This Sunday, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, I am preaching this morning at my home church, Grace United Methodist Church in Newburgh, NY.
(1) When I saw the Old Testament reading for today (2), I, as a Southern boy, could not help but think of William Faulkner and his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Absalom, Absalom.”
Now, I am not a Faulkner devotee by any definition. Faulkner is often difficult to read because his writing is often dense and filled with intricate prose; not to mention some of the names he invented for the places in Mississippi of which he wrote. The only one of his novels that I was ever interested in was “The Reivers” and that was because it centered on a trip to my home town of Memphis.
Faulkner used his own Southern roots and the settings of northern Mississippi to tell his stories. And in “Absalom, Absalom”, Faulkner connects us to the story of David in today’s Old Testament reading.
The novel focuses on Thomas Sutpen, a poor man born in Virginia, who finds respectability and wealth in pre-Civil War Mississippi. His ambitions, desires, and need for control ultimately bring about his own ruin and the ruin of his family. And when you think about it, that is essentially the story of David and his family in 2nd Samuel – a story of family ambition, destruction, and ruin.
Absalom was David’s third son and, by all accounts, considered the handsomest man in the kingdom. Earlier in the story of David and his family, David’s oldest son, Amnon violated their sister. Tamar. Angered that his father did nothing, Absalom conspired to have Amnon killed.
Whatever feelings David might have had concerning Amnon and his actions, Absalom’s actions really angered him. As a result, Absalom was driven into exile for about three years. But as the time passed, the two apparently reconciled their differences. At the beginning of the passage we read today, Absalom is presumptive heir to the throne.
But Absalom is concerned that he will be passed over for the throne, probably for Solomon. This leads him to launch an abortive coup against David. While Absalom and his forces are able to drive David and his forces from Jerusalem, it is only a temporary victory and Absalom is driven back and defeated. While seeking to escape, Absalom’s long flowing hair gets entangled in the boughs of an oak tree. Even though David gave explicit orders that Absalom was not to be killed, he is killed while hanging from the tree. When David calls for a report on the progress of the battle and the status of his son, he is first told that both are well. When David is told that his son has been killed, we hear the anguished cry of a parent who has lost a beloved child.
We should expect such a cry from any parent but there is another reason for David’s anguished cry. It comes about because David was seeking two mutually exclusive outcomes. He wanted to defeat those, including his own son, who would have removed him from the throne but he wanted no harm to come to his son. In hearing that Absalom was dead, he knew that he had won the war but lost that which mattered most. But, in retrospect, it would have been impossible to accomplish the two goals of keeping Absalom alive and defeating his armies.
Trying to meet two mutually exclusive goals is not unusual. Many of us are faced with the very situation. Michael Lerner, in his book “The Left Hand of God”, points out that we are constantly in conflict with what we perceive to be the values of society and our own values. At times, the two seem mutually exclusive and we do not know how we can be successful in society while at the same time maintaining our own core values. We seek a solution that will allow us to succeed in today’s society while holding onto our own values; we desperately want someone to show us a way to achieve success without sacrificing our souls.
In our struggle, we hear a voice calling to us. It is a voice that focuses on our fears. We readily listen to this voice of fear because, even though it contradicts everything we have been taught, it seems so peaceful and sensible.
This voice of fear tells us that it is perfectly reasonable to seek wealth. It was given to you by God and you need not feel guilty about being wealthy. This voice of fear tells us that poverty is a state of mind and those who are poor deserve their fate. It is not our responsibility to take care of the poor; giving money to the poor and social programs only wastes our money.
This voice of fear tells us that others are to blame for the troubles of society. It is those who have different economic status, different lifestyles, or different skin colors that are to blame for society’s troubles. This voice of fear tells us to cast aside those who are not like us; this voice of fear tells us to build walls, physical or otherwise, that keep them away.
This voice of fear tells us to fight those who would teach new theories or bring about change in society. New thoughts run counter to tradition and when you challenge tradition, society falls apart. New knowledge can only destroy the values of society.
This voice of fear tells us that only military power will defeat evil. This voice of fear says that the only thing evil understands is raw power and those who say that you can counter evil with love are extremely naïve. But violence only generates more violence and those exposed to violence see violence as the only solution to their problems. Terrorism and hatred grow out of violence and when violence is used to combat terror, it can only breed more.
