Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

This Sunday I am with the people of the Church of the Nativity in Northborough - just a short time after they have said goodbye to their longtime rector. Helping congregations to navigate seasons of transition, especially clergy transitions, is a part of my work that I enjoy the most as Canon to the Ordinary. I also LOVE preaching on Old Testament texts that have been neglected almost to the point of being unknown by Christian congregations, which I think is probably the case with the sixth chapter of Second Samuel. An audio version of the sermon can be found here. The manuscript is found below.

Since I was last here with you, you have said goodbye to Len and Hallie. Goodbyes are always accompanied by an array of emotions, and people move through those emotions at their own pace. Be patient and kind and gentle with each other.

We belong to God and so we sing that the God who was our help in ages past will be our help for years to come and we trust that this is true. Part of my job as the bishop’s representative is to come here today to reassure you that all will be well and to remind you to put your whole trust in God’s goodness and to be honest and patient and kind with each other through this wilderness season. Remain open to the fact that God isn’t finished with the Church of the Nativity yet, and like the miracle at Cana in Galilee, the best is yet to come. OK?

So let’s talk about the Bible. And in particular, let’s talk about today’s Old Testament reading which we Christians too often ignore. Taken as a whole, the two Old Testament books we call First and Second Samuel represent a period of radical social and political transformation in ancient Israel.
Let me try to clarify what I mean by that. If you read through the Book of Judges, what you will find there is a pretty unstable tribal life, and at times even barbaric. It’s the stuff that people think of when they say, “I hate all that holy war and violence in the Old Testament.”  But if you keep on reading all the way to First and Second Kings you get to a strong, centralized monarchy where all the political and religious power converges in the holy city of Jerusalem. Now all that power in one place creates other challenges, and it does not last forever - but that’s a sermon for another day. At least the trains run on time!

First and Second Samuel come quite literally in between those two bookends – between barbaric tribal life and royal social order. The sixth chapter of Second Samuel takes us right into the heart of this time of social and political transition. David is bringing the ark of the covenant (which is part of that old order going all the way back to Mount Sinai) into his new capital city of Jerusalem. Back in chapter seven of First Samuel that ark was put into storage in the House of Abindadab; but then it was forgotten about for twenty years or so. David now recognizes the power of using old religious symbols to consolidate his newly claimed political power, however. So out comes the ark.  Are you with me?

David brings the ark to Jerusalem and there is this huge celebration that includes dancing and singing and eating and praying, all of them part of David’s plan to legitimize his new capital city. Some interpreters see the dancing as negative: as Canaanite, as sexual. Others see it as a normal part of worshipping YHWH, as liturgical dance. The text itself is ambiguous, so we’ll let the scholars fight that out. But what is very clear is that this is also very shrewd politics that benefits the monarchy in general, and David in particular.

Whatever his personal and political motivations may or may not be, however, this occasion also functions theologically as a desire to once more place God at the center of communal life. This is presumably a good thing. Back in the good old days, God could be encountered in the tent of meeting, moving along with God’s people on that journey through the wilderness. But now God’s people are settling down and growing up and becoming like all the other nations and they have a king and now the king has a capital city. So at one level, it makes sense to bring the ark to one central place. Eventually, David’s son, Solomon, will bring this ark into the inner sanctuary of a newly built temple, into the holy of holies. But that, too, is a sermon for another day…

So the sixth chapter of Second Samuel is really important in understanding the Old Testament because David is so successful, and Jerusalem becomes the holy city of God. Think of all of those references in the psalms about pilgrims coming to Temple. Think about Jesus riding into this same city on a donkey and taking on the religious authorities and dying on a cross on a hill outside of the city gates. Think about what is happening there even today, in a city that is considered holy by all three Abrahamic traditions, and yet sometimes one definition of holiness means that there isn’t room for the others. Think about how the New Testament ends with all that talk in the Book of Revelation about the “New Jerusalem.”  None of that happens if David doesn’t choose to make Jerusalem his capital city and bring the ark to the city to make it a religious center as well and that is what is going on in today’s Old Testament reading. So it’s a very big deal.

But all of this is really background to what I want to say to you today because in the midst of this really big stuff there is this fight we witness between the king and queen.  

As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.

