Sunday, 12 August 2018

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever
comes to me will never
be hungry, and whoever believes
in me will never be thirsty’

‘This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die’ (John 6: 50) … bread prepared on Saturday for the Sunday Liturgy in Ouranoupolis, near Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 12 August 2018,

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Proper 14B).


11.30 a.m., Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: II Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4: 25 to 5: 2; John 6: 35, 41-51.

David and Absalom (Marc Chagall, 1956)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the reasons I find many people say they are turned off the Old Testament is the amount of violence they find in it.

People who seem to have no problems watching boxers punch each other around the head in the ring, or watching ‘mixed martial arts,’ have real problems when it comes to stories in the Old Testament of wars, murders and battles.

And we have them all in our Old Testament reading this morning (II Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33).

It is a story of violence: father and son fighting each other after son has violated sister; mercenaries brought in; pitched battles with slaughter and overkill – in those days a battle force of 20,000 amounted to weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

After speaking at the Hiroshima Day commemorations in Dublin last Monday [6 August 2018], I am only too aware that trying to find religious meaning in all of this, with our modern approaches to issues of justice and peace, is such a difficult task.

So difficult, in fact, that it is not surprising to find some people find it difficult to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the loving God that Christ speaks of as Father three times in this morning’s Gospel reading (see John 6: 44, 45, 46), and also, in the Lord’s Prayer, speaks of him in the simple and direct Aramaic of his day as Abba.

And yet, as we wade through the horror and gore in our first reading, we can realise that we have here a story that allows us to catch a glimpse of the love of God as a perfect father.

David has never been a perfect husband, nor has he ever been a perfect father, never a perfect king.

All these failings are there to see in earlier stories in this book: David and Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah (II Samuel 11: 2-27), and then David’s failure to deal with Amnon’s violation of his own half-sister Tamar (II Samuel 13: 1-21).

In this story, David’s love for his first-born son and heir is great, but it prevents him from administering justice.

There is an old legal adage or maxim that justice delayed is justice denied. Frustrated by David’s inaction, his third but second surviving son, Absalom, takes the law into his own hands, and has Amnon killed. After time in exile, through Joab’s mediation, Absalom returns to the court of his father, King David.

But David’s refusal to see him for two years leads Absalom to hate his father. Absalom plans a coup d’état. He knows how to capitalise on festering resentment to the growth of David’s empire, court and bureaucracy, and to David’s inability to accept changing social patterns and values.

Absalom marches on Jerusalem. Fleeing the city, David escapes across the River Jordan with his army and begins a military comeback. He divides his army into three groups, one each commanded by Joab, Abishai and Ittai (verse 5).

But David’s advisers keep the king away from any direct involvement in the decisions about what should happen to Absalom.

David orders his commanders to ‘deal gently’ with his rebellious son. Despite his rebellion, David still loves Absalom, perhaps hoping against hope at this late stage to save his life.

The battle is fought in the ‘forest of Ephraim’ (verse 6), on the east bank of the River Jordan. But Absalom’s militia, ‘the men of Israel’ (verse 7), are no match for David’s army.

It is a cataclysmic battle. In the midst of the slaughter, in the killing of perhaps tens of thousands of people, we hear of the death of one individual, the wayward Absalom, whose rebellion against his father began with good intent.

As he is riding through the forest, the handsome prince is caught by the ‘head,’ perhaps by his long, dangling hair, which he cut only once a year, and he is left dangling from the branches of a great oak tree (verse 9; see II Samuel 14: 25-26).

In his desperate plight, we are left hanging too, wondering what happens, for this morning’s reading hastens the pace as it skips over some verses (10-14), perhaps for the sake of abbreviation – not to make a long story longer on a Sunday morning. In those missing verses, a man tells Joab of the plight of the dangling Absalom. But he leaves it to Joab to make the politically-charged decision of whether to kill Absalom.

Ten young men are sent to take advantage of Absalom’s predicament. He is still hanging from the tree when he is killed.

Another missing verse tells us Absalom’s body was thrown into a ‘big pit in the forest’ (verse 17), despite the fact that he had already built himself an elegant, pillared tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Jerusalem so that he would not be forgotten (verse 18).

But the men who are brave enough to kill the prince when he is an easy target are not brave enough to tell David what they have done to his son. It is amazing how brave men can become so timorous.

