Sunday, June 28, 2015

“Grief Shapes the Hero”

SERMON                    Grief Shapes the Hero”                   
 Rev. Douglas Olds

 Redwoods Presbyterian Church, Larkspur (CA)
June 28, 2015
5th Sunday after Pentecost

FIRST SCRIPTURE READING      Ecclesiastes 1:12-18                    

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. 15What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. 18For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

SECOND SCRIPTURE READING      2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27                           

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag.

David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (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: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You 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. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. 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. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

“On the night of August 1-2, 1943…PT 109, patrolling Blackert Straight in the Solomon Islands…[experienced a sudden] terrific roar.

The section of the boat [on which John F.] Kennedy was on stayed afloat [with] four other crewmembers….Kennedy, who had been on the Harvard swimming team, swam through the darkness to shouts, finding his badly burned engineer, McMahon. 

He coaxed and cajoled others not to give up, then towed McMahon a hundred yards back to the floating hulk identified by a crew member’s blinking light…

       “When daylight and noon came with no rescue, the group abandoned the sinking hulk. They swam to a small, deserted island, in the midst of larger islands with Japanese soldiers.

Nine of the crew held onto a two-by-six timber and kicked and paddled their way to the island.

Kennedy again towed McMahon, holding a strap from McMahon’s life preserver in his teeth…”

“‘Being a sensitive person, McMahon would have found the swim unbearable if he had realized that Kennedy was hauling him through three miles …of water with a bad back…

He could not see Kennedy but he could feel the tugs forward with each stretch of Kennedy’s shoulder muscles and could his hear his labored breathing…

He knew well his fate was at the end of [that] strap in Kennedy’s teeth.’”

     [4 hours later, the men reached the little island.]
“When early evening came with no sign of help,
Kennedy told the crew he would swim out into Ferguson Passage,
a mile and a half away, where PT boats usually patrolled after dark….

[Kennedy swam against shifting tides for hours, so exhausted he drifted in and out of consciousness, on the point of death. He knew enough to drop his shoes, but also was aware enough of the necessity of the lantern he had brought along.

[He shifted in and out sanity.

[He may have been in the water for 8 hours until miraculously he had drifted back within distance of the small island of his wrecked shipmates.

[He had survived a tightly clenched, cold, grueling night of survival and madness in search of rescue for his friends.]”[1]

 JFK’s reality-bending, wisdom shaping story of resurrection in the Solomon Straight involved grief’s self-examination and laid the groundwork for his growth in humanity as he aged.

John Kennedy was profoundly changed by this ordeal and challenge in the wilderness of the sea. It is the solitary ordeal in a wilderness that the hero is developed. “The Angel of Death was his companion.”[2]

Heroes are made by isolation and privation. In the privation and loving service to his mates that Kennedy endured, we witness the kind of relationship Scripture is reporting between Jonathan and David in our reading from 2 Samuel.

Kennedy has emerged from his isolation into heroism, and that heroism is overlain by the grief of loss of his shipmates in the dark Solomon sea.

          It is Kennedy’s moving from heroic challenge to the recognition of grief and suffering in others that prime his character to undertake the challenge of history—the challenge of loving rescue. 

      In the David story, we read,

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.

Some in this politicized and eroticized time have read this verse to suggest a homosexual relationship. I read no such thing, though I am heartened by this week’s Supreme Court decision on marital equality. I believe that this passage is consistent with though not analogous to the suitability of same-sex commitment based on the higher principles of servant-love.

The love of Jonathan and David is born out of shared experience,
in battle and in grief,
and it is born out of a shared, profound hope in Israel’s anointing God.

     I believe David’s love for Jonathan is something higher and more sublime than eroticism. I believe that the love of Jonathan and David is the love demonstrated by JFK with McMahon for whom he strained every muscle to save. Biblical Hebrew does not distinguish the character of love-types as the New Testament Greek does. I think we might look to the hierarchy of love in the New Testament and then we can perceive what David is getting at at elevating his love for Jonathan.

It was, I believe, a love born out of shared struggle and unconscious madness of grief.
In other words, the love that comes from knowing shared grief and dashed hopes from the seeming defeat or turning away of Israel's anointing God.

