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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at email@example.com to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Proper 14 - Year B
II Samuel 18:1-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5.2; John 6:35.41-51
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!" Ah! But what precisely is it in that anguished cry of such a parent who has lost such a child? That is the question. The comforting memory of the time he stretched those perfectly formed fingers of his around your thumb, the time she took those first unsteady steps of hers before falling into your outstretched arms? The time he first ran to you for comfort or smiled back at you from the crotch of a tree he had just managed to climb? The sweet smell of her downy head under your chin, the time she cried out in fear in the midst of her darkened sleep, and the bed was narrow and you sat on the edge to stroke her forehead? Or the angry, accusing memory of when she stood there, fists clenched, hurt in her voice, tears in her eyes, defiant and unwilling to listen to anything you wanted to say? The time he yelled at you and was gone, just slammed the door behind him and then there was silence, silence like you had never heard before? Or simply the fact that these children of yours grew up under a broken roof which nonetheless sheltered their own failings, inviting them, forcing them to be dark themselves in order to survive? The apple doesn't just fall close to the tree. It falls in the direction of its roots. This week's old testament story from the second book of Samuel is not just the story of a parent's grief, it is the complicated assessment our emotions congeal before that welter of memories and ghosts that come burning and thundering behind us in the offspring we bear in this world. In this ancient and poignant tale of David and his sons, we hear the anguish of our own confused and confusing voice. + Whether or not it is true, as some have observed, that children take on their parents' bad qualities and magnify them much more readily than they adopt their good qualities. Absalom, David's third oldest son, seemed to exemplify this observation perfectly. Maybe, being the son of a princess (3.3), David felt obliged to spoil him. Maybe, befitting one raised in the lap of luxury, David impressed upon him that the world owed him happiness. If the kid turned out to be a snob, we could expect that. What is surprising is that darling little Absalom, although horribly self-absorbed, somehow learned the value of such great patience. Absalom knew how to wait years, if necessary, for just the right moment. When his baby sister Tamar, for instance, confessed to him that his big brother Amnon had raped and defiled her (13.20), Absalom cooled his heels rather than risking giving in to impulsive anger. What didn't help matters was his father's attitude. While David was troubled by what his first-born son had done, he didn't even go as far as reprimanding Amnon. So Absalom waited two full years before deciding to put things right himself, then invited the prince-in-waiting to a sheep-shearing party, and had Amnon murdered, thus making himself the next in line to the throne. It proved to be the beginning of his public career and, at the same time, the beginning of the end of his relationship with his father David. There was something dashing about Absalom that the public just couldn't get enough of. Perhaps it was that magnificent head of hair of his. Once a year he would have it trimmed, they say; and the clippings tipped the scales at three and a half pounds. Whether it was the way he dispatched his brother Amnon or set fire to cranky old Joab's hay field, all of Israel found such daring-do irresistible. Absalom began to see that the throne was his for the taking if he just played his cards right and bided his time. He did; and when the moment finally came about half of the country was already behind him. It is hard to tell what was going on in the mind of David all those years. Letting Absalom know that he should stay away from the palace until he got over Amnon's murder, then letting him come back to Jerusalem for two full years without even so much as laying eyes on him. Then, finally letting him back in his good graces. Then looking the other way as Absalom planned a coup d'état right under his nose. What was the normally shrewd David thinking as he watched this whole performance acted out before his eyes. Absalom was as cold and calculating and ruthless a child as had ever sprung forth from his loins and David knew it. Somehow, however, he just couldn't come to terms with it, even when his own life and the throne were on the line. Ironically, it was that beautiful hair of Absalom's that proved his undoing. Got it caught fast in the branches of an oak tree when his mule tried to run under it. David's army had been chasing him down all day long and, wouldn't you know it - Absalom's old nemesis Joab found him there swaying in the breeze. In spite of David's specific orders that not a hair on Absalom's head was to be harmed if they ever caught up to him, Joab decided to get even for Absalom's hay field caper and save the nation in one fell swoop. With ten young armour bearers behind him, Joab ran Absalom through right where he hung and then had somebody else report the news to the king. When David got wind of it, the author of this richly told tale says, he cried out in his grief. "O my son Absalom, my son, my son! