Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Biblical House of Cards

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

 This summer Stephen and I decided that we would use the Lectionary to guide the themes and topics of our summer services. Throughout most of the year, we work with the Worship Ministry to choose themes that are meaningful and relevant to the congregation and I then find scripture readings that are most appropriate for the themes. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to just pick up a predetermined schedule and choose from one of the four readings on any given Sunday to use for the basis of our sermons. The Lectionary was designed so that dedicated followers would make their way through the Bible every three years. One of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is the focus for one of the three years with the Gospel of John sprinkled throughout the more high holy times. This year, Year B, we are making our way through Mark. Two weeks ago we looked at the end of chapter five and, last week, we read the beginning of chapter six. Obviously, this week I chose not to stick with the Gospel reading but, rather, I went with the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture reading instead. The order of the readings is so that from Advent to Pentecost—December until about June—is arranged as Narrative Time which tell of how God has dealt, is dealing, and will deal with God’s people, with us. Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost and back to Advent—so, June to November—tells us, then, how we should respond.
If you pay attention each week during the periods that we use the Lectionary, you will notice that, frequently, the readings do not follow directly from one to the other. From week to week, even within the reading itself as happens today, there are breaks in the verses read. Some portions of scripture are consistently skipped year after year. We highlighted this last fall when we used a reading or two from the Song of Songs—a rather detailed love poem that is supposedly an allegory describing God’s love for Israel. Stephen and I led a short bible study on a number of rather serious stories that are ignored altogether by the Lectionary designers and would never be read out loud in any sanctuary if a preacher only ever followed the Lectionary.
Today you can see that the reading is from chapter six of 2 Samuel. And for some reason some verses early it the chapter are left out as is the final bit of the chapter. Some might say that these verses were left out to make the reading a reasonable length. But let me tell you what’s missing and you might have a better sense of why the powers that be decided to set them aside. So, to give you the setting for the story, you need to know that just in chapter five David was anointed as king over all of Israel and had recently conquered Jerusalem, calling it the City of David. Remember King David was completely human and, as such, possessed an ego and desire for power. His ego and his want for power drove him to decide that God needed to reside within the gates of his city. Chapter six begins with David gathering his men—thirty thousand altogether. This vast number of people sets the tone of what’s about to happen—this shows how powerful David was to have had thirty thousand men at his beck and call. So, he gathers the thirty thousand men and he arranges for the ark of the covenant, the ark of God to be settled in Jerusalem. For those of you who will remember your Sunday School lessons, you will remember that the Ark is not filled with sand and angels of death as it was in the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark but rather, the Ark of God was a small box which contained the stone tablets that had the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them. It had rings at each corner and four men carried it by placing two poles through the rings on either side. This was the proper way of carrying the Ark—these were the instructions from God to Moses—no human was to touch the Ark itself.  The Ark was carried by the Israelites as they wandered through the desert for the forty years. Wherever they set up camp, it was put in a special tent called the Tabernacle. When the Israelites crossed over to the Promised Land and they were trying to conquer Jericho, they carried the Ark around the city once each day for seven days until the walls of the city came tumbling down. The Ark of God was central to the faith of the Israelites. Wherever the Ark was, so was God.
And so, fast forward hundreds of years…David has been anointed king and now wants it to be clear that he is God’s chosen leader so he declares that the Ark will be moved to Jerusalem. As it begins it move, David and the whole house of Israel celebrate by singing and dancing before the Ark along its route. And then there is a break the reading. What happens between verse six and the beginning of verse twelve is astonishing. Amongst this celebration, something devasting occurs. One of men in charge of moving the Ark dies a terrible death. You see, David did not follow the proper protocol of transporting the Ark. He had it placed on a cart pulled by oxen. It was carried by poles through the rings at each of the four corners. But the ox stumbled at one point and it looked like the Ark was going to fall off the cart. A guy named Uzzah placed his hand on the Ark to prevent it falling and he was immediately struck dead by God. Shocking! Just shocking. So, now, at this point, David and God have a falling out and, David is suddenly afraid of doing anything more to annoy God so he parks the Ark in a house nearby.
