“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 the Covenant.

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 owners.

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 through twelve.

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 much.”

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 other deity.

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 impeached.

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.