Powerful Lament: A Sermon

Powerful Lament
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
July 1, 2012
Reverend Julie Emery
Text: 2 Samuel 1:1-27

Introduction to the Scripture reading:

Our scripture lesson for this morning is a continuation of the story of David, beloved King of Israel; A story we have been following for the last two weeks. We began with a look at David’s selection by the God of Israel, in spite of the fact that King Saul was still in power, albeit aging and losing his connection with God and the people. David, the youngest of eight brothers, is chosen as the one to claim the throne and God’s blessings.

We then moved into David’s famous defeat of the Philistine Goliath, story that continues in our hearts and minds as evidence of God’s blessing and affinity for the underdog. David faces the well armed and well endowed Goliath with only a few stones and his abiding faith in the Holy God of Israel, and triumphs over the Philistine.

Our story this morning takes a long jump from David’s triumph over Goliath to David’s transition into leadership at the death of Saul; but it is not the joyful event we might anticipate. To understand fully we must remind ourselves of some the details in between.

David’s defeat of Goliath is the beginning of a long rivalry between the aging Saul and the newly anointed David. Saul’s jealousy of the young, handsome and winning David consumes him with madness and his attempts at destroying his young rival become more and more intense and directed. David’s deep and abiding friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan, a friendship which scripture tells us surpasses the love between a woman and a man, is the only thing that saves David’s neck time and time again.

The Philistine war against Saul’s Israel has increased, all the while Saul’s jealousy and fury at David distracts. Our story for this morning comes at time when David has escaped to exile along with a small army of his own, living in fear of Saul’s wrath. A young Amelekite, a foreigner, comes to David’s camp with news of Saul’s death. The reader knows right off that the young man is a liar, as a few chapters earlier we read that a mortally wounded Saul has fallen on his own sword in battle. But the opportunistic Amelekite assumes that his news will be met with joy: David’s long wait for the throne has finally ended, and so embellishes the story to seem the hero.

With that lengthy introduction, let us listen to God’s word to us this morning:

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. 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. David said to him, “Where have you come from?” He said to him, “I have escaped from the camp of Israel.” 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.”

Then david asked the young man who was reporting to him, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan died?” 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 horseman drew close to him. When he looked behind him he saw me, and called to me. I answered, “Here sir.”

And he said to me, “Who are you?” I answered him, “I am an Amalekite.” He said to me, “Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet still my life lingers.” 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.”

Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them; and all the men who were with him did the same. 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. 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.” David said to him, “Where you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” Then David called one of the young men and said, “Come here and strike him down.” So he struck him down and he died. 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.”

David intoned his lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (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:

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!
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 exhult.

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.

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.

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.

O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothes you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle!

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
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.

How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

+++

Many of you know, as I have shared before, that one aspect of my first call in ministry was as a Hospice Chaplain. The title I carried was, in fact, “Hospice Spiritual Caregiver.” The name was a response to the general experience in Northern New England that the word, “chaplain” had negative connotations, creating more barriers than open doors to relationship with the dying patient and their families. In the “live free or die” state of New Hampshire and perhaps it is growing, there is often a distaste for organized religion. Not only that, there is a reluctance for all of us to delve more deeply into the spiritual dimensions of loss and grief, and an avoidance of words that bring that to mind: chaplain, depression, dying, grief, and Lament.

The word “Lament” is especially powerful, as in our scriptures it conjures up the deepest and most painful aspect of our suffering. It is the word with which our Psalms cry out from the depths of our communal souls. The word that encompasses both personal and community loss, grief, sorrow. It is deeper than those words we often use: vocalized sorrow; grief that will not be ignored or buried, loss that must be named and intoned by our bodies.

It is easy to see and experience that our culture is virtually devoid of the act lament. We move quickly from suffering and pain to “It’s fine… I’m doing quite well, actually.” We pass over the sorrows of losing a loved one, we move swiftly through the disappointments of loss of job or home or safety net, brush over miscarriages and mistakes. “I’m fine,” we tell people, “Moving forward. Moving on.”

One does not usually realize the extent to which we avoid lament and sorrow until one is in the depths of suffering. It is often only when we see the panicked look on the face of the one who asks how we are doing, as we respond with a well of tears and words about our painful experience. It is when we notice how quickly the subject is changed when we begin to tell a story about the thing or person so apparently missing from our lives. It is when we notice that we are allowed a few weeks, maybe a month, of disruption and depression and then how we are quickly expected to pull the pieces together and be normal again.

We have forgotten how to…. How much we need to lament.

When the young Amelekite comes to David with news of the death of Saul, he expects joy and celebration. Saul, who has become David’s rival enemy, is dead. The man bears as a gift the crown and armlet of the king; The way to the throne is clear. David will be thankful! Relieved! He will call for trumpets and harps to play in celebration.

What the foriegner fails to understand is both David’s theological worldview and his love of Jonathan and even Saul. His love, not his hunger for power, guides his response. David eyes are not only on his own advancement, as is so often the case in our culture, but they are on God’s action in the world and in the story of Israel. In spite of the history between them, David sees Saul as God’s anointed, and experiences the death of his enemy as a loss to be grieved by all of Israel, including himself.

David responds by tearing his clothes and calling for the lamentation of the whole people of Israel for the loss of their king.

David’s lament is poetic and courageous and utterly human. He suffers the loss of his deepest and truest love and friend, Jonathan, and weeps openly over his beloved. He grieves the loss of Saul whom he served and yet never became reconciled.

