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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? He’s so us, isn’t he? So earthy and human-fighting and praying and loving and sinning. We’ve caught him breaking out in dance during worship-and it wasn’t even in the bulletin-found him sitting in profound silence mulling over some God-shaped words that will change the direction of his life. We’ve caught him at his worst-caught him with someone else’s spouse, and we’ve met him in recovery in an AA meeting; We’ve watched David slewing Goliath.

As summer ends, so too our journey with David ends. So it’s appropriate that we close this series with the scene that closes all of our stories-the death of David. As I’ve gone through this section of the Bible, I couldn’t help but think of one of Tolstoy’s stories. [1] Several lawyers are sitting around during court recess talking. One of them suddenly interrupts with a very interesting piece of news that he’s just seen in the local paper.

"Gentlemen," says one, "Ivan Ilych has died!"

"You don’t 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 they’re really thinking.

"That’s too bad," the conversation continues. "They said it was incurable." But inside he’s thinking, "Oh boy, Ivan’s dead! Now I’ll get that promotion and the extra 800 rubles a year."

Says another: "His wife must have taken that real hard." But inside he’s really thinking, "Great day! Now that Ivan’s out of the way, I’ll be able to arrange for the wife’s brother to move here; that’ll keep her from nagging about how I never do anything for her family."

David is dying. No life is complete until there’s 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. It’s 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 final requests.

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 Franklin’s 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 believ’d) Appear once more,

In a new and more elegant Edition

Revised and Corrected

By the Author.

The story of David’s dying teaches us about living and how we should respond to Death. There are three responses to David’s dying that are remarkable. What’s remarkable is that they continue to be common among us. First, we have the servant’s response to David. They want to keep David alive at all costs. David’s dying is a problem. If he goes, so go they.

David has bad circulation, so they keep piling on the blankets. But when that doesn’t 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 farmer’s 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 wouldn’t have known how unhappy his marriage was or how little farmer’s 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 farmer’s farmer. He wasn’t even Pa. And when he died, no one really mourned his actual death, just relief. Just the conversations during court recess. My step grandfather didn’t 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, David’s servants decided. So they used the technology of their day.

Adonijah responds to David’s 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. He’ll come back for the funeral all right, but to Adonijah, David is just a wrinkled old man dying in some hospital room. Tolstoy’s characters respond to the death of Ivan Ilych by each saying to themselves, "It’s not me! I’m alive!"

What’s the lesson? Life always imposes limitations-marriage, having and raising children, caring for our parents. They’re not just small inconveniences, they’re huge inconveniences. And from time to time we think like Adonijah-impatient and feeling suffocated by our limitations. We’ve 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-I’ve let the house look like a low-rent apartment and I’ve 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, I’ve gotten out old photos of my limitation-Lizzy standing in her blue raincoat and big pigtails for the first day of school. I’ve been so impatient with her at times, she’s 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 David’s 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. She’s the one whom we must have around us to help us get things in order when the time comes. She’s the one who makes sure that the living will is signed, that our papers are in order, that we now have permission to depart. What’s sad though, in all of this good work, Bathsheba isn’t 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 nurse.

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. She’s a true caregiver. She’s not a call girl, she’s more like nurse. She’s there when David’s advisors want to "fix" the problem. She’s supposed to be part of the solution, but she is the only one to stays all the way to the end of David’s life. Her closeness to David, makes impatient Adonijah want to grasp her as his wife. He not in love, he’s 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. She’s 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 wasn’t 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; he’s had lung cancer for a long time." But I’d always be so busy running errands, buying groceries, I’d 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 she’s 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-that’s 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, she’ll also be there, a strong presence in the midst of everyone’s agendas-God’s 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.

[1] “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, 1886; internet downloaded by Chuck Cox: