Rock Star—The David Saga, IV: Friend
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Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” —I Samuel 20:4
As soon as David had finished talking with Saul [about slaying Goliath], Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life, and Jonathan loved David as much as himself. From that point forward, Saul kept David in his service and wouldn’t allow him to return to his father’s household. And Jonathan and David made a covenant together because Jonathan loved David as much as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his armor, as well as his sword, his bow, and his belt. David went out and was successful in every mission Saul sent him to do. So Saul placed him in charge of the soldiers, and this pleased all the troops as well as Saul’s servants. After David came back from killing the Philistine, and as the troops returned home, women from all of Israel’s towns came out to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with tambourines, rejoicing, and musical instruments. The women sang in celebration: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands!” Saul burned with anger. This song annoyed him.
“They’ve credited David with tens of thousands,” he said, “but only credit me with thousands. What’s next for him—the kingdom itself?” So Saul kept a close eye on David from that point on. The next day an evil spirit from God came over Saul, and he acted like he was in a prophetic frenzy in his house. So David played the lyre as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand, and he threw it, thinking, I’ll pin David to the wall. But David escaped from him two different times. Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with David but no longer with Saul.
S ome stories of friendship almost get trampled in the night. Juliek was a young Polish violinist with eyeglasses and a pale face. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel met Juliek when the suffering and fear was still new and fresh, in the early days when he was first issued a blanket and a washbowl and a bar of soap and a safe job sorting small electrical parts with his father.
Juliek and Elie worked side by side, and became friends, humming well known tunes from their childhood that evoked the gentle waters of the Jordan river, a place so painfully distant from their present reality in what was not yet named the Holocaust.
Days and months went by, the friends side by side, until winter came and their friendship scattered to the wind. Elie and his father and all those named and unnamed with them were forced to march from here to there for days on end, the SS officers shouting words of encouragement through the snow, as Elie’s feet became so stiff and numb from the cold that they became invisible, disappearing into the pain of a forced march.
As they finally approached their destination, they came to small a shelter hardly large enough for everyone, and there was a final burst of energy to get out of the cold and into the small shed. Those too weak to get out of the way were pushed aside, trampled, or thrown to the ground. In that moment, Elie became breathless under the weight of other bodies, cold and tired and vigilant. Then Elie heard a familiar voice. Juliek. “You’re crushing me… have mercy.” Elie tried to get out of the way, but he was being crushed, too. He awoke later inside, not knowing. Did Juliek save Elie’s life, or did Elie save Juliek’s? Whose body still had strength left to push or pull or dislodge so that both could make it safely into the shelter of the small shed?
Juliek and Elie’s friendship could have easily not made it out of that winter night, out from under that pile of bodies too weak to push into the shed, out of that long night of suffering, out of the 10 years of silence that followed as Elie wondered how to speak his own story. Juliek and Elie’s uncomplicated friendship of shared suffering is like so many lifesaving friendships that never make it into the newspapers or archives or sweeping narratives of history.
Whether your friend literally saved your life, pulling you up and out from that dangerous place, or saved your life by hearing your story, trusting you, sharing the burden, being there, your friend’s legacy might not make it beyond the archives of your own diary.
Somehow, the story of David and Jonathan’s friendship survived for millennia. It is similar to Elie and Juliek, in that it is not a story of childhood innocence, but a friendship forged in the dappled sunlight of school yards or backyard barbeques.
Nor is this Ferris Bueller, class clown and menace to the community befriending melancholy, sensitive, rule-following Cameron Frye, and they steal his dad’s car to have dinner in the city kind. It is not that kind of coming of age story. Jonathan’s life becomes bound up with David’s while a slingshot and a handful of smooth stones still take up room in David’s pocket. Goliath’s body is still warm. Kingdoms are at war—the Israelites and the Philistines.
In fact, if you read the story of David and Goliath in chapter 17 alongside the story of David and Jonathan in chapter 18, it is entirely possible that Jonathan’s life becomes bound up with David while David is still holding Goliath’s head in his hands.
But unlike Elie and Juliek, who were victims of a system of violence still so unthinkable we hardly dare to imagine it, David and Jonathan are men on their way up, both with claim to the highest power in the land.
Monarchy is still new for the Israelites. There has only been one king and that is King Saul. This is the part of the story where the Israelites are made to sound like begging school children. “Everyone else has a monarchy,” they say to God, “can we have one too? Please, God, can we have a king?” Is monarchy working for Israel? Up to this point, it’s possible to say yes.
But this story of David and Jonathan’s friendship serves less to highlight the virtues of friendship, and more to zero in on the unraveling of Saul (Jonathan’s father), the possibilities of a failing monarch, all making room for David to sweep in and save the day. Jonathan ends up spending most of his friendship with David trying to keep his dad from killing his best friend. That is one of the most intense kinds of friendship—the king, your father, wants your best friend, David, killed.
