Sunday, 8 August 2021

The bread of life and
the grieving heart
of a loving father

Bread in a shop window in Dingle, Co Kerry … the Gospel today continues the readings from the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse in Saint John’s Gospel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 8 August 2021, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity X)

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist, Castletown Church.

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Readings: II Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; John 6: 35, 41-51

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) speaks of the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ … her image at her convent church, the Convent of San José or Las Teresas, in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Many people feel a deep experience of being driven into the ‘spiritual wilderness’ at different stages of their lives. During that time in the ‘spiritual wilderness,’ it is difficult to know that we are travelling through a place of pilgrimage rather than a place of abandonment, and that we are being refreshed and nourished there by God.

Two of the great Carmelite spiritual writers in Spain, Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), write about the ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’

One of the themes running through today’s readings is the feeling of abandonment and exile, and how in the very moment we feel most distanced from God we find we are fed and nourished by him and are in his very presence.

David and Absalom feel abandoned by each other, father and son. Yet David shows in the most appalling outcome to this rift that he has never lost his love for rebellious Absalom.

In Psalm 130, the psalmist cries ‘out of the depths’ to God, asking God to ‘hear my voice,’ and realises that God’s love is steadfast and everlasting.

In the Epistle reading for today (Ephesians 4: 25 to 5: 2), Saint Paul reminds us – no matter how we feel – to put away all anger and bitterness and to be kind to one another.

In the Gospel reading, the crowds who follow Christ into the wilderness, are fed, and then find that he is the ‘Bread of Life.’ They are being told that when we feel abandoned by family, friends and neighbours, God has not abandoned us; when we feel alone and as if we are in desert places, God never abandons us.

One of the reasons 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 passively watching news reports of starvation, war and oppression without feeling the need to respond, have real problems when it comes to Bible stories of wars, murders and battles.

We have them all here this morning in the first reading (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, pitched battles, slaughter and overkill – in those days a battle force of 20,000 amounted to weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Trying to find religious meaning in all of this is difficult with our modern approaches to issues of justice and peace.

So difficult that it is not surprising some people find it difficult to reconcile what they see as the ‘God of the Old Testament’ with the loving God that Jesus addresses not just as Father, but simply and directly as Abba.

Yet, as we wade through the horror and gore, we catch a glimpse of the love of God as a perfect father.

David has never been a perfect father, a perfect husband, never a perfect king. All these failings are seen 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. Yet, we know, 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, Absalom returns to the court of his father. But David’s refusal to see him for two years leads Absalom to hate his father. Absalom plans a coup d’état and marches on Jerusalem.

David escapes across the Jordan with his army and begins a military comeback. But David’s advisers keep the king away from any direct decision 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.

Absalom’s militia are no match for David’s army. It is a cataclysmic battle. In the midst of the slaughter of perhaps tens of thousands, we hear of the death of one individual, the wayward Absalom.

As he is riding through the forest, the handsome prince is caught by the ‘head,’ perhaps by his long hair, and 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).

In those missing verses, a man tells Joab of the plight of the dangling Absalom. But he leaves it to Joab to make the decision of whether to kill Absalom.

He is still hanging from the tree when he is killed. 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.

So, 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 daughter, at any age, is a cry that pierces the soul. And David’s grieving, despite all that has happened before, is a truly authentic passage 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!’

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, the love of a parent for a child is impossible to quench totally.

This reading was chosen by Archbishop John McDowell for a devotional reflection at the General Synod some years ago. And, as he read it, I could feel my heart breaking.

David’s heart-breaking grief in the first reading is echoed in the opening words of our Psalm, the Psalm known as De Profundis: ‘Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice’ (Psalm 130: 1).

Yet, in this Psalm, David’s cry for deliverance 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: think of the parable of the Prodigal Son.

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

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.

Of course, we can all cite exceptions to what I say. We know only too well there are abusive parents and there are dysfunctional families. But we also know that with God that there are no exceptions, that in Christ there is no abuse, and that 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.

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

David and Absalom (Marc Chagall, 1956)

John 6: 35, 41-51 (NRSVA):

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.’

‘We are strengthened by these holy mysteries’ (Post Communion Prayer) … preparing bread for the Eucharist in the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year B).

The Collect of the Day:

Let your merciful ears, O Lord,
be open to the prayers of your humble servants;
and that they may obtain their petitions,
make them to ask such things as shall please you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect of the Word:

Grant, O Lord,
that we may see in you the fulfilment of all our need,
and may turn from every false satisfaction
to feed on the true and living bread
that you have given us in Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

O God, as we are strengthened by these holy mysteries,
so may our lives be a continual offering,
holy and acceptable in your sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘De Profundis’ (1943), the haunting Holocaust tour de force by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), draws on Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’

Hymns:

425, Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts (CD 25)
422, In the quiet consecration (Castletown), CD 25
431, Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour (CD 26)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.



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