This sermon today will NOT be about the Gospel reading on the beheading of John the Baptist—I do not want to deal with that. Instead, the theme for the sermon today is falseness and mistrust vs. trust and truthfulness.
In our first reading today from 2 Samuel 6, the new leader of the Jews and their new King David moved the symbol of the Jews, the Ark of the Covenant, to his new capital, Jerusalem, to place God back into the center of his people’s lives. This move was also a shrewd consolidation of his political power. David had conquered a city that was not part of any tribe of Israel; Jerusalem can now literally be termed the "city of David." A foreign king had acknowledged him, and he had once again defeated the Philistines, this time rather soundly. He had become "greater and greater" in his people’s minds.
2 Samuel 6 opens with an impressive number of people (thirty thousand soldiers, plus the many other Jewish people at the parade of the Ark and the celebration of his reign in Jerusalem). Chapter 6 finalizes the move from tribal leadership to kingship. The joining together of the north and south kingdoms is underscored by the magnitude of the gathering. The allegiance to Saul is now over, and all factions are united around David. As their new king, David must demonstrate to all his allegiance to God and to the traditional religious symbols and institutions he has inherited. In doing so, David reassured the people that he was in a line with those who had come before him, and with their traditions; the newness of this capital city would be balanced by "the stability and orthodoxy" represented by the Ark. It couldn't have hurt David's credibility, either, in the eyes of the people, because this was obviously a king who enjoyed the favor of God.
Let’s now think about the Ark, where it came from, what it symbolized, and what happened to it over the years. The Ark of the Covenant was the wooden chest (later made most elaborate in gold with winged seraphim on its lid) that contained the tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments, the Law that had been given to Moses. The Ark of the Covenant meant four things to Israel. It was (1) the embodiment of the presence of Yahweh, (2) a symbol of God’s presence in their midst, (3) a symbol of the covenant that bound them together as one nation and was (4) a portable throne for Yahweh himself. The Ark had accompanied the people for years on their journey toward the Promised Land and during their time of settlement on the land. The Ark had always had a temporary home, moving with the people in their journeys. It had now become the symbol of national identity and liberation from the Philistines under the skillful leadership of David, the popular choice as chieftain of all the tribes of Israel, and now their new king.
During the reign of King Saul, the Ark of the Covenant was used as a talisman. The Israelites often carried it into battle to ensure a successful outcome. On one occasion, that did not work too well. In a battle against the newly invading “Sea People” (or Philistines) at Shiloh, the ark was captured by the Philistines as a war prize and taken to their city of Ashdod. From both the viewpoint of the Philistines and the Israelites, this capture didn’t merely mean that Israel’s enemies had taken an historic treasure. In a sense, they had “captured” Yahweh, so that Israel was lost without the protective power of their God. The pomp and fanfare that marked its return, the national celebration that followed, and the offerings that were made in the tent prepared to house the Ark are indicators that David wanted the Ark to be his greatest symbol of God being with him in his kingship.
Many religious celebrations include experiences of both boundless joy mixed with a measure of sadness. This may be particularly evident when a large number of people participate and a charismatic leader is present. A form of mob psychology seems to take over. People behave with excessive enthusiasm and not infrequently run amok. Such was the case when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. David solidified the total change of Jewish leadership and culture from Yahweh-centered and wilderness/nomadic, to monarchy-centered and largely urban, from the tradition of each Israelite being obedient to God by seeking to do justice, to do mercy and to walk humbly with God, to participating in the elaborate ceremony and rituals of the temple. This new monarchy-centered tradition sought to confine God to a Temple where he could be served by priests, rather than being out in the land, served by the people in their efforts to act justly and proclaimed by prophets accountable to no king. Thus, the first tradition encouraged the equitable sharing of power by all, whereas the second tradition sought highly centralized and hierarchical control and domination by a predetermined few.
God's choice of David is also accompanied by human intrigue and conniving. David's exuberance at the celebration in Jerusalem could be read as pure gratitude for what God has granted him, but it can also be interpreted as politically astute manipulation. David's motives were not pure, yet God was involved. Sin is real and faith is real; at times they appear in one event and in one character. Running through the narrative of 1 & 2 Samuel is that the Lord blessed David, but the narrative leaves many signs that David was also self-serving and contriving. So we should not be surprised that, when the house of David starts to unravel in 2 Samuel 11, it starts with David himself. And, thinking about it--whatever happened to the Ark over the years—no one really knows!
