Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Tonight’s reading from 2nd Samuel picks up rather abruptly, with David telling his officers to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Let me back up, and tell you what is happening.
Over the past two Sundays, the lectionary has had us dealing with the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba—and it is probably not right to call it an “affair,” as she clearly had no control, no voice, in it all—followed by his subsequent engineering of the murder of her husband Uriah. When the prophet Nathan exposed David’s sin, he’d told him that, “the sword shall never depart from your house”; that David’s already fragmented family would only deepen in its conflict. And here, several years later, this has certainly come to be. Maybe Nathan’s words were not even so much prescriptive of the consequences David would face, as they were descriptive of what he could see unfolding in the life of that household. The voice of the prophet, after all, is a Spirit-inspired one of telling forth what is seen; of speaking an oftentimes hard truth discerned through the insightful eye of a rooted faith.
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A sword has arisen in David’s house, and his name is Absalom. He is David’s third eldest son, and he has mounted a full-scale rebellion against his father. It is such a serious rebellion that David has fled Jerusalem, accompanied only by those in his army who have not been won over by Absalom. Yet with those fiercely loyal soldiers, David’s canniness as a military leader cannot be underestimated… and he knows it. As they prepare to wage a battle against Absalom’s forces in the forest of Ephraim, David issues that heart-rending request: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Deal gently.
How is it that the king’s own son has come to a place where he wants to overthrow his father? Earlier in the unfolding narrative, the writer of 2nd Samuel has unveiled two key things. Firstly, like his father, Absalom is noted for his appearance.
Now in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. When he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king’s weight. (2 Sam. 14:25-26)
Though David’s good looks have been noted by the writer a few times, there is no suggestion that it has been for him a source of vanity. Not so with Absalom. His hair is worn long, his presentation of himself often ostentatious. He is impressive, and he knows it. Never a good sign.
More importantly, though, is Absalom’s deep disappointment in his father. In a truly disturbing episode recounted a few chapters earlier, Absalom’s sister Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon, David’s eldest son. Raped, and then in her pain simply cast aside. Absalom is outraged by the act, and deeply compassionate toward his sister—the text says that “Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house”—but David? “When King David heard of all these things,” the text says, “he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.” (2 Sam 13:21) David didn’t do anything; he just let it be. Absalom, on the other hand, bided his time for two years, and then arranged for the murder of Amnon. In response to that violence, David is in a rage, forcing Absalom to flee Jerusalem for fully three years.
Now stop and think about that for a minute. David’s sin had been what amounted to the rape of Bathsheba, followed by his engineering of the death of Uriah. Yet when his own daughter is raped, he does nothing. But when his son Absalom arranges the death of Amnon, in a way not unlike how David arranged Uriah’s death? Only then is David ready to respond. Absalom cannot stand the injustice of what Ammon has done to their sister, nor can he make any sense of his father’s inconsistencies. For Absalom, David has been discredited.
Once launched, Absalom’s rebellion is short-lived. His forces are soundly beaten by those of his father, and he himself is caught by his long hair in the branches of a tree. When Joab comes across Absalom trapped like that, he doesn’t hesitate to kill him, David’s orders notwithstanding. At an earlier stage in the story Absalom had crossed Joab, and now the military officer is simply not interested in dealing gently with him.
On receiving word that Joab has killed Absalom, David responds with deep, deep grief; grief of the sort that perhaps could only come from a man confronting his own terrible failure as a father. “[David] 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 that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son’” Would that I had died instead of you, because this is all my mess, my sin, my doing.
In a sermon series preached at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Dr. Otis Moss III asked what David might have to say to the men living on Chicago’s South Side. Preaching in a church that identifies itself as “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” Pastor Moss had his eyes trained on a social reality that plagues the South Side; negligent fathers, absentee fathers. “We love to lift him up as this great political leader [but David was] a failure as a father,” Moss commented. “What would David say to those men on the South Side? That he gave his entire life for the kingdom, and he destroyed his family. What would he say? That Absalom and Amnon actually learned their behaviour from him. What would he say? That his daughter never talked to him; that he never spoke up for Tamar.”
And what does David have to say to us? Remember, David’s story is our story too, and as we consider it we must be awakened to the things that trouble our own lives. We may not be building kingdoms, and our failings may not be marked by sexual violence or arranged murders. Yet David’s tears for Absalom must awaken us to the places where we too act and think and live in ways that can do so much hurt to those we love; his tears mark our own sorrows too. And in marking them, we begin yet again to be loosed from the things we do; freed to begin again.
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The sermon concluded with Steve Bell’s offering of the song “Absalom, Absalom”, released on his Kindness CD.
Come and smear me with the branches of that tree
Hyssop dipped in innocent blood to make me clean
Let an old man’s broken bones once more rejoice
Oh Absalom, you were my little boy
My son, my son, my son
Caught in the tangles of deceit
Hanging lifeless from that tree
My son, my son, my son
Caught by the tangles of your hair
The fruit of my own sins to bear
You were the laughing boy who bounced upon my knee
You learned to play the harp and use the shepherd’s sling
Always watching, my impressionable son
Oh Absalom, what have I done
You were watching when I took a good man’s wife
And gave the orders for his murder, just to cover up the crime
All the vanity, cruel arrogance, and greed
Oh Absalom, you learned it all from me
(words and music by Pierce Pettis)