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 when it wobbles on the cart it is being transported on. That, of course, brings a sudden halt to the celebrative procession. 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 brother Obed thought, “How did I get so lucky?” But the storywriter says, “The Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.” The ark brings cursing and blessing, death and life.
If we read this story as a historical memoir it would present some real problems. The same could be said about the creation stories, or the flood story, and many other biblical stories like the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts who fall down dead suddenly by the hand of God. If I were God I would have no problem, I think, zapping a few people here and there, but thankfully, God is much more longsuffering, patient, gracious, and slow to anger than I am.
This story is not a lesson on how God works in the world. So why was it written? What did the storywriter want to teach by telling this story? According to OT scholar Walter Brueggemann, David’s act of bringing the ark to Jerusalem hints at political calculation and manipulation. Brueggeman observes that by making Jerusalem the center of power, David is breaking from the old order. As such, this action of David stands in “urgent need of legitimation.” Most likely, suggests Brueggemann, this is a calculated political move which David promotes as divinely sanctioned.
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. Now, what all of this seems to suggest is that the spiritual significance of the Ark is being trivialized in the interests of legitimizing political and religious power. We know how this works right? We see it played out all the time. There are many Christians today who would sacrifice the souls of whoever else it takes to get conservative judges on the Supreme Court. Right? I’m sure there are liberals who do the same.
It would seem that the storywriter tells this story to warn us, his readers, about 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 religious or political group. We are tempted to do this in any number of ways are we not?
We can use God, the scriptures, and our religious tradition to legitimize a life of luxury while we do relatively little to address the poverty all around us. We read rather frequently about popular religious leaders and mega-church pastors who use religion to amass great fortunes and wield great power.
We can use God, the scriptures, and our religious tradition as a way to exercise authority and control over others, so they will do our bidding. We can preach and teach the scriptures in such a way to get people to believe what we believe, vote the way we vote, and support what we support. I don’t know of a religious leader who does not do that to some degree, and I am including myself in that indictment.
Some use God, the scriptures, and their religious tradition to legitimize all sorts of death-dealing “isms” in our culture, like militarism, nationalism, sexism, racism, consumerism, materialism, and exceptionalism. Scriptures have been used to support slavery, the subjugation of women in society and in church, and to mistreat and condemn our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Within the last few weeks our Attorney General appealed to scripture to defend this administration’s horrific zero tolerance immigration policy.
In the very first church I pastored out of seminary I had a deacon tell me that at the wedding supper of the Lamb when Christ returns to claim his bride, the bride he will be claiming are Baptist Christians. The guests at the banquet, he said, would be other Christians who just happen to get in by the skin of their teeth. 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 really did believe what he said. He is dead now and I suspect has come to see by means of a greater Light that God is not the projection of his own biases. I suspect we will all have to be awakened to that truth to one degree or another.
I have no claim on God, nor do you, 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. If you happen to be in to bumper sticker theology, why not post one on your car that says, “God bless us every one.” Isn’t that what Charles Dickens has Tiny Tim say at the end of the story: “God bless us everyone.” That’s a true Christian prayer.
How do we guard against this? How do we safeguard from using our scriptures and Christian faith to advance our own interests and self-serving purposes or that of our Christian group or political group. All of us are tempted to do this, and in varying degrees do it – we employ our faith for personal ends, and not even realize what we are doing. I include myself. I know I’m guilty too. Most of the time we are blind to the ways we use God and manipulate the Bible to support our bias or position on some issue. Maybe one way we can move in the right direction and come to a greater awareness is by taking very seriously what the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 24 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.
As I have been sharing over the last several Sundays, through the writings of John Phillip Newell I have discovered a little bit about 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. Celtic Christianity emphasizes that we are called to live in harmony and at peace with all that is.
One implication of that truth is that borders and countries are all man-made, not God made. I hope you realize that it is not unpatriotic to acknowledge that America is man-made, not God made. Europeans had no divine mandate from God when they came to this new world and took this land from the native Americans. In fact, the way Christians legitimized killing native Americans and possessing their land is another tragic example of how we have used religious faith for our self-serving or group-serving or nation-serving purpose. We shouldn’t be proud about that history. We should be humbled and repentant, learning from the sins of our past.
