God-inspired Joy

Sunday, July 12
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Focus Theme
God-inspired Joy

Weekly Prayer
God of hosts, before whom David danced and sang, Mother of mercy and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all things cohere: whenever we are confronted by lust, hate, or fear, give us the faith of John the baptizer, that we may trust in the redemption of your Messiah. Amen.

Focus Scripture
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 songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

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 Lord had 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.

All Readings For This Sunday
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 Psalm 24 or
Amos 7:7-15 Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Focus Questions

1. When we compare our faith and our ritual with that of ancient Israel, does it seem that we have tried to “tame” God?

2. Who is God for you? What does God’s “holiness” mean to you?

3. How do you respond to Annie Dillard’s suggestion that we all wear “crash helmets” to church?

4. How is the image of David’s dance, the story of his celebration, a story for us today? Can one dance metaphorically, or in stillness?

5. In an age when our communal ties are fraying, what does it mean to you to gather as a church family and sing, break bread, and open your heart in prayer?

Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)

Have we tamed the gospel? How passionate is our worship, how exuberant our praise, how deep our awe at what God is doing in our lives and in the life of the world? Do we really know what it feels like to rejoice “with all our might” because God is present in our lives? Have we ever felt so full of exultation about Who God Is that we want to dance without inhibition, right in front of our family, our friends, and our community? Or are we closer to being the “frozen chosen” who sit almost immobile in our pews? We think of David in the Hebrew Scriptures as hero and king, and his memory was indeed a bright, sustaining source of hope for the people of Israel. But when we think of his humanness we tend to concentrate on his flaws, especially his tragic affair with Bathsheba. This week’s reading, however, portrays a very human, very joy-filled, dancing David, undoubtedly pleasing in God’s sight. (It recalls Irenaeus’ famous line, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” David certainly comes across as “fully alive” in this story.)

This week’s reading from 2 Samuel, in one sense, book-ends the reading from two weeks ago (2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27) when David was full of grief over the deaths of Jonathan and Saul. The man who, tradition says, composed the psalms was obviously a person of deep feeling, and today’s passage about his joy gives us another side of his passion, his profound gratitude and praise for God’s work in the life of the Israel, bringing the people together, uniting the kingdom, strengthening them in common cause against the enemy Philistines, establishing the people and their land and the Davidic dynasty to the glory of God, fulfilling the promises of God right before their eyes, in their own lifetime.

The ark had been returned by the Philistines (after they had captured it) because of its awesome power which frightened the foreigners, and then, for a while, it rested in the house of Abinadab. David, in establishing Jerusalem as his seat of power, wanted to restore the ark to the center of the people’s shared life, and he went to fetch it from its temporary home. In a sense, the ark had always had a temporary home, moving with the people in their journeys and resting only for a time in Shiloh. Perhaps David felt the ark was truly coming home, even though that home was a new one.

God with us in so many ways

Patricia Dutcher-Walls provides background for this episode in the long and often painfully violent story of David’s rise to power. The celebration represented the culmination of a process of consolidation, with building projects (including a magnificent home for David himself); the expansion of David’s family with many wives, concubines, and children; and military victories over the Philistines. And now, here is the final touch: bringing God right into the center of things, literally, that is, with the ark, which had traveled with the Hebrew people throughout their time in the wilderness and later in the Promised Land. As well as holding the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them, Dutcher-Walls writes, the ark was “a visible symbol of God’s awesome presence.”

In our age of the separation of church and state, it may be difficult to picture such an overtly religious celebration by the head of state, particularly one involving exuberant dancing before God. However, in the time of ancient Israel, it was important, Dutcher-Walls writes, that David establish himself as faithful to God and the religious traditions of the people he now ruled. In doing so, David must have reassured the people of his continuity with those who had come before him; the newness of this capital city would be balanced, no doubt, by the “the stability and orthodoxy” represented by the ark. It couldn’t have hurt David’s credibility, either, in the eyes of the people, because this was obviously a king who enjoyed the favor of God.

The complexities when political and religious realities overlap

But this isn’t a private celebration of David’s personal success, Dutcher-Walls observes, for the people themselves participate in the procession and the feast that accompanies the return of the ark, reminding them “that David is king for them,” but he is also “the primary intermediary between the earthly and divine realms in the ancient world.” Perhaps we might learn from this passage that even when church and state are separate, our “political and religious realities overlap in complex ways, humility and wisdom are required to understand and carry out one’s allegiances and commitments to both.” Today, people of all faiths in a diverse society can find unity in a public life that reflects “humility and wisdom” on the part of all, including and especially its leaders, and a shared dream of a place at the table for all of the children of God.

The passage that is omitted by the lectionary is one of those unpleasant and perplexing biblical stories that jar us: the earnest and attentive Uzzah, reaching out to prevent the fall of the ark, is struck dead, presumably for failing to observe the proper rituals necessary to touch the ark. The lectionary often spares us such unpleasantness. Yes, it’s difficult to accept with our modern sensibilities (even more so than the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts, and that’s a tough one), when you think about the unfairness of it: wasn’t Uzzah sincerely, piously, even instinctively trying to do the right thing, bless his heart? Wouldn’t we have done the same in that situation? But this is a glimpse of the people of Israel’s understanding of faithfulness, their awe, their sense of the sacred and the “otherness” of God, a God whose name became something they could not even say out loud because of its profound holiness.

