Sermon, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (August 12, 2018)

Peter Donders was born on October 27, 1807 to a poor family in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Early in life, he discerned a call to the priesthood, but he and his brother Martin needed to work in a warehouse to earn money for the family to exist. Eventually, a benefactor recognized Peter’s zeal and talent, and he sent him to seminary, where he was educated, ordained, and sent off to do missionary work in Suriname, Latin America. There he worked tirelessly to care for people suffering leprosy for many years. He died from kidney disease, aged 79. His body is buried in the Cathedral and Saint Peter and Paul in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname.

A sanctification process was started by his home diocese, just a few years after his death. Now the process pf declaring somebody to be a saint of the Church looks very much like a trial. On one hand, you have the Promotor of the Cause, who argues before a judging panel of priests and church officials why somebody should indeed be considered a saint, and on the other hand, opposing council, the Devil’s Advocate, who argues why this person cannot be considered a saint. One of the arguments that the Devil’s Advocate raised against the sanctification of Peter Donders was the fact that Peter was a smoker throughout his life. In fact, he was considered to be heavy smoker, who smoked many cigarettes each day, even when his religious supervisors and doctors treating his kidney problems ordered him to stop. Surely, an unremorseful smoker like that cannot be a saint of the Church? 

In case you were wondered, the feast day of the blessed Peter Donders is January 14 – he is a patron of missionaries, but not of smokers. For King David, it seems smoking would be the least of our concerns over his legacy. Almost from its beginning, David’s life has been overshadowed by violence of one form or another, either perpetrated by him or by others against him.

Earlier in 2 Samuel, David had grieved openly at the death of his newborn son, a child that had been conceived in violence perpetrated against Bathsheba. Unlike the present situation, that son had been innocent of any wrongdoing, but here we find David’s adult son caught in the grip of an adversarial situation, in a fight for power, in the midst of death-dealing violence, and yet at his death, there is an outpouring of grief from David.

The beginning of the text records David’s strict instructions to his generals that they should “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake” (2 Samuel 18:5b). What does it say for a father or mother that regardless of the ills committed by their child, they care enough to seek that child’s welfare? Some of us have found ourselves in that situation, as a parent, or as a child. It reflects the care that God gives to each of us, regardless of our continued shortcomings and sinfulness.

As fallen humanity, we sin in thought, word, and deed. We wage war in our spirits and with one another because of the willfulness of our minds. Violence engulfs our lives and we not only fight with each other but we are also at war within ourselves against the directives that God gives us for holy living. Yet God continues to make each of us recipients of God’s favor that seeks only our good.

And like Joab, those who are charged to protect us from harm, to help us live out the grace of God in our daily lives, are too often the very ones who seek to do us harm, and to be the perpetrators of the death-dealing systems that overshadow our lives. 

Joab had heard the words of his king – be gentle – and knew that David wanted his son’s life spared. But Joab felt that he knew what would be better for all concerned. Since Absalom had been the cause and the originator of the war in which he and all the troops were involved, to get rid of Absalom was to “cut off the head of the snake,” so to speak, and get rid of the problem once and for all. It is an important reminder to each of us that those who are charged to ‘do no harm’, those who help us live out the grace of God in our daily lives, may also be the very ones who can do us harm. Joab is a faithful servant, but in his commitment to serve the good he seeks, he also becomes a perpetrator of the death-dealing that overshadow our lives. Faced with the helpless Absalom, suspended between heaven and earth, Joab loses his ability for compassion and mercy, and has the young man killed. Not so, for David.

In the last verse of this text David is found expressing deep agony over his son’s death. This verse has been touted as a great example of parental grief, expressed to such an extent that it overshadows for David the great victory that the army has won over the forces that have sought to overthrow his throne. David is broken-hearted. His weeping is loud and long; his grief is inconsolable; his pain feels like death. It is the response of a loving father at the loss of a beloved child. Given the broken relationship between father and son, one may think of David’s outpouring of grief as excessive. Joab certainly thinks so and calls David back to reclaim his position and take up his responsibility.

Similarly, God grieves at the loss of each person from the realm of God. God who has seen the plight of the human race and has taken steps to ensure that each person has abundant life, grieves deeply over each person that is lost to sin. God is aware of the sin that so easily besets us and draws us into a war with ourselves and with one another. But despite our sinfulness, God desires our good, and has done the best to ensure that our life is saved.

David, whose life began with hope and promise, becomes a disappointment when he betrays those he has been ordained to protect as king and uses lies and deceit to pursue his own, less lofty, goals. In the end, this same David, when revenge and anger seem to be most logical answer, rediscovers his humanity and compassion. 

That’s the overriding message of this text. David’s grief was real and palpable, as a father’s for a son; as God for humanity. But despite the grief he felt, David could not restore Absalom. God on the other hand, as creator of all, has the power to restore life when the world does everything in its power to take it away. With God, death is not the end. Grief and pain are not the final answer. God restores our lives, and we live only and always in God’s favor.

By many standards, David is a troubled character, often falling short of the high standards of Scripture. He is most human, flawed, but ever within reach of God’s love and grace.Amen