Title: Living Through Loss
Pastor: Dr. William S. Barnes
Scripture: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
There is not a week that passes here at St. Luke's that someone or some family among us is not suddenly awash in personal grief after an unexpected phone call. And it seems like there is not a day that passes that death does not have a significant place in the nightly news, the internet blogs, and millions of tweets on "Twitter." This past week has been lousy with loss.
A week ago yesterday, 26 year old travel agent and music student Neda Agha-Soltan was shot in the chest while watching the protests in Tehran. Her name and the picture of her face as she died in the street have become in just several days the icons for the continuing struggle there. Her grieving parents donated her organs to others, but the Iranian government prohibited them from giving her a proper burial. Instead they demanded that she be buried in the empty graves they have prepared for those who die as protestors. Furthermore, they issued a ban against prayer for her in mosques.
On Monday here at St. Luke's I conducted a funeral service for Jessica Hazelrigg who was killed in an accident on Dr. Phillips Boulevard. She grew up with us here at the church. I gave her her third-grade Bible, confirmed her, watched her dance in the youth sacred dancers, and shared a special affection for her parents and brother. At the conclusion of the service, cars in the procession to her gravesite at Woodlawn stretched for at least a mile.
On Tuesday, Johnny Carson's former sidekick on the Tonight show, Ed McMahon, died.
Then on Thursday morning, Farah Fawcett died after a lengthy and public battle with anal cancer. The news programs had just begun to put together the retrospectives of her life when the shocking news came of the death of Michael Jackson. His death from cardiac arrest at 50 years of age sent grief-waves like a tsunami of sadness around the world.
While we tend to regard death as the ultimate enemy of life, it is in reality a fact of life. Everything that lives will die, and while we deal well with that truth when it comes to plants, cockroaches, and perhaps even slow-moving armadillos on Florida country roads...(By the way, have you heard that joke, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Answer: "To show the armadillos it could be done!") While we can deal with death in some circumstances, we have a really hard time when it comes to people and those animals that are pets.
Today we turn our attention to the time when David lost his best friend all too tragically and all too soon. In so doing we hope to learn something about living through loss.
Before we can consider the scripture text for today, which is a lament by David, a formal expression of sorrow for the loss of his best friend, Jonathan, we need to learn a little about their connection. Until the 1990's we didn't have a word for what David and Jonathan experienced, but thanks to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughy and Lance Armstrong, and Dr. Will and Mike Boogie of Season 7 of "Big Brother," we do now. It was a "bromance." A bromance is defined as a deep love and non-sexual friendship between two men that matures over time.
It actually goes back farther than Matt and Ben. There were Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and of course, Batman and Robin. But just to show you that when it comes to human behavior, there is nothing new under the sun, the first recorded bromance in the Bible goes back 3000 years. It was between Jonathan and David.
They first met at the Valley of Elah, where David killed Goliath. 1 Samuel 18 begins, "When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." Saul took David with him back to his own home, and then "Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as his own soul." Then a significant exchange takes place. Jonathan pretty much strips down to his underwear and gives David his robe, his armor, his sword, his bow, and his belt. By contrast, when Jonathan's father, Saul tried to give David his armor and sword to fight Goliath, David refused. This gift of Jonathan is not only a gift to commemorate a covenant; it is a sign that foreshadows David becoming heir to the throne of Israel and not him.
As King Saul seems to descend into paranoia and even perhaps mental illness, he comes to regard David as an enemy. At that point Jonathan becomes David's protector and advisor with regard to Saul's plots against him. In a moment of pathos, Jonathan and David separate from each other. 1 Samuel 20:41-42: "David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, â€˜Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying "The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants, forever."' Jonathan meets David one final time in the wilderness where David is hiding out from Saul. They make another covenant before the Lord. Their friendship is not just a physical or emotional one; it is a spiritual one as well.
Saul, Jonathan, and two other sons of Saul are finally killed in battle with the Philistines, and in an act of desecration, the Philistines beheaded the king and fastened his body and the bodies of Jonathan and his royal brothers to the wall of the city of Beth-Shan. When David learns of the deaths of Saul and of Jonathan in particular, he writes the lament, which is our scripture lesson for today.
"I am greatly distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women."
You can hear and even feel the pain of David as he seeks to live through this loss.
David was grieving many things that day.
The first king of Israel had been killed in battle. This was the king who had given his armor to David in the Valley of Elah, who had welcomed him into his home and given him a place as his musician. Regardless of their love-hate relationship that comprised the end of Saul's leadership and the ascent of David's the two were almost like father and son.
Three of the heirs to Saul's throne had been killed, including Jonathan, David's closest friend, and all four of them had been fastened to the wall of Beth-Shan. Saul had been beheaded and perhaps the others as well, and their dead bodies had been left to wild dogs and scavenger birds.
Allies had taken the bodies down from the wall, burned off the flesh, and returned the bones to David for burial. Not only had they died in battle, the bodies of these royal leaders of Israel had been desecrated in shame.
David delivers this public eulogy as a lament for all of his tragic loss. In it he expresses what all of us feel when death comes as that unwelcome visitor. He says, "I am distressed for you my brother, Jonathan." The word translated "distressed" comes from a Hebrew word (sarar) meaning "to cramp." It refers to the pinching or pressure of the heart we feel when we are in mourning. You know that feeling. It's what we are trying to express when we say that our heart is broken; when the ache is so deep we just can't even describe it.
Then he says that he loved Jonathan so much that the love he shared with him was more wonderful than the love of women. I believe here that he is talking about intimacy and not activity. David had many wives and would father many children. Jonathan also had one son. David was not talking about parts, but hearts. He is simply talking about love.
How did David live through loss? How can we? Three ways:
There is a funeral poem I have often used entitled, "Should You Go First." It is about someone who is left behind when someone they love has died. One of the stanzas says, "Memory is one gift from God that death cannot destroy." David spends a lot of time in this eulogy/lament remembering Saul and Jonathan: their victories, their strength, their provisions for their people. Living through loss means remembering. The most blessing I ever receive in preparing for a memorial service with a family is sitting with them while they remember and share stories and photographs.
Remembering always leads to revaluing. It is inevitable that when we think back to the full length of a person's life we tend to put things into perspective. In this case, David was able to minimize his time of conflict with Saul in order to revalue the positive things he shared with the king. In remembering Jonathan he was able to state unashamedly that he loved him dearly. That word had not been exchanged between the two of them when Jonathan was alive. Instead it had been "covenant" and "soul-joining."
As we live through loss, we want to give added meaning to what we have shared with a person, and the revaluing that takes place lifts up not only the person we have lost, but also the investment we have chosen to make in that person's life, even as they have been invested in ours.
The third thing that helps us live with loss has to do with responding. There are past, present, and future dimensions to grief. Remembering is past work. Revaluing is present work. Responding is the work that leads us into the future. Several years ago a toddler slipped away from his family and fell into a swimming pool and died. We had his service here. There were times of remembering, and we revalued the quality of life in contrast to the quantity he lived. But it was the responding that has had the greatest impact. A family here at St. Luke's who learned of this loss worked with the Dr. Phillips YMCA, and together enabled us to provide every baby we baptize here with a certificate for the Safe Start drowning prevention program. The expressed desire of the donor is that never again will a child baptized at St. Luke's die from drowning.
David made a little known response to Jonathan's death, sometimes overlooked in 2 Samuel chapter 9. David asks if any of Saul's family were still alive, because he wanted to do something for the sake of Jonathan. He found out that Jonathan's young physically disabled son, Mephibosheth, was still alive, so he sent for him. He told him that he would make sure that all of the family property and possessions were given to him, and furthermore that for the rest of his life he would eat at David's own table like one of the family. David's response to the loss of Jonathan was to gain another son.
Today, as people of a new covenant in Jesus, who was himself a distant son of David, we claim that death no longer has dominion over us and that life goes on. That is a claim of our faith, but it doesn't necessarily change our emotions when on this side of the grave we lose those we love. Today I will be inviting you to light a candle for someone special to you, or a candle that represents all whom you have lost. Remember them, revalue their lives, and if you have not yet done so, respond to what you have lost by making it a gain for someone else, and perhaps in the process, even for you.