Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on June 28, 2009.
II Samuel 1:1, 17-27
A good number of you have read The Shack, the book by William Paul Young. At the heart of the book is a pain so deep, so searing and disturbing, Mack, the book’s main character, nearly goes mad in his grief. It’s the pain of a parent who loses a child. He labels his pain, “the great sadness.” The book is a lamentation of loss swallowed up by the great love of God. Mack’s pain is experienced early in the book and it overshadows the story until the love of God is finally understood and experienced in the form of forgiveness and grace and acceptance.
The author of The Shack claims it is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain.” If that’s true, all of us have a shack we’ve built and continue to refresh and remodel or else your shack has become a deserted, dilapidated old thing abandoned as you’ve been released from its power to imprison you.
As our Bible story goes, an Amalekite messenger sought out David with the news that both King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed fighting the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. The messenger clearly believed he was bringing good news to David. And why wouldn’t the messenger think so? In fact, the messenger claimed to be the one who killed Saul who the messenger claimed Saul ordered him to do so. But David did not rejoice with the news. From somewhere deep within him a howl boiled up so articulate and anguished that hearing its poetry so many years later, we still shudder under its power and pain.
David understood tragedy. He understood what it was to ache with loss. David embraced all of human life, and death, and did not turn away from any of it. David articulated a universal pain all of us feel. Almost everyone recognizes in the experience borne in his or her bones the searing pain of loss through death. Hear the words of the psalmist who howled in his pain:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
(Psalm 130:1, NRSV)
David’s lament is a cry of pain and we’re not quite sure what to do with that. What do we do? Likely, we pretend not to notice as this sort of pain is too raw for our timid spirits.
In describing the experience of a mother of a small child who had just died in the hospital, Elisabeth KÃ¼bler-Ross observed that she looked numb, blank and expressionless. So she said to her, “You look like you’re in such pain that you might scream.” And the woman blurted out, “Do you have a screaming room in the hospital?” She was serious. KÃ¼bler-Ross said back to her, “No, but we do have a chapel,” which was a silly answer because the mother immediately replied, “I need just the opposite. I need to scream and rage and curse. I’ve just been sitting in the parking lot and cursing and screaming at God. ‘God why did you let this happen to my child? Why did you let this happen to me?’” And KÃ¼bler-Ross answered, “Do it here. It’s better to do it with somebody than out in a parking lot all alone.”
You see it’s entirely appropriate that David’s great cry of grief interrupts our well-ordered worship. These words from II Samuel are a scream of pain, and David will not be quieted, he will not be comforted, and he will not be ignored. David commanded all the people to learn to sing a song of lament. I suppose many objected, saying, “Oh now, the past is best forgotten and put behind us. Let’s just quiet our voices and calm down. We cannot live in the past, after all.”
Certainly David did not make his home in the past because he represented Israel’s future. But the wisdom of David recognized one could not move into the future without first dealing with the grief of the present moment. The future of Israel did not go around Mt. Gilboa, but rather, the future of Israel hiked up to the top of the mountain where their first king had been killed in battle. On the fields of battle, David summoned us to see it all and not to turn our faces aside. “How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle!” David howled his anguish aloud on the heights of Gilboa. He screamed his loss and pain to whoever could hear him.
David invited us to join him in his lament for Saul and Jonathan. And yet, this was not an invitation. This was nothing less than a royal command. David the shepherd boy had become King David and his first act as king, his first decree for the people of Israel, was they should learn to grieve properly. David ordered his lament be taught to the people of Judah. “Write this down and teach it to the people,” he commanded, “so they will know how to speak of the pain that fills their hearts and seeks its own release.” Pain can silence us, you know. We can lose so much that no words can be found to speak of it. It is important for us to find the songs and symbols and rituals by which we may articulate our hurt.
Over the years, we have come to embrace the Vietnam Memorial in Washington as a symbol of our national hurt and pain over soldiers who served in that terrible time in the 60’s and 70’s but also as a continuing reminder of the devastation and loss a nation feels over any losses of war. Amazing photographs from the Wall speak to us as eloquent, but silent, witnesses, telling us of the deeply felt griefs that attend a pilgrimage of pain to the dark and haunting wall of that memorial.
Parents, now elderly, come. Surviving children, now grown and older than the age of most of those whose names are carved on that memorial, come as if drawn by a mysterious, unknown power. Wives and sweethearts come. Veterans wearing camouflage jackets of uniforms long outgrown visit the monument, some in wheelchairs, some on crutches – soldiers with a strong sense of guilt come. One veteran explained that at the memorial, most people feel a strange sense of guilt. Some feel guilty because they fought the war and did not die as their friends died. Some feel guilty because they did not fight the war and in fact protested it; others feel guilty because they neither fought the war nor protested it, and indeed, never gave much thought to the war until they were confronted with the solemn silence of the black marble monument and all those silent names.
Maya Lin, the architect of the Wall, in designing this funereal symbol said that looking at the Vietnam Memorial would be like “looking at a wound in the earth.” The way to healing begins by refusing to be silent. It begins by embracing a pain we refuse to ignore.
David’s song is a lament lifted to the heart of God. Thus, to God David sings his lonely song of pain, and despite its soulful sorrow, it comprises some of the most beautiful poetry in the whole Bible. By articulating our pain, we muster the hope that the bitter present may somehow be transformed by God’s future. By speaking of our wounds, we hope for healing.
The Philistines may taunt us with the question, “Where is your God?” And we say in response: “God is here in our worship, here among the tattered bodies of the slain on Gilboa, here among the suffering of the earth. God is here in every place where people cry out in pain.”
It’s interesting to read how Jesus handled his own grief at the grave of Lazarus. Fully present in his own feelings, Jesus wept. He felt the darkness of his soul’s pain and expressed exactly what he felt. He didn’t try to stifle his tears by damming them up inside. Instead, he openly wept. Then he resolutely called Lazarus from the tomb and Lazarus stepped out wrapped in dead man’s linens. Jesus said something that most of us miss because we’re distracted by the appearance of a dead man from the stench of death. Jesus looked up into the wideness of heaven and confessed quietly to God, “Father, I thank you that you heard me.”
Simple isn’t it? David commanded the people of Israel to stop in their joy that they could finally lift up a new king and commanded them to see this as a moment to remember. We’re invited, no we’re commanded, to launch our griefs and our deepest pain into the depths of God’s love knowing God hears our cries and attends to our sorrows.
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).