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Today’s Lectionary Texts:
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 (excerpts below)
The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom." And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom….
Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.
And ten young men, Joab's armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
Then the king said to the Cushite, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" The Cushite answered, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man."
The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
In a speech recorded in the book of Acts, Paul calls King David “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22) Certainly, there is much about David that we laud. Author of psalms. Leader of Israel. Slayer of giants. A friend to Jonathan. A man who spared his own enemy’s life. A man of deep faith.
There is much also to make us balk at calling this broken king, “a man after God’s own heart.” An adulterer. A murderer. A crooked politician with questionable judgment.
So why does Paul give David this honor? I have a humble suggestion. Like God, David loved his children, even when they rebelled against him. David loved his children so much that he was willing to die in their place.
In fact, it is David’s love for his children that begins his troubles with his son Absalom in the first place. David had children by many women. One of Absalom’s step brothers, Amnon, lusted after Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Amnon raped her. His own stepsister. David's response?
“When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him.” (2 Sam. 13:21) So, perhaps David’s love only extended to his male children. Regardless, his reasons are made plain in the text.
Since his father would not avenge his sister’s rape, Absalom took it upon himself to kill Amnon. (2 Sam. 13:23-38) This drove a wedge between Absalom and David, father and son. Eventually, Absalom, perhaps rightfully questioning his father’s leadership because of his inability to carry out justice, decided to try to take the throne. This led to a war, which culminated in the scripture we read today.
David knew that he must defeat the rebellious Absalom in order to retake the throne. But, he instructed all of his commanders: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And “all the people heard when the king gave [these] orders.” (2 Sam. 18:5) Once again, David loved his children, even the rebellious child who usurped him.
Absalom got stuck in a tree. One of David’s commanders, Joab, found him. Despite a reminder that David wanted Absalom alive, Joab thrust three spears into Absalom’s heart, then had Absalom beaten to death by ten young men. (2 Sam. 18:12-15)
When David heard this, his response was devastation. “The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.” (2 Sam. 18: 33)
Today I hear the echoes of David’s cry. Perhaps you hear it too. Wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; refusing to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matt. 2:18) Today, after all, is the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Michael Brown was shot multiple times, leading to his death. His body was left lying in the street for four and a half hours. The police officer who shot him did not face a trial. Reasons were given for Michael’s death: a supposed burglary of a few cigarettes; jaywalking; resisting arrest. The plain fact is that Michael Brown was unarmed and was shot an inordinate amount of times, and, because no trial was mandated, we will have a difficult time knowing all that occurred a year ago.
But we do know that Michael Brown’s death is not an isolated incident. Eric Garner was choked to death for selling cigarettes. More recently, Sandra Bland was jailed after a simple traffic stop, then found dead in jail a few days later. Just a couple of days ago, Christian Taylor was shot to death, though unarmed, for an alleged burglary at a car dealership. The alleged burglary supposedly began with Christian driving his SUV into the front window of the dealership. I could name, and probably should name hundreds of others. But today is the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.
After his death, a movement emerged, calling for the recognition that, in our society, black men and women (gay, bisexual and transgender as well), are treated as if they are “no more.” In a million different ways, emotionally, physically, socially, black people are given the message that their lives have no value or meaning. Against this overwhelming weight, a struggle has erupted, asserting the truth that BLACK LIVES MATTER. [Because this is a blog post, I can point you to this excellent link, which dives deeper into the history and meaning of this movement: http://linkis.com/mic.com/articles/123/f8RIG]
The question set before us this day is, how we are to respond? How do we, in our lives, in our communities, affirm that Black Lives Matter?
There is much that we must do to unearth, uproot, and turn into chaff the pernicious weed that is white supremacy—the weed whose roots are so deeply entangled in our US politics and our western theology that this unearthing and uprooting must occur on personal, congregational, communal, and national levels. People of all races must come to understand the history of racism, sexism, and fear in the United States. We must examine the things we take for granted about who we are and what privileges we inhabit. We must understand that we have differing abilities to live and move (or not) in the various contexts in which we swim, and that these abilities have roots in the racial and sexual identities by which we are categorized, and that we claim or refute consciously or subconsciously. Political action must be taken. Works of compassion and solidarity must be done. Self-examination, especially for those of us who take our race for granted, must be undertaken.
But as I read the above paragraph, I realize how abstract it sounds. Important, but abstract. So, let me suggest a very, very, humble place to start. It is a starting point, not the destination. But it is also a starting point that must continue to be the foundation of any action we undertake, if we call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.
It begins, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” which inseparably leads to, “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Mark 12:29-31) which means, as Paul elaborates in Romans 12:15, “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Or, put another way, "In this is love, not that we loved God but that [God] loved us and sent [Jesus Christ], the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another....Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also." (1 John 4:10, 11, 20, 21).
In brief, have God’s own heart.
As our Psalm for today reminds us, God abounds in steadfast love (Psalm 130:7-8). If God were to number our sins, none of us could stand (Psalm 130:3). But at the heart of the Christian message is this: with God there is forgiveness (Psalm 130:4).
But even more than forgiveness. Because, in David, despite all of his flaws, we encounter God’s own heart, a heart that weeps for even the most “lost” and “rebellious” child. A heart that so loved the world that it gave God's only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17).
So, have God's own heart.
Before rushing to assassinate the character of the young black men and women who have been killed, mourn them. Mourn them as your daughter, son, sister, brother. Because they are this in Christ. Value their precious lives. Prove in your mourning that they matter.
Because it is evident in our national discourse that we do not do this well, and that our inability to do this well is inextricably bound to white supremacy and racism. After all, our law officers will shoot all of these young, unarmed black people on sight. But they took alive Dylann Roof, a young white man who killed nine black people in an AME Church in order to “start a race war.” They took him alive, then fed him, according to his rights, then put him in a bullet-proof vest. Shouldn't this juxtaposition make us question the limits of our national compassion toward those who commit crimes?
So, before rationalizing these killings by pointing out what Michael Brown or Christian Taylor may or may not have done, mourn these young men. Weep for them. Begin from this place of love and solidarity and then question your next response and action from this perspective. I am not implyng lack of compassion for law officers (though, like Absalom, I do question the extent of injustice in our society). I am not suggesting that crimes should not have consequences. I am insisting that these consequences probably should not be death on sight, or death in jail, or living death by trumped-up and over-extended prison sentences. More, I am insisting that we stop treating as somehow inhuman black people who break fairly mundane laws. More, I am insisting, in fact, that we love them, rejoice with them, weep for them. I am insisting that we have God’s own heart.
For in David’s weeping for his rebellious son, we can hear God crying, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.” O my son, Michael, my son, my son Michael! Would I had died instead of you, O Michael, my son, my son.
Out of these depths may we also cry, as we watch and wait, with a desire greater than those who watch for the morning. May we weep and then act, as we await and lean into how God is bringing the dawn of justice to finally end this horrid, deadly night.