Welcome to worship, here’s your crash helmet…

When we compare our faith and our ritual with that of ancient Israel, does it seem that we have tried to “tame” God? Who is God for you? Is God a nice, friendly companion who comforts us and offers us a reward for our good behavior and our regular attendance at church? Or is this God of David and the people of Israel more likely the terrifying God of Annie Dillard, the remarkable American author, who famously wrote in Teaching a Stone to Talk, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?….It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Dillard’s observation is not so much the fearful image of a punishing God, though, as it is an attempt to convey the people’s ancient understanding of God’s awesome otherness, God’s transcendent power and glory. It is oddly comforting, in a very different way from the tamed and domesticated Comforter-God, that the universe is not spinning wildly out of control but is in the hands of a God so much greater than our imaginations (which are pretty powerful engines in their own right, if we would only use them).

Building the City of God

David had many flaws (a reading of the entire narrative of his life makes us wince more than once) but a lack of passion was not one of them. In the joyous procession of the ark toward Jerusalem, his new capital and now, in a sense, “The City of God,” he had many reasons to rejoice. Things were now coming together for him very nicely; things were falling into place as he established this throne (or laid claim to God establishing it). Tradition says that David wrote the psalms, and this scene recalls verse 6 in Psalm 16: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” No wonder David danced! Jubilation is a word we rarely use, perhaps because such a feeling has been limited for many, for the most part, to sports and political victories. But what if we felt deep-down-in-our-hearts jubilation over what God is doing in our lives? Would we dance, too?

Henry Brinton has compared our “frozen chosen” worship, especially in Euro-American churches, to a modern dance solo by Paul Taylor, the dancer/choreographer who “simply stood motionless on stage for four minutes.” Like Taylor’s dance, our worship is often motionless: “What we do is nothing ñ we just stand still, hardly moving a muscle,” engaging everything but our bodies. This is especially noticeable in Protestant churches, where both the offering plate and communion itself are brought to the people in the pews, presumably so that we won’t need to move. Contrast that immobility with the vitality of churches where the congregation comes forward to bring their offerings and to receive communion. It reminds me of Tony Robinson’s writings about the need to see ourselves as “receivers who give”: in our pattern of seeing ourselves only as givers in church, it’s easy to forget our brokenness, our neediness, our “less worthy” selves: “The self that is anxious and the self that is hurting,” he writes; “the self that is, yes, capable of giving but that also needs to receive the gifts of God and the grace of God.” Might David have had a keener sense of his own need to receive the gifts of God that day, or better, might David have understood just how many gifts he had already received?

A dance of stillness

Brinton quotes a lovely passage from Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, in describing David’s dance with God as “‘they cut loose together…whirling around before the ark in such a passion that they caught fire from each other and blazed up in a single flame’ of magnificence.” David didn’t even care when his wife, Michal, watched disapprovingly (she came, not insignificantly, from the house of Saul, David’s predecessor and rival). Brinton observes that Michal, like many of us in church today, might have been more comfortable with Paul Taylor’s “unmoving” dance.

I feel compelled to offer an “on the other hand” note here, for all of us introverts who might read this reflection differently: I believe it’s possible to feel a sense of God’s presence and goodness and sacredness while sitting absolutely still. In fact, I wonder if one way to interpret Taylor’s “dance” is to feel our need to stop, metaphorically: to stop moving, trying, striving, running around from here to there, reaching, reaching, reaching…have we lost our sense of God in the inner stillness we might find in reflection, in meditation, in the quiet? There is also the question of mobility issues, for those who cannot get up and dance (I think of my mother, in the front pew every Sunday, with her walker). While dancing David may provide a valid and valuable (and much-needed) corrective (addition?) for less-than-vital worship services, so might the quiet nuns and monks and mystics who experience God in silence and stillness as well. Some of us might feel discomfort if we interpret a text as suggesting that we have to dance (literally, not just in our spirit or heart) in order to worship God in beauty and truth. There are, we know, so many wondrous paths to God; how can we share the journey together?

And then they sat down to eat

In any case, for all the dancing and rejoicing, the otherness and the transcendence, the burnt offerings and the prayers, the power and fear and danger and joy, even with the awareness we have about the temple that will be built and the glory it represents, the passage itself culminates in an experience that we also share with the people of ancient Israel and their mighty and glorious king: they eat a meal together. Food is distributed “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.” Each one had a portion, each one had enough, great and powerful along with small and ordinary, men and women, each one with food to eat and a spirit of gratitude and awe to take home with them.

How is that image, that story, a story for us today? When we praise and pray and share our meal at the table, are we aware of “all the people, the whole multitude” of the world that hungers for “a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins”? How are we doing when we, like the people of ancient Israel, return to our homes? Does any of this have an effect, a power, in the life that we share with all of God’s children, not just our own families, our church, our friends? In an age when our communal ties are fraying (see Robert Putnam’s classic book, Bowling Alone), what does it mean to you to be able to gather as a church family and sing, break bread, and open your heart in prayer, not as a solitary activity but with others, as David did with the people?

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_july_12_2015.

For further reflection

John Maxwell, 20th century
“A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century
“Without music, life would be a mistake….I would only believe in a God who knew how to dance.”

William Butler Yeats, 20th century
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Mr. Miyagi, The Next Karate Kid, 1994
“Never trust spiritual leader who cannot dance.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 19th century
“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

Hopi Indian Saying
“To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.”

Snoopy (Charles Schulz), 20th century
“To live is to dance, to dance is to live.”

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.