Homily for Pentecost 8 – July 12, 2015

“So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.”

As I was reflecting on the readings for today, I tried to imagine the loss of something that would be personally devastating to me, and whose recovery would trigger in me the kind of rejoicing that we see in King David in the first reading this morning.

As a kid, I was “persuaded,” that is, intimidated and tricked, into giving away my grandfather’s World War I helmet and gas mask, something that bothered me for many years. A painful loss today might be something like my wallet, my vestments, my books, or perhaps my photo albums.

On an even more personal scale – I might be deeply wounded by something like identity theft, losing my life as a priest, or losing a loved one. And what might give me great joy to recover? Perhaps that old army helmet; perhaps a relationship with someone with whom I have had a painful misunderstanding.

Try to think of something the loss of which would devastate you and diminish you in some real way — something personal and central to your own sense of identity and security — the return of which would fill you with excitement and relief.

The Ark of the Covenant was a gold-plated wooden container, kind of a trunk. This was no ordinary box! It supposedly held the stone tablets upon which Moses wrote the 10 Commandments, and also the rod of Aaron, and possibly some manna and other items. It was sacred to the people of Israel. In the pre-Temple era, it signified the presence and promise of God; it was the meeting place where God promised to be. A special religious order, the Levites, was created to care for it (Deut. 10:8). It was a sign, a rallying point, representing the covenant, the special relationship, between God and Israel.

The ark was captured by the Philistines during the time of Eli, a particularly low period for the people of Israel. Eli had been a derelict priest and had allowed his sons to behave in outrageously abusive ways. It was those two idiot sons who carted the sacred ark off into an ill-advised battle with the Philistines. When it was captured, and the two idiots had been killed in the battle, Eli himself dropped dead at the news, and one of Eli’s daughters-in-law gave birth and died in the process, but before she died she named her child Ichabod, which means, “the glory has departed from Israel.” The loss of the ark was the end of a most inglorious era, but it ushered in the age of the prophet Samuel and the kings of Israel.

It’s hard to imagine an equivalent symbol for us in our time, but, again, try to imagine having something that is extremely meaningful to you (or your family) removed – taken away by an act of aggression or violence. This was an act of identity theft on a grand scale, that robbed an entire community of its identity. The theft of the Ark left every Israelite in some measure feeling violated, demoralized and insecure.

With many of these ancient texts, we may be tempted to wonder: how are they relevant today? How do they apply?

The recent movie Woman in Gold tells a similar story in modern terms. It portrays the crusade for justice of Maria Altman, an Austrian Jew whose family lost everything in the Holocaust, including a famous and very personal painting, of Maria Altman’s aunt, Maria Viktoria Bloch-Bauer, which was stolen by the Nazis (a modern version of the Philistines), when they annexed Austria in 1938. Originally titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” it became known as “Woman in Gold,” and like the Ark, it spent years in the hands of the enemy.

The family was forced to sign over or simply hand over property, factories, and virtually all their personal things – the symbols of the life they had cultivated over many years. And they lost family members and friends — many of them were murdered or died in the death camps. To save her own life, Mrs Altman escaped to America, but suffered the loss of personal items and heirlooms, including the necklace she wore on her wedding day, which was a gift from her aunt, which ended up being presented to Herman Goering’s wife (hard to imagine a more offensive turn of events).

Even after the war, many if not most surviving Jews were unable to claim homes and property that had been theirs before the war, because they had been seized and claimed by their former neighbours and fellow citizens. The estimate is that 100,000 works of stolen art are still unaccounted for.

The movie strikes a chord, because somewhere in us all we identify with the small and isolated person who is imposed upon by greater powers and circumstances beyond their control – all of us are exposed and vulnerable in some way to the brutality and indifference of those who have wealth and power – and I think we all lament that human tendency to abuse power and to victimize others.

It strikes a chord as well because it brings to our attention the injustices of previous generations that continue and because Mrs Altman prevailed against the considerable powers that were determined not to give her precious heirloom back.

The reading prompts us to ask questions like:

What is truly sacred to us?
What are the symbols at the centre of my life – things that really express who I am?
What will make the powerful listen and repent?
Are the voices of the little ones heard – do they matter?

The philistines of the world, whether they are called Herod or Pilate or Hitler or the Austrian government, are usually not inclined to heed the voice of justice. But after an extended legal battle, the return of that painting represented something much more than money or even reputation to Maria Altman (and the money amounted to more than $100 million); it was a kind of vindication of a whole generation from whom almost everything was taken away.

