Watch the video of the full service at Galloway Memorial UMC, including this sermon, here.
King David is one of our favorite and most well-known fathers of our faith. Most of us know a lot of stories about King David. I bet if we asked our children in most Christian congregations to tell us a story about King David, they could each share a different one. Some would tell us about the little shepherd boy who fought and killed the giant Goliath with nothing but a slingshot. Some would say he was the youngest and least impressive of a whole lot of brothers, but God picked him to become the king of God’s people Israel. Some might tell us that he was an incredibly talented musician or a mighty warrior. Our youth and the adults may know more about him and the story about Bathsheba. Others will remember him as the father of Solomon and (if I’m counting correctly from the genealogy in Matthew) the 24 times great-grandfather of Jesus on his earthly father’s side. So we know a lot about David and his place in the history into which we’ve been adopted by God, but do we remember how he got his start in leadership?
Before he was king, he lived and served in the house of King Saul, which was no piece of cake. You may remember that David was helping Saul out by defeating the Philistine’s champion Goliath, but Saul’s gratitude quickly turned to suspicion and jealousy as David started getting a reputation. The people fell in love with him, and Saul was not happy about it. He tried to get rid of him by offering to let him marry his daughter if David would bring him proof that he’d circumcised 100 Philistine soldiers, assuming of course that David would die in the process. (I wonder if this is where David gets the idea about getting rid of Bathsheba’s husband Uzziah in a similar way later in his life. But I digress.) In any case, the plan backfires majorly when David shows back up at the palace with proof of not 100, but 200 Philistines. So reluctantly, Saul agrees to let David marry his younger daughter.
Enter Michal, King David’s first wife. You’re probably familiar with her brother Jonathon, David’s dearest and most beloved friend who helped him escape from Saul when the older king’s jealousy got the best of him. But Michal is just as instrumental in saving David’s life as her brother. When she hears her father plotting against her new husband who’s happily sleeping upstairs one night, she quickly wakes him up, lowers him out the window, and places some statues and pillows under the covers in his bed so no one will miss him until morning. When her little Ferris Bueller routine is discovered, she stands up to her father and risks her life to keep David safe. She does this out of love. Michal is deeply in love with David. In fact, in all of the Hebrew Bible, out of all the verses and of all the women, she is the only woman who is ever explicitly described as loving a man. There must be something significant about her love if the author felt it was worthwhile to name it for us. We’re not told whether David loved her back, but many people assume he did because of his pet name for her, Eglah. Y’all that literally translates to calf; as in baby cow. As in, not the most romantic thing in the world. Bless his heart, David had other gifts. But apparently this term of endearment was supposed to refer to both how precious she was to David and to her independence because like an unbroken calf she wouldn’t submit to the yoke her father tried to put on her. Regardless, we know she must have loved David if she put up with that nickname.
Perhaps it’s partly love that sustains her through all the hard seasons she goes through in her life. Despite being a princess, Michal does not enjoy a cushy existence. She grows up in a home with an erratic father who trades her hand in marriage for political gain to a husband who must immediately go into hiding. While David is gone, Saul marries Michal off again to another man until David returns and demands they be reunited. Somewhere in the midst of all this uncertainty and indignity, Michal’s only sister Merab passes away and Michal takes in her nieces and nephews to raise as her own. She also loses her beloved brother Jonathon and her father in the wars between Saul and David and the Philistines. When her first husband David does return, he’s married other women and even had children with them, as was the custom of the day, but I imagine it still stung a bit. By the time she’s settled into their home in Jerusalem and David heads out again to bring home the Ark of the Covenant, she’s been through it. Life has not been kind to her, but she has been fiercely strong in the face of it.
According to Jewish tradition, she is one of the women being praised for their valor and faithfulness in Proverb 31, a poem that draws on various biblical characters for inspiration to praise “a woman of valor.” The heart of that strength is her faith. It was common in Israel at the time for Jewish men to wear little boxes tied to their arms or forehead filled with verses of Scripture to symbolize their devotion to God, but women were not expected to participate in this ritual. Rabbis maintain that Michal did, though, perhaps because she particularly needed a very visible reminder of the steadfast love of God in the midst of so much turmoil. By all accounts of Jewish scholars, Michal is a woman filled with love for God and for others, particularly her husband, but that’s not the reputation she has from folks who are only familiar with this morning’s story about her.