We may be angry with the world but responding in anger will not solve the problems. As Paul reminds us today (3), we should never let the sun set on our anger. He counsels the Ephesians not to use their wrath as a means to respond to sin and injustice. Rather than speaking out in anger and hatred, Paul encourages us, as he did the Ephesians, to seek opportunities to express Christ’s love to everyone.
Paul suggests that we should share with others so that there is no need to anyone to steal or cheat. This passage from Ephesians is much more than a call to stop stealing or being greedy; it is a call to be generous.
It is difficult to accept Paul’s words to be generous, to share what you have with others because it goes so much against the grain of society and what society tells us to do. We are at times like those who heard Jesus speak and saw Him feed the hungry and heal the sick. All they saw was the carpenter’s son and they could not believe or accept that Jesus was the Messiah. (4)
Those who speak with the voice of fear have no vision for the future. Those who speak with the voice of fear only speak of what was; they never offer hope for tomorrow or what could be. Those who speak with the voice of fear seek to imprison us inside our fears, using our fears to limit and restrict the dimensions of life. Those who speak with the voice of fear say they are speaking for God, yet they ignore what God is saying. Those who speak with the voice of fear prevent us from seeing what God is doing in the events of the present time; they want to keep us from hearing and responding to God’s call.
But there is a second voice speaking to us, a voice of hope instead of fear. It is a quiet voice and we sometimes have to strain to hear it speaking to us. But it has been speaking to us and calling to us for a long, long time.
It began when the prophet Isaiah spoke of a child being born, a child who would bring peace to this world. It continued with Micah saying
He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war no more. (5)
It was the voice of hope that told the shepherds to leave their flocks and seek the baby lying in the manger in Bethlehem. The voice of hope was heard clearly that day in Nazareth when Jesus stood up in the synagogue and said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (6)
The voice of hope was heard when Jesus told all who were tired or weak and heavy laden to come to Him. Those excluded by society, be it by economic status, lifestyle, race, or gender heard those words of hope and promise.
The voice of hope calls for us to think about wealth and responsibility differently. Throughout the New Testament, the rich are held responsible for the sufferings of the poor and God is the deliverer of the oppressed. The voice of hope does not just say sell what you have and give it to the poor; the voice of hope also said to use what you have and follow Christ.
John Wesley echoed the voice of hope in thought, word, and deed. When John Wesley was preaching he was earning up to 1400 pounds a year, giving him one of the highest incomes in England at the time. Yet, having determined that he could live on 28 pounds a year, he gave away the balance of his income. He encouraged others to earn as much as they could but not to do it on the backs of others. And like he did, he encouraged everyone to save as much as they could and then give as much as they could. John Wesley sought to embody the words of Christ in his faith and in his action.
The voice of hope was spoken in parables, challenging us to think about what was said and not to simply hear the words. The voice of hope challenged society to be more than what it had been; it challenged society to do more than adhere to the law by living the spirit of the law.
Jesus was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity, in which the faith of that time was so imprisoned. In doing so, He made it possible for the outcast, the hopeless, and the helpless to have opportunity. Jesus also warned those who He called to share in this mission that they must be free for the unexpected, such as the person by the wayside. Our response to the voice of hope is not dictated by the world’s expectations (as the voices of fear would require) but rather by our answer to Christ’s calling.
Those who have heard the voice of hope calling to follow and serve have created communities where all are welcome and all is shared. God’s call, the voice of hope, is for a truly open and free society. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have sought to make the teachings of Christ real. The voice of hope calls on us today to respond to the possibilities of a new community centered and revealed in Christ.
There is a vision of hope to accompany the voice of hope. The vision of hope is created by the words of Christ for today that all who eat the Bread of Life and believe in Christ will have eternal live. (3)
It is the sight of the empty cross and the empty tomb; a sign that sin and death can be conquered.
We hear the voice of hope calling us today. It is calling us to be the vision of hope in this world. Those who are without hope will see in us the presence of Christ and will know that there is hope. By our thoughts, our beliefs, our words, and our actions, we allow the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and others will see that the vision of hope is real and true today.
I used material/thoughts from Michael Lerner’s book “The Left Hand of God”, Jim Wallis’ book “The Call to Conversion”, and Colin Williams’ book “Faith in a Secular Age” to prepare this sermon.