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" It was deep, sincere and gut-wrenching and the most honest David ever sounded about anything. Even when his soldiers tried to comfort him with the knowledge that the rebellion had failed, and even when old Joab got plain testy with him for seeming to be totally ungrateful to the very men who had remained faithful to him, all David could really say was, "But he was my son!" It was David, as conflicted as we have ever seen him, completely stripped of his own ambition and need to be in charge. Now, there was absolutely no chance to be reconciled with a son whom he had lost a long time ago. That was all that mattered. + The trials and tribulations of the British Royal family over the past few decades have not only endeared Queen Elizabeth to most people as a long-suffering mother. It has also probably reminded us all that this modern myth called "family" is not all that it is cracked up to be. It's not just royal families that have to endure heartache and tragedy. So do the Ozzies and Harriets of this world, too. We would like to think that family life ends in some happy resolution about things. But rarely, in fact, is that the final act in the play. More often than not, some things don't manage to come together between parents and kids. The bad things don't always get identified and punished. The people who are supposed to set good examples don't. It's not just that we wish, like David, we could have stood in for our children, taking the blows that life seems to have in store for them. It's that, sometimes, we feel those blows belong more properly to us. We wish we could live our children's lives for them, not just to control them, but somehow to make up for our own shortcomings as parents. But we can't live their lives and we can't turn back the clock. Still, "What's gone and what's past help should be past grief," wrote Shakespeare (The Winter's Tale). The only problem is: it isn't. How can you stop grieving for what's beloved even when it's past time for any loving thing to do? In a sense, the story of David, known as the greatest of the kings of Israel, ends not in happy retirement but in anguish, with David pouring out his deep grief and regret, not only over the death of a son, but the failure of his family. It is hard not to hear in those tear-soaked words the deep sadness of just about any parent over the state of his or her family and the high-cost of fulfilling all those parental responsibilities. There is no easy moral lesson here, at least no lesson the author expects us to somehow emulate. What there is is the frank statement that both the parents and children we want are not necessarily the ones we get. In any family, even the best of them, there are always regrets. Things don't always turn out for the best. Parents disappoint us. Children don't always turn out the way we hope. As hard as we try, we can't always get it together and we can't always make things turn out right. Things happen. People change. Words get said that can never be taken back. And our lives are forever altered. I don't know where God is in all of this. I don't know where God is when innocence is horribly betrayed or when tragedies that could have been prevented are not. I don't know where God is when, either as parents or children, we try our level best to make things right with those whom we have disappointed and those efforts end in failure. But I do know that God was there in the cry of David that day. And I do know that God is there whenever anybody cries out of a similar anguish of his or her own before a grief that will not be consoled. Because I know God was there that day outside of Jerusalem when he could not live Jesus' life for him. Because the cross does not take away the hurts we do to one another. It just embraces them with a love that lasts. + 2 Samuel 18:1-33 - A great deal has transpired in the life of King David, most of it bad, just as the prophet Nathan predicted: a series of troubles among his own children, including rape, murder, sibling rivalry, and the rebellion of one of his sons. This week's text depicts the climactic event in Absalom's war of rebellion against his father. The portrait of David is conflicted: that of a brave, shrewd military tactician and that of a weak, vacillating father. In fact, it has been his weakness as a parent that has set in motion this entire tragic sequence. 1. Psychologically and morally, in what ways was Absalom David's son? 2. What might have David done to prevent this tragedy from happening? 3. What motive do you think Joab had for killing Absalom? Why? Ephesians 4:25-5.2 - Christians have always needed reminding about the ethical implications of their faith. In the closing chapters of this letter, Paul delineates profiles of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. While many of these injunctions have Old Testament roots, there are some striking features, such as concern for the community of believers as the motivation for honesty and the relation of these instructions to the work of God, Christ and the Spirit. 1. As much as you are able, list the various injunctions Paul issues and their ethical basis in the Old Testament. 2. How "ethical" is your church/religious community in the way people "speak the truth", "express their anger", "respect other people's property", "share their honest gain", "let evil talk come out of their mouths", "put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice"? 3. Name someone whose Christian example you would do well to emulate? John 6.35,41-51 - Next to appear in this week's installment of this extended passage are "the Jews", the archetypal enemies of Jesus in John. They appear as Jesus' detractors and their first objection seems to be the fleshly reality of Jesus: they know his father and mother. Then the text moves to a different type of language in which Jesus says that it is "the flesh" of the son of man that must be eaten and his blood consumed. Now, we are in the ritual world of the church and the sacrament of eucharist in which "the Jews" do not share. "Jews", it needs to be clarified, do not represent the nation of Israel in John, but the enemies of the church or those who reject Jesus and his teaching. 1. In what ways was familiarity with his origins always a problem for Jesus? 2. In what way is it always true that people who claim their true identity like Jesus are always singled out for reproach? 3. What is "real" to you about "sharing in the body and blood of Christ"? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - "Real grief is not healed by time. It is false to think that the passing of time will slowly make us forget... and take away our pain... If time does anything, it deepens our grief." - Henri Nouwen, A Letter of Consolation HYMN: As the Deer Pants for the Water (Voices United 786)
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