SERMON ST. GEORGE 2018
Sunday, August 12, 2018
Irenaeus, the second century priest and bishop of Lyon, wrote, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.’’ If ever a person was fully alive, with all the glory and pain that life encompasses, it was David, the beloved and celebrated King of Israel who is the central character in the Old Testament books of First and Second Samuel.
“It would be no exaggeration,” says Harvard professor James Kugel, “to describe David as the most vigorous, realistic, and in some ways the most human of all the Bible’s heroes. The Bible certainly does not idealize him, but he is all the more appealing for that. No bit of human hope and despair, bravura, foolishness, bitter melancholy, smoldering hatred or deepest love, is foreign to him.”
David Plotz, who at age 35 read all the way through the Old Testament for the first time, with the help of no other books or a single expert, and then wrote a fabulous, funny book about it, says quite simply, that King David is ‘the Bible’s Bill Clinton.’
Most of us know the Sunday School version of David as a shepherd boy, a musician, the youth who wiped out Goliath the behemoth with a sling shot, then became Israel’s most famous King.
The Sunday School lessons gloss over his selfish sexual exploits, his torturous relationships with his children, and the fact that although he was irresistibly charming, he was also manipulative and calculating, prepared to do almost anything to survive. David was fully alive, all right; he sang, and danced, and fought valiantly; he also repented mightily, and grieved deeply.
And David, this complicated, most human of all Biblical men or women, full of love and full of dark shadows, was a vessel for God. When Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem on his mule a thousand years later, it was as Son of David that the crowds hailed him.
For all his finery and bravado, David was the quintessential Everyman/ Everywoman. He had deep faults and a loving heart; he had great courage and deep fears. He was a fragile yet indispensable vessel for God.
In short, David was one of us. His name could have been Alice, or Phoebe; John, or, (heaven forbid), Mac. His story spans a long life from his youth to his prime and finally to his old age as the grieving father so poignantly portrayed in today’s First Reading when he learns that his rebellious and treasured son, Absalom, has been killed.
Though David had at least nineteen sons and one daughter, the apple of his eye was Absalom, a fabulously handsome man, with a head of hair that was his crowning glory. (The author records that when Absalom cut his hair every year the weight of it was 200 shekels – or 4 1/2 pounds!)
As you may imagine, there was plenty of palace intrigue, jealousy and rivalry among David’s children. When David’s eldest son Amnon rapes his half sister Tamar and David refuses to discipline Amnon, Absalom quickly takes matters into his own hands. He kills Amnon and flees into exile.
When Absalom returns to Jerusalem three years later, David refuses to see him, so Absalom begins to strut around the city currying favor with the people and becomes almost as irresistible and charismatic as his father. Absalom attracts members of the military, forms an army and stages a successful rebellion against his father David, who is now himself forced to flee Jerusalem, along with his most trusted general, Joab, and a troop of loyal, experienced soldiers.
A battle between the two forces is inevitable, and when the day comes, David is torn between two conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he expects his experienced army to crush the revolt; on the other hand, he openly yearns for the safety of his insurrectionist son.
As Joab and David’s army prepare for the battle in the rugged forest of Epraim, David issues a terse order to his generals that barely conceals his ambivalence, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom,” he says, as he sends the troops off to fight.
David’s army soundly defeats the rebels, but Absalom escapes on his mule and in a bizarre, ironic twist, his head of hair, his narcissistic glory, is the instrument of his entrapment. Hanging there between heaven and earth after his mule runs away, Absalom is killed by Joab, and buried on the spot.
Learning that his son is dead, David is reduced to a stammer of grief and desolation, repeating over and over, my son Absalom, my son Absalom. O that I had died instead of you….Absalom, my son. David, the Cinderella shepherd boy who became Israel’s most celebrated King, mourns as an old man, with all the pathos and nobility of King Lear.
Was Irenaeus thinking of David when he wrote, ’The glory of God is a man fully alive’? Could be; David certainly qualifies, but somehow doubt that he was the first person Irenaes thought of a fully alive. I picture him looking around Lyon, watching the faces of small children at play, or young couples walking together hand in hand oblivious to others around, or senior citizens sitting on the sidelines laughing their hearts remembering at some old story.
I think of a fully alive woman who told me that the thing she dreaded most had happened: her children had taken her car keys away. “I thought the world would end, but the most amazing thing happened,” she said. “The world came to me! I’ve never had so many invitations, so many rides offered, so many options.”
That woman, whose name is Martha, is the glory of God. Another person I think of that way was a man named Frank, who died recently at age 90.
At his funeral, the parish priest named Scott, who had only known Frank for one year, mentioned a book by David MacCauley entitled The Way Things Work. ‘It’s a children’s book’, Scott said, made up entirely of illustrated descriptions of how everything from cameras to nuclear reactors work, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it in Frank’s library.
“When I entered his well stocked library,” Scott said, “I could see in a matter of minutes that it was not stocked with books about The Way to Put Things to Work for You. No, the books on Frank’s shelves – fiction, essays, theology and just about everything else- these books were clear signposts into the mind of a man who stayed deeply curious about how things really work in this world until the day he left it.
“There is a theologically suspect word from the way Frank seemed to feel about his life: lucky. He felt lucky. Which means he died grateful. And I am increasingly convinced that gratitude is a much better marker of the faith Jesus talked about than any checklist of what we now call ‘beliefs.’
“Frank engaged the Christian tradition the same way he engaged everything in this life: with all he had. With his mind and his heart and his curiosity fully open and intact. He didn’t dismiss the beliefs of others; he just couldn’t say the Nicene Creed and feel like he was being truthful. Because it mattered to him. And he really wanted to know how things work. Even faith.
“So he engaged his friend and theologian Marcus Borg and the two went back and forth for a couple of years. Then one day Frank heard Marcus’s insistence that ‘credo’ doesn’t mean ‘I believe’ as in ‘I believe the sky is blue’; it means ‘I trust’, as in ‘
I am giving my whole self over to this mystery.’ Frank could say that, because giving his mind and heart was something he knew about.
“Friends, I believe that’s the kind of faith Jesus calls all of us to. That’s engaging the wonder and mystery of being alive in God’s world with all we have, even our doubts.
“I don’t know just what Frank encountered when his heart stopped beating; he wouldn’t want me to pretend that I do.
“What I do know is that his ninety-year investigation of the way things work in this beautiful life seemed to yield only more childlike wonder and more gratitude by the year. As if he had struck a goodness that’s eternal in the process…”
The glory of God is, indeed, a person fully alive…yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.