Sunday, October 22, 2023

Sermon: “For the Briefest of Moments…”, 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5 (October 22, 2023)

Now that we’re over halfway through the First Testament in this cycle of the Narrative Lectionary, it’s worth remembering where we’ve come from before we find out where we’re going next. We began this Lectionary Year with the second creation story in Genesis, considering what was dysfunctional about the relationship between Adam and Eve. Then, we skipped ahead to Abraham and Sarah’s communication problems, which were uncovered when they learned that they would have a son despite their age. Next, we spent a week with their grandson, Jacob, who would apparently prefer to wrestle with a stranger than have a conversation with him. After that, we picked up the story many years later with Moses and his excuses about why he shouldn’t have to free God’s people. We fast-forwarded past the plagues, the Exodus, and the Israelites wandering in the desert, and then we heard part of Moses’ final speech to the Hebrews, where he begged them to pretty please remember that there’s only one God and that it’s SO IMPORTANT to follow God’s commandments (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work). And finally, we spent last week with Ruth and Naomi in the time of the Judges, after the Israelites had settled into their new home and, as scripture puts it, “there was no king in Israel, [so] people did whatever they felt like doing.”[1]

Phew. That’s a lot of ground to cover in six weeks. Looking at the history of God’s people from a bird’s eye view like this, a theme begins to emerge – it turns out that human beings are really bad at living together. We just keep messing it up. Despite our best intentions and God’s best efforts, human beings are forgetful, selfish, combative, and divisive.

So, it’s kind of a relief for us to finally read about human beings getting something right for a change. This week’s reading depicts the moment when the kingdom of Israel becomes unified under King David. When Saul died, the kingdom, which was already at war with the Philistines, had become further divided over the question of whether the people would follow Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s only surviving son, or David, Saul’s estranged son-in-law that he’d tried to kill him multiple times (as one does). Ish-Bosheth would obviously be the traditional choice, but David had been hand-picked by God to succeed Saul a long time ago. It took the people a while to sort this out, but 2 Samuel 5 marks the point at which the remaining holdouts finally decide to cast their lot with David.

This passage doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading, but it’s included in the Lectionary for a very important reason: it shows us that human beings, even ones with very different perspectives, CAN choose to live together as one. Given how disconnected (at best) and antagonistic (at worst) humanity has been throughout our history, this is a Big. Freaking. Deal. For the briefest of moments, God’s people are fully united. For the briefest of moments, they aren’t fighting, or disagreeing, or gossiping about each other. This isn’t something that happens very often. This is something to stop and take notice of. This is something worth celebrating.

David seems to agree. After a quick detour in the verses that we skipped to engage in some unsavory war activities against the Philistines (he IS still VERY human, after all), he organizes a parade with 30,000 of his best soldiers in order to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Baalah (in the southern part of the country) to Jerusalem, a city situated right on the border between the north and the south. As the parade makes its way north, everyone “celebrated in the Lord’s presence with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals….” This truly must have been a spectacle to behold, as a few verses later we learn that King David himself got in trouble with his wife for dancing so wildly and, in her opinion, inappropriately.

This is not like any parade you’ve ever seen before, with local figures smiling and waving serenely as they stroll through town. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is only two and a half miles long. This is a NATION-WIDE event, with everyone – including the newly-anointed king himself – using every last ounce of their energy to raise a ruckus that spans the eight miles between the two cities. The people had been at war for years, first with the Philistines and then with each other over Saul’s successor, but for the briefest of moments, they are united and at peace. And so, recognizing this moment for the anomaly that it is, they rightly drop everything, converge around the Ark, and party like their lives depend on it.

Moments like this, moments of people coming together in pure joy, are exceptionally holy. They allow us to catch a glimpse of the Kindom of Heaven breaking through into this world. But these moments never seem to last, do they? There are just too many forces in the world intent on beating us down and pulling us apart – classism, racism, nationalism, egotism, fear, greed; I could go on forever.

Even when we’re able to recognize these forces for what they are, we find that they’re so baked into our society, our language, even our own thought patterns that they can be nearly impossible to overcome. We may dream about the day that humankind figures out how to live together in harmony – we may even spend our whole lives working towards it – but if we’re lucky, we’ll probably only get to experience a handful of these brief moments of unity over the course of our entire lifetime. It’s utterly heartbreaking, enough to discourage anyone.

David’s reign over the unified kingdom of Israel was one such occasion, but it lasted, in the grand scheme of things, only for the briefest of moments. The united kingdom lasted only one generation more after David’s death: the people spent a total of 80 short years as one, and then more than 200 years torn apart. It was all over in a flash.

I wonder how the people would have reacted to David’s parade if they’d known what lay in store for their budding nation. Maybe they would have held back a little, reserved some of their energy for the conflicts to come. Maybe they would have felt that a couple of rattles and a tambourine were sufficient; no need to get the zithers and harps involved. Maybe they wouldn’t have even bothered to show up.

Or maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t have changed a thing. Maybe they still would have recognized the significance of the moment, no matter what lay behind them and what lay ahead of them. Maybe, even for the briefest of moments, they would have celebrated anyway, because being connected to our fellow human beings is a holy thing, no matter how long it lasts.

Humanity is fractured more often than it is whole, not because we don’t love God enough, but because we’re unable to love each other the way God calls us to. And so, in those times that we actually do find ourselves sharing a table with the sort of people that we’d normally keep at arm’s length – whether by choice or by circumstance – we should follow the example given to us by the people of ancient Israel. We shouldn’t treat it as just any other day; we need to pull out all the stops and celebrate like crazy. That’s not to say that there’s no relational work still to be done – there ALWAYS will be – but we can acknowledge the long road ahead while still rejoicing in the moment at hand. Because it will be over sooner than we think. So, whether we’re united by a common cause, basic empathy, or even just happenstance, we need to savor those times, the times that we find ourselves that much closer to unity for even the briefest of moments.

I know this isn’t the kind of sermon that fills you with hope and makes you glad to be alive. None of us wants to be reminded that this work of kindom building is hard, exhausting, and often thankless – even though we know it is. But if nothing else, the story of David’s eight-mile, cacophonous, nationwide parade will help us to remember that even when unity only shows up for the briefest of moments, it still happens. And when it does, we have permission – no, an obligation – to celebrate it with everything we’ve got. Every single time.

As we leave David and his unified Kingdom behind to go back out into our own world, we’re likely to find ourselves right back where we started. Along with the rest of humanity, we’ll forget how to get along. Unity will seem out of reach, maybe even impossible. We’ll see hate, and exclusion, and stubbornness, and ego. But this time, I hope we’ll remember the parade. I hope we’ll remember that there will always be moments, however brief, where the division doesn’t win, where we’re able to find one another and connect. And when those moments come, we’ll know exactly what to do. Just make sure you keep your harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals ready. Amen.


[1] Judges 17:6, MSG.

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