II Samuel 19-21, Psalm 96, Acts 11
Picking up the broken pieces
II Samuel 19-21
It is often easier to break something than to repair it. Before invading Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a faithful Episcopalian, told the American press, “They will be cheering for us in the streets of Bagdad.” Unfortunately, he was wrong. The war was quick as he had predicted, and it toppled a tyrant, but instead of unifying a nation, it unleashed more than a decade of sectarian violence across Iraq.
Like Tito who ruled over Yugoslavia with an iron fist, Saddam Hussein controlled a fractious nation through intimidation, fear and violence. On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a fine Episcopalian, told President George Bush, who was raised as an Episcopalian but joined the Methodist Church, “There is an old adage. If you break it, you must stay and fix it.” He challenged Rumsfeld’s simplistic theory that we could invade Iraq, be welcomed and soon leave.
Sadly, shortly before the onset of the Iraqi War the United States disbanded the only institution in our country, which studied and taught leaders how to rebuild a nation. The research center, located in Newport, Rhode Island, was closed to save funds. Closing it was a short-sighted move. We closed the one institution that studied and taught how to rebuild a country after invading it. It later became obvious that we had no plan about how to rebuild Iraq. We simply entered, broke it, witnessed the ensuing chaos and did our best to restore the country learning as we went along. We tried our best.
In chapters 19-21 of 2 Samuel, we witness similar fallout and need to repair a broken country. Absalom was dead. King David was in mourning. The army had to schlepp back into the capital, stealing into Jerusalem as if they had lost the battle rather than won it. Fortunately, King David had a loyal general, who was willing to confront him and tell the truth. “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life,” said Joab. He minced no words.
Joab boldly told the king, “So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has become upon you from your youth until now.” It says a lot about David that he surrounded himself with strong leaders who could tell him unwanted truths. Credit should be given David for listening and following Joab’s candid counsel.
So, David made his way to the gates of the city, and word spread quickly that the king had taken his traditional seat of judgment. The troops and citizenry gathered to hear from their king. There was much repair work to do. Judah, which David ruled over for seven years before becoming king of a united northern and southern kingdoms now known as Israel, was the last to return to the fold. It is the Benjaminites, David’s own people, who refused to reconcile with the king.
Some, however, read the writing on the wall, like Shimei, who entered Jerusalem with a thousand people from Benjamin and begged David’s forgiveness. One never knows quite what to expect from David. Will he lop off someone’s head for conveying news that he did not want to hear or would he grant amnesty and forgiveness, even when it is not merited? In the case of Shimei, David gave his oath, “You shall not die.” This was apparently a conditional oath, which was reversed on David’s deathbed.
After setting that score, David needed to address Mephibosheth, who had lived like a hermit while David was dealing with Absalom’s rebellion. Mephibosheth had neither trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes nor taken care of his feet since the king had left. One has the sense that Mephibosheth truly admired David, even though they were not close friends as David and Mephibosheth’s father Jonathan had been. Ziba apparently had lied to the king, and that Mephibosheth had been betrayed by his own servant. Knowing who to trust and not to trust was no easy task when leading Israel.
Others streamed to David to show their allegiance like Barzillai the Gileadite, who escorted the king over the Jordan. But others like Sheba son of Bichri, whom the Bible calls “a scoundrel,” revolted by sounding the trumpet and proclaiming, “We have no portion in David, no share in the son of Jesse! Everyone to your tents, O Israel!” Like Shimei, he was a Benjaminite, still stewing over the removal and death of King Saul. Like a spouse or employee who refuses to let go of resentment, the anger of the Benjaminites stewed potently and had to be addressed.
Once again, Joab proved a valued asset to the king as he grabbed Amasa by the beard and thrust his sword deeply into his belly as punishment for not promptly bringing forth the forces to support the king. Joab clearly had David’s back and would do anything to ensure that David was not undermined, even undermined by his own emotions and weakness.
In John’s Gospel, the High Priest Caiaphas noted that “it was better to have one person die for the people” (John 18:14) than presumably to have many suffer. In 2 Samuel 20:16 an unnamed woman and Joab came to the same conclusion. With her beloved city surrounded by the king’s forces, the woman struck a deal with Joab and convinced her fellow citizens to lop off Sheba son of Bichri’s head and toss it over the city walls to Joab, whose troops soon dispersed and returned home.
