11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14) | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 8 August 2021

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 | Psalm 130 | Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who comes down from heaven to the depths. Please be seated.

Friends, someday I will get to preach to you on a day where we’re not reading about a gruesome death, but that is not today. Last time I preached here, we had the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, a holy death. And today we have a death that seems anything but holy. This is a hard story to spend time with, especially on a joyful day like today when we baptize a wonderful new life into Christ’s church. We baptized Karlee Jo at the 8:00 service, and our whole community is a witness to that joyous event. And so I thought about preaching something else today. But I think we need to spend time with this story because we find God in the depths.

When we tell the truth about what it’s like in the depths, we learn to lean on God’s love for us in new ways, and we learn to care for each other more fully. When we see how evil plays out, we learn to resist evil, as our baptismal covenant asks us to do. When we hear the painful cries of those whose dignity has suffered, we learn how to respect the dignity of every human being, as our baptismal covenant also calls us to do. So today we’ll tell the story, we’ll take a good look down in the depths together and see what we find there.

This story from Samuel is the climax of an epic tale of love, family, and revenge that has taken up the last few chapters. This part of the Bible reads a lot like a Shakespearean tragedy, or even Game of Thrones. There’s murder, intrigue, drama. A lot of guilty people get what’s coming to them, and a lot of innocent people get hurt in the process.

Absalom and David are both complicated men who have lost their way. David is a brave fighter, a brilliant strategist, a passionate worshipper of the Lord. And yet, he’s done something terrible, and amid the fallout from his crime, he allows destructive behavior to spiral out of control from within his own household. David’s son Absalom is a fiercely compassionate brother and an incredibly talented leader. And yet, his violence nearly destroys the kingdom.

The lectionary skips over some of the chapters in between last week’s reading and today’s because they’re really rough to read. The conflict between Absalom and David begins when another one of David’s sons abuses Absalom’s sister Tamar. King David does not protect his daughter Tamar and does not bring any accountability for the abuser. Absalom eventually takes justice into his own hands and murders the brother who hurt Tamar. From there, the harm and resentment continue to fester until Absalom starts a civil war, which ends with his death in today’s reading where we see him suspended between heaven and earth. It’s a compelling story in all its awfulness, as these complicated, powerful men almost find a way to reconcile but keep on raising the stakes.

And it’s also not the whole story. This conflict hurts a lot of people, and some of those people remain unseen. Our readings leave out the story of Absalom’s sister Tamar entirely. The text tells her part of the story and paints a moving picture of her grief, but our Sunday readings skip those parts because they’re so hard to hear. Bathsheba has been in our Sunday readings for the past couple of weeks, but in some ways she’s still unseen. We only hear one line in her voice even though she probably had a lot more to say. When the prophet Nathan confronts David with brilliant storytelling (which we read last week), he still pays more attention to Bathsheba’s husband Uriah as a wronged party than to Bathsheba—in his prophetic parable, she’s just a little sheep, not even a person. And I feel some anger about that. Bathsheba and Tamar may be the ones who suffer the most in this story and yet they’re not always seen in their full dignity as human beings.

And besides that, many of the people hurt by this conflict between David and Absalom aren’t even named, much less seen. We don’t know the names of the 20,000 soldiers who died and the many more who probably came back from the battle wounded. Most of the people fighting didn’t ask for any of this to happen, and yet they’re the ones carrying the scars if they make it out at all. David and Absalom don’t respect the value of these soldiers’ lives or their human dignity enough to settle their conflict some other way.

And there’s something that’s been on my heart to say since we started this section of the story a few weeks ago with David and Bathsheba. And that is that even though the story doesn’t always see the people who have been hurt the most, God sees them. If you are a survivor of violence, a survivor of abuse, if you’re someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, God sees you. If you are someone who carries a story of hidden hurt, God sees you. I see you.

We see you. This community may not know the details of your story, but we know that you’re with us. We know that you are us. As our Ephesians reading reminds us, we are a community called to tell the truth, to bear with one another, and to imitate God’s far-reaching love. And together we can make the church a place where grief like this doesn’t have to be carried alone.

Because we serve a God who will not be embarrassed or scared away or overwhelmed by our pain, no matter what our stories are, no matter what we’ve been through.

God sees the pain of the big loud main characters and the pain of the forgotten ones. In our story today there is deep anguish for a lot of people—for Absalom, for a host of women and men caught in the middle, and for David at the death of his son, that cry of anguish we heard at the end of the reading.

We read Psalm 130 with this story because it expresses that deep pain. Sometimes this Psalm has been read as a continuation David’s lament for Absalom. I wonder what it would be like to read this Psalm in the voice of Tamar, in the voice of Bathsheba, in the voices of the soldiers hurt in this war. These people cry out from the margins of the story, they cry out from the depths of their own sorrow, and God hears them.

This Psalm is for us to claim too, whatever we might have done wrong, whatever wrong might have been done to us, whether or not people have seen us, whether or not our pain has been heard before now. For those who have done harm, there is accountability that leads to growth and healing. There is always forgiveness with God. For those who have suffered harm, there is space for anger and grief and whatever else needs to be said. God hears every voice calling from the depths.

We can pray with this Psalm: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for God; in God’s word is my hope. With God there is plenteous redemption.” These words are for us, this hope is for us, this redemption is for us.  

This “plenteous redemption” is not just for the visible tragic heroes of the story. God sees everyone’s sorrow here—Bathsheba’s and Tamar’s and the soldiers’ included. The redemption is more plenteous than even God’s prophets know at the time. The redemption is more plenteous than we know. It reaches to the people the story doesn’t always see. It reaches to the hidden parts of ourselves.

We do not know the full scope of this redemption. We don’t always even know what the best outcome would look like in situations of such complicated harm. But a part of the redemption, a part of the hope we can claim is this: that God hears our pain, that we can be honest with God. That we can speak a Psalm like this in faith that God is with us even in the depths.

And I think that our Gospel today is about that kind of redemption too. Jesus offers himself to us as the bread that comes down from heaven.

The bread from heaven does not stay in heaven for us to admire it and think about how nice and perfect it is. Jesus comes down into the mess with us. Jesus the bread from heaven does not stay safe from human pain—he faces indignity and death. The bread from heaven is broken. The bread from heaven is eaten. The bread from heaven is given for us, in the depths of our most painful reality. This bread of heaven is still offered for us no matter what we’re guilty of. This bread of heaven is still offered for us no matter what we’ve been through. Our redeemer hears us and feeds us even in the depths.

And that is good news. And that is the bread we will eat together today when we come to the table—bread from heaven given for us even in the depths. And that is the faith we baptized little baby Karlee Jo into today—a faith that can hold death and resurrection together in the same hand, a faith that is strong enough to face evil and resist it, a faith that respects the dignity of every human being, faith in a God who loves us and sees us and feeds us and gives us hope wherever our story has taken us so far.

So please join me in praying for Karlee Jo who was baptized today and for all of us. God, we pray that Karlee Jo has a life that’s as joyous and free of suffering as it can be. And we also pray that she learns that we hear her and that God hears her whenever she might be in pain. We pray that Karlee Jo may find whatever nourishment she needs as she grows. We pray that she may eat the bread of heaven both in the depths of sorrow and in those joyful times in her life when it will seem like she’s found heaven on earth. We pray that in her family and in the larger communities she’ll find as she grows, she may always know that she is valued and heard and loved and fed, and that she will become a person who sees others in their full human dignity. We ask the same blessings for those who care for her, and for all of us. We ask this in your holy name, O God of the depths, redeeming Bread from heaven, and Spirit of life. Amen.

Marc Chagall’s Fin d’Absalom (1958).