13 August 2006
Proper 14B RCL
2 Samuel 18:5-9,15, 31-33 - John 6:35, 41-51
Through Thick and Through Thin
We draw near to the end of the David saga. Since the confrontation with Nathan things have not gone well in the house of David – the house, we remind ourselves that was built by the Lord, the God of the Exodus. And all I can think of is the old expression, “through thick and through thin” – a phrase that aptly derives from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene : “Lo, where a grim forester did rush/Breathing out beastly lust her to defile/His tired horse he fiercely forth did push/Through thicke and thin, both ouer banke and bush/In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke…” As we shall see, the narration of the text concludes that the Lord our God is with David through thick and through thin.
In the period of time glossed by our lectionary, we miss the sordid tales of David’s adult children playing out their ambitious and violent struggles against one another. Amnon, the heir to David’s throne callously raped his beautiful half-sister Tamar. Absalom, Amnon’s half-brother and full brother to Tamar sets up the revenge murder of Amnon. Absalom flees to the south for several years and returns to lead a revolt against his father seeking to seize the throne.
Nathan’s prophecy has come full circle – there could be no greater trouble from within the house of David than the father being forced to fight his son. David must use his power and brilliance against his own son. As the battle ensues, David pleas for special, gentle treatment of the young man Absalom.
In a scene calling to mind the great battle scene in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings we are told that the forests, the trees themselves, devour more of Absalom’s army than the sword. The Ents win! Indeed, it is a tree that snares Absalom, where he is left hanging, we are told, “between heaven and earth.”
We might be excused a moment of sympathy for Absalom, for in any given moment on any given day, each of us is prone to feeling as if we are hanging, dangling between heaven and earth. Never quite aspiring to the calling to become a people of God, and yet by virtue of stories like this one and the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are no longer fully citizens of any earthly kingdom either. We are in a sense all of us Absaloms snared by God’s created order, fleeing our calling on our various mules, fooling ourselves into believing we can escape the mighty hand of God working God’s purpose out as the waters cover the sea.
So we are those people who know well the pathos of David as he receives the news of Absalom’s death. “Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” David’s heart is broken. David’s is a universal cry of desperation, a cry even now heard throughout the battlefields of Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan; a cry heard in the homes and home towns of those men and women of our armed forces who return to us draped in flags of red, white and blue – a cry heard in homes and home towns throughout Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hearts are breaking all over the world, including ours.
There is, however, an oddness to the texts in First and Second Samuel – a strange insistence that through thick and through thin the Lord is with David. All the way back in 1st Samuel 18:2 the text reads, “for the Lord was with him.” This David saga as told for us insists that God is with David, even in this moment of ultimate triumph and ultimate despair – that to save the monarchy he must lose a son.
The membrane between triumph and tragedy here is very thin. Suggesting that at times such thinness is necessary for us to become aware of the presence of the Lord through thick and through thin. This, after all, is the ultimate data presented in the Good News of Jesus – Emmanuel, “God with us.”
We would do well to note that the texts as narrated do not offer a heavy-handed, pathological morality here – it is not David’s dalliance with Bathsheba and betrayal of Uriah that results in his tragic loss of Absalom. Such moral absolutism forever stands in the way of healing. The text means for us to accept the conclusion that God was with David, not with Saul or Absalom.
Just as we might conclude that God was with Martin Luther King, Jr, not with Bull Connor and the special interests he sought to represent and protect. Much like David, we are learning that King was not at all perfect in every detail of his life. Like all of us he too dangled between heaven and earth. But God was with him nonetheless.
In a somewhat different way we conclude that the Lord God is with Jesus and not with Pilate, Herod, Caesar and the interests they represent. Jesus, who oddly like Absalom, hangs from a tree for several hours one Friday afternoon between heaven and earth, as the Lord God who is with him no doubt is, like David, reduced to a sobbing, almost inarticulate cry, “Oh my son, Jesus, my son, my son, Jesus…”
Through thick and through thin, God’s providence is near for those who are able to make the imaginative interpretive recognition of that presence. This presence comes out of no action or choice we might make – an assertion of the Biblical texts that flies in the face of all Western ideology, by which I mean the dominant values of the Enlightenment which include commitments to autonomy, individualism and self-sufficiency. Such commitments come to be expressed in terms of positivism and in an economics of greed and affluence – commitments deep within the fabric of our common life and touch us all, liberal and conservative alike.
The true scandal for Post-Enlightenment moderns such as ourselves, is the twice repeated assertion of Jesus that it is the Lord God of Israel who draws us to himself – that we must trust God to open our hearts, eyes and ears to create and sustain our faith. Perhaps we who want to believe life is largely about human choice and freedom, and that faith is just another sort of self-help therapy, find ourselves more aligned with the crowd which is saying, “Who does he think he is anyway?”
Yet, the Lord who was with David and is with Jesus is someone we know and recognize. We have traced his presence from Exodus to Calvary and the empty tomb. As we listen to the account of his character again, the God of the great stories comes to be present in “my story” and may become the glue for the parts of that story. It is the Lord God who calls us out of our dangling between heaven and earth to truly allow ourselves to come home to his kingdom.
What agitates the crowd before Jesus – and challenges our own safe assumptions about life “as it is” – is simply a promise that God has come near so as to give us the gift of life – eternal life – life lived with God in Christ – through thick and through thin. An awareness of this truth can make all the difference in the world, and heal the aches that break our hearts. Amen.