"deliver us from evil."

please note: this was my sermon preached sunday, june 28.

One of the best sci-fi films ever is Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn. It has a powerful combination of great performances, writing, and direction, like any other great movie; but what makes it an all-time best is its understanding of the human condition. The best of sci-fi stories are commentary of the culture we live in—often the stories take place in the future, but if we look past the blasters and space ships we see much of ourselves there. The film opens with a training exercise, the Kobiashi-Maru test. It is a no-win scenario, designed for captain trainees to encounter death and react to it. It is a test of character more than anything else. After the trainee’s decisions cause much of the ship and the crew to be destroyed, you hear the word, “Lights.” A door opens, and Admiral James T. Kirk walks through the door. The trainee seeks to justify her decisions, and Kirk, explaining the test’s purpose, says, “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life. Wouldn’t you agree?” “No,” she says, “I’ve never considered it.” “Well,” Kirk replies, “Now you have something to think about. Carry on.” At the end of the film, Kirk himself must face the death of his closest friend, and we see that even he struggles to listen to his own words. Death is a reality all of us do our best to ignore, postpone, or dismiss.

David, like Kirk, encountered death many times during his lifetime, but never as he did with the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. As a boy he fought bears and lions protecting his sheep. Later, he defeated the greatest champion of his nation’s worst enemy, Goliath of the Philistines. He became a great soldier, a leader in battle, a skilled general. His popularity with the soldiers and people was tremendous. Even King Saul, at least in the early days before jealousy set in, loved David. When Saul sought to destroy him, David remained loyal to his king. David’s best friend was Jonathan, Saul’s son, and Israel’s crown prince. The two enjoyed a relationship that had deep roots, grounded in loyalty and commitment to each other. As 1 Samuel 18 tells us, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Jonathan was so devoted to David that he gave him his own robe, armor, belt, bow, and sword, a symbolic endorsement of David’s future role as king and a relinquishing of Jonathan’s own future as heir to Saul. Last week I mentioned the TV show Kings, a modern rendering of the stories of Saul and David. One problem I have with the show is how the relationship between David and Jonathan, or “Jack” as he is called on the show, is portrayed. They are rivals—Jonathan hungering for power and acceptance. It makes for good TV, but destroys a beautiful friendship as it is portrayed in the Bible and eliminates one of the overall story’s greatest components.

Saul is often portrayed as a tragic figure, one full of promise but who ultimately failed. His downfall is always set against David’s greatness. But it is easy to forget Saul’s accomplishments. With very few personal relationships, little spiritual advice, and always confronting the overwhelming opposition of the powerful Philistines, Saul came to power at a time when Israel had no collective identity. He scored many victories of Israel’s enemies, established a standing army, and laid a foundation for the future of the country. When he died on Mount Gilboa along with his sons, including Jonathan, he was surrounded by his enemies. Mortally wounded, he fell upon his own sword, rather than have Israel face the humiliation of seeing their king exploited by the Philistines. His armor and his body, plus the bodies of his sons, were taken by the Philistines, and displayed as trophies. The men of Jabesh-gilead, whom Saul had protected against the Ammonites years before, reclaimed the bodies and gave them proper burials. While Saul certainly had his flaws, often acting out of ignorance and even hatred, he still was God’s anointed king, worthy of respect and honor. David never forgot that.

Upon hearing the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, David mourns extensively. He has seen death before in the pasture and on the battlefield, but not like this. Animals and enemies are killed, fellow soldiers die, but Saul and Jonathan were significant figures in David’s life. Saul was his leader and in a way his mentor. Jonathan was his best friend. These were profound, painful losses for David. Saul was jealous of David and sought to murder him more than once, but David showed a fierce loyalty to Saul. David’s love of Jonathan was profound—more than he loved any woman, he cries out. While the Philistine women laugh and celebrate the victory, David calls upon the women of Israel to cry out and weep for Saul. He curses the mountains of Gilboa where Saul and his sons died—no rain shall fall, no crops shall grow there. He expresses the deepest cries of the human soul. We can understand his hurt for the loss of Jonathan—those of us who have lost loved ones know how that feels—but he weeps also for Saul, the one he fled from time and time again in order to save his own life. Isn’t that remarkable? David could have reacted to Saul’s death in so many other ways: rejoicing, for his enemy is dead; exploiting it for his own purposes; the last stumbling block before his ascension to the throne has been removed. When we say during the Lord’s prayer, “deliver us from evil,” what is it that we pray for? Hasn’t David been delivered from evil? Shouldn’t he at least inwardly rejoice? We see Saul as jealous and full of hate toward David, but there is no evidence that David ever regarded Saul as evil or an enemy—he was simply the Lord’s anointed and his king, and as such worthy of respect and honor.

