t care whether they helped Republicans or Democrats. I’m not enraged about the hearings because of the points they scored for one or the other political party. What’s enraged me about our public discourse around sexual violence this past month especially is that it keeps doing more violence to women especially. We haven’t yet reframed our story, collectively. It’s still all about him. It’s still a story worried about the preservation or loss of power rather than a story about restoring the essential human dignity of every character, every human involved. (Pause)
Let’s get clear. If this sacred story has anything in it to help us today, we must be clear about one thing: For many years and from many pulpits, what David does in II Samuel has been called “adultery.” But I want to be clear from the start: The crime King David commits is rape. Bathsheba has no choice when the king sends his soldiers to knock on her door. They take her, he violates her, she washes, he sends her home. There is no wooing or cuddling or infatuated conversation as they walk along the creek bank. This is rape. (It’s rape because it is about power, the power to take a body and use a body without permission.) To make matters worse, David then orchestrates a murder to cover it up. We had to skip that part of the story for the sake of time, but when David hears that Bathsheba is pregnant, he calls her husband back from the front lines on the pretense of getting an update about how the battle is going, serves him a few glasses of wine, tells him to go home and see his wife, “wash his feet,” wink, wink. Uriah has more integrity than David, though, and refuses to enjoy what the other soldiers cannot yet, so he sleeps in the palace doorway. When the servants discover him the next morning, David tries one more time the next day to get Uriah drunk enough to go home and sleep with his wife, but even under the influence of alcohol, Uriah’s integrity stands. So, David sends the man back to battle, unknowingly carrying his own death sentence. “Put Uriah in the thick of the fighting,” David writes his field commander, “and then fall back so that Uriah gets struck down.” They do as the king says. Uriah dies. When you’re the king, you can get away with anything. Even rape. Even murder. (Pause)
Because this story, this king, is so central to the covenant narrative of our faith, we have to reckon with it and with its impact. If it were not for Nathan… David may never have answered for the evil he did. I would have appreciated if the prophet had used a different parable when he confronted David, something that didn’t compare Bathsheba to a poor ewe lamb that some poor man owns. Maybe possession and wealth is the only way to get through to David, maybe Nathan knows that. I’m going to hope. The good news in this story is that we do have a call to repentance, a call to own up to the evil and the wrong that’s been done. We have, connected to this story, a psalm of penitence, Psalm 51. It’s not perfect. It gets a couple things wrong, including that this sin is not against God, God alone. David has sinned against Bathsheba most of all, taking her body, murdering her husband, and robbing her of the future she would have had with him. That never gets owned. So, while churches have traditionally made this story about David, we need to stop doing that and see all the characters in it. We need to listen to the call of the Spirit through the prophet and psalmist, a call back to our humanity, each and every one, including a call to the perpetrator David to change. Reading a little further on, we can tell a few chapters later, when David doesn’t react at all to the rape of his own daughter by a half-brother, we can tell David hasn’t really learned yet that women are people, too. We can tell David hasn’t changed. “Apologies, in and of themselves, are not work,” writes Tarana Burke. “They precede work.” They are the first recognition that something said or done has harmed another and that we need to change.
The call of God through the text this morning is a call to transformation and to reconciliation. It is not a call to say, “That’s okay anyway. God forgives everything.” God does forgive everything, but God also calls us to change. And it starts with the honesty of calling things and naming things for what they are. That’s something that every single one of our kids learns today in school. Every one of our schools teaches kids a way to sit together and work through hurt. In our kids’ school, it’s W.O.W.: What happened? Own Up (own the things you’ve said or done that caused someone hurt). Way Forward (Find a new way forward, in other words, change how you are relating so that more harm doesn’t happen again). The spiritual practice of contrition, confession, and repentance is the way we restore the dignity of all the characters in the story, all the people. It’s the way we tell the truth that it’s not guilt that is the problem when we recognize harm, but that we want to get rid of shame. We are not bad people, but we do harm. The call of God in this story is to proclaim the good news “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you do not despise.” Out of a broken heart God can bring new life. (Pause)
We have today, we are today, characters in this same story. Bathsheba, you may be interested to know, does pretty well in the end. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney points out that she reappears in the Biblical narrative in First Kings 1 and 2, where Solomon installs her on a throne at his right-hand side, gets up off the throne and bows down before her, initiating perhaps, the role of Queen Mother, which will become an authoritative office in the later monarchy. “She survives the rape and David and thrives in spite of what it and he has done to her.” She’ll appear again in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, though there the storyteller, curiously, reminds us of David’s sin by calling her not by her name but “Uriah’s wife.”
We have a million Bathshebas. More than 15 million, in fact. We have in our midst women (and men), adults who as children, teens, and adults were violated and abused by someone else’s power-greed, who had no choice because the doors were locked or no one could hear them or because their bank account was jointly held and they weren’t sure how to get out. We have Bathshebas who washed themselves after their violation, who wept over their losses and pain, and still lived to make a name for themselves and even thrive. We have a million Bathshebas who have suffered this kind of violence and gone on to thrive.
We have plenty of Davids still, too. “When you’re famous, you can do anything…” (I’m not going to finish that quote because it is so vulgar and demeaning.) And we haven’t held these David’s accountable for objectifying others, for using their power to take other people’s bodies and use them.
What could use more Nathans. We need more people in power to check other people in power for their abuses of those with less power. We need Nathans who will say, gently or strongly, calling in — and when that does not work calling out — the David’s to say, “You are the man!” You’ve done this thing. Own up to it. And change.
We have here in our midst all these same characters. And my question is: How are we going to let this moment transform us? How are we going to let this moment change us and restore the essential dignity of each and every one? Because that’s the invitation I believe God is offering.
God is gracious. And merciful. And wants us to change. God does love us just as we are despite the worst thing we have done or could do… and God wants us to be made more whole. Nathan gives David the opportunity for real repentance. And if David could have seen women as humans – and not just prized possessions there to satisfy his own needs – perhaps the violence that plagued David’s house ever after would have been averted. We get a second chance now, as people of faith, to stop these cycles, to not betray Bathsheba yet again. We get a chance now, today, as people of faith, to get free by making room for confession – not only the confessions of #metoo that I’ve been hearing, but also the confessions of those who have harmed who are willing to say, “I did this thing. And now I realize how much it hurt.” That’s the kind of grace in which we are called to live, a grace in which God creates new hearts for each broken one.
 Following Wilda C. Gafney’s translation, I read “and she purified herself after her defilement” chronologically, as occurring after David “lay with her,” Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Monarchy.
 Tarana Burke, interviewed by Debra Birnbaum, “#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke on the Rigorous Work That Still Lies Ahead,” Variety.com, Sept. 25, 2018.
 Tarana Burke quoted in Variety.com Sept. 25, 2018 and in Jezebel.com, Oct. 9, 2018.
 Tarana Burke, “#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke on the Rigorous Work That Still Lies Ahead,” Variety, as told to Debra Birnbaum, September 25, 2018.