The 10 Best Ways, VII: Love Triangles
Bible Text: PSALM 51:1–12 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
“You shall not commit adultery.” — Exodus 20:14
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Well, I drew the short straw. Out of ten possibilities, I pulled adultery.
So, I spoke with a number of you about what you thought. In a conversation with one of our local sages, Silvi Pirn, we reflected, most of us violate most of the ten best ways at some time. Okay, we are not murderers. But, in Chicago, we seem to have become immune to weekly murders among our neighbors. We’ve learned to live with murder and misrepresenting your income or expenses is stealing. Some take the lord’s name in vain. Coveting is hard to avoid. We don’t always honor our parents.
Of the Ten Commandments, adultery is the one that still causes us to squirm. It is the titillating plot line in dramas—and comedies—throughout history. Either we fall into the 30% or so of marriages that have endured adultery, felt temptation, or have witnessed the damaging consequences of infidelity in our community. Adultery is never an individual sin; it impacts wide circles of people as proved by the Ashley Madison website breach several years ago.
As with all the other sermons in this series, we will lean into the “best way” to live by reflecting on fidelity in marriage, but I also want us to appreciate, marriage is not the “best way” for everyone either by choice or circumstance. But, for those married, fidelity is the best way.
Adultery is recorded back to the time of Abraham and Jacob—our ancestral fathers were not always paragons of faithfulness.
Even King David, chosen by God, who felled Goliath, was revered for his courage, wisdom, and leadership, falters when his potent hormones contaminate his devotion to God.
This story from 2 Samuel begins innocently enough: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle…” (2 Samuel 11) except one year David, whose prowess with a slingshot and as a warrior, surprisingly, stayed home. We don’t know why.
Mid-day, perhaps he was bored, unaccustomed to civilian life, David takes a stroll out onto the veranda and notices a woman, a “very beautiful woman” taking a dip in the pool next door.
David finds out her name that her husband is away with the army, and he sends for her. When she arrives at the palace, he “knows” her in the biblical sense and sends her home.
A few months later, there’s a message for the king. David reads, “I’m pregnant. Bathsheba.” Again, David reacts. To cover up his adultery, David brings her husband back from the front and then tells him “Go home” thinking he would sleep with his lovely wife. But Uriah, in solidarity with his soldiers and his mission, refuses the offer and, instead, sleeps outside.
As with cover ups and lies, it grows worse. By the time Uriah returns to duty, David has ordered the general to put him where the fighting is heaviest and then withdraw his surrounding troops. According to plan, Uriah is killed in action. Bathsheba does not remain a war widow long; David married her.
End of the story? Not quite. David’s wise prophet, Nathan, shows up at the palace. He tells the king a story about a rich man who has stolen a poor man’s only, beloved lamb and slaughtered it for dinner. Without realizing this is just a story, David is enraged. “Who is this guy? Tell me. I will not tolerate such cruelty.”
Without skipping a beat, Nathan stares into his eyes, “You’re the guy!” David is devastated and knows why Nathan told him this story. The subscript to Psalm 51 identifies this as his prayer. Imagine David on his knees, wretched with adultery and murder, praying to God as I read portions.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment…. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 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.
Please pray with me.
Dear God, you are faithful to us throughout our days. Written on stone tablets with your own hand, you gave the best ways to live. You spoke words through prophets and in the flesh in Jesus the Christ. When we lay our lives before you and against your words, we acknowledge how we stray from your way and pray your grace will bring us back. Through our meditations on your word, bring us back. Amen.
Before we get to adultery, we need to start with marriage. Marriage is a gift. When we stand in the chancel as a community to witness a Christian marriage, we begin with words of scripture “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” And then the “Statement of the Gift of Marriage” in which we say, “we gather in the presence of God to give thanks for the gifts of life and love and marriage…” for marriage is a sacred binding together of two people into a covenant. God wants us to have helpmates, to delight in our partners, and blesses us with human sexuality. Gifts.
Marriage becomes the foundation for not just the two people, their families, their children, but also the entire community; all are bound in this covenant. Before we ask God’s blessing on a marriage, we ask the congregation to affirm they will do everything in their power to uphold the covenant. (As a brief aside, after we were married I moved into my husband’s home. A week later, I was out on the front porch gathering the newspaper and my new neighbor, who had been at the wedding, seriously inquired, “how’s it going?” “Fine” I replied, a bit skeptical. “Well, you know, I’m responsible.” After that, I had visions of him standing at the foot of our bed wagging his finger at me.)
But, as much as others are involved and the community enriched, Christian marriage is a love triangle between two people and God. “Love” in this context is not the Hallmark card sentimental emotion, but “love” in the biblical sense of caring for the welfare of another despite their emotions. Two people need God and God’s love to endure the stress and strain of a life-long covenant.
A covenant is stronger than a secular, legal contract, enduring even when one of the parties fails to uphold their end, until death or divorce. Think of God’s covenant with Abraham and us…despite our repeated failures as God’s beloved people, God remains faithful to loving us. The covenant of marriage is an obligation and a gift from God.
But, we are human. Is it reasonable to expect we can be faithful in marriage?
Katherine Willis Pershey is a pastor in Western Springs and has published several books baring much of her sex life and marriage. After acknowledging she was attracted to a man, not her husband, she writes, “it was disorienting, terrifying and the slightest bit exhilarating” …but she also realizes “when it comes to marriage, temptation and desire are nearly as shameful—nearly as sinful.” She notes Jesus was the first to equate lust with adultery of the heart. You may recall decades ago when Jimmy Carter confessed he had sinned in adultery when he lusted after another woman in his heart.
She did the only thing she could fathom; she confided to her husband of ten years her temptation. He was hurt, but also understood that amidst this testing, she was trustworthy. She was faithful.
Then Pershey describes how she continued to turn to her husband, finding not confinement within a marriage covenant, but rather in freedom. In marriage, she has a “delightfully unbounded relationship…(where) there is more to know of each other physically, spiritually, emotionally… and we have the incredible freedom to explore each other without hesitation or shame.” She professes, “Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise, fidelity can be sexy, very sexy.”
But, we are human. Our potent hormones, wandering passions and perhaps, bad habits, can draw us away from marriage. Adultery violates one’s marriage, it hurts the other person, damages community life… and most of all, sins against God.
As time and secular ideas have stripped the sacred origin away from our moral codes of conduct, keeping the ideas but denying any transcendent implication. These codes seem to be up for grabs, perhaps negotiable. In our current election campaigns, some have tried to “normalize” adultery and tell us sexual aggressions are just part of life. But as people of faith, we know our actions have consequences with others and always with God.
In our story, when King David assumed he was above and beyond the laws as king, his passions were to be satisfied, and getting his way with others was all that mattered, he turned himself into something abhorrent. With Uriah’s blood on his hands and the community equally damaged, David realized the only way to live was to turn to God.
In the psalm we read, David first confessed his sin, not to Uriah or Bathsheba or Nathan, but before God: “Against you I have sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.”
Knowing what he has done can never be undone, he and the entire community bears the scars of his behavior, David asks for what God, alone, can do; “cleanse him”, “wash him”, “put a new and right spirit within him”, and he repeats in his prayer “sustain him with a right spirit” so he will not stray again.
Our English translations do not do justice to the power of the Hebrew words of God’s divine ability. God can penetrate to where our innermost secrets are hiding to cleanse us and to restore truth and wisdom. There is a reason God is part of our love triangle; we need such divine intervention.
Then, other people are involved since forgiveness and reconciliation involves them as well.
In the face of such hurt, many of us say, “not yet,” which is understandable. Some may say “never.”
A wise southern preacher, Welton Gaddy has written a book, Adultery and Grace, that calls us to task when we deny forgiveness. He writes “(m)iserly withholding of grace from adulterers communicates a false gospel that is in fact no gospel. A graceless response to evil becomes another form of evil. To suppose that adultery (or any sin) stands beyond the reach of divine mercy is rank heresy. If the gospel cannot deal with adultery, it is too inept to cope with any form of immorality.”
These ten best ways challenge all of us to forgive when others stray—or forgive ourselves when we know we have fallen short. By remembering, these ways are given to us by God, so we must remember God can restore us when we falter. Grace and forgiveness are very hard for each of us, but not for God.
Today we mark All Saints’ Day by specifically remembering those in our lives who have died and particularly those in the past year. To call them “saints” does not imply they have been canonized by Rome, or that their lives were blameless, but that by their baptism they have gone before us into life eternal.
This is a particularly poignant All Saints as fans have made pilgrimages to Wrigley. These faithful remember the generations before them who bequeathed Cub’s passion by writing their beloveds’ names on the walls or sidewalks or anyplace to signify their faith in the Cubs was not ill-founded. This win has transcended people and time with a grace few could have expected. All Saints’ Day also calls us to think of our own fragile life.
When we look to the end of our days, we wonder if we have lived a life that mattered. Have we lived with the best of intentions and in the best of ways with each other and God? We know our sin. Is the Psalmist right? When we stand before God, can we be washed clean?
Have we been able to ask for forgiveness, receive forgiveness, and forgive others? Forgiveness is tough and requires also an ability to forget.
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard thinks forgetting is the opposite of creating. In creating, you make something out of nothing. In forgetting, you make nothing out of something. He says that choosing to forget hurt or injustice suffered at the hands of another is like taking something and putting it behind your back—it is still there. If you were asked about it, you’d have to grant that it exists, but you don’t look at it, it’s not between you, but behind you.
As we think about the end of our days… or all of our days and how we stand before God, we are to remember, right next to us is the one who also bears the scars of earthly life, Jesus. Our love triangle is now different. Standing alongside of us is the man who has endured the worst the world could do, and on the night before he was killed, hosted a dinner. He asked all those who followed to remember in breaking bread and drinking the cup how much he loves us. He gives us a new covenant; promising forgiveness and to put all our sins behind him as we stand before God.
Remember this love triangle we’ve been in our whole lives…not just the love triangle of marriage…one that is even more divine. Katherine Willis Pershey “A Long Obedience,” The Christian Century, January 21, 2015, 20.  Stephen L. Cook, “Psalm 51 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Ed David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 13  J Randall Nichols, review of Adultery and Grace, Welton Gaddy, Pastoral Psychology, Vol 46, No. 5, (1998) 374.  Martin Copenhaver, “Forgiving and Forgetting,” Still Speaking Daily Devotional, October 18, 2016, http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_forgiving_and_forgetting.