This little glimpse into David’s unhappy home life in the midst of this political celebration makes it seem more Game of Thrones or House of Cards than the Word of the Lord. This marriage appears to be not much more than a political arrangement. Like so many women in the Bible, Michal is hardly ever referred to by her given name: she is alternatively “David’s wife” or “Saul’s daughter” and given the political climate of the day, it is virtually impossible for her to be both at the same time. (Think Maria Shriver when she was still married to Arnold Schwarzenegger: was she a Kennedy Democrat or Arnold’s loyal Republican wife?)

When Michal sees her husband leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despises him in her heart. But then there is a direct encounter between David and Michael which the lectionary did not bother to include today, but I commend it to you and you can look it up this afternoon. The narrative continues in verse twenty like this:

20David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” 21David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. 22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”

It’s a tough conversation to overhear - like two people going through a divorce who are trying hard not to fight in front of the kids. It’s no wonder the lectionary wants to keep this private encounter from us. But here’s the thing: the Bible includes it, and on this July day I want to ask, “why?” All along, all of our attention has been on David, from the time when we first met him as the youngest son of Jesse and then as a giant killer. He’s been larger than life, and the whole narrative has been moving toward this great king in this great city. But we get a whole new angle just from the face of Michal looking out of the window, and then in the verbal exchange that follows. It makes us wonder: beneath all of those official press releases about how great King David is, might there be another story waiting to be told. If only for a moment, the text points us that way and inquiring minds want to know: what more would Michal say if ever she got the chance to sit down with Barbara Walters!

Michal, this daughter of Saul and wife of David, is not a passive pawn caught between two powerful men. In the sixth chapter of Second Samuel we learn that she has a voice and that she has her own opinions. Of course she does. But the point is that in that moment the narrator knows it too and if we read the Bible (and not just the lectionary) then we know it too. She has a name and a story to tell, even if the dominant narrative doesn’t go very far down that road.

Michal suggests an alternative narrative apart from David’s propaganda machine. We’ve been rolling along and rolling along and then all of a sudden, this encounter invites a double-take. Wait, what? It may even invite us to what the feminist scholars call a “hermeneutic of suspicion”—to go back to the very beginning of the whole unfolding story we’ve been hearing to ask: who is telling us this story? What is their angle? To linger on this scene invites us more deeply into the complex world of the Bible.  Learning to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest the Word of God in this way may even give us the skills to read our own lives in the same way. Or maybe even our congregation. A lot of us here were taught to read the Bible in a straight line. But the truth is that the big story – what the scholars like to call the meta-narrative, has all kinds of little detours like this. And I think that gives us not just permission, but encouragement to read our own lives, and even the life of a congregation, in a similar way.

And maybe that is where we begin, at least, to hear a Word of the Lord and some good news from this strange text. It’s meaning is not immediately obvious; it’s not so clear a choir of angels and archangels singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” But what it does, I think, is invite us to take a closer look at our own lives, including the rough places and broken relationships along the way. What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are? And who are the Michals for us—those people who make us uncomfortable by holding up a mirror and demanding that we take a closer look?

The details are very different, but Nativity now embarks on its own time of transition. Some things will shift around here and it won’t all be easy. There is a big story here at Nativity and a movement into a future that belongs to God and it’s important to remember that story and to tell it. God will be with you. But there will also be a whole lot of interesting little encounters and detours and it seems to me that our work is not to control those or squash those, but to pay attention. And to notice that sometimes the most interesting bits are in the detours.

I’ve learned as a longtime parish priest and a still relatively new canon that when someone says, “I’m not so sure about that” or “I see it differently” or “what about this?” that this is just when the story is about to get really interesting. It’s tempting to want to silence those voices and press on. But what if we trust that the main story line will, in due time, move along and so allow that to free us to attend to some of the messy details along the way – what we might even call the counter-narrative or any number of minority reports? In so doing, we may well discover a word of grace and hope – food for the journey. We may find our voices as Michal does in this encounter with her husband, the king.

So I invite you to use this time in the life of this congregation to listen closely to each other, and especially to the voices you may not be accustomed to hearing. The temptation will be to smooth the edges and move quickly. But take the advice of Simon and Garfunkel: slow down and make the morning last. Breathe in, and breathe out. Linger a bit and ponder all of these things in your hearts. Attend to the story of what God is up to – in the Bible, in your life, in the unfolding life of this parish, and above all in the world outside of these doors, as the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. 

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