Sermon preached at Exeter Cathedral Evensong on June 25th 2017
Based on I Samuel 24:1-17 (The outlaw David spares King Saul's life) and Luke 14:12-24 (The parable of the wedding feast)
"Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David: "You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.""
There are certain situations - or perhaps I should say, certain positions - in which we are particularly vulnerable. While eating, for example, especially when accepting hospitality from others (think Glencoe). Or while sleeping - undefended, unsuspecting, abandoned to a parallel universe.
And, of course, while ... how shall I put this? ... answering a call of nature, doing our business, relieving ourselves ... you know what I mean, even though I shudder to approach this subject - at Choral Evensong - in the Cathedral!
Actually, the most graceful euphemism for this activity, though admittedly rather confusing, is the one used in our Old Testament reading. In a literal translation of the Hebrew, we read that Saul entered the cave "to cover his feet". The use of the feet in the Hebrew Bible to represent parts of the body which cannot be mentioned deserves a whole book, or at least a whole sermon - but not now. (If you're interested, go to Ruth chapter 3, verse 4...)
Bodily functions make us vulnerable, that's the point. In this little scene, with its potent mixture of comedy and poignancy, Saul is vulnerable, and David refuses to capitalize on his vulnerability. A couple of chapters further on, we have another version of this scenario. This time, Saul and his men are sleeping as David and Abishai enter their camp; contemplate the KIng asleep, with his spear stuck in the ground beside him; debate whether or not to kill him, with David dissuading his companion; and then make off with the spear and a water-jar as proof of their incursion, before David calls to Saul and - as in the reading we've heard - uses his refusal to take advantage of Saul's vulnerability to drive home the message that he is not Saul's enemy.
The outlaw David, whom Samuel has already anointed as Saul's successor, will not murder the King who seeks his life. David's instinct as a soldier is to finish Saul off. His interest as a political animal is to claim the kingdom at a stroke. But these are trumped by his conviction that to strike at God's anointed one is to strike at God Himself. Whatever Saul's failings - which have led to the Lord withdrawing His favour from him, and will lead to his downfall - while he lives his life is, for David, sacred, inviolable.
And so we have the strange and deeply sad exchange between these two, father-in-law and son-in-law, present King and King-in-waiting, ending with Saul's outburst: "Is that your voice, my son David? ... You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil."
What does this mean - "You are more righteous than I"? At the simplest level, Saul is trying to kill David - David refuses to kill Saul. That's the righteousness equation.
But at another level, it's about freedom. Saul is not free - he is gripped by, driven by, jealousy, fear and rage. David is so free that he doesn't need to take Saul's life. He is free to spare Saul, to offer Saul mercy; and we recognise it as the same mercy that Jesus Christ in his risen life offers us in our hopeless vulnerability. David is free to offer Saul God's generous, merciful love - and Saul is free to accept it or reject it. But as we read on, we realise that, for all his sincere contrition, Saul cannot accept the freedom David offers. He is still bound by fear and rage, he is still unable to deal with his own vulnerability in any other way than by the use of force. He doesn't know how to choose freedom.
And so, David is more righteous than Saul.
And so, we come to Jesus, who shows us what a life lived freely looks like. The banquet in his story is freely offered to all. It's a symbol of heaven. It's a picture of what Jesus himself offers people, over and over again. It stands for God's free gift of His generous, merciful love. Freely given to those who are given the freedom to reject it. They have entirely reasonable excuses - pressing tasks which demand their prior attention, and which belong to a quite different order of reality from the mad, intemperate generosity of the host. Who can argue with excuses like these? Especially with the last one, the showstopper - delivered, we can imagine, with a sanctimonious smirk: "Just got married - can't possibly tear myself away - actually, we're off to Barbados tomorrow - sorry, do hope it all goes well. See you soon!"
Actually, no you won't. The invitation is freely given, and the freedom to refuse it is real, but there are consequences to that refusal. When God calls us, we are free to say no, but there are consequences. In truth, my experience - and maybe yours too - is that our God is far more patient than the host in Jesus' story. He keeps on graciously inviting us, and we get more than one chance (far more!) to respond - but the stakes are just as high as in the story. Do we want the new life, the joy, the freedom God offers us; or are we still wedded to our old, comfortable (deadly comfortable) habits? Are we, like Saul, still fearful of what might happen if we stopped trying to control our lives, stopped trying to defend ourselves, and instead believed - actually believed - that this freedom is real. And more: that this freedom is the only way to life.
To be clear: this is not the freedom to do exactly and simply what we want - as David will discover when, as King, he sleeps with Bathsheba and engineers her husband's death so that he can have her, and then is brought to book by the prophet Nathan in one of the Bible's great stories of telling truth to power (II Samuel chapters 11 & 12). David will learn from this the same truth hammered home, centuries later, by Paul (formerly known as Saul) to the wild Christians of Corinth: the freedom Christ brings is an inner freedom, not an outward licence to do whatever you want. It is a freedom from fear and hatred, and a freedom to love. If love rules your heart, you will be free; and out of love, then yes, you may do what you will.
If love rules your heart ... It's a big "if"!