The lectionary cuts this part of the story out. It wants us to hear about the great parade of moving the Ark, the leaping and dancing for joy, and more joy and more dancing and then the settling of the Ark in the center of the Israelites’ life. Hooray and amen! But this is part of the story too. And it is confusing, and enraging, and makes no sense and we wonder what God is up to in the midst of it.
There is something in us that wants to edit life. We would take out the hard parts and make it seem easy, only sunny and happy. Case in point: King David was moving to unify the kingdom, he had consolidated the center of power and government and now he was bringing the Ark into Jerusalem, the new capital. The first run at it was ecstatic, thousands of troops, musicians with every imaginable instrument, dancing and revelry. But in the middle of the journey, this guy Uzzah, who is helping drive the oxcart, sees that suddenly the oxen’s misstep has made the Ark wobble, so reaches out his hand to steady it, and when he touches it he is struck dead.
Early in the week my cousin died. He was 54 years old, and a quiet musical genius. Working as a sound engineer in Nashville he mixed albums for many great musicians, including Alan Jackson and his friend Dolly Parton. I flew to Nashville Thursday night to attend his funeral on Friday.
My cousin struggled with his inner demons and fought against them most of his adult life, keeping them at bay with alcohol, itself a demon that held him captive and inflicted so much pain and damage in his life. In the end his liver was destroyed, and the span of time between his diagnosis of liver cancer and his death was a head-spinning four weeks.
At his funeral, musicians shared about how his ear was unsurpassed, his skill and calm presence guided them to the best music, how he brought out the best in others, and not just musically. He saw people and valued people. Everyone was his favorite. So many tributes on his facebook page call him “my best friend.” He genuinely cared about people and he showed it. His dad shared how his kindergarten teacher told them he could hear things others couldn’t. She was the first to pronounce this refrain that would follow him through life. It was clear this went beyond music. He could hear things others couldn’t, see things others missed. He was a deep and sensitive soul. His sister shared how maddening it was to love him. He wouldn’t ask for help; he was always the one helping others. He was a cousin that made me long for an older brother, that tall, protective, teasing force that seemed to hover tantalizing in the lives of others. His name was David, and his soul sang before the Lord his whole life long.
But it’s never all light and joy, is it? The darkness in this life, the darkness in my cousin’s life could have been covered up and avoided at the funeral. Those verses could have been cut out of the story. We could have just shared the music and the joy and the love and the celebration, and ignored the parts that were horrible or confusing, or the parts that made us angry at God. It’s easy to do that; funerals often do.
But we didn’t. His family and friends honored Dave with their honesty, holding up the light and the darkness, the joy and the pain, the brilliance and the struggle. Only then do we really know someone. Only there do we really see God. It’s in the struggle where God most often is seen. The parts that are confusing, and enraging, and make no sense and make us wonder what God is up to in the midst of it.
The Ark of the Covenant was the box that held the stone tablets that God gave Moses on the mountain top – the Ten Commandments, the Ten Words that led the people out of slavery into freedom in the care of God by explaining what it means to belong to God and be the people of God. Some say the Ark also held Aaron’s staff and some manna – symbols of God’s deliverance and leading. God gave Moses instructions to build the box and it became the tangible presence of God among them, the location of God’s self-revelation.
Moses would hear the voice of God speaking from between the two angels on the lid when he consulted God as he led the people (with his glory-stained face hidden behind a veil). For the next 400 years the Ark of the Covenant was both the symbol and location of God with them. It was carried in front of them as they moved around from place to place; it led them into battle. When it was paraded around Jericho the walls crumbled. When it was captured by the Philistines, it brought such trouble, frogs and tumors and torment, that they returned it, with a gift of statues of solid gold frogs and tumors. The Ark of the Covenant was holy, in some way a glimpse of the very glory of God, so it was never to be touched or looked into. Remember Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark? When they finally found the lost Ark and opened it they said, “It’s beautiful!” and then their faces melted off. Same box.
So when poor Uzzah reaches out to steady the jostled Ark and is struck dead for touching it, the whole happy parade comes to a standstill. David is furious with God. He aborts the plan on the spot and drops off the Ark in the nearest house and the whole army trudges back to Jerusalem without it, and David’s angry naming of that location, “The Outburst Against Uzzah,” sticks, as in, take a hard left at the Outburst Against Uzzah, and over the next hill you’ll find Obed-Edom’s house, where the Ark is currently stored.”
After a time David hears that the Obed-Edom family is being blessed abundantly by having the Ark there, and he decides to resume the plan. Here’s where the lectionary picks back up, as though the happy parade had never paused for several months in anger, fear and confusion.
But if we told it that way then the Ark is just a special box that reminds people of God, and the actors are David, and the dancing, joyful people, and his unhappy wife from his troubling first marriage watching him in disgust. And God is merely an idea, represented in a box of memories and beliefs, carried by the people, upheld by the strength of their faith. The journey to reunifying the kingdom is unbroken happiness, no bumps in the road, no instability or overcorrection, no anger, no fear, no confusion or time outs or sulking, just triumph.
And perhaps this is the risk of it all when we talk about God. We domesticate God, our pet deity, our pocket talisman or cozy pillow, there to keep us safe and comfortable, but not really demanding anything of us, or asserting any preferences or personhood.
There is a scene in the Narnia books when the Beaver family is preparing to introduce the children to Aslan, the true ruler of Narnia, who is kind, and just and noble.
Mrs. Beaver says, “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh" said Susan. " Is he-quite safe? …I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"...
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
God is not safe. God is beyond our bounds, the force that moves all of life, not to be captured by human hands, trifled with by human manipulation. And life near God is risky and filled with questions. But it’s also real. I love that as terrifying a reminder as this is of God’s power and otherness, David still gets pissed at God and petulantly names that spot the The Explosion against Uzzah and goes home to mope for a while.
And then he’s shaken awake the word that the presence of God that blesses our lives is just sitting there ridiculously, extravagantly blessing the Obed-Edom family. And his kingly task of putting back God in the center of their shared life is not yet complete; the journey must continue. And so the parade resumes – this time interestingly with only trumpets as though announcing the arrival of a King, perhaps a bit more aware of the seriousness of the task, the sacredness of the quest, and most importantly, the true presence and real power of the God who will continue to lead them forward.
This time David strips off his royal robes and comes in a simple garment resembling what the priests wore. This time he comes humble before the true King. God is with us. Right here. Even as we pass the place of God’s Outburst against Uzzah, God who cannot be contained is here in our midst. So David dances with all his might. With all-out, no holds barred, fullness of joy and life, living wide-awake and dancing, they bring the Ark to its new place of honor.
The comfort and the confusion. The extravagant blessings and the fearsome power of God. The pointless and terrible loss, and the hope and celebration. It all belongs. And we don't understand all of it, but we are humbled by it. If we open our hearts to the risky, dangerous, and deep thing that it is to acknowledge the living God, we will be drawn deeper into life, made more fully alive, more in tune, more attentive, to hear things that others can’t, and see things others miss. To value one another deeply. To wonder what God is up to in the midst of it all. To face the parts that are horrible and confusing, and make us angry at God, and also to sing with joy and dance with all our might.
At the end of the funeral, after the tears and laughter and Nashville mix of music and memories, my uncle Bo, David’s dad and a retired minister, stood behind the pulpit and reminded us that death is not the end. He shared his own bewilderment and loss, cried out too soon at the death of his boy, and at the same time reminded us that Jesus comes into the darkest places in life alongside us; we have this hope that is even stronger than death.
And then he came around the podium and planted his hand firmly on the wooden box holding the ashes of his beloved son, that sad and holy vessel, and in a voice deep, loud, and full of authority, he pronounced, “David Bowen Matthews, Requiesce in Pace.” Rest in peace, and entrusted Dave into the presence of God.
Then lifted his hands toward us and spoke peace over the living, entrusting us into the presence of God.
And we didn’t leave there with answers, but we left held in God’s love. The questions and confusion and sorrow remain. But the story was told in full, the hard parts weren’t cut out. It all belongs.
God is in every part. God who cannot be contained is here in our midst. We are in the presence of God.