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When the Mighty Fall

July 2, 2012

“When the Mighty Fall” 2 Samuel 1:1-27 © 7/1/12 Ordinary 13B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

As we all know, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted recently on 45 of the 48 counts against him. He will be likely be sentenced in September, after hearings in which his victims may tell about the impact Sandusky’s actions have had on their lives. He faces well over 400 years in prison, which of course would mean the 68 year-old would spend the rest of his life in jail.

Sandusky is just the latest in a long line of high-profile people to be involved in scandal and/or caught in wrongdoing. We remember the spectacle of John Edwards on trial for misuse of campaign funds. The federal government lost that case, in which they were trying to prove Edwards was a criminal and not merely a reprehensible, loathsome sinner for his treatment of his wife and family and his denial of a child with Rielle Hunter. The two have now broken up by mutual agreement, by the way, in the wake of her tell-all memoir. Hunter is also despised, but as someone has observed, at least she’s famous, which is all that matters these days (Michelle Cottle, “What You Can Learn from John Edwards and Rielle Hunter”; see note 1 for link.)

And before that…. Well, just think back. There always seems to be some sensational case involving a celebrity, a sports figure, a politician, a prominent physician or preacher. When I preached last on this text way back in 1994, O.J. Simpson was the latest figure to have fallen. That was also around the time of the Bill Clinton’s troubles with Paula Jones.

The morning’s text, of course, has to do with the demise of a king and his son in battle. Those two were not involved in scandal or in any shady dealings, but in seeking to protect Israel from its perennial enemies the Philistines. Once again the battle had been lost, and King Saul and Prince Jonathan were dead on the heights of Mt. Gilboa, along with two of Saul’s other sons. Yes, Saul had been paranoid, melancholy, and ultimately ineffective, but he had also given Israel hope for freedom and a kingdom at peace and worthy of respect. David’s relationship with him had been complex, to say the least. As for Jonathan, he and David had covenanted with each other to stay as close as brothers. Yet Jonathan stuck by his father, even given that agreement and his frequent arguments with Saul about Jonathan’s loyalty to his “bro,” as we would say today.

Still, despite the great differences in context and circumstances, the story we heard gives us some clues about how to handle times of national and community loss and pain when previously revered leaders are revealed even to be predatory monsters. One option is to rejoice at the downfall of someone who has committed a crime or is an enemy of the nation or “merely” has acted unethically and abused the privileges and power of office. This was the reaction of the Philistines when they heard of Saul and Jonathan’s demise. Probably someone brought their armor or shields back to Ashkelon or Gath, key cities of the Philistines. There was dancing in the streets. If they had had guns, they would have fired them into the air in celebration. If they had had fireworks, they would have sent them flying.

In a word, this is the “gloat” approach. Those who see an opportunity to advance themselves, even for a short time, their 15 minutes of fame, seize upon these sorts of cases. A rival politician takes advantage of another leader’s gaffe and milks it for all it’s worth to make the other man or woman look out of touch or incompetent. A group of people get together and undermine the work of the struggling pastor or the church council, and they split a church for the sake of advancing their regressive agenda or their own power. An attorney or a writer uses a tragic case for personal gain and fame.

A sports columnist wrote about the scene after the Sandusky conviction: “It was all so surreal Friday night, what should have been a sober and solemn moment turned into an election-night rally at courthouse headquarters in Bellefonte, Pa. A girl mugged for the cameras. A crowd that had gathered on the courthouse steps in T-shirts and shorts cheered when the verdict was announced. There was the usual cry of ‘Can you hear me?’ as the losers and the victors stepped to the microphone-soaked podium. There were the endless speeches of congratulation and self-congratulation with suited stragglers in the back hoping for a little television face time” ((Buzz Bissinger, “Why Did the Lawyers’ Post–Sandusky Conviction Comments Shield Penn State From Shame?”; see note 2 for link).

The Amalekite scavenger who brought the news of Saul’s death expected David to gloat. He took David for an opportunist. The presumptive new king would be glad to have in hand the symbols of royal power. He would give the man a job in his new court or at least reward him handsomely for bringing good news. So the messenger must have been surprised when his only reward was to hear a line like the one from Alice in Wonderland: “Off with his head!”

The story does not commend gloating. But neither will it support gawking. Again, note the condemnation of spreading the news by the media of the day. “Tell it not in Gath,” David cries. How often do we in this nation turn these trials and criminal cases into entertainment? We want to know every little juicy detail; we sit glued to the screen, whether TV or computer, and await the next sordid revelation. Even if our gawking turns to grimacing, we are enthralled. It’s like watching a train wreck. Despite the scene of suffering, we cannot turn away.

No, what this tale finally calls us to do is engage in what Walter Brueggemann and others have termed the practice of public grief. By that these scholars mean the acknowledgement and processing of hurts felt not by isolated individuals, but by a community, a nation, a people. It’s an expression of sorrow in the face of the loss of beauty, loveliness, and possibility in the public sphere, as those qualities are replaced and ravaged by ugliness, despair, and the sense of the inevitability of the triumph of evil. David’s grief was genuine and personal, whatever his differences with the king. But he was also speaking for the nation, because he knew that any loss of a leader diminishes the entire community. Unlike the women of Gath, the daughters of Israel were to weep over Saul.

Cases like Sandusky’s and Edwards’ and others in our recent history call us to ask about the values and commitments of our nation and our institutions and grieve when they are found wanting. As the sports columnist put it about the trial outcome: “Everybody was having fun, too much fun, when there wasn’t a…thing fun or funny about what had just happened. This wasn’t a time to cheer. This wasn’t a time for endless speeches saying nothing. This was a time to mourn. This was a time to feel the same disgust we originally felt last November when the grand jury report detailing the sexual-abuse horrors of former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was first made public.

“This was a time to express more outrage at Penn State than ever, given the new details emerging of an even more massive cover-up, all in the name of preserving a game called football with no academic purpose and no reason to exist on any college campus with the power that it does and the lifetime immunity it provides to too many within it”

Or as one commentator writes: “A story such as this one calls us to examine our own loyalties and behavior. In a society that often admires and rewards self-interested behavior, we are summoned in this story to witness David’s righteous anger on behalf of the community’s loss and in loyalty to God’s anointed one—even when this loss might bring him personal advantage. Do we still have the capacity to become righteously angry over violations of community as over violations of our personal ambitions? Are we prepared to grieve the loss of the community’s authority and integrity as well as over our own?” (Bruce C. Birch, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II: 1203).

We have become such a nation of insulated, isolated people that sometimes I wonder if we have lost completely our sense of community, except in times of disaster. In the routine times, do we say “Ain’t it awful” and go about our business, thinking that crimes perpetrated by others do not indict us or our society? Or as priests for our nation, do we mourn the way the powerful prey on the vulnerable, who are often rendered voiceless; how money matters more than morality; how the system takes so long to act; and getting what you can get is the expectation and the rule? We grieve our personal losses. Will we also learn from David to give voice to lament over our national losses when the mighty fall?

Note 1: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/27/what-you-can-learn-from-john-edwards-and-rielle hunter.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_morning&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_morning&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet

Note 2: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/25/why-did-the-lawyers-post-sandusky-conviction-comments-shield-penn-state-from-shame.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_morning&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_morning&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet

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