As we continue our study of I & II Samuel this summer, we have reached an important point in our story. The first king of Israel, the one chosen by Samuel with God’s guidance, has died, as well as his son, the obvious heir to the throne. Samuel, led again by God, privately picked David to succeed Saul, though he had no legal right to the throne. And though King Saul had at first accepted David, he grew increasingly afraid and jealous of him, and even tried to kill him. David and Saul’s son, Jonathon, were best friends, and Saul and Jonathon would often argue about David. Even with his issues, Saul had led Israel to become more united and prominent. But when the Philistines attacked, Israel was not able to keep them at bay. Saul and Jonathon died trying to fend them off.
David was not in the same battle, having fled from Saul’s anger. A messenger delivered the news that Saul and Jonathon were dead, perhaps anticipating that David would be delighted, and ready to take over the throne as the head of Israel. But David was not thrilled. His immediate response was one of deep grief. David responded well as the leader of Israel. He knew that Israel had no quarrel with Saul, like he did, and that Israel needed to mourn Saul before she could move on. The song that David wrote was for Israel, first, and for himself, second. He bemoaned that outsiders, the conquering Philistines, would celebrate Saul’s death, so he wished the news could be kept from them. He lauded the two men, saying nothing of their shortcomings or quarrels, but regaling them as fallen heroes. He expressed the grief of Israel. Only in the last verses did he talk in first person, expressing his own personal grief for his friend Jonathon. Eloquently, David put words to the deep sorrow of Israel. As is true of this entire narrative, the point is more about who David was than anything else, as he became the king of Israel. And here we see that the heart of David, upon which God looked, was indeed good.
In part of the story that we did not read this morning, David "took hold of his clothes and tore them; and all the men who were with him did the same. They mourned and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathon…" (II Samuel 1:11-12). With very public acts, David led the people in a grieving that was genuine and heart-felt.
The esteemed biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that we can learn much about grief from David. He says we do not show public grief, that we have no easy model for processing grief. He also feels we have not fully dealt with grief over major events in our history – the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust, or the horrors of Vietnam. As recent events show, we have not fully processed our grief over changes with race relations, or the advancement of women, or the equality of all peoples regardless of their sexuality. Brueggemann maintains that unless we can fully and publically acknowledge our personal and societal grief, we simply do not get over it and cannot move on. We hang on to the shock, the anger, the fear, the denial. We do not move to the stage of acceptance.
Brueggemann also says that David teaches us that words matter in expressing our grief, and that he culls out what is crucial and what is marginal. David had personal issues with Saul; Jonathon and Saul did not always agree and were not perfect leaders. Yet in public grief, those petty things were forgotten or at least forgiven, and the good that these men did, the bravery they showed, was put forward.
In general, we do not allow folks to process their grief. We want them to be alright, to smile and to participate in activities. We do not give them much space and time to fully grieve. I know this personally. You may too. I have lost two husbands to illnesses. And within about a year of both deaths, I have been told that surely enough time has passed for me to feel better. What that says to the grieving person is like a rude kick in the rear that says, "You need to get over it NOW." Yet we can never put a time line on grief, we cannot tell anyone when to quit grieving. Grief varies from person to person, and we never fully get over our losses. They come back to us, perhaps not with the heart-wrenching depth of the first year or two, but still with a strong pull on our hearts. But we can learn and grow from these experiences of life.
