Bringing out the Best in Us at the End of Life
a sermon based on 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
by Rev. Thomas Hall
We have been following the stories of the
biblical David during these dog days of summer. You mean the David and Goliath David?
Yeah. Why David? Hes so us, isnt he? So earthy and human-fighting and praying
and loving and sinning. Weve caught him breaking out in dance during worship-and it
wasnt even in the bulletin-found him sitting in profound silence mulling over some
God-shaped words that will change the direction of his life. Weve caught him at his
worst-caught him with someone elses spouse, and weve met him in recovery in an
AA meeting; Weve watched David slewing Goliath.
As summer ends, so too our journey with David ends. So its appropriate that we
close this series with the scene that closes all of our stories-the death of David. As
Ive gone through this section of the Bible, I couldnt help but think of one of
Tolstoys stories.  Several lawyers are sitting around during court recess
talking. One of them suddenly interrupts with a very interesting piece of news that
hes just seen in the local paper.
"Gentlemen," says one, "Ivan Ilych has died!"
"You dont say?"
"Yeah, it says right here in the paper: Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina, with
profound sorrow, informs relatives and friends of the demise of her beloved husband Ivan
Ilych Golovin, Member of the Court of Justice, February 4th of this year 1882."
Nothing unusual. Except Tolstoy reveals the incongruity between polite words and what
theyre really thinking.
"Thats too bad," the conversation continues. "They said it was
incurable." But inside hes thinking, "Oh boy, Ivans dead! Now
Ill get that promotion and the extra 800 rubles a year."
Says another: "His wife must have taken that real hard." But inside hes
really thinking, "Great day! Now that Ivans out of the way, Ill be able
to arrange for the wifes brother to move here; thatll keep her from nagging
about how I never do anything for her family."
David is dying. No life is complete until theres a death. David had responded to
the deaths of Saul and Jonathan forty years earlier with grace and dignity. He
memorialized their passing with a powerful poem about the fallen. A Flanders Field kind of
lament. David used words to make death poignant, to give it sacred beauty.
But when David died, no one eulogized, no one lamented his "demise." His
passing is just a blurb buried in an obscure place on the back page-somewhere between adds
for ladies apparel and the sports page. Its like he died like some unnamed patient
in Room 249 in the coronary unit of the hospital. Had no family to be with him during his
last moments, no friend to hold his hand or look into his eyes or hear his confessions and
David dies in the middle of family squabble, embroiled in intrigue and deceit. His last
words were not very noble like great persons offer, nor very hopeful like Benjamin
Franklins final word on his tombstone:
The Body of B Franklin Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn out
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding)
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the work shall not be lost;
For it will (as he believd) Appear once more,
In a new and more elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.
The story of Davids dying teaches us about living and how we should respond to
Death. There are three responses to Davids dying that are remarkable. Whats
remarkable is that they continue to be common among us. First, we have the servants
response to David. They want to keep David alive at all costs. Davids dying is a
problem. If he goes, so go they.
David has bad circulation, so they keep piling on the blankets. But when that
doesnt work, they seek out a human body. And of course, Iron Age Kings required
nothing but the best and attractive. Canaanite myths said young maidens were a cure-all
for aging kings. This too, fails to keep David from dying. Each failure turns David into
less of a human being and more of a problem to be solved. More problem, less person. If
dying is a problem, it seems the more we try to be useful and "alive" spending
our energies and money, searching, buying, and running. Sometimes, we need to simply look
the dying person in eyes, wipe her tears, listen to their confession, and honor their
life, just as it is.
My step grandfather was Pa to me. He was a farmers farmer, a true redneck. His
bib overalls and flannel shirt covered every part of his body except hands and neck. So
his neck was red from working three hundred acres of earth under the August sun for sixty
summers. I spent my summers with Pa-he was an early hero for me-I wouldnt have known
how unhappy his marriage was or how little farmers made for all their 12-14 hour
days or what a pack or two a day of smokes can do to the lungs. He was just Pa.
I grew up and grew away-college, career. The next time we met was two years after his
illness. I walked down the long corridor to his room. He was curled up in bed with wires
and tubes in him and machines around him. We must keep him alive at all costs, we all must
have thought. So technology helped us to do that-a machine could inhale and exhale for
him, a sophisticated machine monitored his heart rhythms, a catheter made eating a
non-event, and another device relieved him.
He was no longer a farmers farmer. He wasnt even Pa. And when he died, no
one really mourned his actual death, just relief. Just the conversations during court
recess. My step grandfather didnt even know he was dying for those two years,
because I really doubt that he even knew that he was alive.
Keep him alive at all costs, Davids servants decided. So they used the technology
of their day.
Adonijah responds to Davids passing much differently. David is an obstacle. An
obstruction. A limitation. An inconvenience. Life is just too short to wait around for
someone to die. He wants David to cash in the chips so Adonijah can use them to become
king. So when David lingers, Adonijah gets impatient and makes himself king and simply
ignores David. Hell come back for the funeral all right, but to Adonijah, David is
just a wrinkled old man dying in some hospital room. Tolstoys characters respond to
the death of Ivan Ilych by each saying to themselves, "Its not me! Im
Whats the lesson? Life always imposes limitations-marriage, having and raising
children, caring for our parents. Theyre not just small inconveniences, theyre
huge inconveniences. And from time to time we think like Adonijah-impatient and feeling
suffocated by our limitations. Weve all fantasized and end to our limitations. But
the lesson is that honoring the limits, giving dignity to them is what deepens our lives.
You may make a decision that gets rid of a problem, but it impoverishes our lives.
I have been a bachelor this week. I can prove it-Ive let the house look like a
low-rent apartment and Ive burned the supper and ruined a pan. Dixie is with my
daughter in Arizona, helping to begin her own journey of independence and freedom. So over
the week, Ive gotten out old photos of my limitation-Lizzy standing in her blue
raincoat and big pigtails for the first day of school. Ive been so impatient with
her at times, shes exasperated me sometimes. But I have lived deeply because of her;
and so have you in your own families.
The final response is Bathsheba. She goes to Davids deathbed but not to be a
presence or to hold his hand or lie with him body to body, letting deep memories wash over
them. Shes the one whom we must have around us to help us get things in order when
the time comes. Shes the one who makes sure that the living will is signed, that our
papers are in order, that we now have permission to depart. Whats sad though, in all
of this good work, Bathsheba isnt with her dying husband. David is no longer where
the action is at. So Bathsheba, her work done, leaves David back in Room 249 with the
We do have one more person who never says a word, never makes a claim, wants no
inheritance, has no other reason to be there but simply because she is needed. Her name is
Abishag. Shes a true caregiver. Shes not a call girl, shes more like
nurse. Shes there when Davids advisors want to "fix" the problem.
Shes supposed to be part of the solution, but she is the only one to stays all the
way to the end of Davids life. Her closeness to David, makes impatient Adonijah want
to grasp her as his wife. He not in love, hes infatuated with what she stands for.
Abishag will be his ticket to the throne room; instead, she is the reason for his untimely
death. And when Bathsheba enters the room to get what she wants, there is Abishag
"attending to David."
I have a friend who has cancer in the lymph nodes and lungs and lots of other places.
Shes a fighter, but something stranger than cancer happened to her during this time.
"You know, I am more alive now than before I discovered the cancer," she once
told me. I wasnt quite sure I followed her thought. So she explained.
"I used to say, "It would be a good idea to go and visit Mr. Brown down the
street; hes had lung cancer for a long time." But Id always be so busy
running errands, buying groceries, Id never make it to his house. But now I visit
first, then do the errands. We had such a good talk this afternoon, Mr. Brown and I. I am
so full of life, I can hardly contain it."
An uphill battle with cancer and so full of life? Not really, her limitations actually
helped to see what is truly important in life. She is Abishag, quietly going around the
neighborhood to rescue the perishing and care for the dying.
This week I stood with tearful family members around a bed holding a very fatigued and
worn-looking person. Her health had deteriorated and the family knew she would not be with
them much longer. So we gathered to pray and give her frail life back to Jesus. The family
wanted to let this wife, mother, and friend know that they loved her very much-always did
and always will-and that if she wanted to go, it was okay, they would understand. So
during that sacred moment we heard these David-words from Psalm 139 . . .
"You have examined her heart, O Lord,
and You know everything about her.
You know when she sits down or stands up,
You know what shes going to say even before she says it, Lord.
You chart the path before her and tell her where to stop and rest.
You both go ahead of her and go behind her
and place your hand of blessing on her head.
Such knowledge is too wonderful."
Such knowledge is too wonderful-thats what Abishags are for, to bring out the
best in us even at the end of life.
So while death brings out the worse in many people-and we may be treated as a problem
to be fixed, or as an opportunity to be seized, or as a responsibility to be carried
out-remember this story of tenderness. Watch for Abishag, shell also be there, a
strong presence in the midst of everyones agendas-Gods gift to us. In the
meantime, become an Abishag yourself to someone who desperately needs your ministry now.
May this story prepare us to live the Jesus life that finally, but only finally, gives
way to resurrection. Amen.
 The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, 1886;
internet downloaded by Chuck Cox: http://www.tolstoy.org.