The clean-up continued. Perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned in pastoral care came from John Claypool, a wonderful mentor, who taught that grief is cumulative. When we suffer a loss, it immediately draws to mind other losses in our lives, and it plays off of them. This is especially true if the previous loss has not sufficiently healed.
In 2 Samuel 21, we see how this affects not so much an individual, but an entire tribe. After Israel had suffered through a three-year famine, David inquired of the Lord why the people were being punished. Yahweh informed him that, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” (2 Sam. 21:1) So, David summoned the Gibeonites, who were not Israelites, and learned that they still deeply despised King Saul for trying to exterminate them. In order to make amends, they asked David to hand over seven of Saul’s sons. David was happy to comply with; for in so doing, he delivered seven men who had potential to destabilize his government and usurp his authority.
David went a step further. He ordered the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan to be exhumed and moved them to the land of Benjamin in Zela, where they could rest in the tomb of their fathers. In so doing, David appeased the Benjaminites, whose anger still festered over the loss of King Saul. This gesture helped to breach the painful division that had separated David from the Benjaminites.
Chapter 21 comes full circle. It brings us back to David’s youth when he first fought against the Philistines and especially against Goliath. Once again, David went to battle, and this time, unlike when he stayed behind in Jerusalem and committed adultery with Bathsheba, David “went down together with his servants.” (2 Sam. 21:15) But David was old and weary. His men swore to him, “You shall not go out with us to battle any longer, so that you do not quench the lamp of Israel.” (2 Sam. 21:17) David was now larger than himself. He was a sign of unity and strength, and he had to be protected.
New leaders were emerging, such as Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, who like David hailed from Bethlehem. Like David, he also slew a giant named Goliath, whose spear was “like a weaver’s beam.” Life had come full circle.
Whether your marriage has fallen into a rut or you long to move to a new home or a different community, change jobs or schools, it often helps to have a new narrative in life. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, warned against what he called “the rotation method,” whereby we change the exterior scenery of our life without addressing things within ourselves. Hence, we often skirt the real issues, place blame on others or other things and make only surface changes. Eventually, we replay our old narrative in a new setting, whether it is in a new relationship, job, school or community.
The deeper work of healing involves changing the narrative that we tell ourselves and those around us. It means instead of attacking our spouse, child or employee each time he or she arrives late or is not ready to go somewhere on time, we change how we will respond to the situation. We respond in a noticeably different way. Perhaps we say, “Each time that you are late it makes me feel as though I am unimportant and unloved.” This is a far different response than complaining or getting angry.
Like Psalm 95, Psalm 96 is a psalm of praise. The opening verse says, “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” From time to time, we all need a new narrative. Singing the same song to ourselves or to others becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A therapist once told me that everyone goes on one emotional journey and repeats it each time that he or she is hurt. Our emotional journey stems from our childhood and is usually based on our experiences of attachment as a child.
One person, for example, may react by saying, “Here I go being abandoned yet again.” Each time, someone is late or lets us down us or changes plans on us, we utter these words like a mantra within us. We go on an emotional journey like a person boarding a train. We ride to the land of abandonment. My friend, who is a therapist, says that as the train pulls up to the platform, we have a choice about whether or not to enter and take the emotional journey. When we sense that we are about to take the emotional journey, and we can refrain. In doing so, we eventually starve the part within us that is fed by taking the same emotional journey over and over again. Thus, we change and become emotionally healthier, and it greatly improves our relationships and our ability to function with others.
Psalm 96 encourages us to “sing to the Lord a new song…” (Ps. 96: 1) Stop whining. Refrain from singing the same song over and over again to the Lord. Do not step on the same emotional train. Stop riding it to the same dead end, which reinforces a negative self-image or image of others or our position in the world. We all need to watch the narratives that we tell ourselves and use to keep others at a distance and to prevent vulnerability and attachment from occurring.
