What Goes Around Comes Around

Passage: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Date: August 19, 2018
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey

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You’ve probably heard these proverbs: “What goes around comes around.” “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” “The end justifies the means.” “You reap what you sow.” While they do contain some truth, they sound almost vindictive, as if they gloat over the misfortunes of another. You never seem to hear compassion in the voice that utters, “What goes around comes around.” The narrator seems to want us to think that about what happens to David today. Absalom’s palace coup literally enacts the prophecy given David by Nathan after his affair with Bathsheba, the one that gets her husband murdered. What goes around comes around,but what drives the plotline of this story is ruthless power.

Long ago when I chose these texts for my contribution to summer preaching, the story arc seemed easier to deal with. Mostly, I wanted to wrestle with the relationship between politics and power and religion. I needed to put scripture next to our world to see what came up. And so I have diligently wrestled with this text, generating a metric ton of sermons to go with this story. But conclusions about a word of grace from it? Not so much. It’s not for lack of research. I read a lot of Walter Brueggemann, Joan Chittister, and the Interpretation Bible series, not to mention reading Hillbilly Elegy and exploring the ideas at the Westminster staff meeting and with all of my friends. I even went to my spiritual director to agonize over what sort of God would build this essential design flaw into humans, that we are so violent.

One of the interest triggers for me was Brueggemann’s characterization of these monarchy-of-Israel stories as being anti-Empire. Throughout the Hebrew Testament, God consistently comes down hard on Empire. Starting with Egypt, Empire comes in for God’s particular judgment—Babylon, Persia, Rome. If the cannon hadn’t been closed, I’m sure there would be other Empires on the list—the Ottoman, Nazi, British and Spanish colonial, Manifest Destiny, and Soviet Empires. Any time one nation bullies another into submission, subverts their native culture, sucks up natural resources and land for the benefit of conquerors rather than the indigenous peoples, when that conquering nation demands labor without fair wages, imposes foreign governance, controls worship, whenever one class of people benefits at the expense of the common good—that’s Empire and God’s against it.

Joab didn’t start out to be an Empire-builder. Maybe he always was ruthless and ambitious, but at least at the beginning of his relationship with David, his ambition was in the service of David’s kingship. It served David’s royal aspirations to use Joab’s ruthlessness during the wars with Saul, the process of uniting the country, fighting off the neighbors, clearing up that little complication around Bathsheba. So David deserves some culpability here. He knew that Joab lacked the edit function that asks questions about limits to power, wonders about implications for the common good, doesn’t always believe the ends justify the means. It is why David didn’t caution gentleness toward “my son” but toward “the young man” Absalom.

Absalom comes to power through a clever manipulation of the people to both believe the present regime is not working for their benefit and by promising to make Israel great again. He goes to a sub-capitol, throws a party, and proclaims himself king. The nation buys the T-shirts and applauds. As David abandons Jerusalem, Absalom is consolidating power;he violates David’s secondary wives and strategizes about how to best destroy his father. David receives the curses of the religious right as he leaves town. His acceptance says philosophically, “When you meddle with other people’s elections, you shouldn’t be surprised when your own elections are tampered with.”

There was an article in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago that I found astonishing. It says that things are not as bad as we think they are. By any objective measure,the author says, life is getting better for more people all around the world. He cites tons of data to objectively support his statement. Did you know there is a World Happiness Report? In a nutshell, the author concludes that the reason we don’t notice the improvement is because we think it’s cooler to be pessimistic. We would rather play “ain’t it awful” than develop the cultural, psychological, political, and spiritual biases necessary for receiving the blessings and just getting on with life. Or, as my evangelical friends say, we need to develop “the attitude of gratitude.”

The author of The New Yorker article wasn’t hopping on the protection of the First Amendment bandwagon, nor was he disputing Fake News. He was simply pointing out that believing things are worse than they are has two results. The first is that this pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the lessons I learned from reading Hillbilly Elegy is that when people feel like what they do makes no difference, they lose hope, and so make even more terrible decisions “because it doesn’t matter anyhow.” The second result of believing things are getting worse is this: it plays into fascism—into Empire. It’s in the Bible, too; it’s why God hates Empire, why God gets so angry with Israel for losing its sense of gratitude. Empire is predicated on fear. Empire needs us to be fearful, pessimistic, nostalgic for a past which, accurately or not, is perceived to be better than the present we’ve got. And this is why it is important to be a practicing follower of Jesus. While I agree that discipleship as a Christian is not political, our discipleship has political implications. In a world in which fear is the basis of power, deciding whom to trust—and to whom to be grateful—is absolutely critical.

In a recent Christian Century article, publisher Peter Marty writes that fear is a great uniter but that it doesn’t lead to discipleship. His point is that Christians are supposed to live lives that are anchored in compassion and godly devotion. There isn’t much room for fear of whichever ethnic group or crisis is the current scapegoat when your heart is filled with compassion for the Other and devotion to the God to whom you direct all the love of your heart, mind, and soul. Marty quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II German theologian, on the topic of fear. “It crouches in people’s hearts,” Bonhoeffer writes, and it “hollows out their insides . . . and secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others.” It was true during the Nazi era; it is still true today. It boils down to this:“Who you gonna trust?” If you think “God helps those who help themselves” (which is Ben Franklin, not the Bible), if all you can trust is your own power, then it’s only a matter of time before that power becomes ruthless. And then for sure Absalom is gonna die—whatever Absalom is for you. David’s cry for his son is piteously heartfelt. It’s a cry that encompasses all that had been hoped and so feebly enacted. It’s a cry that recognizes love limited by reliance on human power and ruthlessness. For David, the war is over, but his son is still dead.The story ends in uncomforted grief and asks us, “Who you gonna trust?”

May we live as people who do not fear—not because we’re brave, but because we trust God’s power, not our own.Thanks be to God.