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Kindred Spirits & Bosom Friends -- 1 Samuel 18:1-8, 20:1-22 (5th Sunday After Pentecost)


Photo credit: Ruthson Zimmer, used with permission via Unsplash.




You may have noticed in our liturgy – in the prayers we pray in worship – that now and again a lovely little phrase pops up – “kindred spirits.” We speak in terms of the “family of God” and of being “children of God,” and we speak of how we live out our life in a community of “kindred spirits.” It’s a lovely phrase – so lovely that you may think it’s biblical – and it nearly is: This morning’s Scripture speaks of how Jonathan and David become one spirit.


But that phrase “kindred spirits” actually comes from Anne of Green Gables.[1] That’s right – I gleaned that expression of deep theological and anthropological truth – we are and hope to be “kindred spirits” – I gleaned that right out of a children’s book – or maybe what we now call young adult fiction.


Now, if you don’t know the story – Anne of Green Gables is the first in a series of books about a feisty, wise-for-her-years young girl who begins the story as an orphan living in an unkind world. Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert – an aging sister and brother – need help on the farm so they send for a boy that they might adopt. Signals get crossed, and Anne – that’s Anne with an “e” – shows up – not the boy they were expecting – and in the tumult that follows they discover an almost-immediate bond – they are “kindred spirits” – and, choosing each other, they become a family.

        

We also soon discover that Anne – so long in an orphanage – longs for what she calls “a bosom friend” – a friend with whom she can share the deepest things in life.  And along comes Diana Barry for that. There’s more to it of course, but in this series of books, what we enter into is this world – where Anne of Green Gables and the other characters choose each other, and construct a world of loving human relationship, peopled by kindred spirits and bosom friends who live life together – who laugh, and love, and grow, and grieve together.

        

We are looking at the story of David and Jonathan today,[2] and we are talking about friendship – what we might just as easily call living as kindred spirits. I don’t know that we talk often enough in church about friendship. We center family relationships – parents and children, sibling relationships and rivalries. We talk about spouses. We think broadly and talk about community. But rarely do we do a deep dive into friendship – even though friendship is one of the primary kinds of human relationship we live out in life – even though it is a central concept for Jesus: Jesus gathers his disciples, and calls them friend. The story of Jonathan and David gives us the opportunity to take a long, loving look at friendship – as one scholar says, “there are no portraits in the Bible of the love and loyalty between friends to match this one.”[3]

        

Let’s look first at the world they inhabit – the unlikely world in which they form this bond. Remember last week: Theirs is a world with two kings in it. King Saul is the reigning king – but not for long. God has chosen another to be king – this young upstart David. Their world – structured around kingship – is a world of violence. Kings take power by violence; they maintain power by violence. There are neighboring kingdoms all around vying for territory and power, and there are threats from within.


Theirs is a world of two houses – the House of Saul and the House of David. Only one person can be king – only one house can reign. Jonathan is of the House of Saul – he is the eldest son, the heir apparent to the throne. And along comes this shepherd David, called to become king – to establish this House of David. Jonathan and David live in a world that pits them against each other from the start – a world that would tear them apart. In their world’s rules of engagement – only one can survive.

        

But they choose a different way. As this morning’s Scripture begins, David has just slain Goliath. The Hebrew armies are facing down the Philistine armies – and little David, well, he slays the giant. And King Saul takes notice, and brings this bright young warrior into his house. Jonathan and David encounter each other, and the connection is instantaneous – they become one spirit. They make a covenant with each other – because, as Scripture says, Jonathan loves David as himself (20:1, 3), and David loves Jonathan “as his own life.” (20:17).

        

Now, remember the world they live in. The people also notice David, and they start to sing, “King Saul has slain his thousands, and David, his tens of thousands.” King Saul doesn’t like that one bit. And King Saul has his own issues – he is unbalanced – he flies into rages – ironically, he has rages that only David can calm by playing the harp. But the rages become more and more violent. In one, the King throws his spear at David. And Jonathan and David have to face the realities of their world: King Saul wants David dead. Only one of them can be king.

        

In this morning’s scripture, we get this exchange – this extended conversation between Jonathan and David. David tells Jonathan, “Your father is going to kill me.” And, though Jonathan tries to deflect, they speak truth to each other, and Jonathan says, “Tell me what you want me to do.” And they come up with a scheme whereby Jonathan will approach his father – and then send a coded message to David – who is now hiding in the fields – as to whether it’s safe to stay, or whether he should run. Now.

        

And then, they make promises to each other. Jonathan tells David: I promise that if my father is trying to kill you, I will help you escape and live. And then he asks David, and if you become king, promise me that you will keep my children safe. They know how this world works. You see Jonathan isn’t just showing loyalty to someone who is a friend. Jonathan is extending love and loyalty to a friend who will be king instead of him.[4] Jonathan asks David to show him the same steadfast love and loyalty that God shows to God’s people, and Jonathan agrees to do the same.

Kindred spirits. Bosom friends.

        

And it all unfolds as we’d expect. King Saul goes into a rage when he realizes that David has disappeared; Saul throws a spear at his own son; and Jonathan sends the signal to David: Go. Run. They meet each other for one last time – the last they will ever see each other – they bow to each other. They embrace. And Jonathan says: “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship to each other.” They weep together. And David leaves.

        

Let’s notice a few things about this friendship between kindred spirits:


Notice that their friendship is grounded in “hesed.” Do you remember hesed? It’s one of the most important words in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hesed is God’s unshakeoffable love – often translated as God’s “steadfast love” or God’s “lovingkindness” – “God’s steadfast love (God’s hesed) endures forever.”[5] It is love and loyalty all wrapped up in one – God’s unshakeoffable love. It is the love that binds God to God’s people. It’s the love that holds the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures together. In the commitments they make, Jonathan and David say to each other – Let’s promise to love each other like that –  Unshakeoffably.