      I believe the movie caricature of the American sniper Chris Kyle does not know such grieving heroism and thus does not know such historical love. I suspect movie Kyle’s character suggests a lack of compassion and gravity, instead regarding with levity his killing reputation.[3]

 Kyle is not a hero acquainted with and shaped by self-reflective grief. 

        I wonder if Kyle was able to develop servant love relationships with comrades such as we find with Kennedy and McMahon, and with Jonathan and David. Kyle died too young to demonstrate the kind of growth in wisdom and lament as demonstrated by David and JFK.

       Kennedy was shaped by heroic grief and the active reach to the vulnerable in love.

       I’ve been reading about the back channel communication between John F Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Krushchev had earlier proposed the symbol of Noah’s Ark that Kennedy responded to as an image of peaceful coexistence. Krushchev noted that Noah took on all types of animals onto the ark, whether clean or impure, so as to save representatives of all species. JFK agreed that it was not important for humanity to determine whether the Americans were the clean animals on the ark, and the Soviets the impure, or vice versa.
What mattered is that humanity would be saved on the earth-ark of peace that JFK and Krushchev were negotiating under the most extreme of perils.
If either leader miscalculated his opponent’s intentions and moves for de-escalation, the earth could be burned in a nuclear holocaust.
       Krushchev, the representative of the Great Atheism, adopted the symbol of Noah’s Ark to promote a vision of peaceful coexistence with the Capitalist west.
The Roman Catholic JFK adopted this symbol, and according to Jim Douglass’s remarkable book, JFK and the Unspeakable, JFK was both in Vietnam and through nuclear disarmament seeking to end the cold war in the 12 months up to his assassination.
Together changed existentially by their glimpse into the abyss of a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis,
Krushchev and JFK bonded in this vision of peaceful coexistence to look to the end of the cold war.
      This shared existential change brought on by the glimpse into the abyss of war shaped them, like Jonathan and David who were the closest of friends, loving each other with a love beyond eroticism they had with women to go beyond to encompass what the New Testament calls agape. 
Agape is servant love, a love that serves without recompense and any expectation of reciprocity.
It is a higher, more divine expression of love than eros in the account of Biblical love (as Bishop Anders Nygren teaches us [5]). 
This love can only come from a compassion that has known heroic grief—grief that is developed in isolation: rejection and fear. 
It is a heroic love that strains every muscle and risks every injury for the sake of the beloved, for the sake of an understanding of God.  Jonathan and David were bonded in seeking God and seeking God's anointed approval. In this sharing, they display the deep humanity of trying to serve a God who does not need our service, just our devotion.
     A further dimension of this loving relationship posited by the lament over Jonathan by David is that
2 Sa 17 David 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.)
It is important to read this verse appropriately.
The translation that matters is that the “song of the bow” be taught to future generations.
Yet by the time of the Talmud in around 500 A.D., this translation has intended by some rabbis that Jews be taught not the song, but rather the “use” of the bow. 
The lament of David for Jonathan suggests that the instrument of war of bow and arrow are seen for a ritual of God-worship and cultural transformation. 
Yet later translators not personally knowing the heroism of grief and the lamenting love that flows from it callowly change the intention toward the violent and aggressive: to “Use” the bow rather than “sing” of it.
I believe this change contradicts the meaning of this lamenting poem from one of heroic grief that reaches out (like Kennedy and Kruschev) beyond violence to one of song. 
      Song. Think if political leaders sang rather than crowed and bloviated. President Obama rang out in song this past week in Charlottesville. He brought the wisdom of grace and God's sovereign use of tragedy for the good to the nation's attention. Obama displayed a religious heroism, I believe.
Heroes sing political songs—of war, yes, but of grief and sacrificial love and a vision of peace. 
As a society, we need more songs of lament and recollected love like the one which sings:
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!
Hear how David is lamenting the death of his king,
Saul, whom he believes was anointed by God, which is David’s first shock.
Yet there also is need to account for the death of Saul’s heir, Jonathan. Jonathan ends the line of anointed king, which is a double shock for David and Israel. 
Saul is dead, and Saul’s house and lineage is dead in Jonathan.
How is God operating in the world where this can happen?  we are meant to ask, like David.
We may not have loved Saul, but we need to meditate on how God could wipe out both his anointed King, and the anointed King’s children. 
God does that.  God kills his servants. God leaves unhealed wounds in our neighborhoods, which we are meant to heal with our compassion, outreach, and Gospel message. We recognize in this also the Christian experience--the spiritual wisdom of being left bereft by God so to take responsibility for God's movements for reconciliation.
      David is lamenting in his grief and his escape from battle dangers this very wisdom. Like our reading from Ecclesiastes this morning, the wisdom that God acts this way with his anointed leads to initial disorientation. It is a wisdom that does not lead to pragmatic value. 
This wisdom of God’s actions seems vain to accomplishing what David had hoped for in the battle with the Philistines. 
And this is where our readings this morning I think harmonize:
David takes to the song of lament to tie Jonathan’s death to his, David’s love.  The song of the bow and arrow is thus a song of the over-arching love that lives on in the memory of society that receives this text.
Jonathan is remembered and lamented in love. 
There is wisdom in that. 
But it is not a pragmatic wisdom of bettering our handling of hatred next time around.
It is not a wisdom that will bear fruit in future military victories.
The wisdom of heroes who have known utter loss is wisdom raised up from profound grief.
It is a wisdom that opens up the reservoirs of human goodness for increased social closeness and empathy—for agapenot for a pragmatic learning that develops new technologies and ethics of aggression and violence.
      As a society we confuse technical knowledge with wisdom. Chris Hedges writes, 

