Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Time to Celebrate -- Sermon for Pentecost 7B

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19

What religious symbols stir in you an awareness of God’s presence? Is it the communion table? The chalice and the bread that sit on the table? Is it an open Bible or a pulpit? For the people ancient Israel one of the most potent symbols of God’s presence was the Ark of the Covenant. This Ark, according to the book of Exodus, was a wooden box overlaid with pure gold. On that box sat the mercy seat and two cherubs with wings outstretched. This wasn’t a magical box, but it did represent the presence of God to the people (Exodus 25:10-22). 

In modern times this sacred symbol became the centerpiece of a popular action-adventure movie. You may have even seen this movie titled Raiders of the Lost Ark!  The setting of the movie is World War II. Adolph Hitler is trying to collect artifacts that can help empower his dreams of world conquest. One of these artifacts that he wants to find and control is the Ark, which according to the book of Hebrews contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9:4). 

According to the biblical story from the time of the Exodus until the time of the exile the ark accompanied the people of Israel. The question is – what happened to the Ark after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple? If you’ve watched the History Channel, you may have run across a show or two that attempts to answer the question. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his colleagues discover the Ark in an Egyptian temple. Unfortunately, his competitor manages to steal it away from him. From there begins the chase. In the end, Indiana is captured and tied up. Fortunately for him, when his rival tries to open up the Ark and tap into its power, the divine power within destroys the enemy. If you’ve seen the movie, I need say no more! Divine retribution is visited upon those who dared to desecrate this treasure. You might say that the moral of this story is that it’s best not to mess with divine things.

In the reading from 2 Samuel David continues to consolidate his power in Israel. He set up a new capital at Jerusalem, but he needed something else to unite the people. He needed to bring God into the equation. The best way to do that was to bring the most important symbol of God’s power and presence to Jerusalem. So he gathered his soldiers together and they marched to the home of Abinidab the priest, which was where the Ark had been residing ever since the Philistines decided that the sacred relic they had captured from Saul was too dangerous to keep around. So they dropped it off just across the border at Abinidab’s house. Now it was time for the Ark to reside in a place of honor – in David’s capital – where it could serve as a symbol of national unity. 

When you bring such an important symbol to a new home, you have to have a parade. So, David had the Ark loaded on a cart pulled by a yoke of oxen. With David in the lead the people of Israel began to make their way to Jerusalem. All along the way the people celebrated “with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.” In other words, they made a lot of noise.  Everything was going well until they reached the property of Obed-edom. 

The creators of the lectionary decided that it was best to skip over the events at Obed-edom’s house. In the verses we skipped over, an accident occurred and someone got killed. You see, the oxen slipped and the Ark nearly fell off the cart. One of the priests who was accompanying the Ark, a young man named Uzzah, put his hands out, touching the Ark, hoping to keep it from falling into the mud. Unfortunately for him, you’re not supposed to touch the Ark. God got mad and as the King James puts it: “God smote him for his error” (2 Sam. 6:7 KJV). When God says don’t touch, don’t touch! 

Raiders of the Lost Ark reminds us that sacred symbols carry great power, and you have to be careful handling them. There are prescribed rituals and ways of doing things, and apparently the priests didn’t follow directions in this case and tragedy struck. 

This story reveals a side of God that isn’t very attractive. This vision of God doesn’t fit very well with our confession that God is love. Surely God isn’t so petty that touching the Ark deserved a death sentence. Passages like this can cause us problems. As for David, he wasn’t too happy with what happened either, and so he decided to leave the Ark where it was. This Ark was too dangerous to be handled. 

After a bit of time passed David began to hear reports that Obed-Edom was being blessed beyond any reasonable expectation. So David decided that it was time to bring the Ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem. This time, however, David took precautions. He abandoned the cart and had priests carry the Ark as the Law prescribed. Priests placed two poles through the rings attached to the Ark, and they carried it the rest of the way to Jerusalem. Then, every six steps, David, who is wearing priestly vestments even though he’s not a priest, offered a sacrifice to God. Not only that, but he dances his way to Jerusalem. 

There is a hymn that fits this scene. We’ve not yet learned it, but it goes like this: 
        I cannot dance, O Love, unless you lead me on.
I cannot leap in gladness unless you lift me up.
From love to love we circle, beyond all knowledge grow,
for when you lead we follow, to new worlds you can show. 
  (Jean Janzen, Chalice Hymnal, 290).

Yes, David dances before the Lord. He’s in a joyful mood. He doesn’t care what people think. He may be the king, but right now, he only has God’s glory in sight. Of course not everyone is pleased by David’s behavior. His wife Michal, who was the daughter of Saul, is a bit perturbed by this display. She doesn’t think it’s dignified for the king to be dancing around in the streets. I’m sure that Michal wasn’t alone in thinking this, and she probably would have supporters in our day. For some reason, it’s easy to cast judgment on people who are seeking to enjoy the presence of God.

