II Samuel 1:1, 17-27
1After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. 17David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18(He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said:
19Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! 20Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will dance, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. 21You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. 22From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty the bow of Jonathan did not turn nor the sword of Saul return empty. 23Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. 25How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. 26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. 27How the mighty have fallen,and the weapons of war perished!
The scriptural editor of the Book of Samuel called it “The Song of the Bow.” This may be the earliest piece of poetry we have in scripture, surely written by David himself before he was king. It is a lament. David has lost Jonathan, his dearest friend. Jonathan was an archer. His bow becomes the powerful symbol of the tension of human energy focused on warfare, as the bow is drawn and the arrow launched. But the arrow falls, and someone is killed. Jonathan himself receives the arrow of an enemy. David and all of Israel grieve. See how the mighty have fallen. Saul also falls. Saul: David’s father-in-law though political enemy. These were complicated relationships, like most of ours. Did David wish Saul’s death? No. When he earlier had opportunity to kill Saul he did not. Now David was grieving.
This week we lost two patriarchs of our church. When I used the word ‘patriarch’ to describe David Bell here, someone told Nancy Casey, and she was ready with the question that afternoon when I went to visit her and Bobby: “Why do you call some people ‘patriarchs,’ and others not? Well. David Bell was a patriarch of our church- the congregation, the district, the annual conference- a leader, a tremendous steward and disciple, leader of a large family. A patriarch in many ways, and we grieve his loss. David and I did not agree on some things, by the way. That’s normal, and it doesn’t matter much in the end. He loved God, he loved his church. Bobby Casey was also a patriarch of our church. I told Nancy that as well. Nancy goes further back than just about any of us, a cradle roll member of Marvin Park. She and I, by the way, also disagree on some things. Again, normal: the way vital church life is. Dialogue welcomed: I love her for it. Bobby came into the life of the church with Nancy at a young age. They have both been leaders in their own marvelous ways. Anything that got fixed in the Marvin Park building generally engaged Bobby’s hands. As his health failed, and the health of a few others, it became more apparent they would not be able to sustain the facility without such marvelous volunteers as Bobby. Now he is gone. See how the mighty have fallen.
David was grieving not just the lost of these important people in his life and the life of his nation, but the loss in some sense of the very spirit of the nation. War does that to us. Fearfully and feverishly we go to war, for causes we feel merit the sacrifice, or we would not do it. We know the price, though with some years between wars new generations have to be taught, lest the excitement of battle overshadow the pain and grief and loss which war will inevitably bring.
This week again we celebrate, with fireworks reminiscent of bombs bursting in air. Whether legally or not! We celebrate the independence and greatness of our nation. We celebrate the freedoms we share, won at great cost. We celebrate that we are committed to being one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. All of us know we are not fully there yet. It is still a young idea in process: only 236 years in the making, and many years to go! All of us know how difficult it is to be truly a UNITED States of America. Our nation is more pluralistic now than ever before. We are challenged by disagreement, yet, I believe, on the cusp of new growth. Rodney King died a couple of weeks ago. His challenge is still so poignant: “Can’t we all just get along?” Yes! We Christians believe, “Si puede! Yes, we CAN!” This commitment and optimism are also part of what Independence Day is about.
With David’s ‘Song of the Bow’ Lament, this Independence Day again we need to walk through the national valleys of the lost. We need to learn and recite some of the accounts of our past. We need to walk silently through the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, meditate on the stark, white slabs, row upon row, in the green grass against the blue sky. People of all nations need to walk past the gas ovens of the concentration camps, through the bombed-out cities. We need to tell the stories of the Bataan death march.
David Bell was a Son of the Confederacy, and a marvelous historian of the Civil War. Someone else must pick up that legacy, help us remember and recite the stories of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the Battle of Bull Run. Together with King David we need to decry the horribleness of war, to declare it as the supreme manifestation of sin, and to pray that all war may be abolished! ” We need to stand together before our war monuments, and ponder on the questions of what they have accomplished, what was settled, and what still is not. We need to consider the loss of the best of our people, the non-productive use of increasingly scarce natural resources. We need to walk together through the valley of national loss, so that we might become a better people.
I heard this week the story of a woman who heard in a phone call that her home in Colorado Springs had been destroyed. She was away on the east coast, attending to her sister who is ill. A neighbor called. “You’ve lost everything!” “No.” the woman was able to respond. “I still have my sister. And I still have my life.” You’ve been there, one way or another. A doctor says, “I’m sorry. It’s cancer.” You read an obituary in the paper. My friend George got the news this week that he will never again be able to eat or drink anything by mouth, but may choose instead to get a permanent feeding tube. A Rev. Donald Zelle reflects on this passage, “Our arrival in that valley may have been caused by the death of a friend, but personal grief also comes at the loss of a job, the loss of a limb through illness or accident, the loss of our general health or mobility. It comes when we move from a community, or have a goal unfulfilled. Grief is the experience of shuffling through life as though no sunlight ever enters the valley, and no road markers point the way out. Grief is the experience of being lost within familiar surroundings, living in the same house, sitting at the same kitchen table.
When we experience a loss sometimes it helps to get the details, so the heart can catch up with the mind. David wanted the details. You do too.” I wanted to hear George’s news from the nurse as well. David and his 600 compatriots sit on the side of a mountain following the battle, clothes torn, wailing filling the air. The messengers share the bad news. “David writes this lament. Lostness and grief drip from every verse. Personal grief is expressed here, as well as a call for national grief, and even for nature to groan over the loss.”
Nature groans. Smoke still swirls upward in Colorado. But underneath, roots are still intact. Forest fires are natural. They are part of God’s economy. After the heat of summer and the cold of winter, in the spring new life will burst upward. God’s very creation teaches us the way of loss and resurrection. It’s also true for nations, and for each of us.
Zelle reflects again, “For those of you who are walking the valley of loss now, be assured that the valley does end. Never accept the way you feel now as being the way you will always feel. That feeling will change. You will love your home again. You will enjoy doing the things you used to do.” Spring flowers will grow in the Waldo Valley. Zelle goes on: “Remember not only the friend you lost, but the friends who still are with you. Tell them how you feel and what you are experiencing. Let them step into your valley with you, take you gently by the hand, and lead you out. Let them help you plan your future, maybe even day-to-day. Map out some activity, some schedule, and let them help you stay with it. Know that your grieving experience is an opportunity to grow.
You are a Christian. To his grieving disciples, Jesus said, “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” (John 14:18) To the Romans, the apostle Paul wrote, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38, 39) God walks with you.”
Today we celebrate Holy Communion in conjunction with our celebration of our nation’s birthday. They are NOT one celebration. This holy communion is NOT an American institution. Let’s be clear on that. Our patriotism is wonderful, and should be expressed. But our allegiance to God as Christians comes first. In holy communion we celebrate, that Christ gave his life-bread, poured out his life, that we might experience the resurrection on the other side of death. Jesus is the MOST mighty one who has fallen. But he is not fallen still. He is risen. Holy Communion is not a call to war. It is a call to peace, a call to reconciliation. It is a call to trust God beyond our grief, whatever it’s cause, believing and participating in the Joy which comes in the morning. Amen.