Weekly Preaching: August 12, 2018

August 7th, 2018

Of many dark days for David, 2 Samuel 18 narrates the darkest. We may not think of David as the author of the Psalms, but this Sunday’s, 130, echoes the horror in his heart: “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.”

In my book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, I try to explore the way leadership inevitably is impacted by family complications of which no one may be aware. David’s family dysfunction could not be more public. Absalom violates the second portion of his Hebrew name (shalom, peace), stirring up strife and then open combat against his father, the king.

David is persistent in his over-indulgence of his children. He asks Joab to “deal gently” with Absalom — which has put Joab and his troops in grave peril! No wonder Joab chides him later to get his act together and recognize who’s been fighting with him.

Robert Barron, always brilliant and wise, notices David’s soft spot with his sons, and asks a surprising and wonderful question: “Does David’s ‘weakness’ for his children, his sentimental failure to exact true justice in their regard, in fact not represent the deeper and higher judgment of God?” Wow. A lack of tough love, an overabundance of mercy on children in need of discipline: does this mirror the heart of God? Like God, David relentlessly loves those who fail, who rebel against him.

The battle is a cruel one. The thick woods claim more victims than the soldiers and weapons, reminding Barron of the Wilderness Campaign during the Civil War, and then reminding me of Passchendaele in World War I, where the mud caused a high percentage of the casualties — as if nature itself conspires with the God who is left unmentioned to effect the outcome.

The searing emotion of Absalom’s dramatic death: wow. Absalom’s hair, certainly a symbol to his followers of his potency, and probably a sign of his narcissistic vanity, becomes his undoing — like Samson! His royal mount leaves him suspended in the air, a picturesque image of his unseating, his being dethroned. Hard not to think of Judas, dangling from a tree.

"Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us about Powerful Leadership" (Abingdon Press, 2017). Order here: http://bit.ly/2rYxHac

David, perhaps with the same heart as the father in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, does not pump his fists in victory. His grief is beyond measure. In The Lord of the Rings, King Théoden, learning of his son Théodred’s death, grimly declares “The young perish, the old linger… No parent should have to bury their child.” David’s sorrow is even more harrowingly complicated since his son died while in revolt against his own sorry leadership. Or to shift the cause, and gender mix, consider the profoundly riveting and then funny scene where Sally Field plays the mom who lost her daughter in Steel Magnolias; it illustrates how a raging questioning is more faithful than a pious claim that God’s will was done.

Barron points out the way David has changed, how the accumulation of losses has taken its toll on him; or, how this loss was more brutal. David, who was so very eloquent when Saul and Jonathan died (2 Sam. 1), now is reduced to nothing more (or less) than moaning his son’s name over and over.

Preaching on such a text, resist the temptation to find a moral. What would it be? Don’t start a civil war? Those who grasp for power are undone? I think the Bible invites us to hear stories of real people, truly important people, and how things unfold — so often tragically. We do not find stories of sweet, well-behaved families that pray and are blessed by a generous Lord. And so there is room in the Bible for people like… me, you, all of us.

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Our Epistle, Ephesians 4:25–5:2, as is generally the case, has more of an obvious moral/take-away/theological lesson. How counter-cultural and subversive, in a day like ours, is Paul’s admonition to “Speak the truth”? So elusive, so rare, so despised... our listeners have even come to believe truth is a phantom and a fantasy, or is no more than my private truth, my ideology. Harry Frankfurt wrote what is for me the most important book for preachers to read: On Bullshit, a text which explores (he’s a philosopher, so it’s an intellectual riff) the dominant mode of communication and expectation in our culture. The bullshitter, Frankfurt points out, isn’t a liar. He doesn’t care about truth at all; it’s just a matter of talking somebody into something, so you say whatever. People experience this all the time, and they have their BS antennae out when you’re preaching, too. So you’d best beware of the nagging temptation to be a BSer in the pulpit.

Paul counsels us: “Do not let the sun set on your wrath,” which is often parroted as great marriage advice. Not a bad idea, as lingering upsets do fester and grow rapidly like kudzu. But Lisa and I have figured out that sometimes,  instead of plunging in while feelings are at fever pitch, waiting overnight for things to chill before settling a disagreement might not be the worst idea. The key is the commitment to iron things out and not let wrath win the day.

“Be imitators of God.” The medieval notion of the imitation of Christ is resurrectable, but tricky. For years people wore WWJD bracelets, but many were clueless about what Jesus would in fact do. Better to imitate the way St. Francis imitated Jesus: he listened to the Gospel being read, and that was his to-do list for the day. He took no cloak for the journey, he sold all and gave to the poor, he touched lepers.

My favorite article I’ve ever published (in The Art of Reading Scripture) was about Francis’s stunning imitation of Christ. Such imitation prompted G.K. Chesterton to suggest that “it is very enlightening to realise that Christ was like St. Francis.” As I suggested in my piece:

“Mimicry is hardly a faithful copy, or even a desirable posture. I can hear my son filing suit against his sister from the back of the van: ‘Daddy, she’s copying me!’ And yet, for precisely that reason, ‘imitatio’ is helpful. We can muster no better than a failed approximation of Christ, in laughable, faltering ways.”

The Greek verb, mimetai, is kin to our “mime” — a mimicry that is cool, but laughable, too. So is our imitation of Christ.

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Our Gospel reading, John 6:35-51, has been covered in my previous blog on the entirety of John 6, with details for this week there, too.

"What can we say come August 12? 12th after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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