Sermon for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
July 15, 2018, 10:30 AM, Proper 10B
ויסף עוד דוד את כל בחור בישראל שלשים אלף: ויקם וילך דוד וכל העם אשר אתו מבעלי יהודה להעלות משם את ארון האלהים אשר נקרא שם שם יהוה צבאות ישב הכרבים עליו
Then David gathered once more all the draftees in Israel, thirty thousand of them; and David and all his court got up and went with him to bring up from Ba’ale-yehudah the ark of God which is called by the name of Yahweh of Hosts who sits upon the cherubim. (2 Samuel 6:1-2)
Thirty thousand draftees, not to speak of all that dancing and ox-sacrificing seem a bit much, just for moving a piece of religious furniture from its temporary shelter in the sticks of Benjamin into David’s new royal city of Jerusalem. Except, of course, not a soul in Israel would have thought of the ark of the covenant that way. The ark might serve us as religious furniture, a nice example of Bronze Age religious art, if latter-day Raiders of the Lost Ark could find it for us in some Washington warehouse; but Israelites knew that what was important about the ark wasn’t its style or beauty but what you couldn’t see. For the ark was the portable throne of their God. Yahweh of Hosts sat enthroned upon the magnificently inscribed winged sphinxes that comprised the ark’s most prominent feature. From those cherubim, the LORD had led Israel up from the land of Egypt into the land of Promise. From those cherubim, that unseen presence had led the charge against all of Israel’s foes. And, as might happen to any soldier in battle, the LORD of Hosts, seated upon the cherubim, had, during one of those battles, been taken prisoner by the Philistine army! Only this particular prisoner of war was so obnoxious to his captors by bringing disease and pestilence upon them, that after seven months they gave him back, meaning they returned the ark of the LORD to the Israelite town of Beth Shemesh—which didn’t want a houseguest that might bring disease and pestilence and finally fobbed the LORD onto Kiriath-jearim. If that name doesn’t just roll off your tongue, you’re in good company; it was equally obscure to most Israelites. In any case, the LORD languished in Kiriath-jearim until David decided to rescue the King of Heaven and install the Holy One in the tent chapel he had created on Mt. Zion.
David didn’t need to pay 30,000 draftees to secure a piece of temple furniture, but he thought he might need them to accomplish the great political coup he was attempting: David was now the first king ever to control the whole land mass of central Palestine. He had just captured Jebus, a mighty Canaanite city, and fashioned it into his own capital city of Jerusalem, which he called, ever so modestly, the City of David. As the anointed of the LORD, David insisted on having the LORD live in the City of David with him, so that people could physically see David daily as the Son of God, the Anointed of the Lord. Whatever you might think of David’s self-centered religious beliefs, you have to admit that he was a masterful politician: An Israelite would enter the once forbidden city of Jebus and see the magnificent new palace of the king; and on the hill of Zion above that palace, the visitor would see the tents of the LORD’s abode, reminding the awed pilgrim that the king and the God that had brought Israel safely out of Egypt, and defeated all Israel’s foes were really tight and would know in his heart that David was God’s adopted son forever. Crafty politics makes for crafty religion or vice versa.
Since we’re not used to thinking of our leaders as gods—at least not yet—much of this is hard for us to appreciate; and even more difficult for us to appreciate than the wiles of middle eastern politics, is the fact that our ancient writer of Israel’s history has some major reservations about David’s power grab in today’s story. Two things in the history we call Second Samuel make this criticism of the king explicit:
The first thing reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which a little child innocently exclaims that the vain emperor isn’t wearing any clothes at all instead of the mystical finery two swindlers conned him into buying that consisted of nothing but pure air. Only in the Bible’s version, David’s wife Michal plays the spoiler by watching her husband’s gyrations before the ark of the LORD at the entrance of Jerusalem. Instead of oohing and ahing about the king’s true devotion to Yahweh, she complains that all the scullery maids of Jerusalem got an eyeful when his dancing majesty showed them the royal tuchus.
You haven’t heard the other criticism at all—yet—because the tender sensibilities of the Episcopal lectionary were offended by five and a half verses of today’s reading, and so they just cut them out. Those verses told the story of the unfortunate Uzzah, who tried to steady the ark of the LORD on its journey to Jerusalem when the oxen pulling it stumbled; and to prove the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished, the historian tells us the LORD got angry at Uzzah for touching the ark and zapped him stone cold dead. This shocking event so frightened David that he put the LORD into timeout for three months right there in the home of one Oved-Edom and refused to continue the procession into Jerusalem at all until he was convinced that he could trust the LORD not to zap any other courtiers or worse yet, zap the dancing king himself!
We might well take these lessons from the ancient history writer to heart during this heated season in which America’s Attorney General has quoted St. Paul’s precious words to us in such a way as to justify destroying families and leaders of prominent religious movements have assured us that the Lord passes out “Mulligans” for the sins that high officials commit provided those officials toe the party line. As never before, we need poor Uzzah to return from the dead long enough to remind us that just when we think we’ve got the Lord GOD all figured out and safely strapped onto his cherubim, the LORD has a way of, well, being the LORD, of breaking out, of breaking our illusion that we can entrap the King of Heaven in an oxcart or onto an intentional misreading of holy scripture. And in a world that is once again celebrating the antics of political bullyboys, perhaps we could hope that some of those new autocrats might have the good fortune to be married to a Michal who could remind the preening head of state just what part of his anatomy he is showing off to the scullery maids.
King David’s confidence took three months to return after the death of Uzzah; but it returned, and the king leapt and danced before the ark once more. The oxen pulled its precious load into the tent sanctuary a little late but with no further casualties. Our historian knows that the warnings the king received would do no good, that David would make all the mistakes that pride and arrogance would lead him to make and would pay an increasingly heavy price for each one. David thought everything depended on him, on his brilliance, on his bravery, on his political appeal, on his craftiness. To make his campaign publicity complete, David needed the LORD. He needed the LORD to be his political tool, his legitimacy, his guarantee of righteousness. Like the pharaohs, David would claim that Yahweh was his father, and he, David, the loyal son of this God. Israel needed its pharaoh now, its divine Son this instant. So, David stationed thirty thousand soldiers along the Joppa Road, while he and his court went and, well, just took the LORD, strapped Yahweh’s ark on a cart and took the Almighty to Jerusalem. While I do not pretend to understand the story of the hapless Uzzah, I, for one, am not sorry that the journey did not go smoothly, for in the unexpected moment at Nacon’s threshing floor the historian lets us ask the question whether the LORD is submitting willingly to the king’s fine scheme or whether there is something more to the divine majesty than a convenient prop for political bluster.
Can David’s arrogance work? Of course, it can and does. Can the kings coopt everything holy for his own purposes? Yes. But what of the captive God, jolting along on the mountain road from Baale-yehudah? What if God breaks out in the mountains of Benjamin or the holy mountain? Could God actually be more powerful than David or any other despot, including those of our generation? What, the historian asks us, what if God is not helpless before the will and influence of the rich and powerful? What if God were to break out for the sake of refugees and children abused by separation from their parents? What indeed if God has already had enough of confinement within the king’s straight-jacket theology and begun to act for justice for the poor, redemption for the suffering and a divine love that knows no border checkpoints? What, indeed, if this whole troubled world were in God’s hands after all?
 For this history, see 1 Samuel 5-6. The other name for Kiriath-jearim town is Baale-judah as in 2 Samuel 6.
 2 Samuel 6:6-12a.