Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on July 5, 2009.
II Samuel 5: 1-10
On this weekend we’ve celebrated our nation’s 233rd birthday, the hard task of nation building has turned into perhaps the more difficult task of sustaining this nation. That implies our work has turned into vigilance over the needs of our nation and how to diligently embrace our challenges. It seems one of our challenges would be to let go of our partisan need to dominate those who disagree with us and build political alliances to address our highest concerns.
This last year has been, as usual, filled with very difficult issues we must rise up to meet. Chief among those issues is working for justice as we have children in our nation who go to bed hungry at night. We have millions, families and individuals across all classes, without healthcare coverage adequate for even the most common of medical concerns. The country’s war against poverty is in its fifth decade and it seems we lost ground this past year. Unemployment, economic crises, diversity concerns, religious oppression for minority religions, and a stymied political system with political parties more bent on defeating one another than for working for the common good – we’ve surely got our work cut out for us.
But on this day to celebrate our freedom as an American people we can celebrate this year the election of an African-American as our President. The unjust racial barriers of four centuries was broken this year and now we must find ways to move forward together to work on other ways in which our nation’s highest values of freedom are available to all until we truly are a shining light of freedom. Happy Birthday America …
Juan Bosch drew from his widely varying careers as Roman Catholic priest, statesman, professor of political science and author. He worked for years in his native Dominican Republic against the dictatorship that oppressed his country. Eventually, he was elected in 1961 by a landslide of support from those who understood what kind of man he was. But after only nine months in office, his old enemies prevailed and drummed him into exile. It was while he was in exile he wrote, David: The Biography of a King. Bosch understood better than anyone what David’s rise to power and the struggle he gave to keeping things in order in the later years of his reign. Bosch understood that leaders, especially leaders who rule in transitional times, must struggle mightily with those who would wish to strip them of their power and take over the singular title of king.
Thus, this minimalist reading from Scripture is a part of a larger woven fabric of political and military intrigue. We’ve barely touched the hem of this garment, as all we’ve been given is the summary of David’s anointing by the northern tribes. Recall he’s already the chief of the southern tribes – Judah; thus, he is now chief (a title that could easily describe his role as well as “king”) over all the twelve tribes. This is where the his story has been heading since the beginning of I Samuel and Samuel’s selection of the youngest of Jesse’s sons.
David was a shrewd leader. His assumption of Saul’s position was the result of several calculated moves. He went about the country maneuvering mercenary agreements with the Philistines; he offered gifts as bribes to key leaders from the spoils of wars he won; he married into agreements with other regional tribes thus creating familial relationships with the leaders of all the local tribes so they would be drawn into his growing coalition. It would be easy to assume these leaders made the wise choice to align with him, as there seemed to be no other option by which they could keep some of their power not to mention their lives.
In the chapter that precedes our reading, there are two strategic assassinations that David escapes the blame for, but who seems to be behind the killings. It’s hard not to think he was not involved and the political pressure from the deaths of Abner and Ishbosheth created a leadership void that prompted the northern tribes to seek David to unite both northern and southern tribes into one unified nation. The truth of the matter is the leaders of the various tribes of Israel all understood they lived in perilous times and needed to band together so they could protect themselves from outside forces. Whatever tribal feuds had caused them to long ago divide into northern tribes and southern tribes had become less important as they now needed one another and could not afford to cling to their tribal differences.
If you like grand, sweeping epics, you’ll like these chapters that launch II Samuel. Consider The Godfather trilogy … picture the poignant irony of Michael Corleone with his family participating in the baptism of his young son in the church while several of his enemies are getting whacked. Feel the rhythms of what’s happening on the surface and what’s happening just below the surface where another reality is lived and you’ll be startled at the intrigue and the masterful way David goes about systematically unifying the scattered and competitive tribes makes for a masterful example of nation-building.
King David’s life is a study of leadership. Even today he’s an ancient model for modern day leadership and we are given enough of his life’s story to know he was an extraordinary man. Thus, with the political conniving of someone very adept at creating coalitions that worked together, David united the entire country into a relatively small but powerful nation among the nations of the world. In the Bible, Saul is a contrast to David as a tragic figure as a model of leadership. Samuel as the original “God-chosen” leader for Israel anointed him. But the mantle of leadership passed from him because of his disobedience to the command of God. Reading the story today, this transition of God-appointed leadership from Saul to David is instructive to us of how God and politics are brought together in Israel.
An interesting summary statement punctuates our passage of Scripture: “And David went on, and grew great, and the Lord of hosts was with him” (5:10). It’s the statement that unlocks our understanding of how this Bible writer wants us to understand the events that have just occurred. We are given this intriguing political story of who is aligned with whom and are given some strong hints at how the politics of their day operated (not too unlike our own day suggesting that politics is a very ancient art). And yet we are told that David was blessed while Saul was not “because God was with him.”
Building coalitions is often messy work and David brought the scattered tribes of Israel and Judah together, something that not occurred since they scattered nearly a thousand years before. Freedom earned must be a freedom maintained. David became king as he felt ordained in his bones and called by God to fulfill. Frederick Douglas said that in the days of his slavery he prayed often for freedom, but that his freedom was not answered until it got down into his heels and he ran away.
On this weekend we celebrate the founding of our nation, let us remember what it takes to tend the garden of our democracy. Remember to pray for our leaders and to pray for one another, all citizens, all of us recipients of the great gift of freedom.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).