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David and Absalom

The Rev. Stephanie Hamilton
2 Samuel 18:5-9,15, 31-33

The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging* between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ 32The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

If I considered last week’s text a challenge to preach, I knew this week’s text would up the ante. Before we can delve into the task at hand, it is important to take a few minutes in order to close the gap between chapters 12-18. We ended last Sunday with Nathan’s pronouncement that David would have to reap the consequences of his actions–for having committed adultery with Bathsheba and then covering up the resulting pregnancy by orchestrating the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, as he was fighting for Israel against the Ammonites. It would seem that a whole lifetime took place between Chapters 12 of 2 Samuel and our text today in Chapter 18. A quick synopsis will help to frame the context for today’s Old Testament lesson. It is another hard story to tell and perhaps to hear as well.

Absalom is David’s son from his 4th wife Maacah. Absalom was an irresistible young man. Scripture describes him as a very handsome young man with long beautiful hair. He has charm, tenacity, and a bit of a wild streak. These are the qualities and characteristics which lend to both his rise and eventually his demise. To understand this course it important to know what has happened in the past. You see, Absalom had a sister named Tamar and a half brother named, Amnon. Things went sideways with Amnon when he took advantage of his younger half sister Tamar and forced himself upon her. Absalom wanted to kill Amnon right away when he found out but waited for two years. Eventually he received David’s blessing to host a sheep shearing party at his home for all of the brothers. It was at the party that he took Amnon’s life. Knowing that David would enact revenge, Absalom fled and went to live in the land of Geshur. He lived there for three years until David was calm enough for Absalom to come home. Absalom returned home but not into his father’s embrace. David refused to see Absalom or even communicate with him. So Absalom decided he would overthrow David in order to gain recognition. And that is when he employed his good looks and charm to gain influence among the people of Jerusalem. He was quite adept at garnering the trust and acceptance of others. So when he decided he would become King, he had amassed quite the following of people and was able to easily assemble enough men for an army. He declared himself king, and off he went in pursuit of the throne and his father.

One of King David’s loyal followers, once he caught wind of the the uprising, reported everything and helped David plan his escape. David is now on the run and will soon be at war with his own son. It is here that we enter the story. Absalom is on his way to find and kill David. David, in his familiar role as warrior and commander of an army, gives the final instructions and adds that they deal gently with the”young man Absalom”. He isn’t willing to call Absalom son, but he isn’t willing to have him killed either. The battle took place in the forest near Ephraim and it was brutal. Over 20,000 men were killed in that forest with David’s skilled army having the upper hand over the army Absalom had assembled. It was in the heat of the battle that David’s three servants Joab, Abishai, and Ittai come upon Absalom while he was riding on his mule, moving through the forest. Somehow his head gets caught in a tree. His mule keeps moving and he is left hanging in the branches. Joab does not heed the king’s order to deal gently with Absalom. Absalom is killed and word is sent back to David that battle is over, the army has been defeated and Absalom died. David retreats and immediately mourns the death of his son, no longer calling him the young man Absalom, but Absalom, my son.

It would appear that David’s life is a complete and utter mess. What are we to make of this tragic story?

I’d like to insert a disclaimer here before we go any further in digging into this text. If we remember the warning of Nathan from last week, we remember that Nathan tells David, there would be consequences for his actions and his wrong doing. I don’t want to suggest that David is receiving his punishment through the incest of his children and the deaths of his sons. That suggestion smacks of an “eye for eye” mentality, and says more about the common belief of God in David’s time than it says about the love of a gracious creator. Instead, I would suggest that we apply what we know about God’s mercy and suspend our judgment for a moment and let the story unfold.

As I have grappled with this passage this week I’ve begun to notice that verse 9 provides vivid imagery when Absalom is described as hanging between heaven and earth. Absalom isn’t the only one in a liminal space. David is also toggling back and forth between being a King and being a father. He has both a public and societal role to play as well as a personal and familial role. It is his duty to protect the kingdom which is in direct conflict with his love as a parent. And only after it is too late does David embrace fully his role as parent in expressing his love through his grief.

