“The Dance of
Religion and Politics”
July 12, 2015
II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
We’ve had a full morning of
worship already and there’s an important meeting after worship. So I want to be
brief in what I say today.
We’ve been reading through
First and Second Samuel on these summer Sundays, working our way through the
story of the rise and fall of the ancient nation of Israel. Central to this is,
of course, the story of David, the obscure shepherd boy from the little town of
Bethlehem who became Israel’s greatest king.
And this morning, David—the
shepherd, the warrior, the exile—is starting to look more and more like a king. He has defeated the
Philistines, the great enemy. He has taken the city of Jerusalem and made it
his own—it has become the city of David, the center of political power.
And now he remembers the Ark of
This Ark—made of acacia wood
and covered with gold—housed the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments
were written. It was carried by the Hebrew people through their time of
wandering in the wilderness. It was understood to have great power as the very
dwelling place of God.
In First Samuel there’s this
wonderful story about what happened when the Philistines captured the Ark. They
set it up in the temple of Dagon, their god, next to the statue of the one they
worshipped. When the people woke up the next morning, they found the statue of
Dagon lying face down before the Ark. They promptly put Dagon back up in place.
And the next morning there he was again, face down on the ground before the Ark
of the Sovereign God of Israel, with his head and hands broken off.
Well, you can imagine that the
Philistines set about figuring out how to return the Ark to its rightful
With all of the warfare and
internal conflict that beset the people of Israel at the time, the Ark remained
in the house of Abinadab for the next twenty years.
We came in this story as David
and his whole army went to Baalath-jindah to get the Ark and bring it to
Jerusalem. What a scene! David and all of Israel joyfully dancing and singing
and making music with all their might as the Ark moves towards its new home.
A certain Uzzah, one of
Abinadab’s sons, was guiding the cart that held the Ark. We heard about that in
the scripture lesson. What we didn’t hear was what happened in verses six
As the procession went on, the
oxen pulling the cart stumbled. Uzzah reached out and held the Ark to stabilize
it. And, we are told in verse seven: “The Lord was angry with Uzzah and struck
him down for his imprudent action, and he died there beside the Ark of God.”
I hear this and think, “Hey, he
was only trying to help!”
Are you like me, wondering,
what’s going on here?
The United Church of Christ Old
Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann helps us when he says:
The Ark is enormously welcome in Israel. However, the Ark must not be presumed
upon, taken for granted, or treated with familiarity. The holiness of God is
indeed present in the Ark, but that holiness is not readily available. To touch
the ark is to impinge upon God’s holiness, to draw too close and to presume too
There is something here for us
and I want to come back to this.
Even David is troubled by all
that happened. He leaves the Ark at the house of Obed-edom for three months.
When it seems that God has left Obed-edom and his family unscathed—even blessing them—David continues the
process of taking the Ark to Jerusalem.
Now with more music and more
vigorous dancing, with sacrifice and feasting, with unashamed and unfettered
extravagance and unrestrained gratitude, the Ark is given a new dwelling place
in a tent that David has set up. One of his wives, Saul’s daughter, Michal, is
appalled by David’s actions, but she seems to be the only one who is upset.
David dances at the meeting
place of religious seriousness and political calculation. David dances in the
presence of the very holiness of the living god. David dances as a way of
bringing political legitimacy and power to Jerusalem. He dances as he
consolidates religious and political power in the city of David.
It is a bold move.
We are still dancing with
David. This is the ancient and ongoing dance of religion and politics.
While known in other lands as
well, we in the United States have our own particular dance. It is more popular
at some times than at others. And we are in one of those eras when the dance of
religion and politics is especially powerful.
When the Cold War heated up
back in 1954, under pressure from the Knights of Columbus, Congress—which had
made the Pledge of Allegiance an official state document—changed “one nation,
indivisible” into “one nation under God, indivisible.” Of course, they didn’t
specify which “god”—Dagon or the God of Abraham and Sarah or some entirely
And maybe you’ve heard about
this. Back in 2012 in Oklahoma they put up the Ten Commandments on the grounds
of the state capitol. They were inscribed on a tablet of stone, looking a
little as if they were just taken out of the Ark of the Covenant. Well, you can
imagine that such an act did not go unnoticed. The Oklahoma Supreme Court says
that the monument has to come down as it violates the state constitution. The
governor wants to keep the Commandments in place during an appeal, legislators
want to amend the constitution, and there are cries for the justices to be
Of course we in Iowa know about
the outrage that some religious people can feel toward judges who don’t see
things their way. After marriage was opened to all by our Supreme Court, a
campaign backed by some Christians led to three judges not being retained. And
in the wake of the recent United States Supreme Court decision on marriage, we
are hearing all sorts of people who want to find refuge to discriminate behind
the cloak of “religious liberty.”
I have no answer this morning.
No solution. The dance will continue because we are religious people and we are
political people. When we deal with the holy, the Bible and our own experience
tells us that we are engaged in a very dangerous enterprise. We run the risk of
baptizing and anointing our limited and flawed political perspectives. We run
the risk of enshrining in law our limited and flawed religious sensibilities.
So maybe the best we can do is
join in the dance with awareness and grace, making sure, as David did, that all
who want to can be a part of the dance, that all may join in the great feast
and return to their homes in peace.