2 Samuel 6:1-2, 12b-22
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing. 13 And when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fattened animal. 14 And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn.16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart. 17 And they brought in the ark of the Lord and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it. And David offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. 18 And when David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts 19 and distributed among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, a cake of bread, a portion of meat,[a] and a cake of raisins to each one. Then all the people departed, each to his house.
20 And David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” 21 David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. 22 I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Remember now that the Ark of the Covenant was the dwelling place of God’s presence among God’s children from the time they were in the desert with Moses fleeing from slavery in Egypt until now. When Michal sees the Ark of the Covenant coming home to its rightful place in the heart of God’s people Israel led by her beloved David, she should be thrilled, right? But instead, she’s furious. She’s resentful. Everyone else is celebrating and dancing and eating and making a huge fuss, but she is only able to stand by and watch from a distance without sharing in their joy. Something about this particular celebration just isn’t sitting well with her. It’s almost like the Grinch watching the Who’s down in Whoville at Christmas time.
We can sometimes feel this way at holidays, too, when our own lives are not unfolding the way we thought they would. Big days are not always happy events for everyone. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas; special occasions like births and weddings—they are festive but sometimes they remind us of what we have lost or what is not right in our world because our own experiences of those days simply refuse to fit on a Hallmark card. When someone is missing from the celebration because of death or separation, that’s hard. When someone is present in a manner that is frightening or contentious or simply not what we had pictured, that’s hard. When our bodies will not allow us to participate as fully as we’d like to because of illness in our minds or in another part of the body, that’s hard.
Don’t get me wrong; the celebration of David and the company of Israel is beautiful and fitting and honors God. They are not wrong to rejoice in the return of the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of God’s abiding presence and everlasting covenant with their people. It’s a joyful thing and deserve a fuss being made over it. Just like it says in our communion liturgy, “It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” We’re supposed to be happy when we sense God is near at Christmas and Easter, when we honor the people God has placed in our lives at birthdays, weddings, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduations, and other big moments. There’s nothing wrong with a full-hearted celebration! But at the same time, Michal is not wrong to be unable to get there either. No, she shouldn’t attack David for expressing his worship, but neither should he turn a blind eye to her pain. With their clash of feelings about this day, no wonder they get into it when he gets home from the party outside.
Have you ever had one of those fights that’s not really about what it’s about? You know, where it seems like a roommate gets unreasonably upset that you forgot to put the lid back on the peanut butter after using it, but it’s kind of just the last straw of a bigger pattern. You’re not really fighting about peanut butter, you’re fighting about respecting each other’s space and not putting an unfair burden on one person more than another to keep shared space clean and liveable. Y’all had these conversations with your partners or roommates or kids, right? Michal is tearing David to shreds about looking a fool when he’s supposed to be the king but is it really about the respect of the throne? Is it really about those servant girls seeing his underwear when his robes are kicking up? Perhaps it is, or perhaps his worship is hitting a raw nerve for her that hasn’t yet fully healed. It’s possible a passionate and erratic king reminds her too much of the father she lost and of the complicated and troubled relationship they shared while he lived. Perhaps the implied threat of infidelity in his provocative behavior reminds her that she’s been traded off to another husband for political advantage and that David took other wives and loved other families in the meantime. It could be that David’s worship is totally appropriate for the occasion but it reminds her of how she doesn’t feel worthy or able or she doesn’t have the desire to worship that way at this point in her life. Maybe the scene cuts into her because she knows how much her brother Jonathon would have loved this special day. Something about this is triggering some memories and some pain that are still raw enough to sting.
I don’t know, maybe we think she should be over all that stuff from her past by now, but it doesn’t always work that way, does it? Things linger. We try not to wallow in it too much when we experience hard things and or when life’s not fair, but we do carry all that around don’t we? Some days we feel the weight of all those things more heavily than others. Hopefully by the grace of God and with the help of friends and family members and counselors and pastors loving on us as God’s hands and feet in our lives, we build up the strength we need to carry them well so it’s not such a burden and we don’t feel it so much. But no matter how long it’s been, sometimes the load slips and it hits us all over again. Y’all know what I’m talking about, don’t you? I think Michal does.
I learned this in a new and deeper way a couple years ago. When I was a freshman in college, I was sexually assaulted. I won’t tell you the story, because you already know it. It is so heartbreakingly common that you have probably heard it before in some form or another either in your own life, about someone you know, or somewhere in the headlines of the news. Thankfully, since that time I’ve had the love and support of family, friends, doctors, counselors, and pastors who have helped me to heal, but it was a long process. When it first happened, I was young and far from home and not sure how to make sense of it all, so I just didn’t. I tried to just be over it. Years later in an entirely different state of life and geography, Matthew put his arms around me and something about the way his hand fell on my hip hit that trigger. I had developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and while I knew intellectually that I was safe and it had been a long time ago now and no one was going to hurt me, my body and my mind couldn’t agree on that truth. I wanted to let go of that pain and to embrace the present, but I couldn’t quite get there. I would go through whole weeks where the majority of my energy was devoted to not bursting into tears inappropriately at work or in class. I was exhausted after every social interaction from trying to focus over the internal monologue I had going, “Smile. Nope, that looks stiff, try again. Ok, eyes are watering a bit, say something about allergies. What did he just say? I wasn’t listening. Just nod and try to catch up now. Keep smiling, though. He can tell, can’t he? Dang it. Wait, no, no he thinks I’m fine.” I sincerely hope none of you have ever had to deal with PTSD, but whether you have or not, I feel sure you know what it’s like for something like that to sneak up on you. Maybe it’s the anniversary of a death that was years ago, but for some reason today you just really miss your Daddy. It could be that you were flipping through the channels and caught the tail end of a movie you used to watch with your significant other before y’all split up, and it’s like the loss knocks the wind out of you all over again. Whatever the cause, from that place in the middle of the hurt, I gotta tell you friends, it is hard to be around shiny, happy people and their shiny, happy lives. For a little while there, I was so resentful of people who weren’t dealing with the things I was dealing with. Must be nice, I’d think. You have no idea what I’m going through, I bet you don’t even care. I had such a bad attitude about it, but it felt so profoundly unfair that they could just breathe so easily like that, much less celebrate holidays and relationships and whatever other big life events they were experiencing. I mean, honestly, how dare they all go out there and dance in front of the Ark like that when I am barely holding it all together?
I feel like Michal is right there with me on this. But the thing is, that doesn’t keep God from coming to her. The Ark of the Covenant enters into her home every bit as much as to David’s. God is present whether we receive that presence with unashamed, undignified dancing in public or with snappy resentment and distance. I saw a little plaque at the craftsman’s guild the other day that said it like this, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” The invitation is always there to come however we’re able. Michal is still a vital member of David’s family, a sharer in God’s covenant relationship with the people God has created and chosen. Her tough breaks don’t disqualify her; neither does her bad attitude.
God is already there, has already been there all along. With Michal, with me, with you. Bidden or unbidden, God is present. That presence is less boisterous in Michal’s life than David’s, but it is every bit as valid, every bit as real.
As we encounter special occasions and reasons to celebrate, I invite you not to stifle your worship or your fun but to make space within it to listen and look for those who don’t feel up to participating, for those who don’t feel welcome if they can’t come with shouts and dancing. If you’re the one who feels stuck watching from the window, remember that you don’t owe anyone a happy face or a hero. You are free to come as you are and bring whatever it is you bring today. The arms of Christ are spread wide on the cross to welcome you and hold you close in suffering or celebrating, in bitterness or beauty. The God of David, the God of Michal, the God of love invites you. Come.
*NOTE: I delivered this sermon from the pulpit nearly two weeks ago, and despite all my nerves about sharing a bit of an ugly part of my story, I have been met with overwhelming warmth, understanding, and love. I am so thankful that, at least among this congregation, you can say these things in church. It is safe to be real here. You are safe in the sanctuary. My hope in sharing this with you and encouraging others to do the same is that we will all feel safe in all churches to be honest about who we are and where we’ve been.