Text: 2 Samuel 6:1-19
The possibilities of topics to preach on from 2 Samuel 6:1-19 are almost unlimited. In almost every single verse there is a sermon within a sermon. Take verse one: “David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all.” Now, let’s just stop right there. For a woman preacher, especially one who tends toward the feminist approach, she could go off on just that one verse: “David AGAIN brought together out of Israel chosen men…” Even the bible names that once again women were second-class citizens not worthy of being named or included. And this is not the only part of this particular story that raises the issue of women’s role in the bible, religion, and society. As a matter of fact, the story ends with possibly one of the most convincing theological case studies of the power of patriarchy in the bible. Three times, in the biblical story, Michal is given to a man as wife for political reasons. There is no question that her story is one of being used for claims other than her own-a very familiar storyline with women in the bible. Like so many biblical women, her claim of love was given no power in her world. Such stories, throughout all of scripture, highlight the oppressive nature of biblical patriarchy on women. That’s a sermon and I must admit one that I don’t easily let go of. But it’s not the word for today.
To those who grew up in the brand of Baptists who were forbidden to dance in church and who felt deeply wronged by that this text is a bit of heaven. “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might…” Now the text doesn’t say that they were swaying back and forth just a little bit. No, it says they were dancing with all their might. Again, there it is, right in the bible – dancing before the Lord. Who can argue with that? And maybe a sermon on worshipping God with our whole bodies would be spiritually good for us. But neither is that the word for today.
So, what is the word for today from 2 Samuel 6? I’m wondering if it’s found in the question that Israeli President Shimon Peres asked this past week while addressing an audience at a global faith conference in Israel. Addressing the issue of religious violence, he asked this simple yet profound question: “Did God create [humanity] in [God’s] image or has humanity created a God to suit [its] own image? Or to bring the question into present day, which is what President Peres was intending, “Are we allowing God to create us in God’s image, or are we too busy creating God in our image?” It is a powerful and significant question and one that I believe our text raises when it suggests that God struck dead an innocent man just because he reached out his hand to catch the holiest of objects before it crashed to the ground. If such an interpretation is not our projections onto God, how then does one make sense out of such nonsense? Could it be that, from the very beginning, humanity has been more focused on creating a God to suit our image and our need rather than trying to understand how we are created in the image of God?
Not unlike the writers of the scripture, we too are a people trying to make sense of our experiences in relationship to God. And like the Israelites our concept of God comes from both our fears and our affections. Unfortunately, the result is that we see God in our image instead of seeing ourselves in God’s image. We see God as judge because we judge. We see God as controlling because of our need to control. We see God as angry because we are angry. We see God as vengeful because we seek revenge. We see God as a jealous God because we are jealous. We see God as all powerful because we seek power. And the list goes on and on. It is true, we make God in our image and, in doing so, we lose a part of what it means for us to be created in the image of God.
We read stories like the one in 2 Samuel where God strikes Uzzah dead for touching the ark and we wonder, “What kind of God would do that?” Maybe the answer is simple, “The kind of God that we have created in our own image.” If that is so, if the God who struck Uzzah dead for touching the ark is the God we have created, then how do we know how to begin to separate who God really is from what we need God to be? To answer that question, we may need to risk reading a different interpretation into this text, as well as other biblical stories-an interpretation based solely on a loving and gracious God and not a God who looks just like us. I wonder what we might learn about ourselves and about God from stories like the flood, and Cain and Abel, and all those stories of God sending plagues to kill people if we release God from our fears and insecurities, from our affections and longings. And if we took that risk-if we acknowledged that how the Israelites interpreted God’s activity in those stories as merely their projection of who they needed God to be-then what are we left with in terms of who God is and how God is present in our world and in our lives? In other words, how do we begin to conceive God as something greater than our projections of who we need God to be?
We are living in a time when people of all religions are attributing all kinds of craziness onto God. The Israelites are not the only people afflicted with the problem of projection. People of faith fly planes into tall buildings killings thousands of people because of whom they believe God to be. Other people of faith initiate what they call just wars because of who they believe God to be. Some people of faith withhold medical care for their sick and dying children because of who they believe God to be. And still, other people of faith deny others their unique worth as children of God all in the name of a God who they crafted in their image, out of their fears and affections. We all do this. We take our projections and we layer them one by one onto God until we no longer see God as God is. In essence, we put God in a box and make God so small, so as to manage what we cannot imagine or understand or define. The truth is that God is greater and bigger than any of us can conceive. And that scares most of us to death.
So how do we begin to conceive something greater than our limited understanding of God? How do we step outside of our projections-our need to create God in our image-and free God to be God; and free ourselves to live more fully as people created in God’s image? And what difference would it make in our world if we resisted fashioning God in our image and truly believe that God is so much bigger than the box we have tried to put God in?
My first year of seminary, I took a class with our Pullen friend Bob Poerschke. Our first assignment was to write a paper on our presuppositions about who we believe God to be. As a first year, first semester student, I worked hard on that paper. I wanted it to be good and thoughtful. I wanted to impress my professor. I could hardly wait for the day that we were to receive our papers back. Like all good professors, Bob waited until the end of class to return our works of art. I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, how fast my heart was beating as I thumbed through the pages looking for comments and ultimately a grade. Page one, no marks-not one. Page two, three, four, five and six, still no comments-not one. On the final page, at the very bottom, Bob had scrawled two sentences. The first one said, “Who is this zapping God you serve?” And underneath that sentence he wrote, “Come see me, I would like to introduce you to the God I know-a loving and gracious God who cares deeply for you.” With those two sentences, my life changed forever. I did go see my professor and over the next two and a half years, Bob Poerschke taught me about a God and showed me a God that was free of my projections-free of my fears and insecurities. He did so by helping me see who I am as a child of God-a person of worth, a person who deserves to be loved, a person who has gifts to share, a person who is capable of loving, a person who is loved by God. By loving me and teaching me how to love myself, Bob helped me to begin thinking about and believing in a God who wasn’t out to get me, or punish me, or judge me. For the first time in my life, God had been freed from all my projections-that I was a bad person, that something was wrong with me, that I didn’t deserve to be loved-and my world began to change. How I saw others changed. How I processed what was happening in the world and in my life changed. All because one person lovingly looked me in the eyes and said, “Your God is too small.”
When I think about the God of the Israelites-who they believed struck Uzzah dead for reaching out and touching the holy of holies-I think: your God is too small. When I think of how early religious societies treated women, I think: your God is too small. When I think about how the church has said you can’t be faithful and dance or drink wine or enjoy physical pleasure for the sake of pleasure or love whom you choose, I think: your God is too small. Or as my friend Bonnie Stone once wrote to me: “How much more would we reflect our likeness to God if instead of choosing anger we chose forgiveness; instead of persistence, silence; instead of remorse, gratitude and acceptance?” I wonder, how much more our world would reflect God’s peace and justice if we stopped creating God in our image and risked living as people created in the image of God?
God is love, not hate. God is merciful, not vengeful. God is forgiveness, not anger. God is our freedom, not our fears. The more we believe this about God and ourselves the less we create God in our image and the more we live as people created in the image of God. May it be so! May it be so!