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The David Story 9: Heartbreak and Hope

August 15, 2012

A sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2012. This is the ninth and final sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel and the biblical David.

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 14-15, 31-33          Psalm 130

Once again, a lot has happened in the intermittent chapters between this week’s lectionary text and last week’s accounting of the prophet Nathan’s words of judgment for David.  The chapters immediately preceding today’s reading are no less violent and disturbing.  In fact, the patterns look tragically familiar. Amnon, David’s son, falls for his half-sister Tamar, who is the full sister of Absalom, another of David’s sons.  Amnon lures Tamar to his bedroom and rapes her. David learns of what happened and chooses not to punish Amnon.  Absalom is less forgiving and kills Amnon himself. Absalom is handsome and politically adept and uses women as pawns in seeking power; it’s hard not to think of him as a younger version of David.  But Absalom and his father are not at peace; Absalom wants his father’s throne. In the previous chapters, Absalom rises in power against his father.  Our reading begins as David’s soldiers are being sent out to put down Absalom’s rebellion:

Read 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 14-15, 31-33

The King – as ruler of the people – was invited to be a life-giving agent; to bear life and judgment as necessary for the well-being of the community.  This is according to Old Testament scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann writing on kingship ideology in Ancient Israel.   Brueggemann then states what has become clear to all of us following the downward spiral of David’s story, “David is in fact not at all the life-bringer; from the perspective of the central task of royal theology, he is a failure. Although one might expect death to occur in conflict over royal succession, it is inordinately prominent in the story.”[i]  We see David falter over and over again as he seeks his own power pursuits over God’s will and the result is consistently death: Uriah, Bathsheba’s first born, his son Amnon, countless unnamed soldiers, and in today’s reading, Absalom, David’s beloved son.  These deaths are not carried out by David’s hands but they directly result from orders and decisions he has made and sometimes judgments he refused to make.  They are the result of kingdom power structures and a kingship gone bad.

So it’s hard to know what David was really thinking as he waited by the gates that day for news to return about the battle raging in the woods and the fate of his rebellious son, Absalom.  Is he waiting as a concerned parent? David did ask his soldiers to “deal gently with the young man Absalom”.  Is he waiting as King in danger? The battle’s purpose is to end the threat to David’s throne posed by Absalom.  Or maybe David didn’t know what exactly he was waiting for: he was in too deep to play either role – King or parent – very well. His servants and soldiers eventually return to him with good news for the King: David is restored to full power, Absalom, the enemy, is dead.

And if we had been there, if we could see this scene, this is the point where we would see David’s face  slowly drop and turn pale, tears forming in his eyes.  This is the point where we could hear – almost audibly – the sound of David crumbling, a failed parent and ruler. This the point where we hear him in raw and human form – no time to compose a psalm, no formal mourning ritual – just David’s immediate and deep grief, the longing that he could have stood in Absalom’s place, the awful reality that David played lead role in the unfolding events that led to Absalom’s death.  We see that David loved Absalom, however imperfectly, and now David is heartbroken. And this is essentially where we leave David in our lectionary readings this cycle.  Save for some brief coverage of his death next week, our last glimpse of David is of him wailing and heartbroken.  Who and where is God in this text? How do we respond to this tale of loss and heartbreak?

The poet Mary Oliver wrote a poem about heartbreak titled “Lead” that I believe gives insight to these questions.  Listen to her words as we meditate on this moment of David’s heartbreak and as his heartbreak may reverberate with our own:

Here is a story

to break your heart.

Are you willing?

This winter

the loons came to our harbor

and died, one by one,

of nothing we could see.

A friend told me

of one on the shore

that lifted its head and opened

the elegant beak and cried out

in the long, sweet savoring of its life

which, if you have heard it,

you know is a sacred thing,

and for which, if you have not heard it,

you had better hurry to where

they still sing.

And, believe me, tell no one

just where that is.

The next morning this loon, speckled

and iridescent and with a plan

to fly home

to some hidden lake,

was dead on the shore.

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.[ii]

This is a sad story: some unnamed environmental toxin or bird disease affects innocent wildlife whose life journeys ended prematurely. It’s a tragic story but it’s told in hope. Hope that it will break our hearts open to a reverence for life –  its fragility and sacredness – that we cannot shake. Maybe these aren’t the stories we look forward to hearing: the journeys to places where hope seems scarce and tragedy is obvious.  But these stories, these hopeless places, are often where the sacred is revealed.

In the last weeks we have seen the ingredients of David’s tragedy, his own sad story of sin, greed, violence.  Today David’s heartbreak points us to love, remorse, the value of one mixed-up, wayward life.  To be clear, it was not God who sought Absalom’s death to teach David to love again and it was not God who killed those beautiful birds so a poet could teach a lesson about sacredness of life.  But it is God who continues the call to life and life-bearing love from these seemingly hopeless places.

This week on Tuesday, a deeply disturbed man opened fire at a Sikh house of worship, a gurudwara in Wisconsin killing many people as they gathered for worship.  The shooting was yet another outcome of racism, fear, and hatred, death-bearing forces being nurtured in our country.  In the wake of the Aurora, CO and now the Wisconsin shooting, many wondered aloud, “Where are we headed but down as communities and as a nation?”  But what spoke louder in the days following the Wisconsin shooting were words of life, demands for action to guard life and nurture hope.  Calls to learn about one another’s religions, to create gun laws that better protect every human life, to improve mental healthcare systems.

Several articles honored a member of the gurudwara who placed himself between the gunman and his family that morning and the Wisconsin police officer who stopped to help an injured Sikh member as he arrived on the scene – both lost their lives that morning. Another article told the story of the members of that Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin offering food and drink to the reporters and police officers in the days following the shooting, as part of langar — the Sikh practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship.[iii]  The call to us in David’s heartbreak this morning is to be life-bearers in the painful, heartbroken places in this world. In this faith community, the call is to be life-bearers to one another in moments of despair and to continue that work together out in the world.

The hymn we sing this morning is spoken in God’s voice giving to us words of comfort – The repeated chorus is: “Do not be afraid, I am with you.  I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home; I love you and you are mine”.  There is a note at the bottom of the hymn that reads: “Presuming to speak in the voice of God, as this song does, can only be done with integrity if the singers understand their words as an expression of what they believe about God’s nature and Gods’ intentions. It is an occasion for affirming faith, not wishful thinking.”[iv] God saw hope in David from beginning to end, God sees hope in us, God sees hope in this world.  This is the life-bearing nature of God. Amen.


[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Life and Death in Tenth Century Israel,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1972

[ii] From “New and Selected Poems, Volume II”

[iii]Eboo Patel and Hana Suckstorff, “ Sikhs and Sacred Ground” at http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/08/07/sikhs-and-sacred-ground/

[iv] The hymn “Do not be afraid, I am with you” is in the new Presbytery hymnal, Glory to God.  Many familiar hymns in the new hymnal are accompanied by brief notes to give new insight into the hymn’s origin or theological implications.

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