Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songsand lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
It was told King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’ So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lordhad gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt-offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
To Dance with God: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
What exactly is this ark that has gotten David so excited that he is dancing down the street? This does not seem like typical king behavior. Given that we don’t talk about the ark of the covenant every week, it's probably a good idea to take some time to remind ourselves just what it is. I mean, some of us might have some idea because we've seen that one Indiana Jones movie where a bunch of Nazis are looking for it and end up with their faces melted off. I must warn you, there is much less face-melting in 2nd Samuel. There are a few plagues and a whole bunch of dancing, but no face-melting. What is all this dancing about anyway? Who is it for?
The scholar Samuel Giere wrote a summary that I found helpful, especially since the ark is in two other books before it pops back up here in this book. Here's the short version of the ark's history. Way back during the Exodus, God told Moses to have someone craft an ark, which is kind of a container, that will hold the tablets of the first ten commandments. An artisan named Bezalel created it. Moses put the tablets inside and then put the whole thing into the newly constructed tabernacle. When they left Mount Sinai, they carried the ark with them. Later, in the book of Joshua, the ark was at the front of their procession across the Jordan River. And, later still, in the terrible massacre of Jericho, the soldiers march the ark around the city walls before the walls come tumbling down.
Then, we really don't hear about the ark again until the time of Samuel, the last judge to rule the Israelites before the monarchy began. Samuel slept in the room with the ark when he was a boy. In this book of the Bible, the people called the Philistines are the greatest enemies of the Israelites. Early in 1st Samuel, they steal the ark. While nobody's face melts off, a bunch of other really bad stuff happens to them, like tumors and town-wide panics. Scripture tells us they were happy to give the ark back, and even threw in a little extra gold for the Israelites trouble. The ark got left in a town called Baale- Judah. David, our dancing king, decided to bring it from there to Jerusalem.
To catch us up on what has been going on in 2nd Samuel, David had been consolidating his power and had defeated the Philistines, winning the city of Jerusalem. As one who, since a very young age, has felt God at work in his life, David wanted to bring the ark, the symbol of the covenant and the very presence of God, into the city that would come to be central to Israelite worship. Remember, this ark isn't simply a keepsake box to hold special trinkets. That is one thing the Indiana Jones movie got right. It was very special. Somewhere between its creation and the march into the Promised Land, this ark became known the central site for God's presence with God's people. It's like when you hold a magnifying glass in the sun, condensing all the sun's powers into one hot, burning point: The ark was the hot, burning point of God. The ark is God's throne. The ark is also a speaker through which God makes Godself known. In parts of Numbers and Exodus, it says that Moses would hear God from between the two Cherubin on the ark. In retrospect, it makes sense that David would want this tangible presence of God to be in the midst of his people in their new capital.
I imagine that many of us understand the celebration part of this story. A battle has been won and God is being brought into the city. Of course, David would dance. Of course, the people would play instruments and sing with great joy. Of course, they would build a brand-new cart in which to transport the ark. God was returning to the midst of the people. This is a reason to celebrate. So, bring on the lyres, harps, tambourines, and cymbals! But this story isn’t all celebration.
I don't know if you were paying attention to this whole passage, but did you notice that the story goes from verses 1-6 to verses 12-19. There's a story in the middle that’s left out of today’s reading. It is not a joyful one. It’s one that reminds us that God's power as resides in the ark is not a neutral force. For all the joy that can come from restoration with the Divine, the God of David was dangerous, too. When the ark was not handled with a specific kind of care, people could die, and, not just people who were identified as enemies like the Philistines. In the story that is left out of today's reading, an Israelite man named Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark to keep it from tipping out of the fancy new cart. God got mad. God killed Uzzah because he touched the ark without permission. It doesn't seem to matter that Uzzah was trying to keep the ark from falling. He still died.
David, who had moments earlier been dancing his heart out, erupted in fear and anger against God. He did not anticipate a seemingly innocent man's death in the middle of his victorious parade. David then began to doubt that he could be a good steward of the ark. After such a terrible incident, he said, "How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?" He took it to the home of a man named Obed-edom and left it there for three months. He could not see a way forward after such a terrible and terrifying act. I read a scholar this week named David Garber, Jr. who said this part of the story, the story of the death of Uzzah, is hard for a lot of Christians to know what to do with. We often think of God as approachable, like as Jesus who welcomes children or a God who is like a gentle, powerful parent. This God in this story is the opposite of approachable. Garber says this God is shaped by a sense of dangerous otherness. We end up doing what David did. Put that terrifying mystery somewhere else. We don’t tell that story at church. We avoid the dangerous other until we can figure out what to do with it. Let’s skip that part of the story and get back to the dancing.
We do eventually get back to the dancing. Having the ark, while dangerous, was also a blessing to Obed-edom. His household prospered. Three months after the first disastrous attempt to bring the ark into Jerusalem, David tried again. He danced again, though it seems with more intention and maybe a touch of solemnity. David danced before God giving all he could, with only trumpets to guide the rhythm. He does something other interesting stuff, too, stuff that priests only usually did. He wore a small piece of clothing called an ephod (and little else). He performed a sacrifice. He constructed a tent in which to house the ark. He even blessed and fed his people. His wife Michal saw all this leaping and dancing in not nearly enough clothes and though David had debased himself instead of shorn up his reign as king. But, David was satisfied with his procession. The people seemed satisfied, too. God quietly sat among the people, not too disturbed to strike anyone down and seemingly prepared to offer blessing over punishment once again.
This is a complex text, isn't it? I mean, the most straightforward reading, the one facilitated by chopping up the story to emphasize the two dancing parades while also pairing it with today’s other reading, the joyful Psalm 24 that discusses God's power and enthronement over the world... that reading is a pretty joyful one. Our church and our world could probably use some more joyful dancing. But, a comedian named Hannah Gadsby recently pointed out, our stories are shaped as much by what we don't tell as what we do tell. Uzzah died, punished by a mysterious God. Michal was not impressed by her husband's pageantry. This story, while bracketed by raucous dancing, is not wholly joyful. The God in this story, pleased with dance and song, but angered by an errant touch, is not wholly approachable or even really fully comprehensible.
Another scholar I read this week, Cláudio Carvalhaes, suggested asking a couple questions of a text to help capture the breadth of possible interpretations and maybe even identify what interpretation is most needed today. Let's think about the most local version of “community” first. What does each text have to do with us and our community of Winthrop? On your bulletin, write down these questions: What is God telling us to consider? What is God telling us to do in Winthrop? To Change? To Move? To Engage? To transform, right here, today with guidance from this complicated story? We are in a curious season of the church year, between the firey beginnings of Pentecost and the expectant and hopeful beginnings of Advent. This is a time when we are guided by the Holy Spirit, through the texts we've inherited. What is the Spirit telling you about these texts today? Let's be quiet together for just a moment, then we'll sing a little and pray. After that, I‘ll invite you to share what the text and the Spirit are saying to you today.
* If you are reading this sermon after I preached it, I invite you to write in the comment section of this post what about this story is inspiring you today.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Samuel Giere: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3683
Cláudio Carvalhaes, "Proper 10(15)," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
David G. Garber, Jr.: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2526
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.