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Where Does It Hurt?

A sermon shared at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 8, 2021

Good morning, Covenant friends and internet friends. Pastor Kate has been preaching on the theme, “Where does it hurt?” encouraging you to be mindful of pain, your own pain and others’ pain, in order to be more compassionate. I’ll continue with her theme, , but instead of using a passage from 1 Samuel as she suggested, I’ll turn this morning to a passage in 2nd Samuel chapter 18 which the lectionary lists for today. It concerns an attempted coup in Israel by the son of King David, Absalom. Absalom raised an army to kill his father and here’s what happened:

“The king, David, ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. Absalom happened to meet the servants of David.

Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.

And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

Then the Cushite came; – {Cushites, by the way, came from what is now Ethiopia. They were black people} –and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Where does it hurt? We know from David’s lament that he hurt way down deep. He wanted to spare his son, but things didn’t work out that way. All wars cause pain, but civil wars perhaps the most, because civil wars involve intimate betrayals where loyalty was expected. Such grievances are very hard to forgive and can cause bitterness down many generations. I’ll leave you with that observation, to invite you now on an adventure in observation and discovery, a photo walk in downtown Wilmington.

I’m walking on Shipley street with my camera, admiring the way the evening light falls on the buildings and streets when I come upon a sign that reads “Burton Place.” A subscript notes that William, alias “Dutch” Burton is the honoree. I don’t know that name, William Burton, so I Google it on my phone, adding Delaware as a search term. Two entries turn up: First, a William Burton who won a Supreme Court case involving racial discrimination. That would be the William Burton nicknamed Dutch, cited on the sign. He had tried to get a coffee at a restaurant called The Eagle, which once stood where the sign is today. Dutch Burton was refused service at The Eagle because of the color of his skin. His victory in the highest court of our land firmly established the ruling that restaurants open to the public may not discriminate on the basis of race. This was a monumental decision. It overturned a cultural norm which had endured in Delaware long past our nation’s civil war.

And what about the other William Burton of Delaware revealed by my Google search? I learned that he was the governor of Delaware during the Civil War. Delaware fought for the Union, and in fact raised more soldiers for the Union army than any other state, based on its small population. Nevertheless, on the books Delaware was a slave state, and the sentiments of citizens in the two southernmost counties, Kent and Sussex, tended to reflect those of the Confederacy. That’s mostly where Burton’s sentiments lay too. He opposed abolition but also opposed the possibility of Delaware joining the Confederacy. Southern Delawareans were recruiting fighters and arming them to kill northern Delawareans over the issue of slavery. Pierre DuPont, who supplied most of the gun powder to the Union army, raised a militia to extinguish this brush fire. A Wikipedia article continues:

“It took DuPont’s well armed loyal militia, and other federal troops, to disarm the irregular units formed in Sussex and Kent Counties, and the militia went on to occupy the old State House and otherwise secure the state. Then as William Burton’s term came to its end, federal troops, once again were called in by Republican leaders to supervise the 1862 elections, opening up possibilities for Republican electoral victories, but assuring a generation of bitterness on the part of many Delawareans towards the party that seemed to be unjustifiably ruling at the point of a bayonet.”

Now, why have I invited you to investigate with me two stories about a William Burton of Delaware, both of which involve the issue of racial justice? Because it seems to me that current tensions in our nation regarding race relations and federal powers are still unresolved. In some ways we are still fighting the Civil War. This is evident even within this first state to ratify the federal Constitution.

Where does it hurt? That’s what Pastor Kate has been focusing on in her sermon series. It hurts deep down in our hearts, my fellow Americans. I said earlier that civil wars can reverberate down generations, and I think that’s happening now.

You know that I lead a group of veterans dedicated to preventing veteran suicide. Recently I got an email from a fellow member of this group. He wrote that he thought it should be shared. The note contained a very angry diatribe from a veteran outside our group which railed against all members of a political party which he detests. And it cited supposed facts which are in fact widely disputed.

I could not believe my friend’s suggestion that this note should be shared. Why? I wondered what my friend’s own views were. Did he agree with all that the note said? I almost sat down to write a long disputation and fire off my righteous email. But then I thought, no, I don’t want to do that. That will only distance me from my friend. I’ll call him instead. And I am so glad I did phone him, because we had a very cordial conversation, same as always. He gave me glad permission to speak of this matter in my message to you. Meanwhile, I read this morning’s lectionary passage written to the church in Ephesus, a city embroiled in the turmoil of a culture war:

Ephesians 4:25ff

“Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.. . . Put away from you all bitterness and wrath, wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Christians, can we do that today, as the world is growing hotter and more tense by the day, and there is suffering and strife all over the planet? Can we speak truth to one another? Can we express our anger in ways that do not fuel wildfires of rage? I am glad that Pastor Kate started preaching on the theme, “Where does it hurt?” If we strive to hear with openness where people hurt, especially those with whom we disagree, it seems to me that we will be aligned in spirit with this passage from Ephesians.

Kate suggested after sharing my message that I might pose a question regarding it. So, I’ll ask this: Lately, have you, like I, been taken aback by something that someone said–coming from someone close to you–something which made you angry, and maybe sorrowful too? How did that message hurt you? And, could you maybe listen for where that person hurts too?

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