Friday, August 3, 2012

Compassionate



2 Samuel 1:1-27
July 15, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

1 After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. 2 On the third day, a man came from Saul's camp, with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. When he came to David, he fell to the ground and did obeisance. 3 David said to him, "Where have you come from?" He said to him, "I have escaped from the camp of Israel." 4 David said to him, "How did things go? Tell me!" He answered, "The army fled from the battle, but also many of the army fell and died; and Saul and his son Jonathan also died." 5 Then David asked the young man who was reporting to him, "How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan died?" 6 The young man reporting to him said, "I happened to be on Mount Gilboa; and there was Saul leaning on his spear, while the chariots and the horsemen drew close to him. 7 When he looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. I answered, "Here sir.' 8 And he said to me, "Who are you?' I answered him, "I am an Amalekite.' 9 He said to me, "Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.' 10 So I stood over him, and killed him, for I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord." 11 Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them; and all the men who were with him did the same. 12 They mourned and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul and for his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
13 David said to the young man who had reported to him, "Where do you come from?" He answered, "I am the son of a resident alien, an Amalekite." 14 David said to him, "Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord's anointed?" 15 Then David called one of the young men and said, "Come here and strike him down." So he struck him down and he died. 16 David said to him, "Your blood be on your head; for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, "I have killed the Lord's anointed.' "
17 David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18 (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: 19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! 20 Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. 21 You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. 22 From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. 23 Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24 O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. 25 How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. 26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. 27 How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

It must’ve come as quite a shock to that Amalekite, when he delivered the news to David that Saul was dead. He thought he’d be in for a big reward, bringing the emblems of the dead king to David. He thought David would be glad to hear the news; after all, Saul had been hunting David like an animal for a long time.

He thought he was the bearer of good news: the King is dead, here’s his crown, now you can be king! How was he to know that in the world of the Israelites, kings are made by God, not by succession or power or might? He had no idea of the number of times David had spared Saul’s life, how David had literally caught Saul with his pants down, and merely pinned Saul’s cloak to the ground with his sword. How was he to know that the deaths he reported were those of God’s anointed, David’s first mentor and Israel’s first king, and the most beloved friend David would ever have in his entire life?

It may seem ruthless, this act of killing the messenger, but there was an emotional reason for it – the Amalekite had killed the king! There was a political reason for it as well. David had established an airtight alibi, since he had been in another battle, and his reaction to the news was another sign of his legitimacy to sit on the throne of Israel. There was no divine right of kings back then, no aristocratic succession, but it made sense that Jonathan, the son of King Saul, would be the next king, and, in the event of his death, Abner. Abner was King Saul’s cousin, and would later actually attempt a coup by setting up Saul’s only surviving son as a rival king. But none of this is on David’s mind at this moment. Not one bit.

He is not exulting in what is now an open path to the throne for himself, nor is he relieved that his nemesis is no longer breathing down his neck. He is filled with sorrow at the news. David lives in a culture which, unlike ours, acknowledges the reality of death and the devastation of grief.

There is no polite euphemism used in this story.
Saul and Jonathan did not pass away.
They have died.
They did not go to be with the Lord.
They are dead.
They have fallen by the sword.
There is blood.  The stench of battle. The bitter taste of defeat.

David is crushed.
Heartbroken.
Inconsolable.
He does not “take it well.”

You’ve heard it said one place or another, maybe at the funeral, or at the visitation:
How is he doing? Fine, he hasn’t shed a tear today…
She’s holding herself together pretty well…
Now, you must be strong, you must be brave…

David didn’t get that memo.
He heard about the death of Saul and Jonathan, and he went to pieces. He ripped his clothes, he wept, he wailed, he and all his men mourned and cried and fasted all day long, mourning the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, grieving for the loss of the LORD's army, and the whole house of Israel.

And David sang a funeral song, a song of grief, not a Psalm of lament, in which he remembered God’s steadfast love, but a wailing, weeping, sorrowful song, remembering those two men whom he had loved,
their accomplishments,
their affection for him,
their leadership, generosity, strength and valor,
their importance to him and to all of Israel.

