The Heart of the People
The Heart of the People
2 Samuel 6:9-15; John 17:20-26
Before I begin the sermon, I must offer an apology. Our first reading is not the one listed in the order of service. I had to change it. You see, the reading listed for today was in fact one I used a few weeks ago. It was also about King David, in that case concerning his son Absalom’s effort to usurp the throne of Israel. I had discussed that reading in some depth, so it seemed redundant to do so again.
The problem was not that I had used the same reading twice, but that I had explained the regular reading in light of this second one, otherwise scheduled to be read today. It was a mistake but not an obvious one. All mistakes are by definition made either unknowingly or carelessly, otherwise it is not a mistake but an intentional act. This mistake snuck up quietly on me.
Mistakes are like that.
The new reading for this morning was also about David. He is worried about making a mistake. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’
How can I, David, take care of something so important, so holy? David was unwilling to become the keeper of the ark of the Lord, the container for the actual covenant between the people and God. But he was king. Wouldn’t it make sense that the king, of all people, should be entrusted with this artifact, with the covenant itself? Maybe, maybe not. Some might argue that that responsibility belonged to the priests rather than the king.
David gave the ark to someone else to hold, a foreigner, someone more expendable perhaps. Maybe it was because it seemed like too much responsibility. Maybe it was because the last person to touch the ark without being prepared died on the spot. It was a man named Uzzah. In the Biblical account, he reached out to steady himself when he was about to fall and accidently took hold of the ark. This was a mistake, one that turned out to be fatal as Uzzah was struck down for his casual contact with the holy. David becomes angry, angry at God, because of this incident. Angry, and afraid, at what God had done to Uzzah and what God might do to David.
As it turns out, taking care of the ark led to many blessings for the bearer – who knew? Seeing that, David took back the ark after a few months. He somehow overcame his anger and his fear when he saw that having the ark, having the covenant with God, was more than a burden.
David brought the ark into his control and offered sacrifices for the occasion. Then he did something unusual, unexpected. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. It is hard to appreciate this event behind all the fancy language. David was dancing before the ark in his underwear.
So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
Dancing, singing, playing music in front of the holy of holies, the most sacred object in Israel. All in his underwear. Was that the right thing to do? In a later verse, David’s wife Michal, daughter of King Saul, looked out of her window to see David dancing. And upon seeing him do this, Michal despised him in her heart. Despised him. Why? Because he was being vulgar, running around half naked for everyone to see. David snapped back at her that he was dancing before the Lord, who had, by the way, chosen him over her father – not a warm and fuzzy marital moment.
The Biblical account immediately goes on to say that Michal had no children to the day of her death. Punishment follows from judgment in the Bible, so it is to be assumed that Michal was judged harshly for her criticism of David. Was that a mistake of presumptuousness, of poor judgment, or something else?
Last week, I was chatting with someone. This person had had a discussion with someone else about parenting. In that conversation, one person concluded that parents are on some level or another responsible for the bad acts of their children. I believe the specific example used was of children who commit terrible crimes, such as terrorism. What better day to ponder the implications of such a statement than Mother’s Day. To be fair, Father’s Day in one month from now, so I will fold those two secular holidays together for purposes of this question.
I will let you in on a ministerial secret. There are some topics that ministers hate talking about. Two subjects at the top of the most hated list are Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Now you might be thinking, why would that be? Such lovely days filled with sweet sentiment. Flowers and chocolates for Mom, bad ties and aftershave for Dad. Easy as anything.
But not really. Some people have had great relationships with their parents, carefree and filled with heartwarming stories. Others not so much. Families are often complicated. Even in the same household, you might get differing perspectives about how it all was in those bygone days, one child saying everything was perfect and another describing home life as a nightmare.
I was thinking about the stereotypic good family examples from the past. There were families from old TV shows, like Ozzie and Harriet. That one was a little before my time, though I recall seeing reruns. They were sort of an archetype for a perfect family, displaying the ideals of 1950s America. Wholesome, orderly, and predictable. And, let us not forget, scripted.
When I think about the story of King David dancing before the ark, I wonder why it was scripted that way. An obvious answer is that it happened that way, but then again why tell this rather embarrassing story about David cavorting around half-dressed. His wife was scandalized and rebuked him for it. And she was in turn punished. David did something which on the face of it seemed inappropriate and yet the person who pointed this out was the one found to be lacking.
That assumes that not having children is a punishment from God. Until fairly recently, that assumption was probably widely held, at least through the days of Ozzie and Harriet. Having children was assumed and how those children behave was squarely placed at the feet of the parents. Maybe it still is.
To what extent are parents responsible for the behavior of their children? This question often comes up naturally as an internal dialogue, one that arises unbidden while walking through the shopping mall or sitting in a busy restaurant. You might look over and see a child acting out, raising a fuss. Can’t they control that child? Don’t they know they should do this or that? Why do they feel the need to burden the rest of us with that ungodly noise?
Then again, you may have been the parent in that scenario. You know that the child is hungry or tired, that he or she has been sick or is getting sick. Or that the child has a tricky temperament — aggressive or challenging, unpredictable or entirely too predictable. And yet you still need groceries or school shoes. You still want to get out of the house once in a while in spite of the struggles of doing so.
And, let us not forget, that adults came from somewhere. A few of us may have been the noisy, troublesome kid. The loud one pleading desperately for a toy or a terrible unhealthy breakfast cereal. The kid who monopolized the swing at the playground or hogged all the toys in kindergarten. The bad seed.
