Sermon: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 9th August 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  8am and 10am

Readings:   2 Samuel 18; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35,41-51

“WORDS THAT BUILD UP”

Over recent weeks in our Old Testament readings we have been hearing the story of David, the great second king of Israel. And what a story it is! It begins with a young shepherd boy who uses his sling to slay the giant Goliath, and plays his harp to soothe the troubled king Saul, and successfully leads his army into battle. He becomes a great friend of Saul’s son Jonathan, who accepts that it will be David, not himself, who will succeed Saul as king. Saul becomes obsessed with David, convinced that David is out to destroy him, and David has to flee from one hiding place to another. Though Saul is determined to kill him, David refuses to take the opportunities he is given to kill the murderous king. Eventually David does become king. He sets up a new capital in Jerusalem, and seems to be a great success as king. He wants to build a temple to honour the Lord God, but is told that he is not to build a house for the Lord, but that the Lord will build a house for him, a great and lasting dynasty.

It seems to be all good, and David is a great hero and a great servant of God.

But then he sees Bathsheba bathing, and he wants her, and suddenly everything is turned upside down. David becomes not only an adulterer but a murderer. And his family relationships go pear-shaped. He fails as a father, spoiling one son and ignoring another, allowing tensions and intrigues to build up, raising major questions about who will succeed him as king, and whether the transition will be peaceful.

And then there is his son Absalom, who eventually gets sick of his father’s inconsistency, and mounts an armed rebellion against David. David is forced to flee, and Absalom humiliates his father by going into David’s wives and concubines in a very public way. Under his general Joab, forces loyal to King David respond to Absalom’s rebellion. David is racked with guilt: he has failed to be a good father to Absalom, and now Absalom might have to die if David is to reclaim the throne. “Do not harm Absalom if you capture him: bring him to me,” he tells the army and its leaders. But Joab will have none of this weak sentimentality, and contrary to David’s orders he kills Absalom.

The war against Absalom’s forces is won, but David is devastated by the death of his son: “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.”

You mightn’t be surprised to know that Joab is disgusted with David’s reaction. “So what if he was your son? He was your deadly enemy. Get over it. Get out and tell your soldiers what a great job they’ve done, and stop being such a wuss.”

Now of course Joab had a point. David must congratulate and thank his army for their great victory over the rebel forces. But David was also a father, and a troubled one at that. He was a man in grief and loss, compounded by his guilt and sense of failure that the whole thing had happened.

As I thought about David and his apparent emotional weakness, I was reminded of another public figure who has recently been told that he’s a wuss, and that he should “get over it”. I’m talking about Adam Goodes, the footballer. Over many years he has experienced a great deal of racial abuse on and off the field. Two years ago, he reacted to some particularly nasty abuse from a spectator: he went up to the person and made clear that her racist taunts were unacceptable.

It turned out that the abuser was a 13-year-old girl – something which Goodes would not have known when he reacted – and there was a very mixed reaction from the public and from commentators.

Some praised Goodes for drawing a necessary line in the sand and bringing out into the open the unacceptable nature of racial abuse. Others almost accused him of child abuse, his “cruelty” to a young girl – although he certainly tried to do what he could to reduce any personal impact on the girl and her family. And others said that he should not be making an issue of what people shout out to football players during games. Live with it! Get over it!

Since then, Adam Goodes has become a bigger target for booing and abuse on the field. Many people say that this is his own fault. If he hadn’t made an issue of it, people wouldn’t be singling him out. He would just get the normal amount of reaction from spectators that he’d get anyway.

Surely this demonstrates that there really is a problem of racial abuse here. Goodes publicly indicated that he was sick of the racial abuse that he received, and hurt by it, and it was also clear that this was the case with many other Aboriginal players. And yet people were singling him out in particular for abuse: whether it was specifically racist words, it was certainly not just the good-humoured banter that footballers might expect. As we know, he recently decided to take a break from football because he was finding it hard to handle the abuse he was receiving.

Is he a wuss? Should he just get over it?

Actually I think he is a very brave man. It is much easier, much safer, to sweep problems like racism under the carpet as so many are telling Goodes and his supporters to do. But of course, if anything is to change – as it must – someone has to get it into the open, and I would praise Goodes for being brave enough to do this. Clearly however it has taken a toll on him. I am pleased about him returning to the football field, but I am sad that it got to that point.

The problem is that Goodes is a human being, and he has feelings. Names and abuse do hurt. Many of you will remember that old schoolyard saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. It wasn’t true then, and it still isn’t true now. Many of us have experienced hurts in our lives, often based on cruel things people have said, and sometimes these hurts have been hard to handle. It is wise to handle these hurts in a purposeful way: for some people prayer will be helpful; for others, it might be talking them through with an understanding person, doing something constructive, or getting assistance if we need it.

Our feelings are part of the beautiful way we have been made in the image of God. They may express joy and excitement and love: but they also can express pain and hurt and loss. They are there, one side of who we are, and a stiff upper lip will often not be an adequate way of responding to personal hurt.

Of course, with our different personalities and our different stories, some of us will be much more open and obvious in the way we express our emotions, especially painful ones.

We need to find appropriate, helpful and safe ways of expressing powerful feelings, rather than leaving them undealt with. And we need to accept that we are all different, and that telling someone to “get over it” will seldom be a useful piece of advice to someone in pain! What hurts another person mightn’t be what hurts me!

Which leads us to those very practical words of Paul in our reading from Ephesians. He writes about speaking the truth to one another. We are all connected to each other: lies undermine our relationships.

He knows that things – and people – can make us angry: that’s fair enough. But don’t express that anger in a wrong way: if Goodes had punched the girl in the face, clearly that would have been a wrong way of expressing that anger. Be angry but do not sin. Deal appropriately with your anger, says Paul: don’t let it fester and lie there unresolved and unforgiven.

Paul says that the thief must give up stealing and get an honest job: not just in order to have what he needs to live on, but so that he can have something to give to those in need!

In particular, he says that we must not allow evil talk come out of our mouths: what we say is to build people up, not to tear them down.

There is the test! Do our words do good to people, or do them harm or cause them hurt? That deals quite simply with any attempted justification for racist talk, doesn’t it? We are to be imitators of God our heavenly Father: we are to live in love – love to our neighbour, and that can be anyone at all: the person we like, and the person we find difficult to love; the person who is like us, and the person who is from a different racial or economical or religious background. In Christ, we are all one, we are family. Our words should always seek to do good, not harm.

The story of David ends rather sadly: our mistakes have a habit of catching up with us, and of course we each have our own catalogue of mistakes and failings. But God continues to love us as he loved David, and he challenges us to speak in love and to act in love in all circumstances. Let us then “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.” Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver