Celebrating God's Presence

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, July 11, 2021
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

    Before we had children, we had the opportunity to travel with Rich’s parents on a Scandinavian cruise, which included two days in St. Petersburg, Russia.  While in St. Petersburg, we visited several ornately decorated Russian Orthodox churches.  If you’ve ever been to an Orthodox church of any kind, you are familiar with the Orthodox tradition of iconography – a particular style of painting images to tell Biblical stories that are displayed throughout the church. The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is covered from floor to ceiling with golden framed icons.  It is sensory overload!  You could spend a whole week just looking at all of the icons in this massive church.  Monks were chanting beautiful Russian liturgy, and we were overwhelmed by the sacred presence of God.  We went from St. Petersburg to the Helsinki Cathedral in Finland the next day.  The contrast was striking!  Of course, this Protestant church was built during the iconoclast time post-Reformation when putting any image of anything in a church was considered breaking the first commandment.  This cathedral was also beautiful, but in a very different way:  almost completely unadorned, pure white everywhere, a quiet hush because there was nothing but blank walls to look at. Here, too, we were overwhelmed in a very different way by the sacred presence of God in this church.  I wonder, where and when have you felt the powerful presence of God?
    Today’s first reading may at first seem obscure. Our chapter from 2 Samuel describes what happens after King Saul’s death as King David tries to legitimize his role as king.  The main point of this chapter is that David gets the ark of the covenant out of storage and holds a festive procession to Jerusalem to motivate the people of Israel to turn back to God.  Before the temple was built, the Israelites understood the ark of the covenant to be the most important symbol of God’s presence among the people.  We don’t know all of what the ark contained, but it definitely held the tablets of the ten commandments.  The ark was a reminder of God’s salvation history as the people of Israel carried it from the wilderness into the promised land, established the twelve tribes with judges and then unified the kingdom of Israel. Later on this summer, we’ll see that it rested in the temple of King Solomon as the ultimate place of worship, the holy of holies or mercy seat. The ark was considered such a holy object that in a few verses that we didn’t read in this chapter, this person Uzzah, who maybe meant well, dared to touch it and is struck dead!  The ark was meant to be treated with that much respect and reverence.  Yet at the same time, David brings the ark in a procession among all of the people of Israel, not just for a few of his closest advisors or the priestly Levite class, but for everyone to see, so that everyone might know and remember that God is with them.
    When we enter church buildings, regardless of style as we discovered on that Scandinavian church tour, we often have a sense of God’s presence.  I wonder, if the ark was such a powerful reminder of God’s presence for the Israelites, what objects or symbols help us feel God’s presence among us today?  The ark was something that the Israelites carried with them wherever they went –until the temple was built, they didn’t have to go to a certain place to be reminded of God’s holy presence.  We can go to a church building, but we also have reminders in nature, in a particularly beautiful place, perhaps, or at home with certain artwork or figurines we’ve been given, maybe a piece of jewelry such as a cross necklace or ring.  As good Protestants, we can be wary of turning any object into an idol– the object is not God himself, right?!  At the same time, we are visual people.  God knows we need reminders of his presence. So God gives us tangible reminders that God is here! With us!  In church and outside of church.
    Historians do not know what happened to the ark after 587 BC.  This is the year that Jerusalem was taken over by the Babylonians and the first temple was destroyed, so we can guess that the ark was stolen at this time.  In early Christianity, then, the church identified other objects that would be similarly holy and signs of God’s constant presence with us.  It turns out that the holiest reminders are pretty ordinary, everyday things.  Most importantly, we look at water and remember our baptism – God’s unconditional grace and salvation poured out for us despite ourselves.  And we receive bread and wine and remember Christ’s presence among us today at Holy Communion.
    The hardest funeral I have ever had to conduct as a pastor was for a 35-year-old wife and mother of a 5-year-old.  Natalie had joined the smaller of the two churches I was serving and had brought new life to the struggling congregation.  She taught Sunday School, organized Vacation Bible School, and invited her friends to church or to have a few drinks with her pastor at the bar (moms’ night out) if they wouldn’t come with her to church.  Unfortunately, a rare cancer she had beat several years before I knew her came back with a vengeance.  We planned her funeral together before she died.  She wanted to sing How Great Thou Art and was insistent that her funeral be in a church.  Her words to her husband and me were, “I will come back from the grave to haunt you” if we didn’t follow her wishes.  But there was no church around big enough for the 800+ people who would come to her funeral.  It was spring planting season, but my church council, almost all farmers, took the time to figure out what to do to honor her wishes and to be honest, help a community grieve that was devastated by her loss.  People needed to know that God was with them, a loving God who meets us when we are at our lowest of lows, my church council knew.  So, in the back of a pickup, we loaded up the font from which Natalie and her husband and son had all been baptized, the paschal candle, the cross, and a small table for an altar.  I brought the paraments.  In a few moments, the York City Auditorium became a church with those holy symbols – cross, altar, font, the light of Christ.  A small-town Nebraska modern procession of the ark, if you will. Natalie’s faith and trust in God’s presence  and her insistence that her funeral be a WORSHIP service was shared with quite a few people that weekend.
In contrast to a funeral, the story of the ark of the covenant’s restoration to Jerusalem is one of celebration!  David is throwing a party!  It seems appropriate that we reflect on this celebratory text on the Sunday where we finally in some ways “return” to worship as “normal.”  We can sing!  We can be among one another in-person without masks!  We can gather at Christ’s table together to remember God’s presence with us always but especially in bread and wine.  Our readings for today remind us to include worship of God in the celebrating.  It is God who has given us the victory through Christ, and God who never abandons us or forsakes us in the ups and downs of life.  Even as David restores the ark of the covenant to encourage the people of Israel to return to the roots of their faith, he is also looking forward to what is new and different for Israel’s future.  It is a united kingdom, not a confederation of tribes anymore.  Jerusalem is the new holy city, and his son Solomon will build the temple as the new place of worship of God.  While we celebrate the return of some of our faith traditions in worship today, we also recognize we have been changed, and God has new things for us in our future.  Our community’s demographics continue to change.  People engage and socialize online more now than ever before, and we cannot ignore these developments for the church to remain relevant.  Looking back to the important faith traditions of the past while moving forward with God is what made David such a great king for Israel.  Symbols that remind us of God’s constant presence encourage us to know that whatever curveballs come our way in life, God will stick with us.  And, like the ark that was on the move, we can also take comfort that God is on the move!  God goes everywhere with us.  At church, at home, on our summer vacations, at work and even at moms’ night out at the local bar.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.