Pushback – A Sermon for July 11

Texts: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24

Our readings today, from Psalm 24 and II Samuel 6, remind us that at the core of our faith is something more than words, something more than a community that we build, something more than our preferences or experiences, something more than our ideas or worries, something more even than the history of those who have called themselves Christians—at the core of our faith is the living God. In II Samuel 6 we see this truth strangely knit into a story about moving heavy furniture.

We often say that our true friends will make themselves known by helping to us move. That is, if we have the privilege of moving things like furniture. Some members of our congregation have had to move from one continent to another with just a few suitcases. But many of us have, at one time or another, had to lug boxes and cumbersome objects from one house to another. It is not fun at all. Some of us have even reached the stage in life where the only people who will help us move are those who we pay—with money, not pizza.

The story before us today an account of moving. David is the central character. He wants to move a very heavy cabinet. Instead of a few willing friends, David has thirty thousand people whom he has chosen. Instead of a U-Haul, he has a new oxcart. The cabinet they are moving was referred to as the “ark of God,” or elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures the “ark of the covenant.” This cabinet was made of wood and covered with gold. It contained the law, the outline of the covenant between God and the ancient Israelites. We can read about the creation of this ark in the book of Exodus.

Our reading came from II Samuel, and it begins with the heavy piece of furniture, the sacred cabinet, in the house of a fellow named Abinadab. We find the backstory in I Samuel. There we learn that, before Israel had a king, the ark had been captured by the Philistines. It was considered a trophy. Having it  symbolized the superiority of the Philistines over a people whose territory overlapped with their own.

However, we read in I Samuel, that inhabitants of the city where this captured trophy was taken were afflicted with tumors. I Samuel 5 says that the “hand of the LORD was heavy upon them.” The people were terrified, and so they had the ark moved to a second city. It went from Ashdod to Gath to Ekron, The result was always the same. The people were afflicted with tumors. Some died. Others were terrified. Finally, the Philistine leaders put their heads together and decided it was time to return the ark. They put it on a cart, hitched up two cows, added a box with some extra gold as a “guilt offering,” and sent it back to the Israelites.

As the ark left the last Philistine city, so did the affliction. The Israelites were glad to have their sacred cabinet back. They took it to a place called Kiriath-jearim and the house of a man named Abinadab. Two chapters later in I Samuel, Israel demanded a king. God gives them Saul. The ark, however, stayed with Abinadab.  

Our reading comes from II Samuel, which picks up the story just after the death of Saul, and follows the rise of David. In II Samuel 5 David is anointed king of all Israel, not just his own tribe, and he names Jerusalem the capital of this new nation. Just as modern nations do, David wants to centralize certain institutions in this city. His goal is to downplay the distinctiveness of the tribes that make up the federation and play up certain unifying institutions. One is his own court. Another is this object that symbolizes the calling and identity of all of Israel. So, yes, our passage is a story of moving furniture, but it is also a story of nationalization and power.   

On moving day David and his many helpers loaded the ark upon a new oxcart and followed it toward Jerusalem. They sang and danced with all their might. They played instruments: “lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” David was taking the sacred cabinet into his care in his city to cement his authority of his nation.

David was joyful. But was it because of this symbol of God’s presence—this identifiable object, this space that held the relationship between God and this ambassador people? Or was David joyful because his project was finally coming together, because the presence of the sacred cabinet in this city would confirm the importance of him and his descendants?

Whenever we read a biblical text, the reading event is shaped by the history of the text but also by our own context. It’s interesting to notice that the designers of the lectionary want us to avoid the central part of this passage. They give us a donut without filling. The scandal at the center of the story is cored out. Our modern context impresses itself upon the story.

Here’s what happens in the cut-out section: On the way from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem the cabinet shifts on the cart. One of the movers reaches out to steady it—and God strikes him dead!

We can see why the organizers of the lectionary suggest we skip this paragraph. It is difficult. Why is an honest mover trying to keep the ark of God off the rocks killed? The question has perplexed readers for centuries. There are theories. Some close readers of the Hebrew scriptures point out that the ark of God was supposed to be carried by people, over their shoulders with long rods, not thrown onto a moving cart like any old piece of furniture.

Others suggest that God saw David’s heart, and saw that David had no interest in worshipping a living God at all. What God saw was that David was using the presence of the ark to cement his own power. (We can’t help but be reminded of how colonial nations mixing matters of church and state did exactly the same thing.)     

As readers we have the luxury of critical distance. We have the luxury of being able to take or reject this image of God. We can say simply, if this is what God does, then God isn’t worth my attention. Or we can say, this isn’t God at all, the textual stewards are mistaken. But all of this is to step outside the story.

David had no such luxury. What he had was a dead mover, a foiled plan, and a toxic asset. So David gets angry. As is often the case with us, David gets angry because he is afraid. And so he parks the sacred cabinet at the house of Obed-edom. He sends the thousands of movers home. He has the instruments put back in their cases. He returns to Jerusalem with a bruised ego and an empty U-Haul trailer.

But God blessed the household of Obed-edom. The sacred cabinet remained there for three months. The blessing continued for three months, until a chastened David returns. Gone is the imperial finery. Now David wears the symbols of a priest, not a king. There is joy and dancing and, now, just a solitary trumpet. The ark is carried with dignity. There are sacred offerings. There are prayers of blessing for the people. This time there is a distribution of bread, meat, and raisin treats. The arrival of this sacred symbol is now a celebration for everyone. It is not the victory of a solitary king.

A passage like this can easily be put to use to advance our own agenda. We can identify something someone else does as a reaching out to take hold of the ark or as a using of the divine for personal gain.

But the story actually undercuts all this. In this story God pushes back and pushes back against an attempt to turn faith and worship into a means to some other end. God resists being a stage prop for David’s personal agenda or a flippant object of moral posturing. God pushes back.

You’re welcome to find whatever sustenance and grace the Spirit sends your way through this passage. But what I find helpful is the assurance that God does push back. It seems to me that if God never pushes back then we cannot lean upon God. If God is only something we talk about, if spirituality is only our conjuring, then there is nothing to lean on, there is no one to look to for guidance, no one to be present with us in our fear. When we think about the future of our church community, or our families, or our own journey of faith, we need a God who pushes us back on the right path.  

A God who pushes back is a God upon whom we can lean. The life of Jesus shows us that divine pushback comes through the cross not the sword. Divine pushback comes through self-offering not through death-dealing. But the cross too is an act of holy pushback. It is pushback against violence, selfishness, and loveless religiosity. But there too, God is living. There too is a God who does not let us remain as we are. 

The God of the hazardous oxcart and the cross is a God who is active and involved, a God upon whom we can lean.

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