The movie becomes a modern parable. Like the story of David and Goliath, Maria took on the giants — the Austrian government and the courts — and persisted until she won. She was already an old woman at this stage, very much the underdog, and yet she prevailed. The return of that painting caused much celebration. She only lived several more years beyond that moment, but the vindication it generated was profound.

Today’s readings set up a kind of contrast between the dance of life and the dance of destruction.

David’s celebration is a sign of how much the ark meant to Israel’s self-worth. As the Ark returns to its rightful place of significance, we are asked to imagine David’s passionate celebration and dance, as he abandons any sense of decorum and propriety, the royal robes that distinguished him from the people, and the stiff and formal behaviour expected of a king, and dances in his underwear. He is beside himself with enthusiasm – he is inhabited, possessed, by the Spirit of the living God. His wife Michal despises him for it, as certain people have always despised enthusiasm, but it reveals that, perhaps above all, King David was a man of God. To me he is a symbol of hope to all the people of the world who have been victimized, or robbed of their heritage, their well-being, their identity – a reminder that God is with us, and that it is God’s justice that ultimately prevails.

But as the old song asked, “When will they ever learn?” as this ancient story continues to play out in human life. For centuries, conquerors and colonists of all sorts have walked off with the sacred symbols of peoples around the world. Ironically, such people often dismissed the attachments between native peoples and their artifacts as superstitious and sentimental, while filling their own huge houses to the brim with other people’s stuff. Today, First Nations people of Canada continue their struggle to have sacred objects returned to them – objects central to their identity and history – items that were usually removed without permission, and confiscated, for a variety of reasons.

And not just the outward symbols. In the name of Science, even the bones of their ancestors were dug up and subjected to analysis. And as we now know, even their children were forcibly removed from them and in thousands of cases never returned.

Today, art galleries, archives and private collections around the world are filled with totem poles, masks, weapons, ceremonial clothing and regalia, even the physical remains of their ancestors. When people reflect on what might be wrong with our society today, few ever consider this as a possible cause. Yet in the first reading today, we are reminded that the Philistines eventually woke up to the fact that their theft and ongoing possession of Israel’s sacred symbol was not only depriving Israel, but having a negative effect on themselves, and they sought to give it back with restitution.

Clearly to steal someone else’s sacred symbols or to perpetrate some sacrilege, is to place ourselves among the Philistines of this world, to place ourselves on the wrong side of history, and ultimately the wrong side of God.

The good news is that “seven in 10 (70 %) of Canadians agree with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) finding that the Indian residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide,” according to an Angus Reid Institute survey (Anglican Journal).

Restorative justice, a more global or wholistic way of attempting to address the harm done by acts of violence and oppression, is a concept that is still just beginning to gain traction, focusing not just on punishment or one side winning, but on learning, growing, healing relationships and paying attention to the life of the community as a whole. Ironically, it is an approach that is rooted in indigenous cultures – one of many things we stand to learn from them, should we choose.

Israel lived much of its life, centuries, in fact, in exile or in slavery, as part of its journey and pilgrimage as the chosen people. The recovery, the restitution, of the Holy Land was and is controversial, but given all that Israel has had stolen, especially recently in the Holocaust, how could you do otherwise?

We might start thinking along similar lines in regard to our First Nations people in Canada and make some real effort to participate in the response to the 95 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Today, like John the Baptist, there are voices crying out, warning about climate change – about child poverty – about human trafficking – about irresponsible and amoral corporations – about our materialistic and wasteful approach to life. And today, as in ancient times, those comfortably in power still seem to listen only in a token way, as Herod did to John the Baptist, and are quick to dismiss (or despatch) their voices when they become the slightest bit inconvenient.

But the scriptures assure us that God is always at work, snatching the weak from the jaws of the powerful, recovering the lost, creating justice, bringing life out of death, and calling the powerful to repent and to return the Spirit of God at the heart of their life.

The image of David dancing among the people becomes for me a symbol of the presence of God in the midst of human life, choosing to be one of us, and, as embodied in Jesus the Christ, restoring the presence of God to its proper place at the heart of human life and community.

The Ven. Grant Rodgers

RCL-appointed readings

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.
They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 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. 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 offerings of well-being before the LORD. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

Ephesians 1:3-14 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
Think of ways the Holy Spirit is active in your life, guiding, fixing, enlightening, giving courage. Has God lavished his grace on you, through the Holy Spirit, this year? This week? Today?

Mark 6:14-29 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.