Jonathan could have seen David’s rise to power as a threat to his status as next in line to the throne. Jonathan could have let his father self-destruct, and let his father take David down with him, leaving Jonathan in power. Jonathan had a choice as to how he was going to let David’s success affect his leadership. And Jonathan takes that more risky, more complicated route. Jonathan spends the next two chapters hiding David, helping David escape, praying blessing for David, going to bat for David against his father Saul. In fact, at one point, Saul throws a spear at his own son Jonathan as Jonathan is asking “Dad, what did David do that has created such anger in you?” It is a costly friendship, a costly loyalty. And, Jonathan has no guarantee that any of this will work out in his favor.
Saul, on the other hand, gets angry. Saul gets so angry about David’s success that he burns with anger. Maybe you know that feeling—a slow burn that wells up inside you and you can’t let it go. Maybe Saul has a right to be angry. You can almost envision the highlight reel, a Rocky training montage in which David battles larger and larger opponents to prove his military prowess. Verse five compresses time and boils down days and days of battle into one sentence, helping us to see David’s rise to power. Saul’s son Jonathan pledges his love to David, the troops love David, and now Saul’s servants are pleased too, verse five reads. And then comes Saul’s anger. David comes home from one last battle, and as the women come out to greet the men who are coming home victorious, and the women sing a mocking victory song, “Saul has killed thousands, but David tens of thousands.” I have a feeling it was a catchy tune, too. Weekly top 40. Annoyed, burning with rage, in a death-dealing fury, Saul sets out to kill David. The David Saga has enough save intrigue and murderous subterfuge that Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Tarantino would feel sufficiently at home adapting it to film. But by the end of this passage, Saul is afraid of David because Saul knows the truth: God is with David and no longer with Saul.
We don’t talk this way very much in Christian community: that God favors one person over another person. We talk more about God’s love covering everyone, God’s presence being available to all. And we do talk about sensing that God has no longer called us to do xyz—yes?—that we’ve had a good run doing things the way we’ve been doing them, but God seems to be nudging us toward change.
It begs the question: how do we deal with failure, theologically? How do we talk about what we hoped would happen, vs. the disappointment that actually happened? Do we ask, “God, where were you?” as the psalmist does? Do we say, “Maybe I should have listened to God?” as we do in our prayers of confession? Do we cry out, “Why didn’t I know it would turn out this way, O God?” as we do in our prayers of lament? The Christian tradition does offer ways to deal with failure, do we turn to these spiritual practices when we need them?
With Saul, we are seemingly at once urged by the way it is narrated to feel sorry for him and to want to shake him awake to open his eyes, to say, “Saul, look, David can help you, David can do this with you, David’s success does not need to mean your downfall.”
Maybe you’ve known someone like Saul? Someone who let things get under his skin, and it derailed him? Someone who could have looked at things with a better attitude, could have played nice in the sandbox, could have had a change of heart, but she chooses the path of self-destruction instead? I’ve seen it happen. And the whole time, no matter what you say, you can’t help the person see that they are getting in their own way. It does beg the question, “how do we keep our eyes open for God at work in our failures, in our weakness, in our own stubborn inability to listen?”
It’s hard to say what the good news here is, concerning Jonathan and David’s friendship. On the one hand, the good news is that David has Jonathan. Friendship is a saving grace. Jonathan literally saves David’s life over and over again. On the other hand, Jonathan’s dad is trying to kill his best friend. There’s not much good news in that at all.
I am grateful to scripture stories like this, actually. Where the good news comes amid the stickiest of situations. I think our life is more often like that, good news interspersed in the real-life struggle of family and impossibility. Our salvation is worked out in a non-linear fashion, where we were once lost and now we are found. I think we are lost and found, lost and found over and over again.
Today is World Communion Sunday. All over the world, people are coming to the table again, some for the first time, yes, but most people for the hundredth time, or the two hundredth time or the three hundredth time, seeking again and again that sense of God’s good news in the midst of the messiness of our human lives.
None of us have our lives wrapped up in a nice neat bow. Sometimes we try to make it seem as if our lives are tied up with a neat little bow to hide the mess going on behind the scenes. And, every time God knows the struggle that hides below the glimmering surface. That is why God gives us friends. Friends are the ones to whom we can reveal those deeper sorrows, the unkempt parts of our lives, the failures, the honest mistakes, the places where we needed things to go another way, but they didn’t, the places where things went so wrong and we haven’t been able to tell anyone, and yet your friend was there. Your friend, the one saved your life, in the midst of the mess, with no guarantee on how it was going to turn out in the end.
May the bread of heaven be for you, for us, a way toward strengthening the connection to God who binds us together with our friends, and may God be, at this table of welcome, a friend to each of us, through the silent messiness of life. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Wiesel, Elie, Night. New York: Hill And Wang, 2006.