Sunday, November 19, 2017

What can we say come July 15? 8th after Pentecost

     Our Old Testament text, 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19, was the basis of one of the most riveting, powerful sermons I have ever seen and heard – and by one of my preaching students at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, where I taught preaching in the Spring. Anna Carter delved deeply into the soul of Michal, her humiliation, her ongoing emotional abuse at the hands of David, and now holding his raucous, thinly-clad dancing before the holy ark in utter disdain. Anna’s sermon didn’t fix anything or stir us to greater faith. She instead helped us feel what the writer of 2 Samuel surely wanted us to feel: the shame, the inner rage of a woman mistreated for too long. Michal had loved David, even willingly breaking with her own father. She had once saved him through a window; now she peers that a window, like the window of a prison. "Who wouldn't despise those who have harmed us and others when we see them reveling in their achievements? How can we not despise them as we watch them rejoice in God's blessing - a God who favors the one who has used God and the exploitation of others for political gain?" No "moral" here - unless you count this: "May we see Michal in the window and despise with her all who use and misuse power and authority for any kind of gain. May we despise those who use God's name and favor to oppress and abuse others." Sermons should do this: take us inside the hearts and bodies of those who suffer, especially those who suffer at the hands of the popular, religious people.

   As we are off lectionary, and doing a Bible characters series, I preached on Michal this past Sunday ("Michal: Why She's in the Bible") - reflecting on why and how the Bible invites us, by including this story, to listen to and share the hurt of those wounded by power and hypocrisy, and where our hope for joy actually lies.

    We have a stunningly good film version of this moment in the surprisingly outstanding “King David” starring Richard Gere. Mind you, many have taken his dance as some sort of authentication of contemporary worship. But is he really showing us the way? Or making a mockery of God? or even both somehow? Michal could not have been the only one to notice the sexual edge in David’s self-presentation.

I'd add: poor Michal. Typing this blog, her name gets auto-corrected every time to Michael. 

     The always wise and brilliant Robert Barron made these observations – which are keen but not entirely sympathetic toward Michal: “One can only begin to imagine the texture of her feelings at this point in the narrative. She had witnessed the deaths of her father and brother; her husband had married several other women and fathered children with them while she remained childless…  That she gazes down from a window rather than participating in the celebration indicates that she represents the past. From her height, she regards David with the same haughty disdain that her father once showed to his rival… The prim, downward-looking Michal aptly symbolizes the moral dimension that is legitimately part of religion. She is a sort of ancient Israelite version of Immanuel Kant, for whom religion was entirely a matter of morality… The moralizing Michal might be read as the prophetic side of religion, and the dancing David as the priestly side of religion, which refuses to be constrained by reason alone.”

     Michal as Immanuel Kant! If you can work that into a sermon, let me know. The encounter between Michal and David is terse, sarcastic, full of recrimination. Let’s not speak of the super-spiritual David. Even his most spiritual moments are tinged with egocentricism and misogyny.

     The whole idea of the ark is fascinating, and can lead the preacher to explore some theological and liturgical questions. It’s not an idol, but it’s almost radioactive with divine intensity. It’s a box that holds words – which tells us a lot about our religion, which is the Word made flesh. The wooden cart with wobbly wheels – what an awkward but earnest way to haul the epitome of God’s presence into the new capital city!

     We get some theological weirdness: Uzzah tries to keep the cart and its treasure from toppling over when the oxen stumbled – and for this the Lord “smote” him. And this smiting made David angry! The rawness of emotion is fabulous. David quite rightly is annoyed at such a God – as we too should be. Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon of God about to press the “smite” button underlines the absurdity of envisioning God in this way – once more taking us into that zone described well by Rowan Williams, that the Bible is what God wants us to read, but that doesn’t imply God approves of everything every biblical writer says.

     This is an intriguing take: Rav Kook, the 20th century mystic, suggests that Uzzah should have steadied the oxen (who were stumbling), not the ark – and sees in this a paradigm of those who seek to change God’s word to suit challenges of the world instead of seeking to right the problems in accord with the law.

     Our epistle reading, Ephesians 1:3-14, is sufficiently rich to supply you with stuff for a 52 week preaching series. Although Nestle-Aland adds two periods to make it easier to read, the entire passage, 202 words in Greek, is a single sentence – as if Paul just starting gushing in a moment of inspired ecstasy and couldn’t put on the brakes. Markus Barth calls this text a “digest of the whole epistle.”

     Just a few items worth noting. Paul speaks of “spiritual blessings” – which Gnostically-oriented American Christians may find appealing. But Paul has something else in mind, as Barth points out: “‘Spiritual blessing’ does not mean a timeless, otherworldly, abstract blessing. Rather it describes changes effected upon and among people of flesh and blood. It means history, decisions, actions, and suffering.”

     Paul speaks of us as “chosen” – but chosen for what? “To be holy and blameless.” God doesn’t choose us because we are holy and blameless, but so we might become that. Maybe Wesley was right in urging us on to perfection.  The “seal” image is worth probing: in ancient times, a seal was used to guarantee quality, authenticity or ownership, and to prevent tampering, or forgery.  I think I might tease a whole sermon out of just that!

     When I wrote my book on The Will of God, I got obsessed with Paul’s phrasing here – that God has “made known the mystery of his will.”  We think God’s will is some mystery we can’t figure out.  But mystery doesn’t mean confusing or incomprehensible.  Mystery is a wonder, beyond the simple facts and rationality of things. And God hasn’t hidden this mystery, the way we hide Easter eggs and make them hard to find. God has made that mystery known! Frank Thielman’s commentary ponders “God’s gracious revelation to his people of something they could not possibly know unless he had made it known” – and this: “God made this mystery known because it gave him pleasure to do this.”

     And finally: Paul’s best image of how we find our place among Christ’s people is that God has “destined us for adoption.” The Bible seems fixated on the idea that orphans should be cared for.
 Kelly Nikondeha, in her thoughtful and theologically profound book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World reflects on her own quest as a grownup to seek out the parent who gave her up for adoption: “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Isn’t church a question to discover our true origin?

     Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.”
 Then, pondering the woman who bore her, she tries to fathom if her giving her child up was a rejection? or rather a relinquishment? Some might rush to condemn a mother who “abandons” her baby. But isn’t there a wrinkle in the story – that a woman who did not have to carry the child for so long actually did, at considerable physical cost. What if being surrendered at birth was a loving relinquishment, not rejection, a humble acquiescence in the face of crushing circumstance? What does God relinquish for us – and we for God?

     With adoption, we get a glimpse of a different kind of belonging, not inferior, maybe superior, or maybe not. Nikondeha wonderfully suggests that adoption is “like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery.”

     And finally we come to Mark 6:14-29 – which I will forego in preaching after seeing Alice Cooper play King Herod in the live Jesus Christ Superstar on Easter Sunday… This chilling episode shows a cruel yet henpecked husband, fearful of John the Baptist (not because of his big following, but because Herod “knew he was a righteous and holy man”!), knuckling under to his wife’s vicious fury. Our set of readings begins with a provocative dance in Jerusalem; and then we end with another seductive dance at a birthday banquet. Such religiosity, and such political chicanery: John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and a holy horde of martyrs have shared in the same cruel fate, and yet God’s truth is never vanquished.

 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

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