For three months the household finds itself suddenly blessed in all manners of being. This is where our reading picks up. David noticed the blessings bestowed upon the house and decided to give God another try. This time, as the Ark is being carried to Jerusalem, there is no mention of oxen or carts so its likely being carried in the proper fashion. But, David really upped his game. He sacrificed a bull and a fatted calf—something that normally only the priests would do. And he does so while wearing a priestly garment—an ephod. Which is kinda like an apron that you might see an employee wearing at Lowes Home Depot. Its significant here that he is wearing the vestments and performing the rites that are normally for priests only. But I’ll get to that in a moment. It seems that he was wearing the ephod and nothing else. We don’t realize just how indiscreet David was in his choice of garment when the Lectionary is read as is but for now we will carry on,  I’ll tell you more in moment. So, we have David wearing a priestly aprong and he dances with great enthusiasm as the Ark enters Jerusalem. The Ark is settled and there is a feast. The preaching for this scripture reading, without mention of Uzzah’s death of course, usually involves exhortations to celebrate God’s presence, that dancing is okay—a serious concern for some Christians—so dancing is alright and, just as importantly, we must remember to be joyful before God.
So, that’s the end of the reading but not the end of the chapter. It is in the last four verses is when we find out not only about David’s lack of underwear and we find out how David is working on his own House of Cards. We learn how his political machinations are as well considered as those of Francis Underwood. You see, in the last four verses, David returns home and gets bawled out by his wife. Do you remember that a woman named Michal was observing David’s entrance into Jerusalem and she despised him in heart? Well, not only was Michal the daughter of Saul, the first King of Israel, who by the way had put out a hit on David but, in a crazy turn of events, was himself killed and David was lifted up to take the throne. Michal as David’s wife helped him evade being found and killed. But, that love aside, she is very, very annoyed with David. She lays right into when he gets home. HOW DARE YOU embarrass me!! How poorly the King of Israel distinguished himself, disrobing himself as any vulgar fellow would. That’s actually what she says. So, here we know that’s David’s altogether was on display as he danced his way through town. But then the significance of all that’s happened is revealed. We find out the motivation behind David’s actions. He tells Michal, it is before God, who chose ME not your father, that I dance. And it is before the commoner that I reveal myself. THEY will hold me in honour. And, just before we leave Michal, I’ll let you know the chapter ends with these words: Michal, the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her deat. In other words, lived her life without worth. Either she was barren, or David set her aside, it makes no matter, her criticism mattered not.
David’s words to Michal towards the end of the chapter puts a different spin on the story than just one of celebration and joy. David is telling Michal of how important it is that his ascension to the throne needs to be recognized, accepted and celebrated not only by the powerful of the country—both the political leaders but also the religious leaders. And so we know why he insisted on behaving as a priest would—sacrificing animals and wearing vestments—or rather, one vestment. His bawdy nature appealed to those who lined the roadways as the Ark the Covenant, as God’s very self, made its way to take up residence in Jerusalem, the City of David. Make no mistake, this is a story of politics, of power, of ego, of dominance. Even poor Uzzah’s death cannot be overlooked. David’s arrogance allowed him to think he could set God aside when God’s wrath came down upon his plans. I don’t know why Uzzah was killed—maybe there was an accident and the poor man died along the way. Perhaps in an effort to explain why, it was realized that the Ark was not being respected and so its mistreatment was attributed to God. But’s placement in this story is necessary because it reminds of us David’s humanity—he is scared of God. He had been behaving as if it was all him that made his successful possible, as if God wasn’t involved at all. His feeling chastised doesn’t last long but he’s brought down a notch amongst his self-celebratory travels to Jerusalem.
I don’t know really how I feel about this story about King David. On one hand, the full story, the whole of chapter six, shows how deft David was in the political arena and gives us a rare glimpse of what little humility David possessed. On the other hand, unless we read the whole chapter together, we are left with an impression of David only as a man of faith. The edited scripture reading doesn’t show us David’s political manipulations and hidden agenda. The loss of Uzzah is forgotten, the fate of Michal is ignored. I find it frustrating when we don’t acknowledge the whole of the Bible. Its stories tells us so much about the early days of God’s people. I think that it would be easy for us to ignore the pieces of scripture that make us squirm. I understand sometimes storytellers want to leave out certain details because the wholeness of the story might make some uncomfortable. Picking and choosing only those pieces of scripture and those pieces of narrative in our lives that make us comfortable, acknowledging only the ‘good’ pieces of the story allow for us to overlook those who are hurting or those who are suffering or those whose humanity is being denied, overlooking the uncomfortable so that we may remain blissfully in our own comfort is not how our world will be healed. And remember, Jesus did not worry for a minute about the comfort of those who followed him or those who challenged him. Our scriptures call us to remember and know the uncomfortable so that we can learn and grow. And maybe use them to help figure out how to deal with what makes us uncomfortable in our world today. Thanks be to God.

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