Don’t even say it out loud, he cried, lest our enemies rejoice in our grief!
Don’t let there ever be dew or rain or harvest in the place where Saul and Jonathan fell to the sword. How the mighty have fallen! How the mighty have fallen!

It is so painful to hear this, one wonders what there is to be gained from this story. But David’s poetic outpouring of pain and sorrow are a model for us of the expression of grief, a reminder that in the face of such heartrending loss, there is little else that can be said.

A multitude of resources for comforting the grieving tell people what not to say, identifying words that may sound like they would be comforting but that actually distance us from grief. Well-meaning people say these things all the time:
God needed him more than you did…
He’s in a better place…
You must be strong…
We shouldn’t be sad, he’s with Jesus…

They are well intentioned, spoken in an effort to soothe pain and discomfort, and sometimes we say them to soothe our own discomfort, to move away from the sorrow rather that moving into it with the grieving one. After all, each loss, our own or others, stirs up all the feelings of past losses. It may feel better to us to smooth over the agony than to join in the weeping.

Each person grieves in his or her own way, and finds comfort in unique places. I know that in my own family, when my father died, each one of my siblings had a different way to cope, to respond, to heal. And while I have found great comfort in the knowledge that those I love who have died are in the presence of God forever, where I first found the greatest comfort in my sorrow and loss was from the words of those who shared what my dad meant to them.

The minister, who spoke of his relationship with my dad, how at first he would look out the window and see Dad’s green pickup, and roll his eyes, and wonder if he could sneak out the back door of the church, but how he grew to understand and appreciate Dad’s counsel and care.

The cousins who traveled to Southwest Kansas from Ohio, from Michigan, who said,
“He was always so funny. He was our favorite uncle. We used to wish that he was our dad.”

The colleagues who said, “He was the finest trial lawyer in Southwest Kansas...

I don’t know what the church will do without him…

He was such a strong member of Kiwanis, and he always made us laugh...”

My mom and brothers and sisters and I needed to hear those words, needed to remember those stories about Dad, even though each of us, in various ways and at various times, had disagreements and even serious rifts with him.

At the time of Dad’s death, the words of comfort were the words that evoked what was good about him, that joined with us in our loss. Those stories are treasures, great gifts to those who mourn. Remember that, when you don’t know what to say – just tell something you remember, something good, something true.

If we take nothing else away from this story, we can take away this from David’s lament:
he expresses his sorrow in words;
he recalls the lives of those he has lost;
he seeks out the community to join in his grief,
and he freely, openly weeps for his loss.

For when we express our sorrow, when we give it voice, we take away its power to twist us into people of perpetual sadness; we offer it up to the One who promises continued presence and love and comfort.

When we share in the memories that evoke the best of our loved ones, that transcend the disagreements or hurts of life and lift up the qualities that we treasured, we can focus our recollection, and our sorrow, on what we have truly lost.

When we have fallen into one another’s arms weeping, we know the deep connection of souls in mutual grief, and we can then link arms together when the day comes for dancing in celebration.

When we sing the songs of sorrow together, we hear the common chord of sadness in our humanity; and when we have heard the voices of our faith community singing through the dark night of shared lament, how much more loudly we can sing songs of joy in the bright dawn of morning!

It is through our experience of death, and loss and sorrow, that we may more deeply know life, and its gifts, and its happiness, that we may come to see, and feel and hear God’s presence for us in the faces and embraces and voices of the Christian community.

This deep grief-stricken song of David is the first such example we will see as the story of his life unfolds – it will not be the last. But in this tale of loss and woe, we begin to see the deep humanity of this King of Israel, and our own bonds with him, not only as a child of God but as the ancestor of our Savior, who was acquainted with grief, who knew sorrow, and whose suffering on our behalf redeems all our losses, and whose resurrection has defeated death.

The same voice that cries out in grief,
“How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!”
will also then call out to God, saying “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Amen.

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