When David finally reached Jerusalem, he put the Ark in a tent and he offered sacrifices in thanksgiving to God. He also distributed food to the people. Everyone in the city received a loaf of bread, a date cake, and a raisin cake. This display reminds us that worship and service go together. 

When I started the sermon, I asked about which symbols help you experience the presence of God. When we think about these symbols, it’s good to remember that these ancient Israelites didn’t think that God’s presence was limited to the Ark. After all, while people do try, you can’t put God in a box.

Although people use religious rituals and symbols to manipulate God to do their will, the author of this passage will have nothing to do with such understandings. It’s not that religious symbols don’t have spiritual value, but more important is the attitude of the heart.

We don’t have an Ark of the Covenant, but we do have a Table. We set it each Sunday, placing the cross, the candles, the cup, and the bread on it. While there’s nothing special about either the bread or the juice, these symbols remind us that God is present and active in our midst. 

Eugene Peterson writes this about religious sites and occasions:
Religion – religious sites, religious occasions – is a breeding ground for joyful openness to God. We’re never wholly ourselves until we’re open before God, attending to the reality of God, responding to the action of God in us, receiving the word of God for us. Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [Peterson, Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christiansp. 152].
Where then is God moving and shaking in your life? What stirs you to celebrate the presence of God? What will cause you to dance before the Lord? What symbols will turn your head and heart so you can  celebrate in the presence of God?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 7B
July 12, 2015

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Lord Was With Him -- Sermon for Pentecost 6B

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 

Life is messy, and as people of faith, we try to make sense of this messiness by seeking God’s guidance and wisdom. When we come to share in worship, we give thanks to God for being present with us through life’s ups and downs. Even when we’re not sure how God is present, we know in our hearts that God is with us. This may be the 4th of July weekend, but the message of Christmas in July is that Emmanuel – God with us – has come in the person of Jesus, so that we might experience that presence anew.

Our journey through 1 and 2 Samuel had brought us to a turning point in the history of Israel. The civil war that had engulfed David’s supporters and those who had gathered around Saul’s son Ishbotheth, had come to an end, and David was the last man standing.  The elders of Israel gathered at Hebron, and anointed David as their shepherd and ruler.  As Eugene Peterson puts it: “The shepherd boy of Bethlehem becomes the shepherd king of Israel.”   [Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, p. 141]. It is this shepherd king who is inextricably linked to the most beloved of the Psalms. 

Peterson writes this of David, in light of the 23rd Psalm: 
Every image in this psalm – which is to say, every aspect of David’s life – is God-defined, God-saturated. Everything that David knows about God he experiences – enters into, embraces, takes into himself. God isn’t a doctrine he talks about but a person by whom he is led and cared for. God isn’t a remote abstraction that distances him from the conditions of his actual life but an intimate presence who confirms his daily life as the very stuff of salvation. What he experiences in God doesn’t merely change but matures. [p. 141]. 
Yes, the shepherd boy has now become the shepherd king, and much later early Christians would draw on this image to understand the ministry of Jesus, the Son of David.  As Christians we look to Jesus, the Son of David, to be that shepherd king who leads us through the valley of death into a land of plenty.

David’s reign begins in Hebron, but he quickly realizes he needs a new capital, one that isn’t connected to his tribe or that of his former foes. Our reading this morning tells us how David captured the Jebusite fortress of Jerusalem, which until then had been a neutral site, and made it his new capital, and “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of Hosts, was with him.” 

There is a word that describes the work of God in the world. That word is providence. It’s a very powerful word. It can even be a very dangerous word. Down through history rulers have appealed to God’s providence as support for their actions. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson appealed to “nature’s God” in support of the American Revolution. Nearly a century earlier, at the time of Britain’s Glorious Revolution, many supporters of William and Mary in their invasion that drove out King James II, appealed to divine providence.  

Supporters of that “Revolution” pointed to the smoothness of the change of government and suggested that God’s hand was involved. This was especially important for those who believed that England’s monarchs ruled by divine right. Only God could change things, and it appeared to many that God had intervened. One of those supporters, Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, wrote: “with relation to King James, and all the right that was before vested in him, he was, as they thought, a conqueror. By this notion they explained those passages of scripture, that speak of God’s disposing of kingdoms and pulling down and setting up another” (William Gibson, Religion and Society in England and Wales: 1689-1800, p. 23-24). Even as God did for William and Mary, God had done for David, for God was with him in his struggle with his foes.

On this Fourth of July Weekend, where do you see God at work? How does God’s providence or governance fit into your world view?  That is, even if God doesn’t pull every string in your life, how is God present and active? How is God still speaking?  How is God the shepherd who sets the table for you in the midst of your enemies and bathes your head with oil and fills your cup so it spills over?
 Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.
 (Psalm 23:6 CEB)
To whom do you look to be your guide and deliverer?  Do you live with the assurance that God, the Good Shepherd, who walked with David as he matured into a shepherd king, is truly with you in every moment of life?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 5, 2015
Pentecost 6B