Sunday, August 8, 2021
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
In another congregation I served as pastor, one of my parishioners asked me to come and visit her daughter, Kate in the hospital. My parishioner Mary was in her 80s and Kate was not quite 50 years old, but she had been an alcoholic for many years, in and out of recovery, and was now dying of organ failure that had started with her kidneys, then spread to her liver and other organs. There was nothing more that could be done. I have unfortunately been with people after they have lost a child in other instances, and I have learned that the grief of a parent after losing her child is a difficult, difficult grief. Even adult children, as many of you know, who lose a parent in old age, can have a difficult time with the loss. A loss of a loved one at any age is hard and can throw us into the depths of grief. Mary’s grief was complicated and compounded because Kate had struggled so much in life – it was as if she had lost her child once to alcohol and then again to death. She had feelings of guilt – was there anything she could have done differently as a mother? There was not much I could say or do but pray. And so, we prayed the psalms together. We didn’t just read the happy, uplifting psalms, I picked out the angry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” psalms, the psalms of lament. It seemed to help Mary to talk about her feelings and write in a journal as well. I was privileged to walk with Mary as her pastor long enough to see that God got her through this intense period of grief to be more at peace, with a more hopeful outlook on life, but it took a while - years. As many of us know, grief can last a long, long time, much longer after the funeral and the first anniversaries of a loved one’s passing. God sticks by us in the depths of grief and promises us life after death, our scriptures remind us today.
Mary’s story reminds me so acutely of what happens to David in our first reading from 2 Samuel today. You may have heard that famous verse, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” This story rivals Shakespeare the way it speaks to our hearts of the tragic relationship between David and his son Absalom, and the power of how it is told. But you may not be that familiar with the full story, so let’s review it for a few moments.
David’s son Absalom is his third oldest son after his oldest, Amnon, who has already been tragically killed at this point, and Daniel otherwise known as Chileab. 2 Samuel tells us that Absalom was extremely handsome, “without blemish” and with long, thick beautiful hair. He is somewhat a favorite of David’s, but unfortunately, he goes astray by plotting to overthrow his father and become king himself by creating rumors against David, bribing people to follow him, and generally fomenting division and dissent in David’s kingdom. That brings us to the point of our story today, where King David knows he needs to put a stop to the rebellion Absalom has started. But as a loving father, he still instructs his men to “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” He seems to be holding out for yet another chance for his son to make better choices. Well, unfortunately, that beautiful thick hair of Absalom’s gets stuck in an oak tree and his mule rides off with him still hanging there in the tree, leaving him vulnerable to attack. Joab, not heeding David’s instructions, has Absalom killed. David’s men naïvely think it’ll be good news to report to the king that the rebellion has been squelched and the leader of the rebellion, Absalom, is dead, but of course, as a father, even though his son has turned against him, David is thrown into deep grief and despair over his lost son. That’s the end of the story for David and Absalom. Next week, we’ll look at the much more cheerful story of King Solomon’s successes, but as I said last week, thank goodness this is not the end of God’s story for us.
We have for our psalm this morning a psalm of lament, Psalm 130, which David could have sung at the news of his son’s death. It was a psalm I prayed with Mary at the death of her daughter, “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.” It was a psalm that Martin Luther turned into a hymn. Martin Luther also knew the grief of a father, having lost two daughters, Elizabeth in infancy and Magdalena, at twelve years old. It is a psalm we can sing or pray when we need God to listen to our sadness, our frustration, our anger, and even our despair. And yet, like most psalms of lament, the psalm doesn’t stay in the depths, but it moves us to trust and hope in the Lord again. “I wait for you, O Lord, my soul waits; in your word is my hope,” we sing. “with the Lord there is steadfast love and plenteous redemption.” Even in grief, we wait for God to turn our mourning into dancing, to walk with us through the pain, especially if it is chronic or complicated grief, because our hope is in the Lord. The waiting isn’t always easy, and it’s natural to want to jump toward feeling back to “normal” again more quickly, but the difficult journey of grieving and waiting with God gets us to a new normal, eventually.
David says the words that many parents have said over the centuries: “Would I had died instead of you, my son,” There are times, if we could die in someone else’s place, perhaps, we would. David can’t, of course. But in our gospel for this morning, we find concrete words of hope. On the cross, Jesus takes our place. Jesus dies the death we should have died for us and is raised for us. Jesus takes upon himself our sins, conquering sin death and the devil so that when we die we don’t really die but live forever. Death doesn’t have the last word. Again, we hear Jesus’ reminder to us that he is the bread of life. And he goes on to say that “this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die…whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” What looks like death and the end to the naked eye is not all there is, thank God. Jesus offers us a life that truly is life, beyond what we can see and beyond what is. In this good news, we place our hope especially when we wrestle with matters of life and death.
Like David, like Mary, God our heavenly Father grieves over his messed up and wayward children, who maybe didn’t turn out quite as he’d hoped and definitely don’t do as he wills all of the time. Our sin, our turning away from God, causes God some grief. We can’t do much about our kids who go astray – David couldn’t, if he could’ve, he would’ve. But in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, God CAN and DOES do something about our sin. Jesus saves us from ourselves. God does what we can’t do for ourselves. God gives us Christ, the bread of life, for the life of the world, Jesus tells us today. In this holy communion meal, then, on this cross, in this story of life after the pain, after the grief and loss, after death, we place our hope. May God turn our mourning into dancing, our lament into rejoicing at the feast that has no end. Amen!