Grieving the deaths of Jonathan and Saul, David writes a lament that praises their skill as warriors. They were great, but their greatness could not save them, and all their deeds died with them. The only excellence that endures is the excellence of love.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 13 B
Texts: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
King Saul was dead, and his son Jonathan with him. At long last, David could take his rightful place on the throne of Israel.
David had spent the last years of his life fleeing from Saul. The king feared and resented David, and wanted nothing more than to see him killed. Wherever he went, Saul followed. Jonathan loved David, and desperately tried to protect him, but nothing could cool his father’s wrath. So when Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, it means that David is finally free. He can become king of Israel, yes – but even more than that, he can have some peace.
But David doesn’t rejoice in Saul’s death. Instead, he mourns. He grieves the loss of his dearest friend, and of the king who once called him a son, before he was eaten up by rage. He remembers his love for them, and pours out his love in a cry of lament. Speaking as a fellow warrior, he mourns their deaths as a national tragedy. He remembers that they were fearsome with their weapons, Jonathan with his bow and Saul with his sword, and they killed many mighty enemies. Saul’s military victories brought great wealth to his people: crimson garments and golden jewelry. But now the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle, and Israel is diminished.
But here’s the thing. Who cares? Who cares how many foes Saul and Jonathan could take down with their weapons of war? Their mighty deeds and their prowess in battle – those died with them. That was true at the moment of David’s lament, and it’s even truer three thousand years later. Saul’s victories against the Amalekites and the Ammonites and the Edomites and the Moabites and the kings of Zobah – those are all just a distant memory. They aren’t why David’s lament still has the power to move us, so many centuries later. We mourn with David because of the love he bore for these two men. We don’t care because they were strong or rich or brave – we care because they were beloved, and capable of wonderful love. Their deeds have faded, but across the centuries, their love endures.
In today’s epistle, Paul encourages the church in Corinth to pursue excellence. But the kind of excellence that he asks for isn’t greatness as the world imagines it. He doesn’t want them to strive for power, or accomplishments, or wealth – none of those things that a warrior could write a song about. He tells them to strive for an excellence of faith. An excellence of generosity. An excellence of love. He challenges them to define themselves not by how well they advance their own interests, but how well they serve the needs of others. He’s pushing them to love more boldly, to follow Jesus more closely, to care for the poor more enthusiastically. Specifically, he’s asking them to give more money to Christians in need. He’s very clear that this isn’t a command. They’re free to do what they want with their resources, and their place in the body of Christ doesn’t depend on what they do or don’t give. But, Paul says, this is how they’re going to grow nearer to Christ. If they can excel in sharing what they have, they will find the kind of riches that will never fade away, the kind of riches that only Jesus can give.
That isn’t how we normally think of excellence. The world around us is always pushing us to be better. We are always supposed to know more, to do more, to have more, to be more. We told that the best people are those who distinguish themselves by virtue of their achievements. Like David singing the praises of Saul’s victories, we lift up those who excel in strength and in wealth. That’s what excellence looks like to us: superior talent, power, success. And there is nothing inherently wrong with those things. Whatever our passions and vocations might be, we can delight in our god-given talents, and in sharing them with the world. Humanity’s drive to improve is what makes our species so amazing. But if that’s the only kind of excellence we care about, the excellence of being better, we’re never going to be happy, because none of those measuring sticks tell us a thing about our ultimate worth. When we focus on all those ways that the world tells us to be better, we are left comparing ourselves to other people. Our value is treated as something relative, as if some lives were worth more than others. Our value is treated something conditional – something that we lose when we don’t measure up. We all want to feel like we are good enough. We all want to know that we are worthy of love and respect. But for as long as we measure ourselves by our earthly excellence, we will not find that assurance, because Earthly excellence does not endure.
My beloved siblings in Christ, I confess that I am well acquainted with this hunger for earthly achievements. As many of you know, I have decided that I am not going to pursue ordained ministry at this time. Instead, I’ll be heading to law school in the fall. It was a decision that I considered carefully, and I think it will let me do good in the world – but already, I’m hearing the siren song of prestige. I know that there will be moments when I fall into the trap of measuring myself against the success of others – even though I know that that won’t make me happy. When I fall short, I’ll be disappointed, and when I meet my goals, I’ll only want more. If I try to seek success for the sake of success, then I’ll never have peace.
And so I pray that I can keep reminding myself that that isn’t how God sees us. God doesn’t love us because of our achievements. God doesn’t care about our status. God’s love for us doesn’t even depend on how well we love God. God sees and knows us as cherished children, no matter who we are or what we do. Whatever successes we celebrate and whatever failures we mourn, we are made good at our creation, and we are made whole in Christ, and in the end, that is the only thing that matters. We cannot shake that love. We cannot lose it. We can never be more or less deserving of it. We cannot choose to accept it or reject it. Our only decision is how we will share that love with others.
If we want to seek out an excellence that lasts, we need only learn from God’s everlasting love. This excellence is different because it’s not focused on itself. Instead, it grows for the good of someone else. That David could look someone like Saul, someone who had sought to end his life, and call him beloved – that is excellence. That Jonathan could risk everything to protect a friend – that is excellence. That the first churches could learn to share their wealth, not out of obligation or as a display of power, but out of earnestness and hope – that is excellence. Earthly excellence is always hungry, always needing more, but God’s excellence endlessly overflows and covers the world with grace.
Just imagine what a world shaped by such excellence would look like. Instead of celebrating greatness in warfare, we could celebrate greatness in love. Instead of honoring fantastic riches, we could honor fantastic generosity. Instead of striving for lonely self-sufficiency, we could embrace each other in humility and faith. This is how God wants us to live. This is how God wants us to excel: together, for each other, growing together in Christ’s love.