In my family’s mythology, by the way, I was the good child, the quiet one who never got into trouble. Who listened carefully and always got good grades. Some of my siblings even believe that nonsense – getting older plays havoc with one’s memory. My immediately older brother, of course, will have none of this. He was often portrayed as the troubled child, the disruptive one who was always causing grief. We were the closest in age and therefore knew more about what each of us was doing. I must confess that I was by no means the perfect child. And I will also report that my brother really was an absolute troublemaker.
I am a minister, so you have to believe me.
This past month, we have been hearing about David. David has a lot of good qualities. He was a great warrior and a crafty general. He played the harp and sang well, even dancing on occasion as were learned this morning. He was also manipulative and selfish. He was ruthless enough to have a man killed to get what he wanted, as in the case of beautiful Bathsheba and poor Uriah the Hittite. He was foolish enough to ignore the manipulations and selfishness of his own beloved son, Absalom, who came perilously close to killing his own father and seizing the throne. All the love in the world was not enough prevent that.
David was a complicated man, marked by inconsistencies of behavior and flaws of character. And yet David became the heart of his people, one of the great touchstones for Jewish culture if not always the most treasured example of good behavior. The House of David is also the extended family from which Jesus was born. That is not to suggest that David was any better than he is portrayed, by no means. Good things do not need perfection in order to grow. And bad things might still come about in spite of best efforts to the contrary. David loved his son Absalom. Absalom wanted more than his father’s love.
Parents and children are related but that does not guarantee what sort of relationship they have. There are so many versions of that story that it is hard to settle on any one for an occasion like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. You hope that everyone had an Ozzie and Harriet family life. Or maybe a Brady Bunch upbringing.
As I was thinking about the Brady Bunch, I remembered something. The Bradys were a blended family. Mike Brady was a widower who married Carol Martin, a widow. Each had three children from their prior marriages. The early premise of the story was their effort to bring together separate households into some kind of harmonious union (a full time house keeper probably helped). The creators of the show were using a statistic of that time, the 1960s, that 30% of American marriages involved a child or children from a previous marriage, whether from death or divorce. That number has increased to 40% as of 2014.
Was Mike Brady responsible for the bad behavior of Marcia, Jan, and Cindy? Should Carol Brady take credit for Greg, Peter, and Bobby? When Cindy tattled, when Peter broke Marcia’s nose? These are just stories, of course, scripted rather than playing out in the world. But there are many families out there with complex flowcharts — parents and stepparents, stepbrothers and half-sisters, grandparents of many varieties. How do you assess blame or award congratulations? And even if one were to assume an intact nuclear family, there is no easy way of predicting how a family dynamic will play out in any one life, for good or for ill.
Is it any wonder why ministers dread Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? If it is all hearts and flowers, some people will feel forgotten. If it instead it is about upheaval and family dysfunction, still others will seem left out. Better to ignore it all and talk about Jesus.
But then Jesus comes along and starts talking about his father.
Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.
A colleague once asked a group of us to explain in simple terms our understanding of who Jesus was. I was feeling particularly mischievous that day so I said he was a nice Jewish boy who got into trouble. And that he had a complicated relationship with his father.
Jesus is in many ways an exception to an enduring Biblical rule. There are few perfect people in the Bible. Adam and Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Elijah: these patriarchs and prophets all communicated with God but were not perfect. They betrayed and bullied, cowered and killed. The Bible is a holy book about not always holy people. The prophets speak in terms of righteousness, but not perfect righteousness. This is a system of walking a path, sometimes losing a step or two but then being pulled back on track even if it takes 40 years. After David caused Uriah to be killed so the king could be with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan castigates King David for it. This was a system that allowed for correction, perhaps brutally so – I will get to that.
Jesus said: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them”
The love with which you have loved me may be in them. Parenting is in many ways a reflection of that prayer from Jesus. The hope is that children will be loved. That love will then be internalized and in turn shared with others. The next generation of children will receive the transmission of love down from their grandparents by and through their own parents and so on and so forth.
But sometimes that transmission gets garbled. Sadly, love is not the only thing one can receive from a parent. And, conversely, the love that a parent has to offer is not always imprinted upon the heart of every child. Upbringing can struggle with temperament, nature and nurture confounding each other in unpredictable ways. The boy with everything going for him can lose his way. The girl without a chance in the world might end up succeeding.
Now, a child brought up in a loving family has a better chance. A family life marked by abuse or crippling poverty is not the best way to get started. That being said, wealth is not enough to ensure happiness any more than a lack of resources will automatically lead to a failure to thrive. I would agree that extremely bad parenting can lead to dysfunctional children, but I would further suggest that parents can neither take the blame for every problem nor take credit for every accomplishment. We are not merely the sum total of life’s abrasions or the perfect masterpieces of our parents’ desires. Mistakes can and will be made and they can also be overcome.
“I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” The hope is that the love received will in turn be given. But that does not mean that the love runs out when we have exhausted the supply given by our parents. Parents offer the spark that hopefully children in their own ways turn into a flame. That is the hope.
The Bible is not filled with perfect people because people are not perfect. Parents are not perfect. Children are not perfect. Families are not perfect. Perfection is an elusive goal because it implies completeness. How does a parent or a child or a family become complete? In any one moment, the pieces are moving, choices are being made, and mistakes are bound to happen. Children grow up into adults, sometimes even becoming parents themselves. Making the same or differing choices, in emulation of their parents or in stark contrast.
There is never a complete picture, never a timeless photograph frozen in a perfect pose. Parents can, at best, get their children ready for the family portrait. How that portrait comes out in the end, God only knows. Amen.