The Psalmist also tells us that “The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.” (Ps. 96:10) Readers may question this. Much is happening on our planet. According to a Gallop Poll in the May 25th edition of The Christian Century only 54% of the people polled believe that global warming had already begun, 18% believe it will never happen, 16% believe that it will not begin within their lifetime, but will affect future generations; 8% believe it will happen within their lifetime, 3% believe it will begin within a few years and 2% had no opinion. Oh my! Does only a just a slim majority believe that the foundations of our earth are already endangered and that we must do something significant and soon to address it?
Finally, the Psalmist closes by noting that the Lord “is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” (Ps. 96:13) There is a great value to reciting the psalms each day and frequently repeating words like this. They remind us that God indeed holds us accountable for our actions.
Most of us would prefer to live in an unaccountable system. We want accountability for others, but we prefer grace for ourselves. We go as far as to envision God as a benevolent old grandfather, who will look the other way whenever we have erred and sinned. The Bible affirms, however, that God will judge us. We will be held accountable for our actions and must be prepared to be judged for the amount of righteousness that we have displayed.
In Acts 11 Peter testifies to how he has seen Jesus’ prophecy being fulfilled in the lives of those around him. It must have been extraordinarily powerful for him to witness this. “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 11:15-16) From here on out the disciples and succeeding generations of Christians will begin to see how the teachings of Jesus would be fulfilled.
Things that Jesus had said, which they failed to comprehend at the time, would slowly be understood and applied as the Church grew. This pattern of learning, reflecting and applying Jesus’ teaching has never stopped. The Church is constantly being stretched in its self-understanding as the Holy Spirit opens new doors and allows us to see that both men and women, blacks as whites, rich and poor, gays and straights are allowed to enter and find a spiritual home in God’s house. There is room for all.
Then Peter utters a remarkable line that all of us would be wise to meditate upon prayerfully, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17) There are times to prevent change from occurring especially when it leads to moral disintegration, and there are times to be aware that God is doing something new among us. The Church is at its best when it offers a generous-spirited Christianity, and it is at its worst when it draws lines in the sand and makes black and white divisions over matters that Jesus never addressed.
We then read about Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement.” The Church leaders in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch. We all need someone like Barnabas to further us in our Christian life. More importantly, we can all serve as a Barnabas or “son or daughter of encouragement” to others. When we do so, we become spiritual cheerleaders who see and encourage the best in those around us, whether they are family members, co-workers, classmates, church members, neighbors or strangers.
When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, we are told that “he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” (Acts 11:23-24) It should not surprise us therefore that Luke reports that “a great many people were brought to the Lord.” (Acts 11:24) People want to be part of something harmonious, life-giving and beautiful. Such an environment brings out the best qualities within.
Part of Barnabas’ strength was seeing the giftedness in others. He wanted the best for whatever community he served, whether it was utilizing his own gifts or bringing others into leadership who had differing gifts to share with the community. So, Barnabas travelled to Tarsus, which was no small journey, and brought Saul back with him. Then for a year, the two of them taught many of the people living in Antioch. This must have been one of the most stimulating Christian learning environments in history. Imagine sitting at the feet of Paul and Barnabas each day for a year and learning from them.
When one hearer named Agabus, prophesied that a severe famine would strike the land, the disciples opened their purses and sent financial relief to those who would be struggling. This is what Christian leaders are called to do today. The challenge with most mainline Christian leaders is that we want to maintain and enjoy a high standard of living, and as a result we give a small percentage of our wealth to the Church and to those truly in need. The disciples, however, were moved by the Holy Spirit to entrust a considerable sum of their own money to Barnabas and Saul to deliver to those in need.
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)
What broken pieces are you called to pick up? How have you experienced cumulative grief in your life? Are you tending your wounds sufficiently so that they will heal properly and allow you to move forward in a healthy way? What is the emotional journey that you most frequently take? What is the narrative that you are telling yourself, which you may need to question and change? Who is your Barnabas or son or daughter of encouragement? How are you serving as an encourager to others?
Gracious God, we may not be the world’s greatest at anything that we do, nor are we called to achieve this. What we can each do and each excel at is to be an encourager to all those around us. Please help us to be the best encourager to everyone around us each and every day, and in doing so we will surely discover our deep joy. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania