Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from August 12, 2012
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Sermon for August 12, 2012
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
2 Sam. 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ps. 130; Eph. 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
The Hero’s Tale and the Soul’s Journey
My favorite novel begins with these words: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”1
We’ve explored the story of King David in some classic biblical ways. As Israel’s greatest king, yet deeply flawed, he is an opportunity to consider the ambiguities and risks with human rulers. It is the story of the corruption of power and its consequences extending beyond the immediate players. It is a moral tale of reckoning, repentance and forgiveness.
But another angle that may be useful to us is that his story in many ways is a classic hero’s tale, the kind of archetypal mythology that tells us something about the universal human experience. Because even if you and I do not happen to be heroes in the grand sense of redeeming society, we still have to take that journey inside ourselves, spiritually and psychologically.2 This is the move of inner transformation. Myths are important because they tell us of the human psyche. The mythical journey of the hero is the journey of the human soul.
In the passage from Samuel we just heard, David experiences some of the deepest and most devastating losses a human being can face: the betrayal and death of his son. We’ve had many chapters since David’s adultery and murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Nathan’s confrontation of David, and David’s acknowledgement “I have sinned against the Lord” that we heard last week. Life goes on for David. Briefly, David and Bathsheba’s first child dies, Bathsheba bears David another son, Solomon. David’s son Absalom is distraught and angry at the rape of his sister Tamar by her half brother Ammon, and angry at David for his refusal to deal with Ammon, and Absalom has Ammon killed. Absalom flees. He eventually returns, but then he revolts against his father the king. (This all happened this past week).David and his son come to battle in the Wood of Ephraim. Absalom is caught by his hair in the branches of an oak. Despite having received explicit instructions from David that they are to “deal gently with his son Absalom, David’s henchman Joab kills Absalom as he hangs there. When the news of the victory is brought to David, he does not rejoice, but is instead shaken with grief: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Just to briefly complete the story, David eventually becomes old and bedridden, and Adonijah, his eldest surviving son and natural heir, declares himself king. Bathsheba, David’s favorite wife, and Nathan the prophet, fearing that they will be killed by Adonijah, go to David and procure his agreement that Solomon, Bathsheba’s son, should sit on the throne. And so the plans of Adonijah collapse, and Solomon becomes king. David dies and is buried in the City of David, having ruled forty years over Israel, seven in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem.
So there in summary we have the big events in David’s life. We could write his resume, even the things he himself might prefer to leave off.
But let’s look at his story from the standpoint of the hero’s tale. For that tale is not concerned so much with events, but with the journey of the soul. This is a journey we are each called to make.
Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,3 takes the heroic tale from the classic mythologist Joseph Campbell and outlines the stages of the journey for us. In one way or another, they are stages in our journey too.
1. “The hero/heroine lives in a world they presently take as given and sufficient.” David was a shepherd boy, plucked from obscurity by the prophet Samuel seeking the next one to be anointed. We don’t know what David was thinking, but becoming king of all Israel is not likely to have been in his plans. So first, there is a leaving. This may or may not be a physical move, but often it is. It is the stepping away of the comfortable and the familiar. This happens most obviously when we go from being a teenager to an adult. But it also happens, perhaps less obviously, at many times in our lives. We have some place, a situation. It may be far from ideal, but it is comfortable and familiar.
2. So the archetypal heroine has the “call to leave home for an adventure of some type, not really to solve any problem, but just to go out and beyond her present comfort zone.” David finds himself battling Goliath and becomes the leader of the Israelites. Sometimes this new place is a choice, and we choose it or not. Sometimes we are forced out by circumstances, made to leave the comfortable and the familiar, into new territory. Loss of a job, or the death or illness of a loved one, or a new opportunity in a new place. This is a classic biblical tale. Recall that God tells Abraham and Sarah that they must “go to the land that I will show to you.” They must first leave everything that they know. Jesus, after his baptism, is driven into the wilderness. Baptism is not so much about becoming a member of a group or welcomed into a family. it is about being sent.
3. On this journey or adventure the hero in fact finds his real problem. They are almost always wounded in some way and encounter a major dilemma, and the whole story pivots around the resolution of that dilemma. “There is always a wounding, and the wounds become sacred. This is the meaning of the wounds of Jesus! The world is opened up, and the screen becomes much larger.” (Rohr). It is in his kingship that David confronts his real problem. David’s real problem that we see has to do with the corruption of power, losing himself in the image as king, trying to keep the private man and the public man separate. Think of the “king” as the ego self, the “I” that would isolate and separate ourselves from others. David personifies an awareness of his outer life and ignorance of his inner life. He knows the story on the surface, but not the story underneath it. His wounds are apparent at the end of today’s reading. “O Absolom, my son, my son!” We too have outer challenges, and all too often don’t ask ourselves what what the real dilemma, what the real work is underneath the visible challenge. We’re unemployed. The real challenge is our sense of who we are. We’re working away on something and realize we’ve become disconnected from people who are important to us. Or we are working away on something and realize there’s no soul in it for us at all.
4. The first task, which the hero or heroine thinks is the only task, is only the warm-up act to get him or her to the real task. He or she “falls through” her life situation to find his or her real life, which is always a much deeper river hidden beneath appearances. (Rohr.) With David it is the working out of the public and the private man, living faithfully before God. Not getting stuck in his mistake, but living with it and working through the consequences as faithfully as he can. Perhaps David’s greatest gift was in his understanding that he had not been abandoned by God, and the expansion of his heart. No mistake or error sets us permanently off the soul’s path. But we ourselves can choose to stop there, and some do. They live their lives from that point on ridden with guilt, or having declared themselves a victim, or stuck in a cycle of resentment. They become so caught up in the story that they identify with it, and to let it go feels like death. In fact, it is holding onto this story — of victimization or woundedness or guilt — that is the real death. This is why forgiveness is so central to the Christian life. We can’t move on without it. Remember that the risen Christ had wounds; he showed them to Thomas. Coming up from our wounds is resurrection.
5. The hero or heroine then returns home and ‘knows the place for the first time.”4 The hero or heroine finds life energy, which can be shared with others. That gift is to be passed on to others, or there is no gift at all. (Rohr). There is a life force in this journey, this is how we know it is true. Think of Candace Lightner. On three separate occasions two of her children were injured and one was killed by drunk drivers. Three children, two injuries and a death. If that doesn’t flatten you I don’t know what would. And she goes on to found Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Perhaps you have experienced how your own woundedness has opened you to empathy, which turns around to be a great gift to others.
This is about understanding the hero/heroine as one who takes the inner journey of transformation, taps into life energy and then gives it back again. Rohr says “Most people confuse their life situation with their real life, which is an underlying flow beneath the stream of events.” This is what being “the hero of our own life” we are called to be, to know that underlying flow and to follow it, not to serve ourselves, but to serve the world. And we each are given our own unique capacity to do that, right here and now, whatever our life circumstances.
It is helpful to all of us to examine our inner journeys.
When have you stepped out — or been pushed out — of your comfort zone, away from the familiar?
What was the apparent problem that was the grist, and what was the real soul work of transformation underneath it? Where and what are your wounds? You may know exactly what they are, or they may be more subtle. What do you do with your wounds? Where have you found new life?
And, how do we know what is our soul’s journey? Because it is always, always, leading to an opening – sometimes a breaking open — of the heart. It is always in the direction of compassion. It always leads to a greater understanding of our connections. If you are feeling bitter, isolated, if your heart is shriveling, you’re going in the wrong direction, or your stuck someplace. No mistake or error sets us outside this journey (look at David!) but our response to that mistake can, if we don’t open ourselves to what it has to teach us. This journey of the opening of the heart isn’t complicated. It isn’t an intellectual exercise. But it often takes a hero’s courage.
We need reminding over and over that we don’t do this alone. The soul’s journey is held in the embrace of God. That is why Jesus tells us and teaches us over and over again not to be afraid, to “be still and know that I am God,” and that he is our bread of life, our bread for the journey. What is that bread all about?
Come next week, and we’ll talk about that. Amen.
1. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.
2. Bill Moyers, in The Power of Myth, Jospeh Campbell with Bill Moyers (New York: Doubleday, 1988); 124.
3. San Francisco: Josse-Bass, 2011.
4. T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, quoted in Rohr.