Sunday, August 09, 2009
The Pain of Loss: Sermon on 2 Samuel 18
You all know that I love a good film. I love good storytelling (which is one of the reason I am endlessly enchanted by scripture). I love watching actors embody roles so thoroughly that by the end of the film I am halfway convinced that the boy in the round glasses really can fly on a broomstick and cast spells with a magic wand. I love the way the soundtrack lifts me into the mood of the story, and the lighting, and all kinds of cinematic details I’m sure I don’t even understand. I love the movies! But there is one thing I do not love: arriving late, in the middle of the story. If I am late for a movie I would rather walk out that try to catch up.
This is the conundrum we are presented with in reading this chapter from 2 Samuel. We have arrived late, in the middle of the movie. There are armies massing, and commanders being sent into the field. The passage is filled with unpronounceable Hebrew names, plus one very familiar one. But the fact remains: without some massive catching up, it’s awfully tempting to walk out on this film! So where does this story begin?
We’ve dipped into the story of David several times this summer; the lectionary has been offering us passages from 1 and 2 Samuel since June. Taken together, these passages portray the rise of a king, certainly the most famous and celebrated king of all Israel. But they also give us a remarkably detailed depiction of a man in all his complexity: his humility and his hubris, his courage and his cowardice, his true, enduring love and his sexual appetite run amok. Today’s passage, in a strange way, represents a culmination of all these things—the life of the king and the man, intersecting on the field of battle.
Armies are massing. The leader of the enemy armies is, shockingly, almost unthinkably, Absalom, son of David. You may remember that, when we first met David, the narrator took great pains to describe his physical beauty. Absalom is a chip off the old block. “In all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” [2 Sam. 14:25]. Absalom is particularly noted for the luster and thickness of his hair, which, when he cut it once each year, weighed a full two lbs. In addition to his physical beauty, Absalom has a winning way of dealing with people: he is utterly charming and beloved, and his campaign against David has some serious backing to it. But what on earth has brought him to this point, the point of attempting to overthrow his own father—that is, to kill David, and seize his throne? How far do we have to go back to understand this story?
Do we have to go back to the story of Absalom’s brother and sister? David had eight wives (that we know of), and as many as 17 sons. But scripture tells us the short and sad story of only one daughter, Tamar, also a beauty, Absalom’s full sister. David’s firstborn, Amnon, Absalom’s half-brother, fell in love with Tamar, and according to the laws and customs of that day, he could have asked his father for her hand in marriage and expected to be granted it. But that is not what he did. In a scene that is chilling for the planning and execution of the act, Amnon raped his sister, and then had her expelled from his home. David was angry. But no penalty was ever meted out to his beloved eldest son. Absalom received his devastated sister into his home, and proceeded to brood over this dreadful crime and plan his revenge, until, two years later, he murdered his brother. David was able to ignore the rape of a daughter but could not and would not ignore the murder of a son, and so Absalom was banished.
Is that the beginning of the story? Or do we have to go back even further to understand? David’s inaction in the face of his daughter rape by his son is troubling, to say the very least. Was David hesitant to punish Amnon because he was David’s firstborn? Or is it that here too is a chip off the old block, that Amnon is simply and purely the son of David? David, who took Bathsheba and killed her husband to cover up his crime. Is that the beginning of the story?
Where does any story of violence and bloodshed begin? In the end, does it matter? Because here is where it ends: A father knowing that his son is trying to kill him, but begging his generals to deal gently with the young man. The generals, instead, knowing that war is war, and what must be done, must be done. Absalom, horrifyingly, caught up in the branches of a tree by his beautiful and abundant hair, being run through by eleven of his father’s men. And perhaps the single most wrenching verse in all of scripture: the keening of a father who has lost another child: “Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, oh Absalom, my son, my son!” [2 Samuel 18:33]
The words of Psalm 130 might have emerged from just such a scenario: “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!” It is hard to imagine depths of despair and loss greater than the loss of a child. I read this week the comments of Ralph Milton, a man whose own life experience made this text come alive for him. He wrote,
When I read this passage I can't help but think of my son Lloyd who died by his own hand after years of rebellion and dysfunction. It wasn't his fault. His birth mother gave him the legacy of fetal alcohol syndrome. And where did her alcoholism come from? From a legacy of pain and dysfunction from the way we treated [Native American] people over many generations…
Where does any story of heartbreak and loss begin? We trace the story of David’s heartbreak back and find a tangled, almost un-tangleable tapestry of human choices and fate, with some divine retribution thrown in for good measure. We should be clear: the outcome of this story would be predictable to any ancient readers who had been paying attention. David had shed blood; therefore David’s blood (in the form of the blood of his sons) was shed. This is one biblical ethic of justice, and it’s one that is still quite popular nearly a decade into the twenty-first century. An eye for eye. A tooth for tooth. And the whole world blind and toothless, as our friend Tevye reminds us.
