Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2015 – 1 Samuel 1:1,17,27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
What do our lives amount to? What are they all about, in the end? No greater question exists; but also it’s so broad as to defy any simple answer. Still, the Church offers us today the person of Saul, and asks us to consider him in this light.
“After the death of Saul….”. That’s where we begin today. And David cries out, “How the mighty have fallen”. There was Saul’s life laid out: he was mighty, he was courageous, gifted, he clothed his people in rich garments, he had sons whom he loved and with whom he fought, and with whom he finally died. David loved them too, grew with them, fought beside them, struggled and then was betrayed by them, yet finally loved them. And now he stands at a distance, looks at them — persons he has loved deeply, if with complicated feelings – he looks at them, having heard of their deaths. And he weeps.
What does our life amount to?
Everybody here is Saul. Each of us. The details are different, but not the character of what we live.
So let me rehearse for a moment Saul’s life, which is our life. Saul grew up with some privilege: his father, Kish, was “wealthy” we are told – in the manner of the day, this meant he owned large flocks of sheep and goats and asses, and he probably had a number of servants. Perhaps they lived in a large house with a roof; or in big tents, with colorful rugs. Saul himself was “handsome”, and very tall. “From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). On the other hand, even if relatively wealthy and good looking he was nobody special. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, “the least of the tribes of Israel”; and even there, from “the humblest of all the families of Benjamin” (l9:2) – so says Saul himself.
Thus, when the prophet Samuel, under God’s direct guidance, chooses and anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he is picking a gifted person, but no genius. And Saul has to grow into his role as a leader, since he isn’t one from birth. He works at it. He proves a good soldier, and seems to have put together a decent administration with some powerful deputies. Saul has some skills in this department, and it shows. Israel seems to thrive for the most part, and for a while. David himself is brought into this flourishing environment of power and increasing wealth, things seem to go well. He becomes a favourite of Saul, and a kind of adopted son, companion to Saul’s own beloved son Jonathan, eating at Saul’s table and participating in his life.
All this sounds good, and a bit like a family success story. But like all families, like all people, like us, there are deep problems that arise. For all Saul’s skills, he makes mistakes. He’s human, after all. He fails to follow the commands of God in some instances. He acts by human calculation rather than faith in some instances, and this makes a mess of things. His greed gets the best of him here and there. Most importantly, I suppose, is the reality that Saul is mentally ill. Who knows what we would call it today; but the account in 1 Samuel is pretty clear – violent mood swings, paranoia, depression. Perhaps he has a severe bipolar disorder. There were no medications in those days, and Saul finally uses David and his singing and music to calm him. These are both touching and also wrenching scenes as they are depicted in the Bible. For in the end, Saul’s illness descends into a pit of almost complete emotional disorder. From adopted son, David becomes his enemy, whom Saul is convinced is a spy and traitor. He drives David into hiding, seeks to kill him, and sets up finally a downward spiral of family trauma and political dysfunction. Like a crazed addict, Saul finally runs after ghosts and witches to figure out his fate (1 Sam. 28), and, taking own son Jonathan with him, he goes out to war against the Philistines utterly unprepared, and watches as his three sons are killed, and army and kingdom crumble before his eyes. Desperate and resigned, in the face of his complete loss of all he has lived for, he “falls on his sword”, and commits suicide (1 Sam. 31:4). The victorious Philistines discover his corpse and those of his sons, desecrate their bodies, and cut off his head, which they parade around the countryside.
“How the mighty are fallen”, David cries out, when he hears of it. But we are all Saul. This simple story is told in the Bible as the story of Everyman. Good things happen. If we are lucky we find a place of success in someone’s eyes, perhaps our own; we have families whom we love. But there is always the other stuff: the illness, the mental breakdown and distress, the conflicted friendships and betrayals; the losses. It is the mother who cries out in today’s Gospel, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”, or the woman whose has “suffered for 12 years from internal bleeding” (Mk. 5:23, 25).
Jesus comes into the world of Sauls; he comes to us.
So then the final staring out at all of this and the question: what does this all amount to? This is where, too, the words of today’s Psalm arise out of our hearts: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Ps. 130:1-2). The Latin of these opening words have become proverbial: “De profundis”, out of the depths, as of the deepest ocean imaginable. What do our lives amount to? The vision of one cast far away, far down, gazing upwards, in search of some kind of light, in some kind of prayer.
This all sounds very grim. But it is the truth, if not the whole truth. It is the truth that must be faced, so that the whole truth can be found. Our lives amount to a prayer “de profundis”, from the depths. They amount to that, they reach just this point, so that true life can grasp us. “Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD [there is] mercy, and with him [is] plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Ps. 130:7-8). One cries out; and instead of darkness, there is light, for there is the God of Israel.
Staring up from the depths, we see staring back at us the face of God, and a hand that reaches down.
What does life amount to? We live in order to be saved by God. That may seem a rather strange way to talk about the meaning of life. But I think that, if one just pauses for a moment to think about it, it makes sense; and not only that, it gives a direction, the right direction, to our otherwise Saul-like histories.
We live in order to be saved by God. It makes sense in this way: life does not belong to us. It never did, it never will. It is a gift, utterly and wholly.
We did not ask to be born; we do not control the shapes of our breathing and the forms of our bodies. The very idea of life is a miracle of untold and incomprehensible proportions. Our telescopes and space probes are looking, and the internet feverishly announces some new planet located in a distant galaxy – so distant that, as far as we know, it would take billions and billions of years even to reach such a place were it possible; and they say, “earth-like world found?”. Is there water there? Are there the chemicals and compounds needed for organic substances? What is the temperature like, or the atmospheres? And everywhere we actually touch, in a way – Mars or Venus or the moons of Saturn – we find nothing but emptiness and wasteland. How is it that you and I are alive at all? That we “are” at all? “Everything you have”, Paul writes, “ has been given to you; it is not your own; you are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19; 4:7). It is all gift. All of it, the very thought of it. Out of the depths do I cry to you, O Lord, not because I have been cast there simply by a cruel fate; but because the only posture from which to know the truth of who I am, is from below, gazing to You, God. “How the mighty are fallen!”, David cries; but they fall – we fall – only because we forget that there is no place from which to claim this world as “ours”. “And if you have received everything”, Paul asks, “why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). What seems grim to us, is but our reorientation to the truth. Our lives amount to a gift, that we must, one way or the other, come to understand.
And look: if it is all gift, this life of ours; that is, all from God, all God’s, all God’s giving and thus all God’s love – if this is the case about our life, then there really is a direction to our lives. However hard it is for us to kick against the habits of boastful yearning, that direction lies not in forms of human advancement, or of money, or of success, and health physical or mental, or of this or that accomplishment. The direction of our lives, that they may amount to what they truly are, is the direction of God’s own being. “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Ps. 130:7). That is, the direction is one of hope; hope in God’s love and the breadth of his own being. And that hope and love are joined to a trust that carries us through the days of our lives. “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word do I hope” (v. 5).
The Gospel of Christ has proclaimed this from the moment that Jesus first touched the world of flesh and blood, and that human beings like the woman haemorrhaging for years first touched him: that Gospel tells us that our lives fulfill themselves as they grow in faith, hope, and love. “So faith, hope, love abide; these three”, Paul writes (1 Cor. 13:13). Faith, hope, and love “abide”, that is, “endure”, stick around, last beyond all things. Amount to anything. It’s what is left of our lives, and what our lives give back to the One who gave us them first.
Here, then, is the finally tally sheet. And we have been counting all the wrong things! De profundis sounds “grim”, I said; but out of the depths, I see that my life is all God’s and hence my life’s purpose is given to me by him. It is his power, it is his redemption.
Jesus Christ stands as the embodiment of this reality. I live to be saved by God; that is, I live because of God, and to rejoice in this love is my very redemption.
Out of the depths I see my God: am I then a person of faith? And where is the hope I share? And what is the love I receive and offer in return? Can I teach my children this? Can I share it with my students or with those around me? Can I, as I navigate successes and failures, blessings and curses, the ascent of Saul, and his descent into confusion… can I maintain my faith in the God who has made me, and hope in the grace of his coming, and love him and those whom he has made? Our very lives are remade into what they are made to be, as we fill these questions in.
Friends: Let us pray for faith, not for money or health; let us pray for hope, and not for advancement; let us pray for love, and not for success. Faith, hope, and love: God will give them to us, as he gives us all things. And as he does, we shall find our lives as places of rejoicing, not lament. No longer Saul, we shall join David in proclaiming: “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the LORD he [is] God: [it is] he [that] hath made us, and not we ourselves; [we are] his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:1-3).