Chris has told me a couple of times a true story about Walter Brueggemann leading a class at Columbia while he was there. It was the fall of 2001, after the awful events of September 11 in that year. And the class was studying the Lament Psalms. Brueggemann was trying to make the point that the Lament Psalms are a gift from God to us, a way to help us to voice our deepest emotions, fears, and desires, and to lead us to a fuller relationship with God and others. He asked one of Chris’s classmates, Jennifer, to read one of the psalms. Jennifer was a gifted worship leader, and she read it well. But Brueggemann, who can be a bit gruff and blunt at times, pushed on. "You didn’t read it with much feeling," he said. "Do it again." Jennifer’s face got red, as she was embarrassed, but she collected herself and read again, a bit forced, perhaps, but more forcefully. "Again," Brueggeman said. She read again, adding more emotion, "leaning into the depths of the language," as Chris described it. But Brueggemann was not through. He let her have a moment to collect herself, but then he said, "I want you to think about your life, and whatever it is you need right now, the demons you are wrestling with, and put those into this Psalm. Give it something." Then she read it with unbelievable force, her emotions pouring out, tears streaming down her face. It was beautiful, Chris said. And when she finished, as she wiped her tears, the class sat in stunned silence. "You feel better," Brueggemann said to her. "Yes," she replied, nodding. "Well done," he said. "Let’s take a break."
Pixar has a new movie out, called "Inside Out," where emotions come to life in these cute little characters who interact. The head of emotions is Joy, and she tries to keep the others in line – Anger, Fear, Disgust, and especially Sadness. Joy doesn’t have much use for Sadness at all, until much later in the story, when she realizes that the young girl will not find joy again until she expresses her sadness and shares it with her family. It is a pivotal moment in the movie.
Life is so full of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and so much in between. Society wants us to handles our more negative emotions (grief, sadness, even anger) on our own, to not take them into public. And certainly we should not take our angers out on our friends or fellow workers, or on strangers, as in so many of the mass killings in our country. But we need to be able to express the inevitable sadder emotions that will come into every life.
And that is why we have Stephen Ministers, like the four we will commission in just a few minutes. Stephen Ministers get 50 hours of training, that is every Wednesday night for two hours since January for this class, learning about how to listen, really listen. They practice listening. And then they sit patiently with those who need to talk each week for about an hour, and give them the grace of having someone truly listen, without trying to fix them, or to analyze or gloss over what they are feeling and thinking.
We gave these folks a sheet at their last class this week, that calls Stephen Minister "The After People." "Stephen Ministers are there" it says, "after the divorce papers have been served and the bottom falls out of your life." They are there "after you arrive home after the funeral service and the emotions you have held at bay come crashing in on you." They are there "after the doctors have said, ‘There is nothing more to do.’" They are even there "after the baby arrives putting more demands on you than you ever dreamed possible." And, they are there "after your family and friends have heard your story one too many times, but you still need to talk it out."
How appropriate it is today when we are commissioning these folks that our Samuel text today is about giving voice to our deepest felt emotions, because that is what Stephen Ministers are trained to hear, without taking anything they hear personally, and knowing that there is hope ahead, somewhere down the road of life, and that they are willing to walk down that road with you.
William Shakespeare, the master of words, said simply, "Give sorrow words." David put sorrow to words eloquently in the song we read today. Brueggemann pushed his student to use the Bible’s words of lament to fully express her own sorrow, over 9/11, over her personal griefs, over whatever sorrows she held within her. When we find healthy ways to express our sorrows, they will no longer hold us hostage. We can, by expressing them, over time, release them, and learn to move on. That does not mean we forget the losses for which we grieve. They become a part of who we are. But until we fully acknowledge the hold of grief on us, we may have trouble coping with life and fully participating in it.
In the wake of the shootings in a church Bible study in Charleston, we have witnessed the members of that church leading us in forgiveness and grief in a way that this country has not seen very often. Surely many thought there would be riots and trouble after a white man entered an African American church and killed 9 worshiping people. There clearly could have been rioting, as there has been after deaths by policemen in other states in recent months. But the family members of those killed appeared rather quickly in public to say that though their lives had been gravely altered by that young man’s actions, they forgave him. Like David, these brave and faithful people from a church in Charleston are clearly leading our country in a better way to grieve.
The New Testament texts we read today are often read for memorial services. They remind us that out of the depths God always brings hope, and that no matter what we experience, we always have the love of God with us. These are words by which we can live, day after day, through joys, through sorrows, through sadness, through celebration. These are words that, when we truly believe them and live them, can bring healing. And goodness knows, God knows, that we need healing, as a nation, as a world, as individuals.
Thanks be to God! Amen.