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August 8, 2021

Sermon from Lea Mahan:

     “Between Heaven and Earth”

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

The title of this sermon is “Between Heaven and Earth.”  As you listen to the scripture reading, you may find yourself wondering why I’ve chosen to preach on this text, and I wouldn’t blame you.  It is odd and confusing at the least and a little bit grisly at the worst.  But, if you’ll bear with me, we’ll find some meaning in it. 

The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”  And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim.  The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men.  The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

Absalom happened to meet the servants of David.  Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak.  His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on…

And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him…

Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king!  For the lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”  The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”  The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

            So, as you may or may not know, the whole story of Old Testament King David’s reign is a winding, eccentric and violent tale.  If you go back and read all of the book of 2nd Samuel leading up to today’s text, you will find all those things to be true. 

And so, here we are in the middle of today’s episode, right smack in another one of David’s messes.  In this extremely dysfunctional family, the latest drama is that David’s throne has been threatened by his own son, Absalom.  Now, for whatever wild and illogical reasons, David is now needing to fight his own son and his son’s army to reclaim his throne.  But as you heard in the reading, David and his army DO end up being victorious, but this victory has come at a very great cost.

            One scene is described to us in great detail.  David’s adult son Absalom who has been threatening to take his throne has been defeated.  Then we see Absalom coming onto the stage, riding his mule under the thick branches of a great oak tree.  Suddenly his head becomes caught in the tree while his donkey runs away.  Absalom is left hanging, caught between heaven and earth, we’re told…held between heaven and earth.

We might have hoped that, because David had requested his troops to treat his son with gentleness, that they would have saved him, but soon some of the pro-David forces show up and kill Absalom…who was caught between heaven and earth. 

But, we the listeners, know a little of David’s story, and we can know that David, too, has been caught between heaven and earth.  He is caught between answering his divine calling because he has the potential for that, and following his obsessive, self-centered quest for power.  He wants all the might of a political giant and, yet, after he has inspired his troops to go to battle against Absalom and his army, David decides he wants his son spared.  He thinks he can be both a faithful father AND a warrior who lets nothing get in his way.

This, my friends, is an illustration of the Human Dilemma.  We all want both the privileges of being the entitled people that we are, while, at the same time, we want to claim that we care about the whole human family. 

For example, we want our children to have the best education while, at the same time, say that we support all public education.  We want the best services in our part of the city, yet turn a blind eye to the rest of the run-down parts that can’t get service or care. 

Another example, a very current example of this, is systemic racism.  We rightly claim that we have had nothing to do with the enslavement of people of color, nor the Jim Crow laws nor the Ku Klux Klan’s activities, nor the lynching of innocent people, nor the bombing of black churches, nor the horrendous shootings and murder of black folk, yet we, through the legislation in our states and our inaction as individuals and states and nation, support the laws and court decisions that make our elections and prison policies and court systems even more racist.

Is that not being caught between heaven and earth: hanging between the vision of God for God’s people and the practicalities of our earthly, human existence, all the while asking what’s in it for us?

This is the dilemma of our human existence.  This dilemma is the difficult place to which Jesus calls us.  It’s not comfortable to sit here.  It’s not where the world says we could be.  In fact, the world would let us off the hook, the world would pat us on the head and say, “Of course you have to take care of yourself.  You can’t be worrying your little heads about everything.”  But not Jesus.  He calls us to a higher place.  He calls us to pursue God’s vision for us.

David had chosen a course in which being victorious was everything to him, but that turned out to have too great a cost.  Too late he realized the gravity of his mistake.  His cry of anguish at the end of the reading is heart-rending.  “O my son, my son Absalom.  Would that I had died instead of him….”  David’s decision cost him everything that meant anything.

There are times when we need to make a decision, we need to choose, because the danger of hanging between heaven and earth is that we think we can get out of being responsible for anything but our own pleasure and well-being.  So we end up taking ourselves off the hook for our decisions and actions. 

We good Christians may declare who we want to be, but unless we place our intention and energy and actions there, it is very hard to walk our talk.  Are we willing to risk our privilege and wealth to help make God’s vision come alive on this earth?  Really, God doesn’t demand that we choose between heaven and earth, but, rather, that we live as people who believe that our lives “on earth should look like it does in heaven.”

Nor should we get ourselves in the position of choosing politics over faith because, when we do, we will inevitably find ourselves hanging in the tree, between heaven and earth, caught in the impossible dilemma of trying to rationalize a life in which some of God’s people get hurt by some of God’s people. 

This is not to say that we should not weigh in on current events.  It is to say that a higher authority exists and that higher authority is no human being, no politician.  God is our witness and our Higher Power. 

So, Christians, let’s align ourselves with those who want to help all the people, not just some.  Let’s align ourselves with Jesus who tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it, to love others as we love ourselves.  Christians, let’s join with those who walk their talk.

All this said, I know this is not easy.  We will find ourselves selling out sometimes.  We will find ourselves cowering in the corner sometimes.  We will find ourselves rationalizing wrong behavior sometimes.  We will find ourselves ignoring what’s right sometimes.  We will find ourselves being quiet when we should speak out sometimes.  We will find ourselves running off at the mouth when we should be being quiet…sometimes. 

But let’s not hang ourselves between heaven and earth, selling out our Higher Selves, our Gospel selves.  Let’s live our lives here on earth as it is in heaven…  Let’s choose the Gospel way; let’s choose the Jesus Way.

…One example of trying to be our Gospel selves is the Staycation Mission Day that just happened yesterday.  It, since its inception what? 15 years ago, has been led and planned by Loretta who puts together a mighty team.  They came out yesterday to do yard work at OPEN M.  Later they cooked for Family Promise.  Good job team!

Now, for the rest of us, other responses to this sermon can be actions such as this or they can be small, everyday witnesses to God’s love in the world.  We’re here, not to defend every little part of our lives, not to act as if we’re perfect and every choice we make is righteous.  We’re here only to show love and compassion, not just to those who are like us, but to all God’s people, most especially the downtrodden and the little ones.  No one is taking anything away from us when we show love and compassion.  We are simply giving glory to God.  Thanks be to God.