Sunday, August 9, 2015
The last time I sang “I am the Bread of life” I was at the funeral of my friend Keith. It was sung at communion, and I remember walking up past his casket, placing my hand on the pall as I sang and cried, as hundreds of people around me sang and cried and feasted. It’s the only hymn I know of that causes lots of Episcopal clergy to actually raise their hands and close their eyes and not worry so much about what they look like and am I being dignified and just sing and feel and let the music move them. We were acting out our belief that the bishop was up at the altar distributing Jesus, the living bread which came down from heaven, and that Jesus had promised to raise up Keith, who was now lying so still in his casket, just like Jesus had promised to raise up every one of us.
We were caught between heaven and earth. I love that phrase in the story of Absalom. It’s an incredibly tragic story—but that phrase. Caught between heaven and earth. Absalom gets stuck in the tree—earlier in the story we hear that he had long, beautiful hair—so there he is stuck, caught, hanging, and the writer describes him as caught between heaven and earth. Caught between life and death. Caught between the mercy his father has required and the justice he admittedly deserved. He has rebelled. He has killed his brother. He has claimed to be the king. He has humiliated his father, the king. Absalom is a troubled young man.
But he’s still David’s son. And David still loves him, and does not want him dead.
What an incredible love that must be, to survive betrayal, and sin, and denial—and still love so completely. Maybe that’s what God’s love for us is like: God loves us so much, despite our denials and betrayals and sins that God still wants us to live, not just now, but eternally. “whoever believes has eternal life…. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
And so here we are, caught between heaven and earth, in that pregnant pause where we do not entirely know which way we are going to go. If the father’s love will be so strong that it will draw us up into heaven and eternal life; or if we will descend back to earth, if there is still more work to be done, more earthly bread to be shared, more paths to follow.
Absalom comes back down to earth pierced by 13 spears. The soldier who finds Absalom doesn’t kill him, because he heard David’s command. Joab, David’s hot-headed commander, the type of leader who consistently goes beyond what his king has told him to do because he believes the violence is necessary for the greater good, strikes the first blow with three spears, after which he commands his 10 armor bearers to strike Absalom as well. Eleven men strike down Absalom so that none of them can be named. None can be accused individually of murdering the king’s son. Absalom hanging on a tree, killed by a group of nameless soldiers reminds us of another man who died, hanging on a tree, killed by a group of solders. Joab, Pilate—these men gave the command, but they took shelter behind the crowd.
When news of Absalom’s death reaches David, he grieves horribly. Wailing, weeping, calling Absalom’s name, and regretting that David himself had not died instead of Absalom. Joab—and no doubt others—believe that such grief is a symbol of weakness. It’s not kingly, or macho enough. Absalom was trouble and got what was coming to him—it was his own fault.
There are a lot of children dying, a lot of grieving parents. Keith’s parents were at his funeral—he was in his early 50s—and he died of natural causes, but so many other parents are publicly grieving their children’s deaths by violence. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Those killed at the movie shootings. The church shootings. The school shootings. And we see their parents grieve, publically, and beg us not to just turn away from their grief. They are begging us to say that the deaths of their children will not be for naught. The deaths of their children will bring about change, and life, and justice.
Keith’s favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird. Archdeacon Bill Parnell preached about it at his funeral—about Keith’s faith that the Atticus archetype would someday bring about racial harmony in the US. I’ve just reread it-so much more powerful than I could comprehend in middle school. And I’ve also just read Go Set a Watchman, which strikes me as important, though I agree with another friend who said that she was glad that Keith did not have to see his hero destroyed. But in the climactic final scenes, as Jean Louise, the woman we used to know as Scout, is railing against her father’s prejudice and complicity in segregation, Atticus says to her, “Jean Louise, come down to earth…”
And I read that with Absalom in mind and I couldn’t help but think, no, we are not called to come back down to earth in our righteous anger and grief. We are called to go up to heaven. To cry out in grief and then to cry out for justice.
Take shelter here, eat this living bread, find strength and fortitude and courage to look, not just at what is going on here on earth but to look up to heaven. Look at what God has done for us—is doing for us—he himself is caught between heaven and earth begging us to follow him up. Begging us to look inside ourselves and cut out the parts that are dead and sick and sinful and wounded so that we can be raised.
It reminded me of the poem of the prophet and poet Langton Hughes:
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.
Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.
Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together
Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.