One of the side bonuses of being a parent of small children is that you have to step up your silliness game. In general, I am not what most people would call being adept at being silly – I tend to err on the side of being serious and thoughtful. I am not sure when the loss of silliness happened, but I imagine the loss began as I matured into adulthood. Even scripture seems to condone this putting away of silliness. First Corinthians says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”[i] Most of us embrace the mantra of putting aside childish ways when we mature – except perhaps when we are in the presence of a child. I learned pretty quickly that harnessing silliness could garner me much parenting success. Nothing deflates a temper tantrum like a silly face contest. Nothing distracts a fussy baby like silly noises. And nothing makes a car of children happier than a parent grooving out to a favorite song on the radio while driving. Sure, the drivers on either side of the car will look at you like you are crazy – and if you think about them too much, you’ll become too self-conscious to keep up your silly dancing. But if you can block them out, and dance with abandon, the joy in the car multiplies – and the whole car shakes as you and the children dance in your seats.
Restraint is a value for most of us. Most of the time, dancing while driving is not really appropriate. Instead we should be calmly and intently focused on driving. Most of the time, we expect a certain amount of decorum while working. The expectations around attire, behavior, and language are quite different at work than they are at home. And most of the time, we expect a significant amount of restraint from those attending church, especially as Episcopalians. Though we encourage people to come as they are, there are still certain garments that would raise eyebrows if you wore them to church. Though we say “Amen,” throughout our services, we have designated times for those amens, and many of us tense up when someone says a spontaneous “Amen.” Though we often sing songs of praise in church, many of us get uncomfortable if someone embodies that praise, either through clapping, raising their hands, or, heaven-forbid, dancing.
And yet, that is exactly where we find David today in our Old Testament lesson – exuberantly, and without many clothes, dancing before the ark of the Lord. Before we can understand why David’s actions are so outlandish, we need to understand the fullness of this story. If you recall, we have been tracking David’s story this summer. We have seen him from his earliest days, when Samuel anoints him after calling him in from the shepherd’s fields; to his daring battle as a boy with the giant Goliath; to his tenuous relationship with Saul and Saul’s children – who seemed to both love David and fear the threat of David at the same time; to the ultimate demise and death of Saul and Jonathan; and to today’s reading, where David is establishing his rule of the people by bringing the ark of the Lord into the city of Jerusalem – the city of David. If you remember, the ark of the Lord is known as the container of God’s presence among the people. They built the ark back in Moses’ day, and most recently, the ark had been stolen by the Philistines. David retrieves the ark so that the ark can be brought back in the center of the people, marking how David’s rule and God’s presence and favor are tied.[ii] David’s favor with God leads David to begin his dancing journey of celebration to Jerusalem.
Now lest we think that dancing before the ark is totally normal in those days, we encounter a strange comment by David’s wife, Michal. The text says, “As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal 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.”[iii] You almost miss the line in the long text, but that is partially because we do not get the rest of the story today. In the verses following what we hear today, David and Michal have a heated conversation about the inappropriateness of a king dancing nearly naked before the common people. In the end, the text says that Michal never bears a child to David, as if suggesting that she is in the wrong for judging David.
But here this is where I am intrigued. You see, Michal was the daughter of Saul and the sister of Jonathan, both of whom are now dead. There is some debate about why Michal despises David,[iv] but I think we must remember that Michal is mourning. In theory, this is a day for joy, since Michal’s husband is now king. But Michal has every right to be mourning. That line, “and she despised him in her heart,” though sharp and jarring, is not unfamiliar to me when I really think about her reaction.
One of the realities of the advent of social media is how quickly news travels. If you follow social media, you are bombarded with news. Normally, this is a good thing, because social media allows us to stay in touch with the highlights of friends’ lives from around the world. Where social media becomes a challenge is when someone is struggling. I have many friends who have struggled with infertility. Nothing is worse for someone struggling with infertility than to watch a news feed of friend after friend getting pregnant. They post the coveted ultrasound picture of a baby. There are endless congratulations, and follow-up baby-bump pictures. Everyone is full of joy, except for the person who wants that reality and cannot have it. Every pregnancy announcement feels like another painful reminder of how you cannot seem to become pregnant. The same is true about jobs or college acceptances. The social media community seems adept at celebrating the good, but really struggles with recognizing those who mourn while we simultaneously rejoice. We prefer to dance instead and forget the bad stuff.
We struggle with that reality in the context of church too. On our healing prayer Sundays I am acutely aware of that reality. Though each Sunday is meant to be an Easter celebration, once a month we try to remember how Sunday does not always feel like a celebration. There are parts of our lives that are not whole or healed. There are times when we still mourn or long for something else. There are times when we are just not in the mood to dance, and would much rather have people sit with us in our discomfort than for them to be dancing around praising a God who quite frankly may seem absent, neglectful, or downright mean.[v]
I think that is why I love this story from Second Samuel so much. When we read about David, we long to be like David – unfettered, totally unself-conscious, and full of joy. We want to be a people of gratitude, celebration, and praise. But sometimes, we are more like Michal. We are not ready for joy, we are not ready for celebration, and we not ready to praise God yet. And quite frankly, having someone in our face doing just that – or worse, telling us to get over ourselves and start dancing makes us despise them in our hearts too. But that is what I love about this story. Michal was not edited out of the story. This is not a simple story about how we should always praise God. This is a complex story about how freeing and life-giving praising God can be. In fact, the joy we get from God can make us dance with abandon, totally liberated from what is socially acceptable. But, there are also times when we are just not there – and the command to make a joyful noise makes us more angry than willing to yield. And that’s okay. Things may not turn out how we want them. We may need to mourn that reality for a long time. In this complex reality, the Church stands in solidarity with us all, celebrating what can be celebrated, giving space for hurt and mourning where needed. We are a community of both Davids and Michals. And sometimes we identify with one more than the other. To us all, the Church offers a humble meal, reminding us that there is room for all at God’s table. Amen.
[i] 1 Corinthians 13.11
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 250-251.
[iii] 2 Samuel 6.16
[iv] Brueggemann, 251. Also, see other theories by J. Mary Luti, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, supplemental essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Pres, 2012), 6.
[v] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, supplemental essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Pres, 2012), 3.