Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The God of the Ark and the God of the Earth ( A sermon based on 2 Sam. 6:1-15; Psalm 24)



In 2 Samuel 6 David is now king over Israel. David has successfully brought the northern tribes and the tribe of Judah together, and he has established Jerusalem as the new capital and wants to bring the Ark of the Covenant there. The Ark was Israel’s most ancient symbol of the presence of God among the people. It was a chest made of wood and plated with gold. Its lid of solid gold was called the mercy seat. Two cherubim, which were angel like figures stood at opposite ends of the mercy seat. The Ark had been shelved for a long time in the house of Abinadab and now David wants to bring it to Jerusalem.

The story in 2 Samuel 6 begins with dancing and ends with dancing, but in the middle there is mourning. God rains death on the parade when Uzzah is struck down trying to steady the ark on the cart and that stops the procession in its tracks. David is both angry and afraid. David tells everyone to go home and the Ark is stored in the house of Obed-edom. I bet he thought, “How did I get so lucky?” But the storywriter says, “and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.”

If we read this story as a historical memoir it presents a real problem. And by the way, the same can be said for the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts who fall down dead suddenly by the hand of God. This doesn’t jive very well with the picture of God as longsuffering and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness does it? It’s hard to imagine such inconsistency in the character of God.

This story reminds me of the one about the man who was driving to his cabin on the lake when just as he crossed the bridge that marked the final few miles his car stopped. His cell phone didn’t work in that location so he decided to walk the rest of the way in. About half way there came a torrential downpour. By the time he reached the road that led to his cabin he was drenched. Then, as he drew near suddenly a bolt of lightning came shooting out of the sky, hit his cabin and it went up in flames. It burned completely down. He leaned up against a tree and cried out, “Why God, why?” A voice rang out of heaven, “There is just something about you that ticks me off.”   

I can confidently assure you that this story was not written by our biblical storywriter to show us how quick God can get ticked off and zap someone. So why was it written? Or even more importantly: What does it teach us? 

According to OT scholar Walter Brueggemann David’s act of bringing the ark to Jerusalem, which David is establishing as Israel’s the new center of power, hints at political calculation and manipulation. Brueggeman says, “David’s new regime in Jerusalem is a radical departure from the old order and as such is in urgent need of legitimation.” Brueggemann argues that this act of reclaiming the ark and establishing it in Jerusalem is part of “a powerful propagandistic effort to assert the new regime as the rightful successor to the old tribal arrangement.” In other words, David is making political hay out of this by bringing the Ark to Jerusalem. He may have been religiously sincere as well, but this is most likely a calculated political move.   

Interpreters have also pointed out that in transporting the ark Mosaic regulations were disregarded. It was supposed to be carried by Levites using poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark. Here David and Abinadab employ the latest Philistine innovation – an ox cart to transport the Ark. It seems that the spiritual significance of the Ark is being trivialized in the interests of legitimizing political and religious power. So perhaps the storywriter is warning us of the danger of trying to manage and manipulate God for our own religious or political purposes – whether that be for ourselves as individuals or for our particular group.

We can do this in any number of ways, can we not? Some can use God, the scriptures, and their religious traditions to legitimize a life of luxury while they do relatively nothing to address the poverty all around them.  

Others can use God, the scriptures, and their religious tradition as a way to assert their  authority over others and to try to get others to do what they want – to believe what they believe, vote the way they vote, support what they support.

Some use God, the scriptures, and their religious traditions to legitimize all sorts of death-dealing “isms” in our culture, like militarism, nationalism, sexism, racism, consumerism, materialism, and exceptionalism.

In the very first church I pastored out of seminary I had a deacon who told me that at the wedding supper of the Lamb (and by the way, he understood this quite literally I think) – so at the great wedding banquet at the end of time when the returning Christ claims his bride - then the church, the true church, the Baptist church will join Christ at the supper as his bride. The guests at the banquet, he said, would be other Christians who just happen to get in, despite their errant ways. I know this sounds like a fictitious character out of one of Flanner O’Conner’s short stories, but this was a real, live, flesh-and-blood, Baptist deacon who said these things and he was serious.

We have no claim on God that is any different than anyone else’s claim on God. Our God has no intention of only blessing Americans or Christians to the exclusion of other nations or religious groups. I encourage those of you who are in to bumper sticker theology – how about one that says, “God bless us every one.”

How can we guard against this tendency and temptation – that we all face – to use and manage and manipulate God, our scriptures, and our Christian tradition for our own religious and political ends and self-serving purposes?

Perhaps one way to guard against this is to take very seriously what our best intuitive, true, spiritual self tells us and what the Psalmist tells us in this Psalm – namely, that the God of the Ark is the God of all the earth and all that inhabits this earth.

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it,” says the Psalmist. I have recently discovered the wonderful world of Celtic Christianity that emphasizes God’s pervasive presence in the world and in creation. Celtic Christian spirituality understands that the land cannot be owned and the Spirit cannot be divided, that the earth and all its inhabitants belong to God and we are called to live in harmony and at peace with all that is.