Notice the vulnerability – the mutual vulnerability and the mutual commitment to protect each other – to live for the good of each other. There’s that moment right at the start of the first scripture reading – where Jonathan and David make a covenant together. They are both warriors, and yet Jonathan takes off his robe and his tunic, and gives them to David. Jonathan takes off his sword, his bow, and his belt, and gives them to David. Jonathan stands there before David completely undefended – and offers to David every means of protection that he has. Let us love each other like this. Let us protect each other like this.


Notice how counter-cultural their friendship is. Theirs is a world of kingship, and violence, and power-over. They are of separate houses that will vie for the throne – only one can survive. In their world of violence, they choose hesed. They live in a world that would tear them apart, and they choose a friendship that bridges the separation – that loves, protects, nurtures, sustains, and gives life. Unshakeoffably. And forever.

They choose friendship. In this world of violence, we see the potential for so much more.

        

Jonathan and David’s story comes up once every three years in our three-year cycle of suggested Scripture readings – and in the rhythm of the calendar year, it comes up in June – in the month of Pride – which has me thinking this year of how particularly crucial friendshipsare within the LGBTQIA+ community. There’s this phrase you hear to describe this – you also heare it in the broader community – “family of choice.”


For far too long, the world we inhabit has been hostile to loving relationships as expressed and embodied in the LGBTQIA+ community. LGBTQIA+ folks have known the rejection of the broader community – laws that criminalize and separate – churches that would do the same. LGBTQIA+ folks have known the rejection of their own families. And so in the midst of this, they/we have formed “families of choice” – creating families connected by friendship that defy the powers of separation – seeking out kindred spirits in a hostile world – choosing and creating together a community of love and nurture. These chosen families have sustained the LGBTQIA+ community through the police raids of the last century, through Anita Bryant – through the worst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when the rest of the world turned their back, through the current pandemic of transphobia. When the world said your relationships and your love are not legally possible, friendship became a primary, sustaining bond.


Now, because it’s Pride, I should also say – because some of you may be thinking it – so let’s say it out loud. You can read this story of David and Jonathan and see more than friendship. It is in the text, again and again. They love the other as themselves. There are many scholars who have spent lots of ink and paper to explain why they think this is NOT anything more than friendship, and I and others could say what more we see here. We should name that.


But for the time we have left today, I want to stay centered on friendship. Because this depth of friendship we see here in this story is foundational to every type of relationship we live out in life. It has the potential to transform and sustain every type of relationship. Friendship is a chosen relationship with another person in which we come to agree -- to see and be seen by the other; to act for the other’s good; to be present with each other in challenge and struggle; and to be a loving place to which we can always return. In a world that would separate and tear folks apart, God gives us friendship as a way of living out, with each other, God’s own love and loyalty – God’s own hesed – God’s own unshakeoffable love.


Friendship is what Jesus chooses to name his relationship with his disciples. On the night before he dies: “My command is this: Love one another. Greater love have no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends. You are my friends when you do what I command: Love one another. I no longer call you servants; I have called you friends.” Jesus names and claims a relationship with them of vulnerable loyalty, of equal power, and of unshakeoffable love.[6] “I have called you friends.”


In his book How to Know a Person, David Brooks says that we are in the midst of “a crisis of connection.”[7] Brooks says that to heal that we have to learn how to really see each other – and be willing to be really seen. Friendship gives us the space to develop that muscle – to learn how to draw near to each other through concrete actions – to learn how to see from another’s point of view; how to disagree without poisoning the relationship; how to forgive and ask for forgiveness. [8]


Cole Arthur Riley writes that friends and friendship help us to see our own faces.[9]Have you ever thought about that? Our own face is the one face we cannot see directly. She writes, “We need other people to see our own face – to bear witness to their beauty and truth.”


Oh, there’s so much to say about friendship: We could talk about how there are different depths of friendship – of course there are. Not every friend is a bosom friend – and that’s OK. Did you know that researchers say that humans are hard-wired with the capacity for about 5 close-friends, and for about a max of about 150 social friends?[10] Or, we could talk about how hard it can be to make friends. Have you experienced that? I know I have – moving to California, with busy lives – where does one even start? There’s so much to say.


But maybe let’s just stay centered on this: What if we just started with the relationships we already have – the relationships we share here with each other – in the Body of Christ – the relationships with our families. In those relationships, what would it mean if we chose to see each other as kindred spirits? What if we chose to see and be seen by each other; to act for the other’s good; to be present with each other in challenge and struggle; and to be, for each other, a loving place to which we can always return. What if we then moved out into the world – choosing all that – as even strangers become friends.


In a world that would tear them apart, David and Jonathan choose each other. In a world of separation and violence and power-over, they choose a better way of unshakeoffable love. What if we. Choose. That.



© 2024 Scott Clark




[1] Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908).

[2] For general background on this Scripture, the David-Jonathan narrative, and 1 Samuel generally, see Bruce C. Birch, “The Books of First and Second Samuel,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp.1115-37.

[3] Birch, p.1132.

[4] Birch, p.1133.

[5] See id.

[6] See Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005), for a description of how Jesus initiates a “horizontal relationship of interdependence.”

[7] See David Brooks, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen (New York: Random House Books, 2023), pp. 97-106.

[8] See id. p.8.

[9] See Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh (New York: Convergent Books, 2022), p.81.

[10] See Robin Dunbar, How Many Friends Does One Person Need? (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2010); or listen to a great interview with Dunbar on the Ten Percent Happier podcast: https://www.tenpercent.com/tph/podcast-episode/robin-dunbar-372

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