Celtic Christianity emphasizes humankind’s original goodness and the goodness of creation, as the Psalms often do. Neither Celtic Christians, nor do the Psalms, deny sin or underestimate the power of evil and injustice to deceive, enslave, and destroy. Celtic Christians, however, 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. We are all born with an inherent goodness – and yes, in our development as human beings this original goodness is quickly and easily marred, obscured, and distorted. Yet, nevertheless, our inherent goodness and value as human beings is deeper and truer than anything else about us. I believe the great challenge and task before humanity today is to reclaim this inherent goodness and let it shine through our lives and relationships. The great challenge and opportunity for all of us, is to allow our inherent goodness, our true self, to radiate from all that we say and do.
The Divine Spirit who is in each of us gets pushed aside and God’s love quenched by our negativity and self-serving patterns of sin. As Paul says, we grieve the Holy Spirit by our sin and involvement in injustice. God is grieved when God’s children take advantage of one another and hurt one another. But the Spirit of God doesn’t leave and go somewhere else. Our very existence is sustaind by the Divine Spirit. As Paul said to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, we are all God’s offspring and in God we live, move, and have our being. If we can learn to tune in to the Spirit’s voice we can know God’s will and consciously 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 Border Collie named Jo. Jo 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.
Dr. 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 go to sleep. Someone suggested to Dr. Newell, “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 has been particularly bred into Border Collies. But it’s also an instinct that originates from the Source of all life. It’s an instinct that comes from our Creator, who said of human beings created in the Creator’s image, “This is very good.”
This longing for unity, for oneness, for reconciliation is deep within us all. Some of us may have to dig deep to uncover it. It may be buried underneath what the writer of 1 John calls the “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.” This longing may have been quenched and smothered by our selfish interests, and all the ways we have tried to manipulate faith, people, and circumstances for our own ends. But it’s in our hearts somewhere. It’s part of our true self. It’s the longing of the living Christ; it’s the longing of the Holy Spirit who dwells within. There are many things that we allow into our lives that quench this longing and stifle the Spirit’s whisper. But if we listen carefully we can hear the Divine Voice. This sacred longing that is innate to our original goodness can be reawakened no matter how long it has been dormant.
The psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” Psalm 24 is a psalm of ascent and the temple, of course, 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 every place is potentially a holy place, because God is in that place. Even in the darkest, dreariest, deadliest places God is there.
I love the words attributed to Jesus by John in John 4. As part of a conversation Jesus is having with a woman of Samaria, she asks Jesus about holy places, whether one should worship at the holy place on mount Gerizim or the holy place on mount Jerusalem. Jesus says that it does not matter. Jesus says 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. Now, regarding that last line, those who worship God must do so in spirit and truth, there is the question among interpreters whether spirit should be understood as the human spirit (little s) or the Divine Spirit (capital S). I think the answer is both. Here’s the great Mystery. Our human spirit is one with God’s Spirit. If we will, we can uncover and nurture this divine longing for oneness.
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 not laced with deceit or falsehood, but rather are sincere, authentic, true, honest, and centered on the good. That which is happening in our country today is evidence of how few Christians are living in the love and power of the divine Spirit. When we live in the power of the Holy Spirit we long for unity and peace rooted in mercy and justice. We walk in humility and integrity. Our lives abound in mercy and kindness. We work for justice and equality. We long for the redemption and reconciliation of all people and creation.
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 too often been 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.” That’s what matters. That’s what God wants for all of us.
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. And whenever we as a country inflict suffering on the oppressed and turn aside those seeking refuge and asylum, help us to stand up and say, “That’s not who we are.” Help us all to uncover our original goodness and live out of that goodness as we grow into your likeness. For you are not a God who lives in a box, even when that box is the Ark of the Covenant. You are not a God who can be confined to one temple or one place, one tradition or faith. You are a God who inhabits this whole world. Amen.