And so, instead, they send a Cushite, an Ethiopian or Sudanese mercenary or slave (verse 21), to tell David the whole story, both the good news and the bad news, about the victory and about his son being slain (verses 31-32).

David is heartbroken, and his open grief makes him politically weak too. Instead of honouring the victors, he mourns the death of his son.

The cry of a grieving parent for the death of a son or a daughter, no matter what age either of them is, is a cry that pierces the soul. Once you hear it, you can never forget it.

No parent expects to see a child grow to full adulthood and then live to see that son or daughter die. It is an unnatural sequence or pairing of life events. It is one of the great injustices in life.

And David’s grieving, despite all that has happened before, despite his own role in bringing about these bitter and ugly events, is one of those truly authentic passages of reportage in the Bible:

‘O my son Absalom, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (II Samuel 18: 33).

These truly are the words of a distressed Father’s love for his son, a parent’s love for the child.

No matter how wayward, how rebellious, or how violent that child may be – and every parent has children who give problems – been there, done that – yet the love of a parent for a child is impossible to quench.

This was one of the readings chosen by Bishop John McDowell for the devotional reflections at the General Synod some years ago [2012], and, as he read it, I could feel my heart breaking.

Perhaps this is what it means when it is said David was ‘a man after God’s own heart’ (I Samuel 13: 13-14; Acts 13: 22). Despite David’s many faults, he had a heart like God’s, weeping over his wayward children, willing to die in their place, never allowing their rebellion and cruelty to harden his own heart towards them.

David’s heart-breaking grief is echoed in our Psalm: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!’ (Psalm 130: -21).

The first verse in Psalm 130 is a call to God in deep sorrow, ‘out of the depths’ as it is translated in the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible and in the Book of Common Prayer. When the Book of Common Prayer gave Latin names to the psalms, the psalm was known by its Latin incipit, De profundis, and it has inspired composers (Bach, Mozart, Arvo Pärt), poets (Tennyson, Rossetti, Lorca) and writers (Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle).

David’s cry is a cry to God for deliverance from personal trouble, yet it ends with a message of hope for all. God is attentive to our pleas, despite everything that has gone wrong. God forgives, God is merciful, God offers unfailing love, freedom from grievous sin.

Christ understands the difficulties created by the relationship between a parent and child, and between a parent who is grieved by the bickering and battling between two children.

That is why the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’ (Luke 15: 11-32) rings so true. It is not just the story of a grieving father waiting for a wayward son, but the story of a grieving father waiting for a son who may be his ruin, the story of a grieving father whose two sons have fought so much with each other that one refuses to welcome the other home. It has parallels with Absalom’s clashes with Amnon, and contrasts with David’s refusal to go out and meet Absalom when he returns home.

This morning’s Psalm is a prayer for deliverance from personal trouble, but it ends with a message to all people: wait in hope for God; he offers unfailing love.

God’s love for us surpasses the love of any father or mother for their children.

God’s love is never petulant. God never goes into a corner and sulks.

And God’s bitter weeping and grieving when he sees our plight is expressed most perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Christ understands that so well. He tells the people who follow him after he has feed the multitude in the wilderness, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35).

Of course, there are many exceptions; of course, there are abusive parents and there are dysfunctional families. Even his critics try to abuse Christ by implying in this morning’s Gospel reading that he comes from a dysfunctional family (see verse 42).

But we also know that with God that there are no exceptions, that in Christ there is no abuse, that there are no exclusions to his understanding of family when he emphasises: ‘Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me’ (see verse 46).

Christ calls us into a relationship with his Father that is free of any dysfunction that we may have known in the past.

God’s grief for us is more perfect that David’s grief for Absalom. God does not refuse to meet us when we reach out to him. And the love of God the Father, offered to us through Christ his Son, knows no exceptions, knows no boundaries, when it comes to his children.

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35).

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘I am the bread of life ... This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die’ (John 6: 48-50) … an icon in a shop window in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 35, 41-51:

35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42 They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ 43 Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35) … bread in a restaurant in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: Green.

Collect:

O God,
you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
Mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hymns:

62, Abide with me (CD 4);
24, All creatures of our God and king (CD 2, omits verses 5 and 6).
425, Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts (CD 25).

‘Grant … that we, running the way of your commandments, may receive your gracious promises’ … the Ten Commandments seen on carved stone in a synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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