There’s a passage in a novel that I think about when I preach these days. It’s from Marilynne Robinson’s book, Lila. The main character says to the preacher, she says: “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something” (34).
That’s what I feel like when I get up here, and say something about whatever Bible passages we’re supposed to read today. These words mean something. This story means something. This life here, on this page, means something. All of it is meaningful, full of meaning, for us, somehow.
What does it all mean? What does David mean for us? His sins and sorrows, his prayers and songs?
Last week I was over at Danny and Kate’s house and we saw an incredible rainbow out the window. It was almost a double rainbow. We stared at it for a while, then they started talking about the double rainbow guy, a social media sensation that I had no idea about. So they showed me the video on YouTube, a video that has been watched over 40 millions times—basically by everyone except me. The guy in the video records a stunning double rainbow in Yosemite National Park, and during the three minutes of footage, you can hear laugh and weep, totally awestruck by the rainbow, and he says, again and again, What does it mean? What does this mean? What can this mean?
We want to live in a world full of meaning, where our lives have meaning, where we mean something to someone—for our work, for our relationships, for our lives to mean something, anything, to another: to a co-worker, to a friend, to ourselves, to God.
What does it mean, our lives?
Here’s the passage from Lila again, which I have in the back of my mind when I get up here and say things to you: “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something.”
On his deathbed, David says to Solomon: “I am about to go the way of all the earth” (2:1). David is at his end, his last days, and he’s worried about the meaning of his life. He calls his son to his bedside, his son Solomon, the heir to David’s throne, and tells him how to carry on the kingdom, how to carry out David’s legacy, his life’s work. And it’s just so sad, so pathetic. Such a sad passage.
There he is, David, shivering in his bed, so cold that they find a young woman to sleep with him, to warm his body, to arouse him, but it’s no use (1 Kings 1:1-4), and he’s worried about his power, all he can think about is power, his potency, the world he has fashioned and now passes on to his son, Bathsheba’s son. David can’t let go of his power. He can’t let go of it, even as he’s dying, so he schemes with his son about the future, about the future of the kingdom, about what David’s life and legacy will mean for the generations to come, how the power David has amassed over the years will now flow through Solomon, his heir, his seed, the symbol of David’s life beyond the grave.
So David passes on his laundry list of retributions, of political assassinations, to keep the world just like it is, a stable kingdom without all the people David has grudges against. Remember Joab, David tells Solomon, “do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace.” And don’t forget Shimei, he says, “You know what you ought to do to him: you must bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.”
When I read David’s last words, before he dies, I hear them in the voice of Marlon Brando in The Godfather—Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the Corleone mafia, telling his sons how to settle the score, how to consolidate power for the family. My son, David the Godfather says, get rid of Joab and Shimei; I don’t care how you do it.
That’s what David talks about as he dies, his last words, his commissioning of Solomon. Then, it says, “Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David” (2:10).
Again, Lila: “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something.”
What does David, this story about David, mean?
Part of the meaning for us, I think, has to do with power, how there’s a sinister dimension to the machinations of power, the scheming and plotting, the coercion and violence hidden within the maneuvering of the powerful. And the Bible does not shy away from the ruthlessness of power. The storytellers don’t shy away from what’s hidden underneath the facades, all that’s hidden inside the lives of the powerful—the selfishness and lust, the anger and fear, desires that infect all of our lives, even if we don’t have the positions of power to act on them, as David did.
We are not like David, for obvious reasons, but we are also like David, because we are all awash with the same human desires, the same temptations, the same appetite for sin. We are like David, and his life is a warning to us, a warning against our temptations to power, to coercion, to take what we want no matter the consequences, no matter the collateral damage, no matter who we might hurt.
That’s one part of what David means for us. He exposes what lies dormant in the hearts of all of us, and this scene at his deathbed is a warning of how such a life ends, not in peace, not with friends at his side, but with a cold man worried about the legacy of his power, an unquenchable desire to shape the future, his last words full of revenge and violence.
Here’s another part of what his life means to us, or, maybe this is what he means to me. When I read this story, of David’s life and death, his life as series of griefs, as Catherine said last week—if David’s life is a series of griefs, until the end, then I wonder about what it means to get to know his brokenness, to get to know him as someone full of hurt who also hurts others, to see in him our world, David as the world in a person, in a complicated and confused life.
“I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he says to Solomon. At the end, when we see his life, we see the ways of all the earth, a life looking for meaning.
All of us are trying to figure out what we’re here to do, in this life, in this body we’ve been given, in our relationships, in our work, in our neighborhoods.
You lose you job, you get a new job, and it means something. You have a child, you don’t have a child, and it means something. You fall in love, you fall out of love, and it means something. Someone dies, someone is born, and it means something.
We’re always trying to figure out what this life is all about, what we’re supposed to be doing with ourselves, with what we’ve been given, with what we’ve chosen.
When these questions started coming to my mind this week as I was thinking about David, I decided I needed to watch a movie again. Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. The film is about people trying to love but failing and hurting one another all along the way, which reminds me of David.
In the film, there’s a man, played by Javier Bardem, who wanders through the lives of people full of despair, heartbroken people, people stuck in tragedies, and he’s always praying to God, prayers of desolation, of searching for God, for signs of God, signs of hope, signs of love.
“Everywhere you are present,” he prays, “and still I can’t see you… How long will you hide yourself?… My soul thirsts for you. Will you be like a stream that dries up? Why do you turn your back? All that I see is destruction. Failure. Ruin.”
And with these words, with these prayers, he keeps himself open to God, to love, to being surprised by God, surprised by love, even in the destruction and failure, God in the ruins of his own life and the lives of others.
At the end of the move, Javier Bardem’s character prays the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in the heart.”
That’s the promise of the gospel—that God will surprise us with love, despite our failures to love, even in the ruins, in the broken parts, love surprising us again and again.
That’s part of what’s so moving to me about Communion, about Jesus giving life to us through this bread. We break it, we destroy it, we ruin it, we tear it into pieces, crushed pieces. Jesus comes to us in the fragments, in the fragments of a life. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” Jesus says (v. 51). “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (v. 56).
God comes to us in the pieces, in the fragments, torn and broken, but life for us—life in us, as we gather together and open ourselves to be surprised by love, the love here, the love we have for one another, God’s love in us, all around us, and God’s love surprising us wherever we go. Because God is already there.
Again, from Lila: “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something.”
When we eat this bread, it means something. It means that God has given us love, in crumbs, in broken fragments, here now and everywhere. And when we eat this bread, we receive God’s love so that we may become love, that we may be filled with God’s love, broken yet alive, full of God’s life.