1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 51:10-14
Two years ago, a man called the church and asked to come speak with me. When we met, he told me that his son had died from suicide over twenty years before. At his son’s funeral, the pastor lamented that it was too bad that the man’s son was in hell, using the opportunity (a funeral!) to warn others against suicide. This warning, of course, ignores the fact that most people who are considering suicide feel as though they are in hell already.
So, two years, this man, this grieving father, came to talk to me about heaven. In particular, he had a little booklet about heaven that he had carried around for about ten years. He’d read the slick pages over and over until they were soft and floppy. He wanted to question me about the specifics of heaven. In particular, he was very concerned about the idea that we will be able to recognize other people in heaven.
He felt that if he was able to see who WAS there; he would also know who WASN’T there. His little booklet told him to anticipate a great reunion with many loved ones. This man believed it would never be heaven for him if he had to spend eternity knowing that his son wasn’t there. He asked me how heaven could be a perfect place if, while he was there, he would know that his son was suffering elsewhere.
This man, like many others, grew up and had been told again and again about suicide as an unforgiveable sin. Some people have been taught that it’s unforgiveable because you can’t repent. Some people have been told that taking one’s own life is usurping God’s power and privilege. We even, still, talk about suicide like it’s a crime: we say “commit” suicide. I try to use the phrase “die from suicide”.
What does this have to do with David, who died of old age- probably in his seventies? As we’ve been studying David on Sunday mornings and talking about the cross on Wednesday nights, one of the issues arises repeatedly is the idea of God’s justice. We want to think of God being “fair”- even though fairness is not a Biblical principle in any stretch of the imagination.
We like the story of God calling the little brother, the youngest, the sheep-keeper . We like knowing that he was musical and had a heart for God. We like the idea of David killing Goliath and speaking forcefully for the living God of Israel. We are drawn to the deep relationship and promises between David and Jonathon.
But then we think of David using his kingly advantage to seduce Bathsheba and to have her husband, Uriah, killed. We think of him over-indulging his sons and placing them among his advisors when they were likely too young. He neglected to lead his military generals. He was a mercenary for a while with the Philistines. He conducted an illegal census of the people of Israel. He killed the remainder of Saul’s family, except Mephibosheth- Jonathon’s son who was crippled in some capacity.
We wrestle with the idea that David did these terrible things and yet remained God’s beloved. There are events in David’s life that were perceived to be God’s punishment for his actions, yet God did not withdraw God’s love from David. God did not turn his back on David. God did not undo God’s promise of bringing redemption to Israel and to the world through David’s descendants.
When I met with that man two years ago, we talked about the nature of God. I asked the man if he had ever thought that his son might be with God now, might be at peace. He looked at me like I was crazy. In twenty-plus years, no one had ever asked him this outright. I asked him if he thought soldiers went to heaven. He said yes- because they kill in the line of duty and they can repent. I asked about executioners and people who kill someone else in an accidental death. Yes, because they can repent- he replied- they can go to heaven.
We talked about his son, about his struggles and pain, about why he might have come to the decision he did. I asked the man if he thought God was with his son in those struggles. Yes, he thought God was there, but then his son did what he did. In the long conversation we had, we went around and around. This man had spent these many years believing his son was in hell. He just wanted to understand how he, the father, could expect to find heaven a perfect place, when he would obviously know that his son was not there.
We do not live in a world of fairness. Even with laws and governments, there is very little justice because of our entwined and enmeshed systems that contribute to and perpetuate the struggles of many people. Given what we see and experience all the time, it is very important to remember that God does not function in the same way that we do.
In a fair system, Jesus would not be from David’s line. He’d be from a lineage of fine, upstanding citizens. All the women would be pure and perfect. All the men would be robust and faithful. Jesus would be from Lake Woebegon- where are the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average. And what consolation would that be to us? God comes and lives among us, but lives as the crème de la crème? Instead, Jesus spends his toddler years as a refugee, his youth in a backwater as the son of a carpenter, his early adulthood working with his dad and friends in community life, his ministry years with fishermen, tax collectors, and women, his moments of death as a criminal and one wronged by both religious and civil leaders. This is God’s experience as one of us.
And we shouldn’t be surprised by it, since we’ve known from the moment that God didn’t kill Adam and Eve, gave Cain a second chance, preserved Noah, called Moses (the murderer), and used David to bring Israel into a place where they could truly be a light to the world, if they so chose. God doesn’t do fair. God does grace. God does power. God does God’s justice.
Our justice would result in Mary Magdalene showing up on Easter morning and weeping over Jesus’ lifeless body. God’s justice, God’s ways, have her met in the garden by her rabbouni, her teacher and Lord- Jesus the Christ. Our ways would have us muddle along, hoping to get things right. Instead, God’s ways have Jesus meet us too… in all kinds of times, places, and people.
Our ways would have squashed David like a bug after the Uriah and Bathsheba incident. Our ways would declare that some sins are unforgiveable- even those committed in the depths of despair. Instead, God’s ways continued to use David, defining him not by the worst thing David ever did, but by the best thing God ever did. If God does that for David, isn’t that surely what God does for each of us? Not seeing us by the worst thing we ever do or that ever happens to us, but by the best thing that God ever did.
That’s what I told that man two years ago and what I’ve prayed every day since for him to receive and understand. It’s what I want you to hear on this Sunday as well. The God of resurrection, the Christ of baptism and holy community, the Holy Spirit of constant renewal does not see or define us by our worst, but through God’s best.