Sunday, July 1, 2018
Scripture: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

My grandfather, Jack Brydon, died of a heart attack when I was around seven. To this day I have fond memories of grandpa – of times at Ruth’s Diner, sharing a Mighty Fine Donut and a glass of chocolate milk and of post-church meals in his home. But seven is not an age where many know what death really means. I can recall being at the funeral home. My brothers and I were all in suits. My brother, Trevor, who is two years older than me, was weeping. As a seven year old, I knew I should feel sad. Since I saw my brother weeping, I decided that I should cry too. But I really didn’t understand grief as a seven year old. Grief is something we feel, certainly, but it’s also something we learn from others. At seven I hadn’t learned how to grieve.

I am convinced that one of the greatest challenges facing us all today – young and old alike – is that we do not know how to grieve. We are so desperate to avoid pain and disappointment that, when it comes, we go as fast as we can away from it, hoping that our flight is enough to deal with grief. It is not.

Bill Hybels once outlined what he called “Bad Grieving Instructions,” writing:

When his dog dies, Johnny, five, bursts out crying. His dog has been his constant companion; it slept at the foot of his bed. Now the dog is gone, and little Johnny is a basket case.

Johnny’s dad stammers a bit and says, “Uh, don’t feel bad, Johnny, we’ll get you a new dog.”

It is lesson one in society’s grief management program: Bury your feelings; replace your losses. Once you have the new dog, you won’t think about the old one anymore.

Years later, Johnny falls in love with a high school freshman girl. The world has never looked brighter until she dumps him. Suddenly a curtain covers the sun. Johnny’s heart is broken with big-time hurt. He is a wreck. But Mom comes to the rescue, saying, “Don’t feel bad, John, there are other fish in the sea.”

Lesson two: Bury the pain, replace the loss.

Much later, John’s grandfather dies – the one he fished with every summer and felt close to. A note is slipped to him in math class. He reads the note and breaks into sobs. The teacher sends him to the school office.

John’s father picks him up from school. His mother is weeping in the living room, and John wants to hug her. But his dad says, “Don’t disturb her, John; she needs to be alone. She’ll be all right in a little while. Then the two of you can talk.”

Lesson three: Grieve alone.

Let’s review. Bury your feelings; replace your losses; grieve alone; let time heal; live with regret; never trust again. That has been society’s approach for years.[1]

Not only have we not learned how to grieve, but also some of the lessons we have learned actually inhibit us from actually grieving. Keeping a stiff upper lip or just keeping moving on or numbing ourselves to the pain only bury grief, push it aside, or delay it.

The Bible actually has a lot to say about grief, and I think we’d do well to learn from it how to grieve. Job’s children all perish in an accident. His health fails. His wealth is stripped from him. What does he do? He clothes himself in sackcloth, which is a sign of lament. He sits in ashes. He tears his garments. He voices his pain, even while surrounded with well-meaning friends who want him to figure out what he did wrong to deserve such a horrible turn in life. He seeks answers that only God can give.

The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 is one who can bear the grief of others. Isaiah writes:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

In some mysterious way, not only can Christ bear our grief and suffering, but so can we too learn to bear the grief of others. Scripture shows us that part of what it means to be followers of Jesus is learning how to be with each other in our grief – not as a way of fixing the grief but just to be present with.

Our passage from 2 Samuel offers us another model for grief, and the more I spent time with this passage this week, the more it resonated with me. Let me provide some context for this passage. Last week I preached on David and Goliath, from 1 Samuel 17. In the remaining chapters of 1 Samuel, we see that David becomes a rival to King Saul. These chapters are some real Game of Thrones stuff, filled with intrigue, violence, political marriages, and war. Saul likes and needs David, so he keeps him close, but the people love David. This is a huge threat to Saul, and it truly drives him to madness. David is not Saul’s son. David is a threat to Saul’s kingship, and so David and Saul have lived their days filled with massive tension. Several times Saul tries to kill David. Saul later switches methods and has David marry his daughter, which at least gets David in the family, but Saul still later tries to kill David. To understate things pretty massively, David should have every reason to hate Saul and to want to be rid of him. Saul should be David’s enemy, but David will not let his heart be hardened toward someone who has positioned himself as an opponent. Hatred for an enemy destroys the one who hates far more than the enemy.

And then we run into today’s passage. Saul has died in battle on Mount Gilboa during a furious battle with the Philistines. Saul’s enemies have taken his body, dismembered it, and shown his head and torso off as a trophy on a tour through their cities. God’s anointed king is dead, and while David is not in line to be king, many expect him to be the next one. One would expect David to celebrate this turn of events, grab the throne, and enjoy the spoils of his own success.

David doesn’t. In fact, David grieves publicly. David gives us all an example of what it means to express the pain of loss through his song. In it he mourns the death of God’s king, Saul. David mourns for Saul’s sons as well. Nowhere in David’s song of lament is there a hint of moving on. Nowhere is there a hint of hiding his own grief. His grief is real. It is public, and it is raw.

David here is speaking both personally and communally. Yes, he mourns the loss of the king, but he also is mourning on behalf of the whole nation that is suffering greatly in this loss. This is a nation in transition, just as America was a nation in transition during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. America was split north and south. America was divided over slavery. I think Lincoln channeled some of his inner King David when he gave his Second Inaugural Address in the midst of the Civil War. This address remains one of the finest speeches ever given in our nation, and it is an expression of public grief. Here is but a portion of Lincoln’s speech:

Each [party] looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

[And in his concluding words…] With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This necessary but tragic battle brought Lincoln to public grief. He grieved that the country was at war with itself. He grieved at the loss of life. He grieved that people could not see the sinfulness of slavery. His public grief was a way of binding up a country that was being torn apart at the seams. His grief was a way of admitting wrong, of dwelling in it, of submitting to God’s bigger plans, and of waiting for the time when things would be right again.

We need to learn how to grieve again. We need to do this as individuals who are far too quick to move on from loss and pain, as though they don’t hurt. But we also need to do this as a people. For in grief we speak the truth about ourselves and our situation. We admit our pain, our errors, and our desire for a better way.

In our opening hymn today, we sang these beautiful words:

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw;
confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!

Right there – in that third line – we see a glimpse of good grief. We are not perfect. We are not always right. But perhaps when we sit in that pain and grief for awhile, God finds the space to start healing our brokenness. There is good grief to be had, and God works particularly in those moments of our deepest brokenness. I pray we all learn to stay in our grief for awhile and give God space to heal our lives and to heal our land.

[1] Bill Hybels, “A Better Kind of Grieving,” Preaching Today Audio, no. 108.