Bruce Birch points out in his commentary on 2 Samuel, that our challenge is to be motivated by love to change the power dynamic before the motivation comes from a place of grief. He states:

“In our own society, the lesson of David’s grief is not simply a matter of personal relationships but of societal ones as well. We grieve the violence that breaks out all too often in the rebellion of sons and daughters, but we have not reached out in ways that would have forestalled violence and rebellion. Issues of poverty, education, familial dysfunction, substance abuse and consumerist values distort the future of many of our sons and daughters who then attempt to seize their birthright in violent ways…David’s weeping must move us in response to those of our sons and daughters who are alienated and in rebellion before we, too, must weep the tragic consequences” (p.1341)

If you would have asked me this time last year if I could have scripted the events that have contributed to creating a sense of hope, I would have not been able to script it. I would not have even come close. And yet, through the #metoo movement, the uprising of young voices against gun violence and for sensible gun laws, and the fight for education, people are raising their voices and rallying against the power dynamic, calling for change. And as I have shared with you this past spring, during our own red for ed movement, I witnessed sacred moments of courage and community building among school staff, parents, and businesses in our community. One story in particular stands out.

This past March, when the educators in Arizona started organizing and in the first days of the Red for Ed movement, one of the mom’s at my children’s school connected with me and became quite involved in the movement. Before the teachers walked out, they began a series of “Walk-ins.” A walk in was the opportunity for staff and parents alike to gather together in a public place before school began to have a quick talk about education funding in our state and then in solidarity, parents and educators alike, walk into the school. This particular mom, Becky, was quite captured by the movement and became involved immediately. Becky didn’t just show up to participate, Becky came prepared to act. She had her infant daughter strapped in a baby carrier upfront and then in a construction apron, had a cloth diaper and window markers. For every parent who pulled up to drop their child off at school, Becky would approach the car, ask if the parent knew about the Red for Ed movement and why it was happening, and then she would ask if they would let her write on their back window that they supported Red for Ed. Before moving to the back of their car to write on their window, she would get their name and contact information in order to inform them of upcoming events. And before the first walk-in began she also took a day to go into the building to talk to all the staff. Room by room, baby up front and notebook in hand, she gathered names, emails, and phone numbers in order to invite the teachers and to inform them of future events. She wasn’t going to assume anything or leave anyone out.

At first I thought all of the note taking was a bit over the top, but as I watched, I realized that Becky was fully committed to this movement. She wasn’t worried that it might make people feel uncomfortable if she asked them to participate by marking up their car window. She didn’t mind that it took extra time to write down a name and contact information. She believed that the only way for people to understand the education crisis we have in this state was to go all out–to communicate with as many people as possible and to be able to communicate to them throughout the whole movement. Perhaps it made folks nervous, asking them to put themselves out there for the Red for ED movement. I have never seen anyone work with such a single minded focus. I appreciated her dedication, but more importantly, I believe that her ability to put herself out there made her an integral part of bringing parents and educators together at our school and building a strong community when the strike began. I saw a glimpse of a person wholly committed to amassing the necessary power to create a shift in the power dynamic. She didn’t know if the teachers would go on strike; none of us did, but she saw and responded to the need in our community; wholeheartedly and without distraction. I interpret Becky’s response as one of compassion and courage.

We are all called to live lives of compassion and courage. There will always be a need to enact compassion. Where we are called to serve is different. My calling has always been to serve children and youth. What shape my service takes has changed over the years, but the calling has always been there.

For years, as I have served on various committees at my children’s schools, have dealt with shrinking budgets, and have had to make decisions regarding staffing configurations, I have come to the conclusion that our state is abandoning our children. Just this past year the legislature left 56 million dollars earmarked for early childhood education undesignated and un-spent. This morning my friend Michelle sent me an article stating that the number of childcare centers who serve families that qualify for DES subsidies is shrinking. It is criminal not to give our children the tools they need to develop and grow. Withholding those resources is like David withholding his love from Absalom. If we learn anything from our passage today, it is the importance of using our power and privilege to breakdown the barriers that alienate, disenfranchise, and marginalize our daughters and our sons. And this week as we leave this place, let go out with courage and a generous amount of compassion compelling us to do the hard word of service and sacrifice.

May it be so.

Featured image: Marc Chagall, “David weeps for Absalom,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.