David’s eulogy for Saul contains only the best of his personality. There are no references to his flaws, no hints at his jealousy or rage, no stories of David jumping out of the way of Saul’s spear while he played the harp for his king. He is the victor at war, the great leader, God’s chosen one. We often hear this at funerals. The one who died is portrayed in the most positive light, their failures and shortcomings forgotten or swept aside for the moment. Somehow it makes it easier to face death if we mention only the good highlights and not the total package. This week three celebrities died: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson. These notable deaths caused many of us to think about death—and if we are honest, we don’t like to do that.

Most of us remember Ed McMahon from the Tonight Show, sitting on the couch and laughing at every single joke—as if Johnny Carson never bombed.

Farrah Fawcett was the striking woman, the sex symbol of the 1970s, even for a certain young kid growing up in South Texas! She was evidently as full or grace as she was beauty. Ed McMahon’s death was not a shock, and we all knew Farrah was battling cancer.

Michael Jackson’s death was another thing, his death at least equal for my generation as the death of Elvis for the boomer generation was. I have always been a huge Michael Jackson fan—his songs were on my ipod way before Thursday. He absolutely changed the world. Most of the reflections about his death resemble David’s eulogy for Saul—telling the good stories only. He certainly had his own demons to deal with, and (hopefully) we’ll never know the full extent of them. Still, the music will endure, as it should.

Death has a way of surprising us and catching us off-guard. In order to deal with it properly we must not ignore it but confront it. We live in a society that values youth over maturity, where there are remedies to fight the aging process, from eye cream to plastic surgery to cryogenic freezing. Most of us resist the idea of death so much that we do not even write a will, though we know it will relieve our loved ones of great amounts of stress. Are you afraid of death? Are you in denial about it? Did the events of this week shock you into an uncomfortable place? What does our faith teach us about death—and life? Could it be that if we dealt with death openly and honestly we might find that life itself is easier to deal with? Could there be lessons in the death of loved ones for those who endure with hope for the future and not fear and denial? As Hemingway said in A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”

David models what we would hope to see in our leaders: a sense of humanity in the face of death. Today, we think our leaders should be stoic, firm, in control. Why? Is it really that comforting to us? What if President Reagan had openly wept—as many of us did—the night the Challenger exploded? Too often we bring up ridiculous models of strength or courage or proper behavior when those we love die. What David shows us is a willingness to confront the mystery of death with a sense of vulnerability—that adds to his reputation as a great leader. I’ll never forget my supervisor when I was chaplain at Parkland Hospital. When I said I did not cry in the presence of a woman who lost her husband suddenly so I could be strong for her—though I certainly was moved to tears, I consciously fought them back—she said, “I can’t think of anything more powerful than my chaplain crying during my own suffering.” She was right, and it taught me a valuable lesson. It was right for Obama to leave the campaign to visit his dying grandmother last summer. It was wrong for President Clinton to travel to Europe for a summit immediately after his mother’s death, instead of giving himself proper time to mourn such a significant loss. The Pentagon was correct to reverse its policy of releasing pictures of flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed at war as they arrive at Dover Air Force Base. There is a real cost to war, and the pictures, released only with the family’s permission, remind us of it, allowing us to fully honor those who serve and die. Too often we ignore death or treat it as something to be fought against or we exploit is for our own purposes. We consider it a weakness to be our unique selves in the face of death, and in doing so, we deny the best of who we are—who we were created to be by a loving God. As Christians, the very symbol of our faith, the cross, shows us that there is power over death that can transform those who believe—but think of the emptiness many of us feel when we walk into a church without a cross prominently displayed. Something is missing.

David gains much from Saul’s death, but he does not use it as an occasion for exploitation. He grieves for a national hero, God’s own chosen anointed one. He calls upon the nation to observe this solemn occasion with the respect it deserves, much as we observe Memorial Day every year. But be honest: how much time did we spend on Memorial Day remembering those who died in war? How much time did we spend remembering their families? How much time did we spend remembering the innocent civilians who die in war? Or did we devote all of our attention to water skiing and hot dogs, unwilling to consider the human impact of war? David truly aches for the loss of Jonathan, a hero in his own right who accepted David’s rightful place within God’s plan, even at his own expense. They enjoyed a covenantal relationship founded upon principles of loyalty and love. “Your love to me was wonderful,” David says, unafraid of the tears that accompany the words. We ought to have the same courage to confront our emotions honestly in the face of death. Then we will experience the grace of God, whose Spirit empowers us to go forward with faith and courage.

At the end of Star Trek 2, Kirk mourns the loss of a beloved friend. At his funeral service, his voices breaks, his eyes water, but he maintains a sense of control—after all, he is the leader. After the service, he is alone in his office and his son comes to confront/comfort him. His son reminds him of his words from the beginning of the film: “How we deal with death is at least as important as we deal with life.” Only then, after Kirk has experienced real human loss and dealt with it openly, can the work of healing begin.

As the words of Psalm 13 proclaim:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because God has dealt bountifully with me.