Who was your childhood hero? Maybe it was a favorite author, an actor, an athlete, maybe a particularly cool seminarian. For me it was Omar Visquel, the shortstop for the Cleveland Indians in the 90s. I grew up as a huge baseball fan and he was my guy. He won 11 gold glove awards, nine of them the first nine years of my life. The guy could vacuum up any ball that was hit anywhere near him. And he batted lefty. I’m left handed, so that always made me feel cool. He’s also a pretty decent artist. He paints, he sculpts, he’s a rock and roll drummer. In 1999, there was a mudslide in his native Venezuela and he raised $500,000 for disaster relief. He was my hero, and honesty a pretty good one to have. I still have a bobblehead of him at my parent’s house.
This past December he was in the news again. Unfortunately not for baseball, art, or charitable work. His wife was leaving him and accused him of domestic violence. It’s always hard to hear stories of spousal abuse. No one should have to suffer, especially at the hands of someone they love. But, if I’m being honest, when it’s someone I don’t like, I am still upset by the fact that someone was harmed but there is that little bit of self satisfaction. I knew that guy was bad news. That politician, the one I don’t agree with, he is a scumbag and should resign. Yeah, that journalist always seemed a like a creep. I’m not surprised. Take his show off the air. It’s way harder to hear when someone I like, someone I considered a hero, was capable of terrible things. I find myself tempted to downplay or ignore whatever it is they have done. I might justify it by saying the good he has done balances it out, even though in my heart I still know he has caused harm.
In some ways, David is our biblical equivalent of a childhood hero. Many of us learned the story of David defeating Goliath when we were young. The tale of a plucky shepherd boy defeating a powerful warrior. We love a good underdog story. Then he becomes the greatest king in Israelite history. And to top it all off, he’s an artist. We attribute about half of the psalms to him, including fan favorite psalm 23. There’s a lot to like, a lot to admire about David.
But you wouldn’t know that from today’s reading. The David we see today uses people for his own gain. David uses Joab and his officers to fight a war against the Ammonites. Meanwhile, he sits safely at home. While he’s lounging he sees the beautiful Bathsheba bathing. He wants her, so he sends for her and uses her for his own pleasure and he impregnates her. Then David wants to avoid responsibility for his actions so he attempts to use Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up the pregnancy. But it doesn’t work. David is unable to convince Uriah to sleep with his wife because of his sense of duty. He attempts to persuade Uriah with a feast and alcohol, but to no avail. If only David were as principled. So again, David uses his officer Joab to insulate himself from consequences. He sends a letter telling Joab to make sure Uriah is killed in battle. So this is a story cruel manipulation, of sexual impropriety at best and possibly even rape, and a story of willful, premeditated murder.
Why is this in the bible? This surely can’t be how God wants us to behave. David is supposed to be the hero of this story, the hero of the Israelites, the proudly proclaimed ancestor of Jesus. And yet we have preserved his sins for thousands of years. Why can’t we keep only the good? Focus on David the shepherd and musician, David the beloved friend of Jonathan, David who danced joyfully before the Lord?
We didn’t keep this story because it is a model for how we should act. We kept it because it is a model for how we should remember. We must call out sin when we see it, even if they are the sins of people we like, especially if they are the sins of people we like because that is so much more difficult.
We must call out these sins because yes, there are other stories about David that paint him in a better light, but if we erase this story, we erase the stories of the people he has sinned against. We erase Bathsheba and Uriah, whose lives were fundamentally altered by the sins of David. We disrespect their memory and their value as fellow humans if we do not tell their stories and acknowledge the wrong that has been done to them.
It’s hard! It’s much easier to tell the sanitized story. This is exactly the same battle that we continue to fight about the history of our country. I’d rather not tell the story of the founding fathers as slaveholders. The freedom fighters in the musical Hamilton are much more fun than the whole story that includes Peggy, Dick, and other people who’s names have been lost who were enslaved by Alexander Hamilton. To ignore that part of the story is to deny their existence. We must be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable to atone for the harm that has been done to them.
That is the other reason to tell these stories. God’s grace is freely offered, no matter what we have done. But just because it is offered doesn’t mean we receive it. Martin Luther wrote, “There are two kinds of sin: one is confessed, and this no one should leave unforgiven; the other kind is defended and this no one can forgive, for it refuses either to be counted as sin or to accept forgiveness.” Forgiveness needs to be accepted. And to do that we must admit wrongdoing and atone for our sins. We have to recognize when what we or our ancestors have done was wrong and we must strive to be better. And we can be better! Omar Visquel might not have proved that to me yet but his team has. Cleveland baseball changed their name this week from the Indians to the Guardians, after the famous Guardians of Transportation statues on the Hope Bridge in Cleveland. In Response, the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition released this statement: “This momentous occasion is the culmination of over 60 years of grassroots advocacy and activism by indigineous leadership. Today we stand with our heads held high and full of gratitude to those who came before us in this fight. Our community has worked tirelessly to be recognized as diverse and vibrant, instead of being portrayed in inaccurate and harmful ways. This name change will create a place where Native American children and their families are valued and fully seen. We are pleased the Cleveland baseball team took a comprehensive approach to listen and learn and show it is possible to take steps toward change. We now call on the nearly 200 schools in Ohio with Native mascots to follow suit.” Cleveland admitted the sin, they acknowledged the stories of those who have been wronged and those who have fought for change, and they will continue to participate in the change that will make the rest of the state better. That is what a confession of sin and a change in behavior looks like. And that is what leads to redemption.
And maybe you don’t care about the redemption of a baseball team or David or the founding fathers. I wouldn’t blame you after hearing some of these stories. But we should rejoice that God’s grace and forgiveness extends even to them because, though most of us are not guilty of rape, enslaving people, or murder, I would bet most of us have used people to some extent. And when we have, we can be tempted to bury those stories, to defend our sins and try to focus on the good we have done instead. As a community and as individuals we certainly have done a lot of good. In many ways, we are heroes for others to admire. But as Christians we are called to be more than childhood heroes. We are called to be accountable, to confess our sins, to acknowledge the stories of those we have hurt, and do what we can to reduce that harm. And when we do, we are able to accept God’s all encompassing love and grace. A love so deep that it redeems us even when we don’t deserve to be called heroes.