Delivered at Ames UCC on October 25, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Now that you’re all warmed up, let’s do that again:
One: Praise the Lord!
Many: Praise God in his Temple! Praise his strength in heaven! Praise him for the mighty things he has done. Praise his supreme greatness.
One: Praise him with trumpets. Praise him with harps and lyres. Praise him with drums and dancing. Praise him with harps and flutes. Praise him with cymbals. Praise him with loud cymbals.
Many: Praise the Lord, all living creatures! Praise the Lord!
Excellent. Now let’s get to the bloodshed.
Much like Jacob’s, David’s story is long and can’t be taken piecemeal. It begins not with today’s coronation but in First Samuel, with Samuel and Saul. Up until that point, the people of Moses did not have a king. They had prophets and judges, a looser and more localized form of governance. Not even governance, but authority.
Samuel was one of those judges. The people asked him to give them a king, though, because Samuel’s sons did not appear worthy to serve as judges themselves. Samuel went to God for counsel. God replies:
Fine. Give them what they want. Just as they have so many times since I brought them out of Egypt, they are rejecting me and my kingship. Give them what they want but warn them about how kings really behave.
Samuel did but they still wanted a king, so Saul was anointed. Then began the warfare, chiefly with the Philistines. The Philistines were likely migrants from the Aegean Sea by Greece and Turkey. They were perceived as war-like, according to the Egyptian record, and lived in five cities including Gaza.
Let me pause for a moment to make a comment about such historical facts. Although the Philistines were a real people, it is not entirely clear that the clash between them and our faith ancestors really happened, or happened as described.
What we have here in the Bible is not history in the contemporary sense: documentary evidence of real people and actions. Scripture is the stories that the ancient Hebrews told about themselves. It is history as national narrative rather than museum display.
And it is a narrative of conquest.
David was just a handsome shepherd when Saul calls on him to play the harp. But Saul’s monarchy fails and David rises to take his place. There was ultimately a lot of bad blood between Saul and David, a lot of conniving and deceit. Yet they were united in their will to war with the Philistines, and the details are unflinching. At one point we read,
Remember, he is the David of whom they sang as they danced: Saul has slain thousands; David his tens of thousands.” (1 Samuel 29.5)
As king of a united Israel, David goes after all foreigners and even names a reclaimed stronghold after himself. The Philistines come after David again, trying to tamp down his power, so God tells David to take care of them. David routs the Philistines.
Scripture says that God was with David, the proof being this military and political success. Today’s joyous dance is in response to that victory. A dance for God on the blood-soaked Earth.
You might be thinking, “So what?” So what if Saul and David killed a lot of Philistines? So what if they waged war to protect their land and resist the aggressions of others? The Bible says that God was on their side so we are on their side.
That’s the problem that I have: sides. Does God really take sides? That’s an awfully human practice. Can God be God with that kind of preference for one group over another?
This week I’ve been reading a book entitled “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. As you may have guessed, it is about the “stand your ground” laws that made the killing of Trayvon Martin legal.
Dr. Douglas wants to address, in part, the role of Christian faith for people who are marginalized and violated. She looks to the story of Exodus, which was so important to enslaved Africans in America. In Exodus, God saw the suffering of the people and acted. God nurtured Moses into leadership and protected his people from the Egyptian slave masters as they fled.
Exodus is proof that God loves the slave and hates the slave master. That argument extends to the story of David. God loves the Israelites and hates the Philistines.
No, Douglas says, that is wrong. Exodus does not, she writes, demonstrate that God preferred any one group of people over another. Instead, God chooses freedom over slavery. Not Hebrews over Egyptians, only freedom over slavery.
Do you hear the difference? God’s actions were in response to human behavior, not human identities. God is not tied exclusively to those slaves be they African or Hebrew. To tie God to one particular people is to distance God from all other people. It is, Douglas says, a means of reducing God to a human creation, “while humans are elevated to a divine status” (p. 159).
David most assuredly elevates himself to divine status in the course of our scripture—or at least the authors and storytellers of our scripture did. David, or his biographers, heard God strongly taking his side against others. And by doing so, alienates God from the rest of God’s creation and all of us.
But it was not the Philistines as Philistines that God rejected, only their warring ways. It was not the Israelites as Israelites that God preferred, but their intrinsic right to be free of colonialism.
Now I could stop my sermon right there and go back to the rejoicing. Hooray for a God who rejects slavery and values freedom!
Except that once in the wilderness, the freed Israelites themselves owned slaves. God did not free them. Except God allowed the people of Moses to practice colonialism themselves on entry into the promised land.
Our accounts of the divine are conflicting and conflicted. We do not get a clear portrait of God from the Bible or even our own lives. And so Douglas concludes that if God really is the god of all creation, “the reality of God is always more complex and dynamic than our very faith claims about God….we may not always know what God is doing in the world” (p. 162).
Which is the real reason we must lift up praise with cymbal and harp. Because God is always partially obscured, because God is not truly knowable, and even because God appears at times to be on the side of cruelty or at least not yet on the side of good, we must sing and rejoice. Because it means that God is yet greater than us. God is yet more than we can comprehend or contain.
Trust me, I badly want God exclusively on my side and not on the side of those who hurt me and mine. Lord, give me that righteousness, that self-righteousness I hunger for so deeply!
But that’s not how holiness works, it cannot be. If it did, then the God we worship today would simply be an extension of us, a reflection of our own egos. Or as Anne Lamott says, if God hates the same people we do, we have created God in our own image.
We may be—will be—uncomfortable in the grey area between freedom and slavery, the colonizer and the colonized. It will at times feel indefensible to love that which seems to allow hate to flourish and decency to fade.
But that characterization is a product of our limited perception of God in the world, not God’s actual presence. We cannot, by definition, truly grasp all that God was, is, and will be.
So praise God. Praise God with noisemakers and horns. Praise God with both silence and song. Praise God not for what God has done for us lately, or for being on our side and not others’, as David did, but simply for being God.