The politics of praise (Sept. 12, 2021) – The Presbyterian Outlook

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Uniform Lesson for September 12, 2021


Scripture passage and lesson focus: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-19

This week we move from the sands of the Red Sea to the rocky paths leading to Jerusalem. Again we encounter worship that includes tambourines and dancing, but this time the dancer is a king. Presbyterians love a good processional, with organ and choir robes and maybe even a little brass. But dancing in a linen ephod, by either the king or the clerk of session? What’s going on here? And what might it teach us — about worship and politics, about worship and derision, about worship and ecstasy (or at least enthusiasm)?

Worship and politics

Next time we plan a processional, it might be good to think about the politics involved. Any parade is political, because it’s a gathering of people, arranged in some particular order for some particular purpose. Who’s in front? What costumes are allowed? How enthusiastic is the dancing or the stepping? What is the focus for the music and the banners? What about any speeches or presentations that precede or follow?

David was moving the ark of God to his capital, Jerusalem. His purpose was to unite the tribes of Israel into one nation under himself as king. Bringing the ark into Jerusalem to sit in the Temple next to the palace was a political act whose appropriateness could be debated. Yes, this was a more holy parade than one filled with chariots and horses. Yes, this was a more humbling parade, with the ark at the center and the king as the worshipper. But also yes, this was a political parade that had repercussions for anyone who opposed or questioned this king (as we soon see). The people of Israel celebrated the ark of the covenant as the embodiment of God’s presence that had traveled with them through the wilderness. We confess our faith that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s presence who continues to travel with us through our wildernesses today. What kind of parade did Jesus plan when he followed this path to Jerusalem, and what kind of politics did his parade imply?

Worship and derision

Lurking beneath the festival nature of this parade is a rumbling and dangerous story of succession. Saul, Israel’s first king, had been deposed and dispatched. A new king, David, was anointed and acclaimed. But remnants of the old Saulide party were still around. Saul’s daughter Michal was a member not only of David’s court but of the first family, as David’s first wife. This story continues to work its way out through intrigue and violence, including the deaths of people dear to the king. But the larger story shows up in this procession as Michal, seeing her husband leaping and dancing, “despises him in her heart.” The parade proves deadly for poor Uzzah, but he is not the only one.

Processions can tell us a lot about the character and values of a people. Who stands on the side and cheers? Who withdraws and takes offense? Worship wars are never limited to the sanctuary. They become even clearer on the streets.

Worship and ecstasy

Nevertheless, Scripture remembers this scene as one that drew this king into our hearts. David made plenty of mistakes, and those too are remembered. But David, by tradition, was a singer of songs and a worshipper extraordinaire. Regardless of how we interpret this parade by analyzing its power dynamics and its political implications, one thing is clear: the ark of the covenant is its focal point. David’s leaping and dancing are directed toward God’s presence. The “burnt offerings and offerings of well-being” are offered before the Lord. The food David distributes to the people is similar to food distributed at other covenantal meals that preceded and will follow this event, with the Lord serving as host. God’s presence in the midst of our parades can be dangerous, if we try to manage or manipulate it. God’s presence in the midst of our parades forces us to choose sides. But God’s presence in the midst of our parades should inspire singing and dancing and even a change of clothes. Would that our Presbyterian processions were sometimes a little less decent and in order!

For discussion: It might be good for us to ask some hard questions about the order of our processions in worship. Who is at the front, and who is at the back? Who is included, and who is excluded? What is the focal point of our processions and our worship? What is allowed, and what is not — and why?

RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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