O Absalom, My Son

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A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Readings


Through the written word,
and the spoken word,
may we know your Living Word,
Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Amen.

I have a confession to make: I have been avoiding King David the entire summer.

Let me recap: My first week preaching, it was David and the death of Saul. I preached on the Gospel.

Then, it was David and the migration of the Ark of God. I ignored David altogether and talked about a scripture passage that wasn’t even in the lectionary that day!

Two weeks ago, it was that awful incident with Bathsheba, where David sleeps with a married woman and then has her husband killed at war…

Quite frankly, I have a problem with David. And if that last incident tells you anything, it’s that David is not really that likeable. Yes, David is called “a man after God’s own heart,” and held up as an example of lifelong faithfulness to God. And he is credited with writing many of the Psalms, which are so central to our understanding of God.

But the fact of the matter is that he can be kind of awful. He treats people badly. He becomes increasingly obsessed with retaining his power. And he is willing to do unspeakably terrible things to satisfy his own lusts.

So, I have been avoiding the man like I might avoid any other creepy guy. But today, I could no longer avoid this man…

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

I could no longer ignore David because, today, his grief is palpable. It is gut-wrenching. And it stops me in my tracks. I cannot read those pleading words without wanting to cry myself.

What does it take for a king to weep?

David’s deep love for his son looks past their years-long feuding, and even the fact that Absalom was trying to take over his throne. It looks past the sad reality that this is a war they are waging against one another. Instead, it sees only the most important reality: that this loss of life is too great a cost.

David weeps because he is finally looking at the real problem, instead of all of the drama that surrounds him. Absalom’s death crystallizes the beauty, tragedy, and fragility of their shared life.

In this moment, all the hurt and pain they have caused one another pales in comparison to the truth:

David’s son is dead. All there is left to do is weep.

Today, I feel obligated to sit with David’s grief. To make space for it. To really see it.

Even though I tried with all my might, I couldn’t move forward without acknowledging it. Because, to fail to acknowledge it would be to fail to acknowledge how much we have in common:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

As l listen to his pleading, David’s pain has already entered the hardened parts of my heart, and begun to wash out my own grief and pain…

It is not lost on me that we are all bound up in our own grieving today, even if it’s not right on the surface. I know a few of you have lost loved ones to Covid. More have lost the opportunity to sit by loved ones’ hospital beds and death beds due to health regulations. Funerals have had to be canceled or missed. 

Some haven’t seen new grandkids. Others have lost opportunities to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays under the shadow of a global shutdown.

I live with the daily grief that my experience of seminary has been irrevocably interrupted by Covid. That budding friendships may be lost for good, and that the mental health toll is irreversible. I am changed and I can never go back. The losses pile up.

And maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but we all sit here today painfully aware that we are masking again (in the indoor service) and looking around us at the horror this disease and all of its related tragedies have wrought. Like, David, it seems we’ve lost control of the battle.

So, this week, as I sat quietly with King David, I reflected on the fact that I have not yet arrived at closure for these many griefs. Feelings of anxiety and hopelessness have been tamped down by social forces that tell me it’s not practical or acceptable to display my feelings in public. I have tried to stop the tears because it felt too embarrassing to let them flow…

After all, we live in a culture that equates strength with being stoic and unfeeling. We are taught to be embarrassed if we cry in public. Even worse, we are taught to leave people alone when they are crying because we don’t want to embarrass them.

Women are told that crying will only reinforce gender stereotypes: that we are weak and emotional. Men are told that it’s not manly to cry. Children are reprimanded and told that “life’s not fair.”

And as a soon-to-be-ordained person, I have been told to avoid feeling my feelings in front of the congregation. I am not supposed to cry. I am supposed to be above all that.

Too many times, the result of all of these social reprimands is that we are forced to grin and bear our pain.

But the truth is, there is no way to stop feeling our feelings. They must go somewhere. And if not allowed an appropriate outlet, they can turn into rage or resentment. We lash out like wounded animals, because we are wounded animals.

But today, we witness a king who is weeping. Today we are reminded that some things call for public displays of emotion

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

And when I hear those words, and when I think of David, I can’t help but think about another king who weeps.

Jesus cried when his dear friend Lazarus died. “Jesus wept” as he anticipated his own gruesome death. And Jesus even directly quoted David, as he dared to cry out in public: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In these ways, Jesus demonstrates that to be human is to feel. Incredibly, even the son of God, who resurrects the dead and would be resurrected himself, had to confront despair in his earthly life. His ancestor, David, modeled this for him well.

Today I felt obligated to risk a public display of emotion, because even a powerful man like King David could cry in public. I risked crying because Jesus wept. I risked it because the church must model what it means to share our burdens.

If we don’t do it, who will do it for us?

Today’s Ephesians passage tells us to be “tenderhearted.” It says we should put away all of our rage and resentment, and imitate Christ. Being tenderhearted means breaking down the hard parts of ourselves. It means loosening the grip we have on our pain, and making ourselves vulnerable.

For some of us, this is the hardest thing we could do. But I believe it is worth the experiment, because it draws us closer to one another as the Body of Christ.

When we honestly share our burdens, boundaries fall away. All of our pretensions and lofty goals break down. We have a rare opportunity to see one another in the most honest terms. We have a rare chance to tell the truth about ourselves: which is that we are not above it all.

If Christ himself can weep, then surely, we can, too. Feeling our feelings can be our strength.

That being said, sharing our burdens does not mean that we should force particular behaviors on others. Or measure each other by how much we reveal our feelings on the surface.

Each one of us is on our own journey toward greater vulnerability and trust. In the meantime, we can work to allow one another the space to feel, on our own time and in our own ways. To do this, we ask ourselves what it looks like to build a community of trust, and of grace. We create places of rest so that others are free to reveal the truth about themselves.

Today, if we can do nothing else, let us sit with King David as he weeps. And let us look in wonder at the Psalms he wrote in times of distress and in times of joy. David was not perfect and neither are we. We can let this complicated man show us what it means to trust God with our feelings, knowing that God, in Christ, feels them, too.

Amen.

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