“Wisdom is not knowledge. Knowledge deals with the particular and the actual. Knowledge is the domain of science and technology. Wisdom is about transcendence. Wisdom allows us to see and accept reality, no matter how bleak that reality may be. It is only through wisdom that we are able to cope with the messiness and absurdity of life. Wisdom is about detachment…. Knowledge does not lead to wisdom. Knowledge is more often a tool for repression. Knowledge...manufactures abstract concepts of honor, glory, heroism, duty and destiny that buttress the power of the state, feed the disease of nationalism and call for blind obedience in the name of patriotism….To be wise is to pay homage to beauty, truth, grief, the brevity of life, our own mortality, love and the absurdity and mystery of existence. It is, in short, to honor the sacred.”[4]

         Snipers and drone operating systems mock wisdom, killing by cowards who conceal instead the reverence, recollection and humanity that otherwise might turn their grief and moral injury into cultural statements and rituals of hopefulness. 

      The Bible is a literary production of episodes of war and vengeance leavened by visions of a better future structured by sacrificial, other-giving agape love.
This is the wisdom of the Bible: that until war is ended, grief is endless, which is alienation from God.
The Bible recounts senseless deaths of soldiers who are unrecollected and unlamented in oblivion. 
Destiny of loss is thus the wisdom countering war’s incomprehensible and appalling history. 
       Eccl 1. 14 [sees] all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
    15      What is crooked cannot be made straight,
    and what is lacking cannot be counted.    …18      For in much wisdom is much vexation,
    and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
      It is in the terror that builds grieving heroes that the unconscious comes alive into an openness of heart and an openness of mind, not in the mutual admiration of stay-at-home elites or careerist bureaucratic sanctuaries of closed mindedness.
We would do well to place the wise who have known the grief of heroism into places of leadership.
Such heroism and wisdom might be found in abundance in the bullet-scarred grief at the Mother Emmanuel congregation in Charlottesville, SC.
Without their wisdom and experience in building reconciled neighborhoods and prayer teams, we as a society lose our way from the lessons we’ve claimed we’ve learned from the destructiveness of hatreds.
Heroes acquainted with grief, by their perseverance and empathy, lay victory over society’s mania for amnesiac violence.
     The god-fearing love of David for the fallen comrade Jonathan can be applied to embolden our sweetest claims on peace and wholeness: A love that is the beating heart of repentant faith and the imperative of long-sought justice.
May it be so for you and for me. 

[1] Douglass, James. JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. Touchstone, 2010, pp. 2-4.
[2] Ibid. p. 2.
[4] Our Mania for Hope Is a Curse.  Truthdig, May 24, 2015. Accessed on 27 June 2015 at
[5] Agape and Eros: A Study of the Christian Idea of Love. 1932/1969.

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