But look at who bucks that trend in the story. Look at the sole character who seeks to find a way out of the dreadful mess that is chapter 18, a way in which the blood of Absalom will not be shed: it is his father, David. Absalom has rallied “all of Israel” against David, and still David implores his henchmen to be gentle with the young man. But, as another commentator I read this week opined, “Some 20,000 soldiers had lost their lives fighting over this man. To return him safely to the king's favor would be like Churchill inviting Hitler to join a post-war cabinet.”
Maybe. David’s willingness to forgive the son who was out to kill him could have been considered downright delusional, a sure sign that it really was time to put the old man out to pasture. Or, it could have been the fruit of a life of great complexity and contradiction, in which, even in the face of his most appalling behavior, David experienced the grace and mercy of God. This is another biblical ethic of justice, though not nearly as popular as the one involving eyes and teeth. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, I have heard it said, like the wideness of the sea. The wideness of God’s mercy can be unsettling to us… it includes, often, forgiveness that we would not, for the most part, be willing to extend. I heard a tale a few years ago of a minister-to-be coming up to be examined by his regional ordaining body. His statement of faith included a vision of the coming reign of God in which the banquet table of heaven included Anne Frank seated side by side with Adolf Hitler. That was just too much for some people. That is just too much for most of us. And yet… if we are serious about the claims scripture makes about God, it is not too much for God. In the face of the shocking, unthinkable offenses we can commit, there is a weeping divine Parent who would far prefer to help us get out of our messes alive.
And sometimes, it is we who are the weeping parents… or children or spouses or siblings or friends. The pain of loss is not unique to those of us who have raised children. No one escapes it. Life deals us these tremendous blows, which the biblical writers often interpret as part of a divine plan. But I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that pain and loss are a part of God’s plan for us. Read the first chapters of Genesis. I believe that fullness of life, abundance and grace are the sum total of God’s plan for us. A beautiful plan that is sometimes broken, and that we claim to understand at our peril. We do not know the reasons. We cannot know the reasons. There may be no reasons. Sometimes, many years later, patterns may emerge in what was untangleable, and we may perceive a design, even a Hand at work. But that may take years, or it may never come until we meet our Maker face to face. And it is always for us to perceive, the ones who have suffered, never for someone else to look at our lives and say, “Oh, here is why that happened.” Those who mourn, those who suffer must be afforded the privilege of discerning the pattern—if indeed there is one—in their own time, and with God’s help, not ours, however well-meaning we might be.
Where does any story of heartbreak and loss begin? It begins, always, with a great risk, a risk we all take with trepidation or with joy. It begins, always, with love. Without love there would be no loss; without caring there would be no heartbreak. Without love, David would shrug his shoulders and say, “There are other sons.” With love, he groans his inarticulate wail of grief. We love, and therefore we will—I promise you—know what it is to grieve. But we love. And that may or may not lessen the pain of our loss. That may or may not impart its wisdom to us. That may or may not make loss bearable. But I can say with conviction: only in loving can we participate in the life of God. Only in loving.
So, let us love. Let us love, knowing that those who love always know loss, even as we know God. Let us love, participating in the overflowing grace of the One who weeps over our rebellion, and still, always, hopes to welcome us home. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sources: Ralph Milton and Jim Taylor, “Opening Comments for Sunday August 9, 2009”, Midrash Online Lectionary Discussion Group.
Image: Absalom, by Albert Weisgerber