One of the first funerals I presided over was for a woman in her early thirties who had died under especially tragic circumstances. I was serving on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and it’s customary in Lakota culture for everyone who attends the funeral to stand at the graveside until the grave is completely filled in. This process is usually accompanied by singing, and praying, and a lot of weeping. I’ll never forget the image of this young woman’s mother, standing over the open grave, wailing, and weeping uncontrollably. It was my first lesson as a twenty-five year old new priest of how a pastor’s heart will always break with his peoples. I still think about that moment all these years later.
King David’s outburst at the end of today’s Old Testament lesson probably looked a lot like that. The dignified way we present it in this setting doesn’t really convey the intense, crushing grief that’s intended by the text. He says, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” In Hebrew, the repetition of a name conveys an emotional power that is hard to translate into English. And here we have four repetitions, two of “Absalom” and two of “my son” which gives a sense that this really was a wailing, a complete outpouring of emotion.
This is a climactic moment in the story of David’s reign. The really heartbreaking thing here is not just that David’s son was killed, it’s not just that this is the third child David has lost. The real tragedy in this story is that the whole situation is David’s fault. If you remember the story of David and Bathsheba from several weeks ago, David set the whole soap opera we’ve tracked over the last several weeks into motion by essentially raping Bathsheba and killing her husband. David’s continual use of violence, and deceit, and lust for power has created an elaborate and tragic dumpster fire of a succession plan. The whole story is full of rape, and treachery, and murder, and manipulation. The saga is an example of how violence begets violence, and the sins of the father are visited on the children and almost everyone else around.
While David’s grief is raw and real in this moment, the full weight of what he’s created and what it has wrought seems to fall on him, he never really takes responsibility for his role in all of it. God also feels deep grief and anger over the disaster David has made of Israel’s experiment with a king. But the really beautiful thing to me about the rest of the Old Testament, is that God’s grief and anger don’t just hang there for a moment and then go away like David’s, God’s grief and anger simply fuel his love and commitment to saving Israel and helping them get it right. God’s heartache and rage over how Israel screws it up only feeds his love. For the writers of the New Testament, and the earliest Christians, Jesus is the king that David never could be. Jesus’ heart breaks over and over, he wails and weeps and laments during his life over his friends’ death, over how broken and tragic human life can be. But his lament and anger only fuels his love, and his willingness to give himself over entirely for our salvation.
You don’t need to go to these strange stories in the Old Testament to find examples of how violence leads to violence, of how cruel human beings can be to one another, of how power can corrupt, of how families can be broken no matter how hard they try to love one another. You can see those things everywhere.
So this cycle of stories from 2 Samuel we’ve been reading all summer challenge us to do two things. The first is to really feel David’s pain about how broken the world can be. We’re invited to just sit for a time with how we continue to live in a world where violence against women, or people of color is far too easy and common. We continue to live in a world where the lust that so many have for power leaves so many others as hungry and homeless collateral damage. We continue to live in a world where each of us has experienced some maddening, and unjust, and inexplicable loss and heartbreak.
But as we sit with that, as we feel our anger and sadness and wail a little bit about it all, we’re then challenged to join Jesus in using those feelings as fuel for love, and bread for a commitment to practicing kindness, and love, and mercy, and justice in our own lives.
David’s moment of intense grief over the death of Absalom was an opportunity for him to use the rest of his life to stand against the broken system he had created. He never really managed to do that. We are called to be a community that turns grief and anger into hope and love. One of the reasons I love this place is because this is where it is ok to give voice to the wails inside us, at the injustice in the world, and the heartache in our own lives. Our relationship with God gets real when we voice to him the deep wails we all carry, and that most of us bury deep inside us. We comfort each other in that grief, we love each other in our outrage, and then together, we find ways to join Jesus in living our whole lives so that the world might be set free from its nightmarish cycles, and wake up into the dream of God’s perfect kingdom of peace. Amen.