This morning’s Scripture is the story of Jonathan’s love for David, and David’s love for Jonathan. It is a.... surprisingly challenging scripture for a gay pastor to preach in the midst of a predominately straight congregation. Because at some point, I have to decide: Will I tell you what I see? Will I tell you what I really see here when I look at this scripture – at this story of Jonathan and David’s love for each other? There may be LGBTQIA+ friends out there who are wondering, “Will he say it?”
You see – and I apologize for this generalization – but historically, it has been a part of the LGBTQIA+ experience – for many of us – to move through the world looking for people like us. This may be true for other marginalized groups as well. We talk these days about representation in the media – we look for representation of Black people, queer people, queer Black people, Trans people, LatinX people, Asian people, people of all gender identities – we want to see everyone represented in the stories we tell. This looking for people like us may indeed be a common experience of marginalized groups; I’m going to speak from my own experience and out of the community of which I am a part.
For the LGBTQIA+ community, this looking for people like us is a part of the history of our oppression. For far too much of history, society (church and state), society has said to LGBTQIA+ people that there is something fundamentally flawed in us. That our existence is somehow wrong. And so, the powers have insisted that we not show up – forcing folk into the experience of the closet – often with the threat of criminal punishment. For far too long, there have been laws that make us and our lives illegal. And so, in the experience of the closet, over the centuries, many of us have moved through the world hidden – alive, but staying out of sight – not letting people see the whole of us – because that is risky – and so, we have moved through the world looking for people like us – as a matter of survival, as a matter of finding human connection and community, where together we can live and thrive.
For those of us who are queer and Christian, we often come to Scripture – looking for people like us – looking for our lives and our loves and our families embraced and included in the story of God’s love for the whole world over the course of the Hebrew Scriptures and in Jesus Christ.
I hope we all do that. I hope we all come to Scripture looking for ourselves created in the image of God and included in the story of God’s love. And by looking for ourselves, we can also build the capacity to look for, and to see, and to honor each other – all of us embraced in the story of God’s love for the whole world.
So this morning, I’m going to tell the story of Jonathan and David’s love for one another, and I’m going to try to cleave as closely to the Biblical text as I can. I’m not going to ask you to make a judgment about David and Jonathan’s love. What I am going to invite – is that as we hear this story – that we listen with open hearts – hearts open to how love shows up in the world.
This is the story of Jonathan’s love for David, and David’s love for Jonathan: The story begins not long after David slays Goliath. David shows up in King Saul’s court – Goliath’s head in hand. And Jonathan sees David. And this morning’s Scripture says that Jonathan’s soul was bound to David’s. Now, this “soul” word is the Hebrew word nephesh, and I’ve talked about it before. It’s so much more than soul. It is “the essential life of a person” – this nefesh – the “whole being” – our “whole self” – Jonathan’s whole self, in that moment, is bound up with David’s whole self. And so Jonathan makes a covenant with David, because, as Scripture says again, Jonathan loved David with his whole self. Jonathan makes and seals this covenant, this promise, with a ritual. He strips himself of the robe he’s wearing and hands it to David, and then gives him his armor, and his sword, and his bow, and his belt. Armed and dressed by Jonathan, David then goes out, and Scripture says he his “successful wherever the King sends him.”
But the pleasure of the King doesn’t last long. As David succeeds – King Saul – Jonathan’s father – gets jealous – and Saul is deranged. So at times he hunts David down, orders his death – but at other times, David lives in King Saul’s court, and plays the harp – one of the only ones who can calm the King’s rages.
This puts Jonathan in an untenable position. King Saul, his father, tells Jonathan about his plot to kill David, but Scripture says that Jonathan delighted in David, so he tells David, and tells David to run. At other times, Jonathan is able to calm his father, and David is welcomed back, until Saul flies into a rage and throws a spear at David trying to kill him, and David has to flee again.
And then, at a pivotal moment in the story, King Saul’s men are hunting David down. Jonathan meets with David out in a field. And David says, “Your father is trying to kill me. There’s but a step between me and death.” And Jonathan responds, “Let me handle this. I’m going to talk to my father and see if he intends to tell to kill you, and if he does – I will tell you. I promise. If I die at the hands of the King, then run. But if I live and can help save your life, all I ask is that you show me the faithful love of God – God’s hesed – the unshakeoffable love of God.”
And they come up with this plan. Jonathan will talk to King Saul. And then he will come back to the field where David is hiding. Jonathan will shoot an arrow – and if the word from the King is not good – if David’s life is in danger – then Jonathan will send his servant to get the arrow, shouting, “You need to go farther.”
So all this happens – Jonathan goes to the King – the King berates Jonathan for choosing David – and King Saul tries to kill Jonathan with a spear. The news is not good – and Jonathan lets David know – “You need to flee.” But they find a way to see each other one last time. They meet again in the field. David bows before Jonathan, throws himself on the ground before Jonathan. Scripture says that they kiss each other, and weep with each other – David weeping even more than Jonathan. And Jonathan blesses David, “Go in peace – we have sworn to each other, and God will be between you and me, and our descendants forever.” And that’s the last time they see each other.
The war rages on – King Saul hunting down David – both of them fighting the Philistines – and then one day news arrives that both King Saul and Jonathan have been killed in battle. And David cries out with the lament we read today: “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle. I grieve for you Jonathan, greatly beloved were you to me; your love was wonderful, surpassing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!”
