Today’s scriptures give us a fascinating glimpse into the heart of one of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, King David. Perhaps you know some of his story. David begins life in relative obscurity as a shepherd. But the Prophet Samuel is moved by God to anoint this very handsome young man as the new King of Israel. There’s a problem, however: Israel already has a King, its first King, a man named Saul.
King Saul is at first unaware that he has a rival for the throne. He comes to know and love David as a musician, and even invites David to become part of his royal household. But everything changes when David defeats Goliath, champion of the Philistines. David earns great popularity with the people, who sing: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” Even Saul’s eldest son and heir Jonathan is smitten with the beautiful young man. Scripture says: “the soul of (Saul’s son) Johnathan loved (David) as his own soul.”
The acclaim and affection that David receives makes King Saul very jealous. The relationships between Saul, David, and Jonathan, get more and more complicated as the story continues. Saul tries to kill David; Jonathan defies Saul and helps David to escape; and David bests Saul and spares Saul’s life, twice.
You wouldn’t have any idea how complicated it all was, though, listening to David’s song of lament after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. David sings:
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided;
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
Who put ornaments of God on your apparel…
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me;
Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
Memorializing his greatest enemy, David says only good things. He praises Saul’s valor in battle; he claims Saul was close to his son Jonathan; he celebrates the wealth Saul brought to the country.
Something more honest, and more personal, is evident when David speaks of Jonathan: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful.” Scholars debate whether David and Jonathan’s relationship was what we could consider a romance today. It’s probably an unanswerable question. We know without a doubt that they loved one another profoundly.
Why is this story in our bible? It’s part of Israelite history, certainly. But it could have been told in so many different ways. Why is there so much time spent on this moment in David’s life? What does his grief tell us about our relationship with God?
David makes no mention of God in his song. But I witness God in this story in many ways. God is in the love between David and Jonathan; all human love is a gift from God. God is in the gratitude David has for Jonathan’s life; each human life is a gift from God. God is in the grief of David and his companions, too, in the tearing of clothes, and the weeping. I even find God in the pause in the action of the text: the time between the terrible news of battle casualties and the crowning of the new king. There is something important, something holy, that happens when we take the time to grieve.
Yesterday we held a memorial service here at the church. Some might have said it wasn’t a very proper funeral. Everyone wore really nice clothes, we gathered in our beautiful sanctuary, but what happened wasn’t very formal, or solemn. Those who shared memories of the person who died included all kinds of stories, including funny ones, and colorful language. There was lots of laughter in our church yesterday.
It may not have been formal, but it was holy. There was holiness in the laughter as well as the tears. Holiness, in the honest outpourings of words, as well as in the silences into which no words were spoken. There was holiness, too, in the way people interrupted their lives, and flew in from around the country to be together. There was holiness, in all the folks from our congregation who baked treats and set up tables, arranged flowers, opened doors, welcomed strangers, served food, and cleaned it all up: how this congregation showed up to honor someone they had never met, to offer up love for her daughter and her family in a difficult time.
Grief often makes us feel alone. But it is an experience all of us have. All of us are grieving. We have old griefs, and new ones. We grieve people who have died. We also grieve the deaths of dreams, and abilities, and illusions, and relationships. Some of us have more practice in grieving than others. There are those among us who are intimately acquainted with grief.
Whatever our losses have been, we are not alone in grief. We are surrounded by other grievers. And among these grievers are those who make up our church. This is an imperfect place to come when we are grieving. Folks sometimes say or do too much, or not enough, or not the right thing. Still, here we try to allow one another to be broken, and honest, without cleaning it up too much. Here we practice showing up, one griever for another, to make visible, and tangible, the love of God.
Please pray with me. God, thank you for the gift of human companions, and for the gift of love. Bless us in our experiences of grieving, and bless us as we accompany one another in grief. Help us to recognize this work as necessary, important, inevitable, imperfect, and holy. Give us courage to be honest with ourselves, and with you, and with one another. Amen.