Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

In his Confessions St. Augustine tells of the death of his mother Monica. He describes movingly the torrent of grief that overcame him at the moment she closed her eyes. Afterward, he reproached himself for this reaction. He felt Christians should be restrained in their grief. After all, they understand that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Death then is ultimately a good thing. Later, however, Augustine realized that Christian love does not preclude tears of grief. We are relieved that he came to this realization. For our part, we note that Jesus wept over the sorrow of his friends at the loss of their brother and friend, Lazarus, even though he knew what he was about to do (John 11:35). In this connection, we also note the command of the Apostle Paul to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15). Thankfully, Augustine tells of how he withdrew later to a private place and let his tears flow freely.

 

We do need to find ways to express our grief at the losses we suffer. We all suffer loss of many kinds: the death of loved ones, divorce, break-ups, loss of friends, children growing up and moving out of the house. In contrast to ancient cultures, like that reflected in the Bible, our culture is not always so good at teaching us to express our grief. We keep it in, push it aside, or shrug it off. We say that we are okay and press on. But if grief is not processed, it will stay with us and change us–and not for the better. Indeed, negative emotion, including grief, when not worked through, can be a major factor in serious and even fatal illness, as Gabor Mate has convincingly shown in his book When the Body Says No

 

In our first lesson, we find a lamentation or lament of David. It is called the Song of the Bow, and David ordered it to be taught to all the people. The lament can be defined as grief put into words.

 

We already know David to be a warrior. We saw David’s courage on the battlefield when he squared off against the giant Goliath. David’s subsequent military victories would win him fame throughout Israel. When he returned from battle against the Philistines, David was greeted by the women who danced and sang out: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7).

 

We already know David is a king. We saw Samuel presented with the sons of Jesse, only to single out David, the young shepherd boy in the pasture, to replace Saul as king over Israel. With the death of Saul, which we see today, the obstacle that’s prevented David from assuming the throne is finally removed.

 

Today we will come to know David as a singer, a poet, capable of finding the right words to say, words to express emotion, including grief and heartbreak.  

 

That David is a singer of songs is one of the first things that the Bible tells us about him. We learn that he was called from tending Jesse’s sheep to sing and play harp for the troubled king Saul (1 Sam. 16:18). At the end of Second Samuel, we learn that he was named the “sweet Psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1). This no doubt refers to his authorship of many of the Psalms found in that book of the Bible that bears this name.

 

Parenthetically, is not the ability to find the right words to express the complex emotions of people a good trait for a leader to have? In this perspective, to be a poet and a national leader are not two separate things. Consider Abraham Lincoln, for example. Only an historian of the Civil War can tell us about the political and military decisions Lincoln made to defeat the Confederacy. But many more Americans will recognize the words and rhythms of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln led as much through his poetic use of language as he did through strategy and diplomacy.

 

Or consider Winston Churchill. Again, very few of the English today can tell us about the strategic decisions he made to defeat Nazi Germany. But far more will remember his speech about the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” the hour demanded from his besieged countrymen. Leadership is a complex gift that involves management and vision, but it also involves speech that can capture the imagination. The speech of a good leader can calm, soothe, console and inspire to action.

 

This is what in fact we find in our lesson. It is important to realize that when a people loses in battle, even worse, when a people loses its commanders in battle, it experiences not only grief but also humiliation and disgrace. David is right in saying that the king and the prince are the glory of Israel. And they lie slain on the high places. In Psalm 4, David cries out against his enemies: “How long will you turn my glory into shame?” In this instance, the enemies of God’s people momentarily prevail. Saul and Jonathan have fallen. Whenever we suffer loss, we don’t always want to confront it directly. We are reluctant to name it, because there’s a part of us that does not want to accept it. But David faces the facts directly. “How the mighty have fallen!”

 

David confronts and names the loss. At the same time he addresses the humiliation and disgrace. He wants to impress on the people how great Saul and Jonathan were. They did not die as cowards; they fought and died valiantly. They were swifter than eagles, and stronger than lions. They were skillful in the use of the bow and the sword. As king, Saul administered the affairs of his realm effectively. Under his rule, the economy prospered. The women were clothed in crimson and adorned in ornaments of gold. The people need to hear and remember how great Saul and Jonathan were, especially now, so they are not crushed beneath the weight of their humiliation and disgrace.