I’ve preached on this story once before – it was almost exactly 6 years ago – and it was at ... First Presbyterian Church San Anselmo. Six years ago, when we turned to this story of Jonathan and David’s love for each other, and of David’s lament at Jonathan’s death – it was the week that the Supreme Court had issued its marriage equality decisions. Same-gender couples had brought their cases to the Court because they had been denied and shut out from marriage licenses, parental rights, and death benefits when their spouses had died. The Supreme Court held that marriage is a fundamental right under the Constitution, and – as Lin Manuel Miranda would later more poetically say – that “Love is love is love is love.”
That also was the week of the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston – as a gunman walked in and killed nine African American folks while they were gathered at church for prayer. We stood together, 6 years ago, in the pain and violence of racism and homophobia, and we listened and honored the lament that arises out of love, deeply lived and deeply wounded. And we affirmed, as poet Philip Larkin writes –
“our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”
Last week, the US Supreme Court issued a different kind of decision. Last week’s decision allowed a Catholic Social Service agency to continue to participate in the public foster-care system, even while they refuse to certify gay and lesbian couples as suitable foster parents. Fortunately for now, the Court’s decision was narrow. Philadelphia’s non-discrimination provision itself allows exceptions – you can’t discriminate, unless you get an exception that says you can. And the Court held that the City couldn’t deny an exception in this case.
But I want to look at the policy that was allowed to stand. Philadelphia depends on private agencies to assess and certify foster parents. Those agencies – like this Catholic Social Services – are delegated the power to decide a family’s “ability to provide care, nurturing and supervision to children.” If you can’t get certified, you can’t be a foster parent. Catholic Social Services refuses to certify same-gender couples as suitable families, claiming a religious exemption. By refusing to certify gay and lesbian couples as suitable parents, they say with their policy and their action that gay and lesbian couples and our families are somehow less than fully human – not suitable – not capable of parenting – not able to love children and family as parents. Catholic Social Services uses the power that the government has given them to say “no” to same-gender couples who seek to love as foster parents, and Catholic Social Services says “no” to the children who might thrive in that love. When I talk about the long history of how the church has harmed LGBTQIA+ people and our families, this is but one more example.
Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis has spent a lot of time studying the capacities that have evolved over time in our human species that give meaning to and define what it is to be human. Christakis is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale, and the Director of the Human Nature Lab there. From his research, he notes that humanity may be capable of great harm, but that, far more powerful than that, we have evolved a set of capacities – what he calls a “social suite of capacities” – that equip and empower us to live for the collective good – to make a better world together. Those innate capacities include love, relationship, compassion, cooperation, and community.
As a species, we have evolved the capacity to form relationships and unions over time with people beyond our kinship group. For our species, physical intimacy can be more than merely mating, but also a way that we form emotional bonds. We cooperate with each other. We are kind to strangers (mostly). And, significantly, Christakis says, we teach each other these skills. We teach each other love, and cooperation, and compassion.
There are significant cultural and historical forces that shape our lives – what you’ve heard me call systems and structures – but, as Christakis notes: “Deeper, more powerful, more ancient forces are at work, propelling us with these wonderful capacities” to love and create good together.
We are hard-wired for love. Love is what has come to define us as a species over time. Christakis says, over the millennia, “It was all of us. It was our species. Love was present everywhere and at all times.”
That is the story of us, according to science.
It’s also the story of us that we see flowing through the whole of Scripture. In the very beginning, we are created for love, made in the image of God. At the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures there is this: “Hear O Israel! Your God is one. Love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” God’s love – God’s hesed – God’s unshakeoffable love pulses through Scripture – God loving us – God’s love alive in the ways we love each other. “Give thanks to God for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
And then at the heart of the Gospels. What is the greatest commandment? Jesus says it plain: “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “A new commandment I give you: Love one another.” And then the Apostle Paul writes of love in community: “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never ends.” And just a few weeks ago, we looked at the writings from John’s community: “God is love. God’s love is made manifest – made complete – in us. Those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” In us.
God is love.
We are made in the image of God.
We are love. We embody God’s love. Love is who we are.
When we cut off any group of people from the fullness of the experience of love, we commit a wrong against their humanity. But not only that, when we do that, we cut ourselves off from experiencing all the many ways that love shows up in the world.
So, I am going to tell you what I see when I read this story of Jonathan and David’s love for each other. When I read this Scripture, what I see... is people like me, embraced and included in the story of God’s love for all creation. What I hope you see when you read this Scripture, what I hope you see... is people like you. I hope that you see yourself, embraced and included in the story of God’s love. What I hope for us all is that, when we look at this Scripture, we see all people, all humanity, every single one of us, embraced in and embodying God’s love for the whole world.
When I look at this Scripture what I see is love. What I see is this love that gives us the power to bind our whole self to the whole self of others –
· love that transcends any power that tries to keep us apart –
· love that works for the good of the other – even at the risk of our own safety and privilege and comfort –
· love that makes us better people – better people together than we ever could be on our own –
· love that creates a better world where all people can live and thrive.
We are how love shows up in the world. In Jonathan and David. In you. In me. In my family. In your family. In all families. In all people. Our work, our work – using the capacity for love that is hard-wired in us, by the grace of God – our work is to create a world where all of this is made more real with each new day – a world where every morning dawns with the hope that no one will miss out on a single moment – no one will miss out on a single glimpse of how love shows up in the world.
© 2021 Scott Clark
 See Bruce C. Birch, “ The First and Second Books of Samuel,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), p. 1120, for more on the meaning of nefesh and hesed, and for general background.  See Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015); https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/27/us/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage.html(“’No longer may this liberty be denied,’ Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in the historic decision. ‘No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.’”)  See Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 593 U.S. __ (2021); https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/19-123_g3bi.pdf  See interview with Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast – https://onbeing.org/programs/nicholas-christakis-how-were-wired-for-goodness/  Id.  Id.