O Absalom, Absalom

A sermon reflection for Proper 14, Year B, given at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA.

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

When I was in college, I spent much of my time with art students. We would rent the strangest films. For someone who grew up in a Scandinavian American family, the most foreign of all foreign films were Italian. How was it possible to contain that much emotion, and all those hand gesticulations within a 70mm strip of film?? Was it even possible for the camera to capture every turn of the head, flick of the finger, and eyebrow arc, given how rapidly they would move across the screen? These films must have made an impression upon me, because I found myself recalling the distinctive stylistic markers while reading through the book of second Samuel and the stories of king David’s family. It’s all there—irrational passion, repudiation, betrayal, murderous revenge, conspiracy, family members storming off. To say that David’s children were ill behaved would simply not do justice to the terrible texts found between last week’s reading and today’s.

What might it look like, I started to muse, for an Italian director to film David’s family reunion? (Absurd? Perhaps, yes.) Just for a moment, picture it: Sicily. The late summer heat coats the leaves of a nearby orchard and makes the winding paths shimmer at a distance. A slight breeze tousles the olive branches, lazily picking up the corners of table cloths anchored by plates upon plates of cheeses, charcuterie and garden vegetables. Cisterns of water and wine punctuate the scene with glasses spotlighting where to find refreshment. Some of the children have detached themselves from the adults to avoid getting fussed over by this or that relative, who remembers them from when they were yea high. Women have begun to gather together, circling in conversational flocks; while the men greet one another heartily, sizing one another up through story and sheer volume. The din of voices and clatter of dishes rapidly reverberates off the stone buildings, covering the sound of a large party of men coming in the distance. As the laughter crescendos another loud cry is suddenly heard: he is here; he dared to come. The one who, ever so briefly, had stolen the hearts of the Israelites from their true King, to the point of taking Jerusalem and putting his own father to flight across the Jordan. Absalom approaches. As he nears there are some who recall how beautiful he is, and how wise he had seemed. Why shouldn’t he have been king after David? Arguments break out in sporadic clumps. Others debase him in favor of his older brother, David’s firstborn, Amnon; the one who—they are quick to remind everyone within hearing—Absalom himself had killed. Who would support a murderer, they demand. As the commotion sweeps across the gathering, gesticulations intensify, and cracks emerge between parties: those who begin to move toward Absalom separate themselves from Amnon’s defenders.

Meanwhile, an old man sits under the shade of a thick cedar, shoulders sloping downward. Longing, regret, and love stain his cheeks as he observes the gathering. A servant holding a plate of food and cup of water implore him to eat and drink, even just a morsel. He shakes his head. He can see the factions forming, and is afraid of what might happen when his eldest sons meet again. The scene ends with the face of the patriarch filling the frame.

~~~

In today’s old testament reading we hear a small but significant excerpt of a much larger story. Absalom has indeed driven his father and his father’s company out of Jerusalem after winning over allies in Israel. Prior to that he had lived for a time in exile after killing David’s eldest son, (and) his brother, Amnon. It was an act of revenge for Amnon having forced himself on Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Throughout all of these events, the text renders David as virtually helpless, in part because he simply cannot refrain from loving his children and extending forgiveness. The consequences for his newly united kingdom include schisms and faltering loyalty among the people of Israel and Judah. Such a weakened image of King David is a far cry from the triumphant warrior conquering the Philistines, or strong ruler uniting disparate tribes.

Reading through second Samuel I found myself infuriated by David, annoyed by his inaction at crucial times, (even) irritated at how often he followed the counsel of others whether or not they had his best interests in mind (spoiler: they usually had their own). But I also found an unglossed portrait of a man whose character is too often lionized beyond recognition. I’ve been in church communities before that look to David as a model worshiper—and, there are moments when he truly is. They see his passion and exuberance dancing before the ark as another kingly attribute, fully inline with his image as a valiant warrior. David and God, side by side, marching to victory. However, in the passages that focus on David’s children, the text illustrates a very different side to him. After learning what his eldest son Amnon had done to his daughter Tamar, he still couldn’t bring himself to punish the young man. When Absalom was living in exile, David was preoccupied with worry about him. Today we read that, even after Absalom rebels against him, he implores the military commanders, “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Deal gently, with the enemy.

Absalom_getty
Unknown
Scenes from the Life of Absalom, about 1250, Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 32.5 × 29 cm (12 13/16 × 11 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

How confusing it must have been for the military leaders to hear their king dictate mercy to the one chasing after them. When it comes to love and war, a black and white, right and wrong duality is much easier to navigate—but if our anger is always justified, where, then, lies the need for forgiveness? And, are we called only to forgive those with whom we share relationship of some sort? What about people we don’t even know?

