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Sunday, July 15, 2012

THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—(JULY 15, 2012)—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 AND Psalm 24:1-10 OR Amos 7:7-15 AND Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

One can approach most of this week’s lectionary readings through the lens of worship—how and why do we worship?  What is it that we celebrate in life and how do we do that celebrating?  Later I’ll comment on a few of the complexities in that Gospel reading.

One of the things that has become part of “contemporary” worship in some congregations is dancing.  Churches I served occasionally included “performance” dancing as an expression of worship.  My oldest daughter—during her high school and college years—occasionally danced before the congregation on a Sunday morning.

In the churches in which I grew up, dancing was forbidden.  Dancing in worship would have been the highest sacrilege.  I never learned to dance.  The prohibition was so deeply ingrained in me that, when learning to dance was part of the gym curriculum at school, I refused to participate.

It’s no surprise that the story of David dancing before the altar was one which highly intrigued me.  The story is about bringing the “ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David.”  (II Samuel 6:12b—See also vss. 2-4)  The ark could become our entire focus in the story.  Why was it not in Jerusalem to start with?  Where in fact was the proper place for it to be, i.e., where was the proper place to worship?  What was it anyway?  For most it was the sacred center of their religious life, containing the Torah, the Law which defined their life together, which represented God’s presence.  It was often thought to contain the very Spirit of God.  If it was not in their midst, if it was not in the temple, God was not with them.  It turns out, if we read the part of the story that is omitted, that it was a source of blessing to those in whose midst it dwelled.  (See vs. 12)

It’s a big day.  The Ark is coming home.  Let’s celebrate!  So—they come into the city “with rejoicing . . . David danced before the Lord with all his might,” even shedding his outer clothing—a very unkingly act indeed.  (II Samuel 5:12 & 14)   The story is less about the dancing itself than it is about rejoicing before the Lord without restraint—letting go and celebrating the passion that it is in the heart.  Isn’t that at the center of an attitude of worship?  Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife, didn’t see it that way.  It was undignified.  After all, aren’t we supposed to stay dignified in our worship and celebration?  She saw “King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.”  (vs. 16)

A few verses later, she says to him, “How the king of Israel dishonored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!”  (vs. 20)   Maybe that cuts to the core of things here.  This unrestrained celebration had leveled the field.  All shared equally in this experience.  Praising God is an act of inclusion and equality.  It is notable that at the end of this display, after offerings given to the Lord, David “distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins.”  (vs. 19)   This too was an act of worship!

In other readings, worship is linked with “righteousness.”  I’ve always been troubled by Psalm 24 which seems to imply that one has to be pure before one can enter into the place of worship.  “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?   And who shall stand in his holy place?  Those who have clean hands and pure hearts . . .”  (vss. 3-4)

While the lines of demarcation may not be that stark, Amos tells us that the kind of worship God wants is justice and righteousness.  God doesn’t much appreciate the worship of those who are cruel and insensitive and unjust in their treatment of those around them.  “I hate, I despise your festivals, . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  (Amos 5:21-24)   Interestingly, Amos offers another, less inspiring, picture of David and his court: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, . . .”  (Amos 6:4-6)   It is no wonder that, in the designated reading, from Amos, chapter 7, Amos is given the vision of the righteousness of Israel being measured.  (Amos 7:8 and following)   Amos is humbled by the call to deliver such a message.  “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees . . .”  (vs. 14)

Again, there is the hint of leveling in the affairs of the Lord, and a reminder that worship is not just about dancing and singing in the sanctuary, or even in the streets.  Worship occurs when “steadfast love and faithfulness” meet, when “righteousness and peace . . . kiss each other.”  (Psalm 85:10-11, part of the other lectionary Psalm for this Sunday)

The Epistle reading is, in part, an expression of praise, beginning, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly place . . .”  (Ephesians 1:3)   Twice it speaks of “the praise of his glory.”  (vss. 12 & 14)   The tone suggests that praise is rooted in hope.  If unrestrained singing and dancing coupled with righteousness and justice and peace are part of worship and celebration, so is hope.  Worship and celebration look not only backward, but ahead.  We do those things in the context of “a plan for the fullness of time,” an “inheritance,” a destiny “according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope in Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”  (vss. 10-12)

Finally, the strange and gory reading from the Gospel According to Mark.  In last week’s reading, Jesus sent his disciples out , two by two, with no provisions.  (Mark 6:7-11)   This week Herod hears about their success and wants to know who this man is.  It begins as a story about the identity of Jesus and ends with a flashback.  (vss. 14-16)   Herod wonders if it is John the Baptist but he knows John the Baptist is dead.  Herod, after all, was there when he died.  And so the flashback to his birthday party.  Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John the Baptist called him out about it.   His wife wants to see John dead, and eventually uses her daughter to trick Herod into beheading him.  (vss. 17-28)
Why is the story included?  Perhaps just to show the corruption of Herod’s court, the context in which the early Christian movement emerged?  Whatever the reason for its inclusion, it shows a man whose ego is at the center of this lavish birthday celebration.  It shows a man whose center is weak and is easily swayed.  It is not clear who or what he worships, and, in the end, while life is supposedly being celebrated, a life is lost, a righteous life.  Is it too far from what Amos was criticizing?

Perhaps it worthy to note that Herod is also a person of principle.  He gave his word to his daughter that she would have John’s head on a platter and he will keep his word, however much it grieves him.  (vs. 26)    I suppose one could see some merit in Herod’s keeping of his word, but one might also note how standing on principle, when justice of a much higher order is at stake, can be devastatingly destructive.  Is that also true of worship and celebration which is based upon principle alone, upon ritual alone, without the substance of justice and righteousness and hope and heart and joy?

May we always pay attention to what and how we celebrate, that we may live for and to the praise of his glory.  (See again Ephesians 1:13 & 14)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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