This is the sermon I preached on August 9, using the text from 2 Samuel 18
The lament is one of the most famous, immortalized in novels and movies: “Oh, Absalom! My son, my son, Absalom! Would that I have died instead of you!” King David’s grief for his son and how he ended up belies a larger story, of how cross-wise parents and children see the world!
It is one of the oldest stories in the book – figuratively and literally. How children so often disappoint their parents, frustrate the plans parents have for them – and yet how parents persist in their love of those same children! Poor David was cursed with not just one son, but two, who end up breaking his heart. First there is Amnon, firstborn of all David’s children. First-born sons have special importance in the Biblical narrative, and in the cultures from which it emerged. They are inheritors of the largest share of the family’s fortune, and they were the ones who were expected to carry on the family business, whether it was tending sheep or leading a nation.
Amnon, beloved of his father, becomes obsessively infatuated with his half-sister Tamar. Enlisting his father’s unwitting help, he contrives a plan by which he takes by force what has been forbidden to him by custom. Having satiated his base desire, he has no further use for her. He sends Tamar away, compounding the shame of the rape with his casting her off like so much old clothing.
David, hearing the scandal, refuses to punish Amnon, because after all, he loves his son and he is the first-born. Who would not want to protect their child, even in the face of such a hideous crime? The relative worth of sons and daughters in the Old Testament, and even, it must be said, the New Testament and much of the past two thousand years of church history, is so taken for granted that it is not even mentioned in the text. When the victim and the child are both one’s children, well, David has chosen his allegiance.
And in choosing Amnon, David loses not only his daughter Tamar but also his son Absalom, who contrives a plan not only to kill his half-brother but also to usurp the throne. Can you not see Absalom’s point of view? From Absalom’s perspective, David is allowing his own daughter’s rape to go unavenged, and worse yet, actually protecting the rapist! Absalom cannot understand why a father – his father – would not respond with all the power and authority of one’s position if that father learned the identity of his daughter’s rapist. While King David can only see his legacy potentially destroyed, Absalom can only see the pain of his sister. Ah, how cross-wise parents and children see the world!
They cannot find a way to each other. And yet, when Absalom the usurper is killed, David is ripped apart with grief: “Oh Absalom, Absalom – my son Absalom!” All could be forgiven, if only Absalom were not dead.
Marilynne Robinson describes this grief and the sorrow of parents so well in her novel Gilead, as one elderly man speaks of his best friend love for his wayward son: “And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If Boughton could be himself, he would utter pardon ever transgression, past, present and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon” (p. 238).
This son, this utter mystery and disappointment to his father, source of his greatest sorrow, this Jack, fails at his every attempt to succeed in his father’s eyes. This novel, and its companion Home, tell the story that if only these two men could know each other as each wishes to know and to be known, what reconciliation and what life could come. But of course, one of the great mysteries of life is that we do not always know each other as we wish we could, and we are not always known by each other in the deepest and truest ways.
Jack cannot stay, though his father is dying and his family needs him, because he has another
family who needs him. It is the early 1950s and his wife and son are black. In rural Iowa, then more so than know, such a match would be scandalous. In Jack’s eyes, the scandal would be too much for his family to bear, and in his day and age, it is sad to say that he is probably right. Even if the family welcomed this wife and son, the community could not.
So in order for him to do right by the family he has made, the family who has healed him and matured him and made him into a man – in other words, to live up to the responsibilities as his father raised him to do, Jack must betray the family who has loved him and nurtured him through all his prodigal years. In order to stop being a prodigal to this wife and son, he must remain a prodigal in the eyes of his brothers and sisters and father.
Oh, how cross-wise parents and children see the world!
Last week, I met with a newcomer to our town, who wanted to know where the “gay community” was here. I had to tell him something he had recently figured out on his own: that such a thing does not exist here. Yes, there are gay people in this community. Yes, there are same-sex couples in this community. Yes, our church is an oasis of welcome and hospitality for many who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. But no, there is no gay community to speak of here. Or, not one that I know about, anyway.
He related to me that he had heard of many gay and lesbian children of Red Oak, sons and daughters of prominent and average families, who have left this place because they had no welcome here, no place to be who they truly were. It is a story I have heard many times. The truth is, this community is not as welcoming as we could be of different people and their gifts, as accepting of the different ways our sons and daughters see the world and their place in it, nor as open as we sometimes profess. It is not always about sexual identity, either, but about all the ways that our children become so different from their parents.
Though we see ourselves as a community that is “a shade better,” though we try to make this place as idyllic as possible for our children, though we want to believe that this is a great place to live, raise children, and to have our grandchildren grow up, the truth is that this community can be intolerant of “outsiders,” that it can be challenging to feel safe if one thinks differently, loves differently, or lives differently than a narrow view of what is considered acceptable. Our children see this, and for their own emotional or physical safety, or in their desire to live openly and with integrity, they do often leave. And we wonder why.
And though we may ask why, we seldom do the work necessary to change the answers. We know why – our children tell us. They fear for their safety, often for good reason. They are teased and bullied, often mercilessly. They decide that putting some distance between themselves and their hometown is better than remaining hidden within a closet. They simply do not think they can change a community’s attitudes. And often, the parent’s response is not to help create a new future safe for all children, but to try to protect one’s own. One’s own heritage, one’s own story, one’s own reputation.
Diana Butler Bass, in the book we’ll be studying together this fall, Christianity for the Rest of Us, related a story about how the community in which she grew up has literally vanished. The buildings are still there, but the people who made up her childhood are no longer there. She does not, however, waste a lot of time pondering why this is so. She knows that for some of us, that question is never-ending and ultimately, never-answerable. We cannot always know why our world changes; but we know that it always is.
The questions we must be asking ourselves, Butler Bass suggests, are not questions that ask us to look back, or to become mired in a past that once was (or maybe only exists in our memory), but to ask how we might create a new future. We must do what David did not, and listen to our sons and daughters as they tell us how they see the world. We must empower them and ourselves to work for the justice and the hope made known to our children in the Gospel, and, speaking the truth in love, we must be more than an oasis of welcome, but rather a beacon of God’s liberation for all of God’s children. We must rise up out of ourselves and our pasts to become who God has called us to be – loving, forgiving and forgiven, blessed by God to be a blessing to the world.
Then it may be said that while parents and children often see the world cross-wise, still we work side-by-side to heal old wounds and make new the hopes of God’s people. Thanks be to God for different visions that lead us to God’s promises, fulfilled for all. Amen.