Celtic Christianity emphasizes humankind’s original goodness and the goodness of creation over sin. Now the Celtic Christians do not deny sin or underestimate the power of evil to deceive, destroy, and do terrible things. But Celtic Christians would say that our sin and evil is not the deepest thing about us. They would say that at the heart of humanity is the image and goodness of God, an inherent goodness – and yes, it is easily marred and obscured and distorted, but nevertheless it is deeper and truer than anything else. The task before us is to reclaim this inherent goodness and let it shine through.

The Divine Spirit that is in each of us gets smothered and covered over by our negativity and self-serving patterns of sin, but it is present and if we will tune in to the Spirit’s voice we can know God and participate in the original goodness and harmony of creation.

John Philip Newell says that during his days at Iona Abby in the Western Isles of Scotland his family had a dog named Joe, which in Gaelic means “spark of life.” Joe was a border collie, and he was true to his deepest instincts the whole of his life. Jo lived and breathed to round up, and if he was not rounding up sheep, he would try to round up children or tractors or even birds in the yard.

Jo’s favorite day of the week on Iona was Wednesday, which was pilgrimage day. Some Wednesdays upwards of a hundred people would walk the seven-mile route around the island reflecting on their lives and their place in the world while praying for peace. Joe was excited from the beginning of the day. He knew it was Wednesday long before Dr. Newell would take his shepherd’s crook to lead the walk. Jo was delirious with joy all day as he rounded up pilgrims and circled endlessly in the heather.

Newell says, “But it was not frenetic running. His instinct was fine-tuned. It had a purpose, a goal that he was sensitive to. It was to hold us together. So as we approached in silence the hermit’s cell (a circular stone ruin) at the heart of the island . . . Jo quieted down, still attentive to anyone who might be straying or falling behind but intently quiet in his work.” Newell says that when they finally would all gather in the circle of the hermit’s cell for prayer, Jo would enter the cell, lie down in the center, and sleep. Someone told Newell once, “Of course he lay down. His work was finished. He had brought you together in a circle.”

Joe’s deepest instinct was to bring them together. It’s an instinct that had been particularly bred into border collies. But it’s also an instinct, says Newell, that comes from the Heart of Life, from the One from whom all things come.

It’s true. This longing for unity, for oneness, for reconciliation is deep within us all. It’s a sacred longing. It’s part of our true self. It’s the longing of the living Christ – the Holy Spirit who dwells within. There are many things that come into our lives that quench this longing and that stifles the Spirit’s whisper. But if we listen carefully we can hear it and the longing can be reawakened no matter how long it has been dormant. You understand – it can be reawakened.

The psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” This is a psalm of ascent and the temple is being referenced here, but as the Psalmist has already made clear – the whole earth is God’s temple. We may set aside a certain place for worship and call it a holy place, but really every place is a holy place.
         
I love the words attributed to Jesus by John in John 4. As part of a conversation Jesus has with a woman of Samaria, she asks Jesus about holy places, whether one should worship at the holy place on mount Gerizim or on mount Jerusalem. Jesus says that it does not matter – that God is Spirit, so all that matters is the kind of spirit that permeates and pervades our lives. Those who truly worship God, says Jesus, are those who worship God in spirit and in truth.

This is what the Psalmist says: Who shall stand, live, dwell in union with God? The answer: “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, and who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” That’s not complicated. God is accessible to anyone whose actions and attitudes, whose works and motives are sincere, authentic, true, honest, centered on the good, and not laced through with deceit or falsehood. So the pressing question is: Are we opening our lives to God in humility, honesty, and with integrity

One of the first theologians representing the Celtic tradition was Palagius, who lived during the time of Augustine. Because the theology of Augustine won the day, Palagius has been too often misrepresented by traditional church historians. Palagius put the emphasis on original goodness, not original sin. He believed that when you looked into the face of a newborn child you were looking into the face of God. In a letter to a new Christian, he said, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God. . . . It is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.”

We will become like him, we will grow into Christ’s likeness, when we stop trying to manage God or manipulate God and our scriptures and Christian tradition for religious and political ends and self-serving purposes. We will grow into Christ’s likeness, when we tap into our inherent goodness and honestly, sincerely, truthfully, and humbly seek God and pursue the good of creation and the good of our sisters and brothers no matter how different they are from us.

As we eat this bread and drink this cup as one people, may this remind us of the oneness of all people and all creation – so let us partake in gratitude for the goodness of our common life and may we renew our commitment to pursue and express this divine goodness in our care for the earth and for one another.


Gracious God, we celebrate your goodness, a goodness that is part of us, basic to who we are as humans. Whenever we hurt someone, or say something mean, or do something that is offensive help us to realize that that is not who we are. Help us to uncover our original goodness and live out of that goodness as we grow into your likeness. Amen. 

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