Saturday August 11th/Sunday August 12th, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Elyria, OH.
David. We have spent a few good weeks in the company of the great king of Israel, and this is the last living story we will hear of him this summer. He has come a long way, from the young man, ruddy and handsome, the shepherd boy chosen before his elders to be the one anointed by God to shepherd the people of Israel. The David we meet today is not the cocksure lad who challenged the giant and wrestled lions. He is not the dancing fool, drunk on victory, singing the Ark of the Lord into Zion. He is not the selfish monarch who stole another man’s wife, another man’s life.
The David we meet today is a man of humility, of forgiveness and compassion; the humility of a man caught in a grave sin; the compassion of one richly forgiven. This is the David who would rather die at the hand of his son than raise a hand against him. And he is still the king, the one anointed to shepherd the lost sheep of Israel, and he does it despite grief and pain, loss and guilt.
So how did we get here?
If you go back and read the books of Samuel and fill in the pieces between the pieces of the story that we’ve read on Sunday mornings (and Saturday evenings) through the summer, you’ll meet a lot of characters that you didn’t hear about in church, and you’ll experience some hair-raising episodes which give this story, this portrait of filial betrayal and paternal love and agony more context. I really encourage you to do that. These episodes that we hear week by week should tease you into looking up the rest of the story and finding out more, exploring the characters and the plot-lines to find out where God is speaking to your life, who in our pantheon of religious ancestors has experienced the same kinds of spiritual and physical battles as you have, and how they found God’s saving grace in the midst of sorrow and of joy.
Briefly, though, Absolom is David’s son, and there has been a whole saga of violence and vengeance, of estrangement and attempts at reconciliation, of grief and betrayal. David is at this point a father wrestling with his own conscience; he is caught in an exhausting web of grief, guilt and love, trying to relate to his son in extreme circumstances of hurt and division. This is David at his most human, perhaps at his most sympathetic. Have you ever watched someone you love destroy their own life and the lives of those around them, and you’ve wanted to help them and wanted to stop them and wanted to hold them? It’s so hard. Maybe it’s as hard as love gets.
Absolom, I think, interprets his father’s love as weakness. Absolom decides that his father is not the king that Absolom could be, and he works to undermine David’s influence and authority with the local tribal leaders, the local warlords, and when we come back into the story today, Absolom has challenged David directly for the kingdom, for Jerusalem, for his life.
And even in the face of this ultimate betrayal by his son, the son with whom his conscience has wrestled, David tells his commanders, “Treat him gently, for my sake.”
And you heard the rest of the story.
David, the anointed one of God, knew what it was to see his child suffer and wish with all his heart that he could take that pain away, take it to himself instead, take it away. If you’ve ever held a sick and crying child, if you’ve watched the heartbreak of someone you love, you know that feeling; that helpless, loving feeling.
It’s the feeling that, if we can ascribe human feelings to God, and let’s face it, as dangerous as that is, they’re all we really have to go on – it’s the feeling that caused God to reach out and die for us, to take our pain and suffering upon God’s self, to reach into our lives to be with us, because it was too painful to watch the people whom God had made and loved go through all of the pain and suffering and trouble that we put ourselves and one another through. It’s that love that reaches so far beyond itself that it roots itself in another’s heart.
There is a next chapter to this story. David is mourning for his son, and his commander, Joab, comes in and tells him to get up and go out, to be the king to his people. He is not to neglect his surrogate sons, his soldiers who have fought for him and been faithful to him, because of his own grief. And David, because he is a faithful and dutiful king, gets up and washes his face and goes out to greet his people, because he loves them, too, and because he borrows strength from God, from God’s promise, God’s presence, to carry on.
And it’s not that David won’t fall again or be hurt again, but that every time he turns back to God he is reminded of God’s promise to him, God’s covenant, God’s love; and he not only draws strength and courage from that love, but he shares it.
So what does this story of David say to us, today? It isn’t like one of Aesop’s fables, with a tidy moral of the tale at the end, a neat lesson to be learned. It is a story to live into, to live with, to pray our way through and discern within it the voice of God speaking to us us, to our people, our times.
We are in a tremulous time. We read the news or watch on tv as weapons of death are found in our local movie theatres, where our children go to play and we might go for a rare date night, and we shiver. We hear of people at prayer, at the same time as us, in a city like ours, attacked for their faith, in the midst of their faithful devotions, and we shudder. We see political pundits slinging mud to see what sticks, and we feel a sudden need to take a shower. We worry about the future for ourselves, our country, our families. We grieve over what might have been, how we might have done better, how we might have found ourselves in a better, safer, more respectful and generous place.
And this is where Joab comes in and tells us, “Get up. The people need to see your face. The people look to you for hope, you, the ones anointed of God.”
Because we have been anointed by God, sealed with the sign of the cross at our baptisms with the oil of chrism; we have been appointed by God to break our hearts over the world around us when it falls apart; to tell the people around us that God loves them achingly, eternally, faithfully; to lead them towards justice, mercy, and peace. We have been anointed and appointed to care for God’s people; all of us, together, by our baptism into one God, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one promise. It is we who have been commissioned, as Paul puts it, to “be imitators of God, … and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” “Imitators of God!” God whose heart breaks for God’s people, God who loves us unconditionally, God who saves us, with mercy and justice and steadfastness, God who is active in the world, who touches the hearts of the lonely, whose peace passes understanding. That is the God whom we are to imitate.
The story of the Lord’s anointed is not over. We are the next chapter. We are what happens next, by the grace of God and with the help of God. Our actions will be plot lines in the next episode of the story of the people of God. Our psalms, our cries to God, our songs, our prayers, maybe they will become the prayers of the next generation, as David’s psalms have become our prayers – like this, from Psalm 28:
Blessed is the Lord! for he has heard the voice of my prayer.
The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I have been helped;
Therefore my heart dances for joy, and in my song will I praise him.
The Lord is the strength of his people, a safe refuge for his anointed.
Save your people and bless your inheritance; shepherd them and carry them for ever.
(Psalm 28: 7-11; Book of Common Prayer, p. 619)
May God be our guide, our strength and our shepherd as we write the next chapter of the story of this people of God. Amen.