He mourns too the loss of his country, in battle and in honor, describing both the valor and the violence of war, the bravery and the yet tragic death of Saul and Jonathan.

David calls upon the land even to grieve, that there be no dew or rain or bounteous fields upon the place where Saul was slain.”From the blood of the slain,” he cries, “from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty… Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely… O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul… Jonathan lies slain upon your high places…”

Would that we could be so openly descriptive about the continued wars pursued at the hands of our nation, especially nearing the celebration of our nation’s Independence Day.

Do we believe that it possible to grieve war and still be patriotic in today’s political landscape? Can it be possible for us to describe the blood and suffering brought by our own ideologies and yet still honor the fallen and all that they have sacrificed? If there is any way to do this, it is through the language of lament.

Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman urges us to linger a bit longer in our lament; to recognize the ways we deceive ourselves into behaving as if everything is “fine” when many things are simply not.

We know this is true under the surface of our lives: economy still lags, wars drag on with no triumph in sight, politics become more divisive and mean-spirited, religion polarizes rather than unites, marriages break apart, children struggle to find their way, hunger and poverty abound. Even good change brings loss and fear. There is much to lament.

If there is any place where we might linger it should be here, in the midst of a community of faithful grievers. We who know the chasm that remains between the world that is and the world that God desires for us. We who know the hope of Christ and yet must wait for the fullness of that hope to reveal itself in due time. We who stand both in faith and in sin. We who walk amidst the darkness toward and in the light of Christ.

Recently I met a remarkable young man named Ryan Woods. Ryan and his wife Jessica are the leaders of an emergent Christian community begun a little over a year ago as a church-plant just outside of Portland, Oregon. I met Ryan because he was a speaker at a conference I attended last week in Michigan at Rochester College. He and his wife were alumni, and so many of the community gathered for the conference already knew them and their story.

I had already been alerted to the fact of Ryan’s presence, and the information that he was dying of cancer, given only two months to live. I had heard mention of the website called “Grassroots Conspiracy where Ryan writes about his journey. I confess that I scanned the crowd more than a few times to figure out which person he was. When he took the stage and began the conversation with the convener of the conference, I was surprised at how young he looked, perhaps a little younger than me.

Ryan began by telling a story I had already briefly heard but in more detail. He had indeed felt God calling him to develop a faith community in Portland Oregon. Their ministry plan was organic and grassroots: simply moving to the community and developing a network of friends; living a Christ-like life and trusting that the Spirit would do the rest.

The day they began their ministry “full-time,” Ryan underwent surgery to remove what was thought to be a benign tumor lodged in his spine. The surgery did not go well, and Ryan found himself partially paralyzed. A few more months revealed the tumor was a rare form of brain cancer, a few more months gave him only a few months to live. Ryan, his wife Jess and their two children struggled to adjust to this horrible news.

In addition to his youthfulness Ryan did not act like a person who was “dying.” He laughed and cracked jokes, he spoke of his ministry and the great things that were happening in Portland. He shared how much of his and his wife’s ministry became inevitably about death and dying, as they have navigated their way through the last turbulent year.

What is remarkable is that they have not shied away from this new community in the midst of their experience, but instead embraced it. They have been willing to talk about the “C” word. They have been willing to talk about death and loss, and the way it flows just beneath the surface of our lives. They have been willing to embrace grief in public, to be honest about the fragility of life, the reality of having a body, the inevitability of our mortal end.

Even more remarkable for me was when Ryan spoke about how his identity has changed since his diagnosis and throughout the past year. He described a way of being that so many of us know quite well; He said, (and please forgive me for paraphrasing here…) He said:

“All my life I have been ‘fine.’ Whenever anyone ever asked me how I was – I was fine. But suddenly I wasn’t fine anymore. I needed help. And not just a little bit of help…but a lot of help: help with walking and getting up and down stairs. But through all of that what I’ve come to know is just how broken my life was then, how much my “fine-ness” was an illusion of control I never had. Since my diagnosis, I have been transformed – now I rest fully in the love of God, I know where my hope is, and I am more at peace than I have ever been.”

These words, along with the words of David’s lament remind us that in life and in death we belong to God, that the darkness will not overcome the light, that we have no need to fear, because God’s presence is with us always. And perhaps God’s Spirit is even more present when we grieve and experience the losses that accompany our humanness.

It is the presence we feel when our tears overwhelm and our life feels shipwrecked by the storms that will not abate. It is the presence we feel even when we do not know what the future holds, and fear lurks around every turn. It is the presence we feel when we cannot find the words to pray, but a sister or brother in faith prays for us, providing for us the words that do not come. It is the presence we feel around this table, as bread and juice are shared, and we are nourished for the days ahead.

The poet Mary Oliver’s words come to mind in this:

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this.

As we linger here, may we remember God’s hand in this, even this. Amen.

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4 thoughts on “Powerful Lament: A Sermon

    1. Thanks Sara! It’s wonderful to share and be connected. I’ve been deeply moved by Ryan’s story, and so appreciative of the community at RC that afforded me the opportunity for that transformation. Best to you and yours!!

  1. Well done. Because I was focusing on psalm 130 I skimped on the context for David’s lament. I’ve since linked my sermon back to yours. Let me know if anyone wanders over. Thanks also for the Mary Oliver poem.

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