Sermon given by The Rev. Dr. Rich Simpson, Canon to the Ordinary, referencing the reading appointed for the day 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Since June 10, our Old Testament readings have been taking us into the world of First and Second Samuel, a world I find absolutely fascinating. We will continue that journey through August 12. If I were still a parish priest I’d be doing a sermon series but alas, my work is itinerant. I’ve been bouncing from Webster to Worcester, here today and in Northampton next Sunday. First and Second Samuel is an unfolding story primarily focused on the rise of King David to power.Today I want to take a step back and take a wide panoramic view of this narrative as it has been unfolding and as it will continue to unfold in the weeks ahead. And then we’ll dive deep into one tiny little detail…
Taken as a whole, First and Second Samuel represents a period of radical social and political transformation in ancient Israel. If you sit down and read the Book of Judges, what you will find there is a relatively unstable tribal life. It’s pretty barbaric; think Attila the Hun. It’s the stuff that people think of when they say, “I hate all that holy war and violence in the Old Testament.” By the time you get to First and Second Kings (to which we’ll turn our attention beginning on August 19) we’ll see a strong, centralized monarchy where all the political and religious power converges in the holy city of Jerusalem. Quite literally, First and Second Samuel falls in between those two extremes: it is the story about how the Israelites transitioned from a loose confederation of twelve tribes to a centralized state. (Notice that word – transition – my middle name!)
Second Samuel 6, which is where we are today, takes us right into the heart of all that transition. David is now bringing the ark of the covenant (which is part of the old order going all the way back to Sinai) to Jerusalem, a city that has recently been conquered and has no previous ties to any of the twelve tribes. The ark had been forgotten about for about twenty years (back in chapter seven of First Samuel it was stored in the House of Abindadab.) But David now recognizes the power of using old religious symbols to consolidate his newly claimed political power. (He was neither the first nor the last politician to do that!) And so So David brings the ark to Jerusalem and there is a huge celebration that includes dancing and singing and eating and prayer, all oriented toward legitimizing David’s reign in a new capital city. Some people see the dancing itself as negative: as Canaanite, as sexual. Others see it as a normal part of worshipping YHWH, as liturgical dance. The text itself is ambiguous, so we’ll let the scholars fight that out. What is very clear, however, (especially if you peak ahead and see how it all turns out in I and II Kings) is that this is all benefits the monarchy in general and David in particular.
Whatever his personal and political motivations may or may not be, however, this occasion also functions theologically as a desire to once more place God at the center of communal life. Back in the old days, God could be encountered in the tent of meeting, moving along with God’s people on a journey through the wilderness. But now God’s people are settling down and growing up and becoming like all the other nations and building a capital city. So it does make some sense to bring the ark to one central place. Eventually, David’s son, Solomon, will bring this ark into the inner sanctuary of a newly built temple, into the holy of holies. But that is a story that can be told in August. For today it’s enough to note the theological shift from a God-on-the-move-with-us to a God who lives in a temple you have to go up to.
This sixth chapter of Second Samuel, however, is a key moment in the events leading toward that trajectory. Think of all of the references in the rest of Holy Scripture to this holy city of Jerusalem: all of those references in the psalms about pilgrims coming to the city gates and then into the temple. Think about Jesus riding into this same city on a donkey and taking on the religious authorities, and dying on a cross just outside of the city. Think about how even to the end of the New Testament, all of that imagery in the Book of Revelation converges in talk about the “New Jerusalem.” None of that happens if Dancing David doesn’t choose to make Jerusalem his capital city and then bring the ark to the city to make it a religious center as well. So this is a very big deal. Are you with me?
As great as it is that we get such a huge chunk of First and Second Samuel to ponder this summer, it’s important to remember that we don’t get it all. And as much as I do love the lectionary, I am constantly reminded that we need to be reading the Bible itself, not just the segments given to us for Sunday mornings. It is particularly important to pay attention to what never gets read in church. So I want to call your attention to Michal, David’s wife—first to the words we heard today and then continuing with an encounter we didn’t hear about. I want us to linger there for just a few moments on what she adds to the narrative.
As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.
This little glimpse into David’s unhappy home life in the midst of this political celebration adds a layer of surprise, and nuance, and dissent. Like so many women in the Bible, Michal is hardly ever referred to by her given name: she is alternatively “David’s wife” or “Saul’s daughter.” And it’s probably very hard for her to be both at the same time. Think Maria Shriver when she was still married to Arnold; even at GOP events, she was always still a Kennedy.
When Michal sees her husband leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despises him in her heart. No good ever comes in any relationship when words like “despised” characterize the feelings of one partner toward the other! And then a direct encounter between David and Michael which the lectionary did not include today. Listen:
20David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” 21David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. 22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” 23And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.
Ah, the royals! It’s like two people going through a divorce who are trying really hard not to fight in front of the kids; and the lectionary has decided to keep this private encounter from us. But the Bible itself includes it and I think that’s “good news.” Here’s why: all along, all of our attention has been on David. But we get a whole new angle from this little verbal exchange. Beneath all of those official press releases about how great King David is, there’s another story waiting to be told and the text itself points us that way, if only for a fleeting moment. We see how David looks from the home front, through his wife’s eyes. Think about what might happen if Michal ever got to sit down for a heart-to-heart conversation with Anderson Cooper! I’m sure she’d be quite eager to tell us that old King David was no picnic to live with! In just two weeks we’ll hear about David’s affair with Bathsheba and the very public political scandal that ensues. But this little scene today keeps us from being too surprised about that.
Michal – this daughter of Saul, this wife of David – is not merely a passive pawn caught between two powerful men. In the sixth chapter of II Samuel we learn that she has a voice and her own opinions. Of course she does! But the point is that in that moment the narrator knows it too. And now we do too. She has a name and a story to tell, even if the dominant narrative doesn’t go very far down that road. So we get this little glimpse of her looking out the window, and then in private telling her husband, the king, that he’s such an ass!
Michal suggests an alternative narrative, apart from the David propaganda machine. So we’ve been rolling along and rolling along. And then all of a sudden, this encounter invites a double-take, a second look. It may even invite us to what the feminist scholars call a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which is simply to say we are encouraged to go back to the very beginning of the whole unfolding story we’ve been hearing to ask: who is telling us this story? What is their angle? To linger on this scene invites us more deeply into the complex world of the Bible, which is not a rule book or a morality play.
Learning to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest Scripture in this way may even give us the skills to read our own lives in a similar way. Most of us are a mixed bag, too; even the brightest among us cast some shadow. So what are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are? As individuals, as a congregation, as a diocese – as a nation? And who are the Michals for us—those people who make us uncomfortable by holding up a mirror and demanding that we take a closer look, which at least holds within it the seeds of possible transformation.
Well, I’ll stop there, before I move from preaching to meddling! Let me add just one more word though: when we learn to encounter Scripture in this kind of way it starts to generate way more questions rather than offering simple answers. We may even begin to notice that Jesus asked a lot of questions, and it would be more accurate to say not that “Jesus is the answer” but that he is the right question. And I think that we – the larger we, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement – need to be part of sharing that good news with a world that is sick and tired of religious people offering simplistic answers to questions they aren’t even asking. Maybe Michal can inspire us to keep our eyes open and not be afraid to speak truth to power.