August 12, 2018
All Saints’ Church
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 14, Track 1
My birthday is August 21, so right around this time every year, I always start thinking about aging, and birth, and death, and mortality -- you know, all the typical birthday thoughts. And this year I have a niece who just turned one, on the same day as our parishioner Valerie had a big birthday, so I’ve just had birthdays on the brain this week. I’m especially grateful to the people at All Saints’ for teaching me that birthdays are a time for celebration, not feeling sad about getting old, but feeling triumphant about living life.
But as I celebrated my niece’s first year of life, I realized that she shares this weekend with another anniversary, which is the grotesque display of white supremacists last year in Charlottesville, Virginia. I felt a little sick to think of the unfolding political landscape of the last year in our nation, alongside the delicate unfolding of Beatrix’s life. Babies and young children have this powerful way of putting life into context, don’t they? It’s hard to imagine the last year in our country’s history being the extent of our whole life.
When we are faced with trouble, be it broad political trouble or personal trauma, grief, loss in our own life, we can balance that immediate context with the long, long arc of history, no matter how old we might be. As faithful Christians, the bible is a great way to do this, to remember that long before Beatrix was born, before we were born, before anyone who was in Charlottesville last year, before anyone in this room was born, before our country was born, before the people who lived here before Europeans colonized this land were born, before the printing press, before the English language, before paper -- there were these stories.
This summer, we have been reading through the story of David, a shepherd boy known for making beautiful music, who then slays Goliath in an unexpected victory of the underdog. This is a classic Sunday School story.
David then is chosen by Saul, the King of Israel, to come into his court, to be like a son to him. But then there is conflict between them. Saul worries that David is trying to become King, and perhaps his fears are warranted, because when both Saul and his son Jonathan die in battle, David does become King.
This is where we begin our story this morning: David, once a shepherd boy is now the king of all Israel and Judah. He has many many children, sons and daughters with many many different women.
Our story today is the story of one of those children, Absalom. So let me flesh out for you a little bit the story of Absalom.
The first part of Absalom’s story is one that we don’t read in church. It’s not a pleasant story at all, in fact, it is one of the most gruesome parts of our holy scripture. But I do think it is important, as a group of people who come together to read from our bible together each week, that we don’t forget that there is a lot of stuff in there that is really disturbing, just as there is a lot of stuff in life that is really disturbing.
Among the many children of David, there is one named Amnon, who decides he wants to lie with Absalom’s sister Tamar. It’s a little unclear, but it seems that Amnon has one mother and Absalom and Tamar have another. When Tamar refuses Amnon’s advances, he does not listen to her. And after he violates her wishes, he murders her. And to be clear, the translation of the bible we read in church, the New Revised Standard Version does use the words rape and murder to describe what happened, in case you fear I am being needlessly provocative on this hot summer morning.
This terrible story, of course, makes Absalom very mad. David, their father and the king, is kind of at a loss about what to do -- they’re all my children, he says, what can I do? So Absalom waits two years and then avenges his sister’s murder and kills his brother Amnon.
Now David really doesn’t know what to do. His children are killing each other. And Absalom decides he doesn’t really care what David thinks, and goes out on his own, to gain political favor, and perhaps make a move to take over the kingdom.
This is where we learn that Absalom is known for his beauty, he is admired by all who see him, and in a fun little biblical fact, we learn he has to cut his hair once a year because it gets too big, and when he cuts it, it weighs 200 shekels, or about five pounds.
Big-haired, handsome Absalom gains a lot of fans and followers, and David’s close advisors think David should put an end to this, for fear of losing the kingdom. But David hems and haws, Absalom is his son after all. He tells his people over and over not to kill Absalom, “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom,” he says where our story starts this morning.
But then Absalom is riding on his mule and his big hair gets stuck in a tree. And Absalom is hanging from the tree ... quite an image isn’t it? Hanging from the tree, the lectionary leaves out this line: David’s man Joab comes upon Absalom hanging there and says “I will not waste time like this with you.” So He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak.”
Returning to David, Joab tells him what has happened. And even though at this point Absalom had killed his son and had fled from his house and was leading a political uprising against him, David wails: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
So you can kind of understand now why David and Goliath is more often taught in Sunday School, yes? Rather than this story, the story of Absalom.
This story is so complicated. It is a messy story about family. About love. About a brother’s love for his sister, about a father’s love for his child, his children. About real wrongdoing and evil done to each other. It’s also at its heart, a story about narcissistic, ego-driven political guys fighting for power and killing each other, discarding women and women’s experiences, which ... I don’t know about you, but thousands and thousands of years later somehow still feels familiar to me.
As Christians today, here in Brooklyn in 2018, what are we supposed to do with these stories? In a fraught political time, when women are demanding to be heard, when parents and children find themselves disagreeing bitterly over politics. What can we take from the foundational stories of our faith, what comfort or good news is there here?
One of my favorite biblical scholars, Phyllis Trible, explains how to read the bible faithfully. Be like Jacob wrestling the angel, she says, Jacob who was awakened from his nap by this messenger of God and fought back. As he wrestled with the angel, he said, “I will not let go of you until you bless me.” We say the same to the text, “I will not let go of you until you bless me.”
What happens if we don’t let go of this story, what blessing might we find? To be honest with you, when I was writing this sermon, the potentially easier thing to do would have been to dust off an old sermon about bread and talk about what’s going on with Jesus this morning. How Jesus makes sure that we will never go hungry, how we have to eat bread every day, how that is at the core of our faith, how much I love bread, and how we have to make sure that our neighbors all have enough bread, too. That is a pretty easy story to get a blessing from. But I couldn’t let go of the angel in this story of Absalom, I would not let go of this sermon until we found a blessing.
What blessing might we find together?
Do you know what the name Absalom means? In Hebrew it is Avishalom, that is Avi, father, and Shalom, Peace. Father of peace. So I am left scratching my head at this, because, if you will recall the story we have just gone through together, Absalom is known as a brother, and as a son, but not really as a father. And the story doesn’t seem so peaceful, does it?
It could be that the author of this story is just being ironic. But as I’m wrestling with this story, I want to be a little less cynical than that. I think, instead, that God is telling us that peace is complicated. It’s not a simple, black and white, easily moralized story. What if God’s peace that has passed down to us through the generations from this “father of peace” is a peace that understands violence? But a peace that, at its very core, despite political differences, also reconciles us with the love of our parents?
To understand Absalom as the Father of Peace is to understand that God has not given up hope for peace, hope for reconciliation, hope for love. Hope that we might not turn against each other, hope that we might listen. And to understand Absalom as the Father of Peace is to understand that God has not given up on justice. Because David, hemming and hawing and not acting because he does not know what to do, he is not the Father of peace. Absalom is, Absalom who acted, who did what he thought was right. Absalom, who it turns out, was a father, and though we don’t know much about his children, we do know that he named his daughter after his beloved sister, Tamar.
God invites us into this lineage of peace. God invites you, invites me, invites Beatrix, and Valerie, invites everyone in Charlottesville, and Washington D.C. this morning -- God invites us to into this active peace, to make peace together, to be a blessing of peace. Amen.