 

The greatness that once was is no longer. Grief is the terrible sense of what we have just lost. We grieve because what once was is no longer. “The mighty have fallen.” Death casts a shining light on what has just been lost. The pain of grief comes from the awareness of what is now gone. In this regard, the old saying rings true: “you don’t know what you have until it is gone.” The lesson for us here is to appreciate the value of our loved ones as long as we have them. They are not always going to be with us. The true measure of their value may not appear until after they are gone, but let that not prevent us from showing our appreciation for them now. In life and in death, Saul and Jonathan were loved and lovely. 

 

Parenthetically, we note also here a proper focus on the good that has been lost. This was not the time to paint a balanced picture. We know that the relationship between Saul and David deteriorated over time. Consumed by jealousy, Saul had tried twice to kill David with his spear. David then had to flee the court, and Saul doggedly pursued him over hill and dale, attempting to capture and kill him. David, however, never avenged himself on his enemy, even when he had the chance. He respected Saul as the Lord’s anointed, and would not lay a hand on him. It’s as the Lord’s anointed that David remembers him, not as his enemy.

 

This stands in contrast to how David remembers Jonathan. Jonathan was a loyal friend, consistently devoted to David. He encouraged David to stay true to his calling. He supported him in his struggle to realize his vision of becoming king, even at his own expense, since, as Saul’s son and therefore the crown prince, he stood in line to inherit his father’s throne. The love with which Jonathan loved David could only be compared favorably with the love of women.

 

As we grieve, it is important for us to understand that it’s about the good that has been lost. Our loved ones are not perfect. And when they are gone, we will not remember them as perfect. In fact, our relationships, even with those we love most, are always characterized by ambivalent feelings. That is why many of us struggle with guilt after the burial of our loved one. A part of us does not miss them; indeed, we may even feel relieved they are gone. That is okay; we should not punish ourselves for these feelings. But the memorial service or funeral is the occasion to remember the good. It is the time to put into words what we have lost and therefore to recognize this person as God’s gift to us. That is why our public rituals of mourning, our funerals and memorial and graveside services, are occasion not only to grieve, but also to thank God for the gift of the life of our loved one, the gift of a life that has enriched our lives in so many ways.

 

David realizes that not all will receive the lives of these two heroes as God’s gift. That is why he does not want the news of their demise to be spread in enemy territory. He cannot bear the idea of the ecstatic joy the news is bound to bring to the Philistines. Years earlier, when David and the Israelite armies had defeated the Philistines, the women of the Israelite cities came out and danced and sang songs of joy, as we have already mentioned. That the tables are now turned and the Philistine women are now rejoicing at the death of Saul and Jonathan is unbearable to David. It is another dimension of the grief of his people to which he is giving expression.

 

In his lament, David also names the site where David and Jonathan fell. The mountains of Gilboa are beautiful; they provide a spectacular view of the Jezreel valley below. Yet David is so devastated by the tragic deaths of the two heroes that he curses the mountains. This part of the lament opens up to us another dimension of our grieving. The pain of loss is made more intense by the fact that the world seems to go on as though nothing has happened. People will tell us that death is the natural order of things. But to us nothing is more unnatural than this death, the death of our loved one. To us it is as though the good order of things has been torn, disrupted. In this curse David is giving expression to this anguish we feel. The place where these two heroes have fallen should not remain unaffected. The dew, the rain, and the crops—the natural order of things—should not continue as if nothing has happened. We feel indignant that the world will keep turning, as it has before. It is indifferent to what we have lost. It is yet another dimension of grief to which David is giving expression.

 

To conclude, David taught his people to grieve well. We have also tried to show that there are lessons about grieving contained in his lament for us too. It is important for us to find words to put to our grief. It is a complex emotion, and we need to give it the proper frame that words can create if we ever hope to work through it.

 

Of course, as Christians we read David’s lament through the lens of the Gospel. Because of this, we can hold on to hope even as we grieve—the hope that comes from the resurrection of Christ. In our gospel lesson for today, there are two people who overcome their fear and distress and reach out to Jesus in faith. We refer here to Jairus and the woman with the issue of blood. They come to him in hope that Jesus can heal and bring life into places where there is death—whether it be social death, as in the case of the woman, or literal death, as in the case of Jairus’ daughter. In both cases, Jesus heals and brings life. Our hope is that God will bring healing and life to us too. As long as we live in this world, we will continue to experience loss and the need to grieve. But we should not grieve as those who have no hope. We do not have to be paralyzed by our grief. Through Jesus God calls us to give our grief to him. In exchange, he will give us the hope that death and sorrow will one day be no more, but will be swallowed up in life forever. Amen. 

 

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