Let’s move now to present times, the past 10 years or so in our United States and in the world. As a society, we have been part of a recent era focused on what money can buy for our pleasure now, or do to make us safe in our old age, we have had leadership in governments and in business that has mostly looked out for themselves, and we have lost touch with what is most important in our lives.
You may know that the Episcopal Church USA is having its every 3 years national convention right now in Anaheim, CA. Our own Bishop Greg Rickel (who will visit us in September) was honored to open the 10 day convention by introducing our Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and also the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the head of the worldwide Anglican Church). Bishop Rickel, Presiding Bishop Schori and Archbishop Williams all spoke to this situation we now find ourselves in as a society, as Christians and Episcopalians.
Bishop Rickel welcomed everyone gathered at the opening forum, titled “Christian Faithfulness in the Global Economic Crisis”. "It's important that we look outward to the wider world. Our life as Christians compels us to see global poverty as our collective problem," he said.
"We are all interconnected," said Presiding Bishop Schori in her introductory comments. "How we live, how we use resources … each act has an effect on all our human siblings across the globe. We are beginning to recognize that each of those acts may be more consequential than we'd imagined." Bishop Schori said the world is "in the midst of a crash course in economic interconnectedness … The excess and greed in this global economic crisis have been biblical in scale. As a human community we all share some responsibility. We've been quick to assert our own need while ignoring the privation nearby."
Archbishop Williams stated, “During the last six to nine months, we have suddenly discovered we have been lying to ourselves. For the last decade or more there has been a steady erosion of trust in our financial life. Our word has not been our bond. We have learned to tolerate high levels of evasion and anti-relational practices.” "We have lied to ourselves about the possibility of profit without risk," Archbishop Williams told, "We have lied to ourselves consistently about the possibility of limitless material growth in a limited world.”
Archbishop Williams, who is attending General Convention for the first time, said that the "task before us as people of faith is to name this as a crisis of truthfulness and to challenge ourselves about the truth and above all to live in the truth." He underscored the importance of transparency and the building of relationships. "Trust doesn't happen simply because someone says 'trust me,'" he said. "Trust happens almost when you're not noticing it -- when the relationship is such that you know the quality of the person you're dealing with, and that takes time."
Williams concluded his address by underscoring the need for human beings to grow together "in liberty and communion [which] is at the heart of what we want to say to the world that is indeed in crisis."
Michael Schut, the Economic & Environmental Affairs Officer for the National Episcopal Church, and who resides in Seattle in our Diocese, also spoke and emphasized Christ's message of healing the sick and setting the prisoners free. "We now acknowledge that if we don't care for all creation we're not going to care for all humanity," he said. "We need to create an economy that's God's economy."
What does this say to us at St. Mark’s? How do we respond to this? As an important part of our Montesano community we have done things already that show we care for those around us and want to do our share, or even more. We have been significantly giving to our community through our outreach $$--over $5000 last year, we have emphasized good stewardship of what we have with how we have enlarged and improved our facility, making it more accessible, and offering it for community use, and we continue to offer a program for kids in our community that is Christ centered in love, not God’s royalty and judgment. [On the facility improvements part, note that we must have been very much watched over by God in how and when we did our facility projects from 2005 to last year—we did them when our investment funds (about $220k) were near their highest values; if we had just held onto these funds we would have lost at least 1/3 of them by now in the collapsing economic markets of the past year.]
What else can we do? One thing I’m hoping we can do is to support a program I want us to begin this fall at St. Mark’s--to review various books focused on living simpler, more focused lives with God. I learned about a couple of books from Michael Schut titled, “Simpler Living, Compassionate Life—A Christian Perspective”, and “Money & Faith—The Search for Enough” when I attended the diocesan stewardship conference in June. I will have more information about this for you during the next month, but one thing I hope is that we can offer this to the Montesano community, not just for ourselves. There are many ways to be acting Christians and evangelize our community; this is one way that provides a real message of God’s compassion and hope if we are faithful to His mission and message.
We live in troubled and challenging times as Episcopalians and Christians—how we respond shows what our faith really looks like and whether it is an active one. Let’s pray that we are indeed active and faithful Christians and respond well to the challenges that come our way.
**Supporting Commentary References**
Richard Nysse, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN
Rev. Dr. Patricia Dutcher-Walls, Associate Dean--Hebrew Scripture, Knox College
Rev. John Shearman, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
Dr. Robert Linthicum, Partners in Urban Transformation, 2009