~~~

I have a confession to make; I can no longer look at neighborhood blogs because, at the very sight of one particular commentator’s name, I become irate. My pulse quickens, my temper ignites, hair stands on end, and I think some very bad thoughts about this person I do not know (and wouldn’t be able to recognize if we brushed past each other at the market). The nature of her online comments makes me feel very justified in thinking she is a horrible person who deserves…well, fill in the blank with any manner of nasty things. This person articulates views and attitudes toward our unsheltered neighbors that are similarly shared—though to a lesser extent—among some of my Ballard acquaintances. At dinners with neighbors, the topic of homelessness seems to ebb and flow with news coverage. (And) As many of you [in the congregation] know far better than I do, defending an unsheltered neighbor’s right to simply exist (let alone be fed and cared for) can be utterly exhausting. When sheltered neighbors—either in person or online—willfully remain dismissive and outright antagonistic towards local services, St. Luke’s Edible Hope, and guests, surely we are justified in feeling anger on behalf of others? …And then I turn to the week’s scripture lessons.

In today’s reading from Ephesians, Paul makes this curious statement, “Be angry, but do not sin;” here Paul is writing as a pastor. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…and be kind to one another, tenderhearted…” (v. 31,32) This is not a legal statement, not an order to ‘do this, or be cast out’. Frankly, it has taken me years to hear those words, “be angry, but do not sin.” The culture I was raised in negated any expressions of anger, and for years when I read Paul, all I saw was, do not be angry, at all, under any circumstance. That isn’t what he says, first of all; and it isn’t healthy. Sometimes, we need anger. Anger is a defensive emotion when someone or something we care about is threatened. But we don’t stop there, because anger in and of itself requires separation. It is very difficult to be in relationship with others when anger is present. And so, for Paul, we must move beyond anger in order to grow into the life of Christ as a community.

Anger serves another function, though; it can also be a necessary point of entry to grief and lament. Anger wants to remain as a shield set against the adversary, but we cannot live together with our shields up all the time. Encouraging one another to live into the hope of the risen Christ means crossing the protective threshold of anger and moving into a place of mourning together. David’s grieving for Absalom demonstrates not only the intense experience of loss for a child but also a giving up of anger. After all David had been through, after all he had put others through, any determination to remain angry at his beloved son crumbled. Perhaps he was even preparing to fully forgive Absalom in that moment when he ordered, “deal gently for my sake with the young man.”

~~~

Each week we practice together elements of forgiveness when we prepare ourselves to come to the communion table. In the confession of sin is an opportunity to acknowledge those times when we have allowed anger to remain too long, or to shield our hearts against a neighbor, friend or family member. The absolution is a reminder that we are invited, every time we come to the table, to pass over the threshold of anger into renewed relationship with others; to draw near to the person of Jesus Christ and receive nourishment and healing in community. And, by greeting one another with words of peace, we practice in word and gesture the motion of putting away anger, Sunday to Sunday, weeks to months, months to years, until it becomes muscle memory. With the help of the Holy Spirit, as we put away anger, we are freed to empathize with others (maybe not right away, and maybe not the people we’re angry with, but eventually). It is easy to be forgiving toward people we like, it is a work of God to pass through anger and move toward forgiveness of those who really offend us.

Here lies the way of salvation, the way of healing: to draw near to Jesus Christ in the bread and the cup; and to draw close to one another, participating in the life of the Holy Spirit through praying together, through fellowship around coffee, and in the garden. Amen.

 

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