The Sacredness of Discord
By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
2 Samuel 6:1-6, 12-19
7th after Pentecost – July 11, 2021
We are welcoming the congregation at Eglinton St. George’s United Church into this time of reflection with our congregation here at Rosedale United Church. It’s a privilege to interpret the scriptures together and to share this message with you folks as Paul Hutchison gets some vacation time; Paul is a wonderful colleague to all the ministers in our North Toronto cluster. Let us pray: For the many ways you speak to us, God, for the many experiences you call sacred, we give thanks. May these words and our shared meditation connect us to you and to the wonder and awe in your world.
So what did you think of that reading from the Book of 2nd Samuel? When I asked this of Karin, the woman who read the passage for us here at Rosedale United she said, “well, that was strange!” It certainly is a strange passage when we hear it again or for the first time, our ears strain to keep the details straight, all those names we’re not used to hearing – Abinadab and Uzzah and Ahio and Obed-Edom. Maybe you wondered about this “ark of the Lord” the story referred to and how it ended up having to be transported by cart from village to village and then into Jerusalem in this wild procession led by the king.
The books of 1st and 2nd Samuel chart Israel’s transition from a collection of tribes led by local leaders to a nation led by a king. As tribal people they were nomadic and their religious symbols were portable. The ark of God was a kind of chest the people of Israel had fashioned as they wandered through the desert with Moses, in the years before they’d reached their promised land. It carried the stone tablets on which were written the ten commandments and it came to be a powerful symbol of God’s presence traveling with them wherever they were. At one point, during a battle with the Philistines, the ark of God had been plundered but when every Philistine town that tried to house it met with some calamity, the Philistines returned it to Israel. When it was finally retrieved, the people of Israel hid it away in a remote village where it stayed hidden for the next twenty years, a time of great instability in the newly forming kingdom under the leadership of Saul. This strange procession, this parade described in our scripture reading, is happening because the ark and the commandments are being brought into Jerusalem. David has ushered in a new period of stability. He has succeeded Saul as king. He has united the divided territories of Israel and Judah; the Philistines are no longer a threat. All is well for the people of Israel. As a nation formed by their sense of relationship with God it is impossible for them not to feel that God is involved in this moment, in the fact that the ark can return to Jerusalem. The great care of Uzzah and Ahio as they lead the ark out by oxcart, the gasp as Uzzah reaches out to touch the ark – the ark is considered to be the very presence of God! It is fitting that, as the ark enters Jerusalem, it is part of a parade of 30 000 of David’s best soldiers and accompanied by singing and dancing, lyres and cymbals. The Psalm suggested for this Sunday is Psalm 24 which begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” We might certainly imagine these words being shouted out in this parade, the whole of Jerusalem gathered to celebrate, David tossing them cakes of raisins, and dates, and loaves of bread. The ark is in Jerusalem, the Philistine have been defeated, David reigns, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…. Lift up your heads, you gates, be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in” (Ps 24: 1, 7). Everyone is celebrating this moment, everyone except Michal.
I think the most intriguing lines of this passage come near the end of the story, when we hear about Michal – I wonder if your ears perked up too? “As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul [and King David’s first wife] watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart,” the story says. Michal does not perceive herself to be in harmony with everyone around her, she feels out of sync. The ancient editors of this story intended for us to judge Michal; we’re meant to think that there is something wrong with her because she’s experiencing this discord, because she’s unable to join in the celebration. The way I see it, Michal is simply going through an experience which, at this particular moment, makes it impossible for her to proclaim along with all of Israel that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. At this moment she is living through an experience that seems to proclaim otherwise. Michal stands at her window, looking out at the crowd and their oblivious merriment, in a profound state of disillusionment.
Perhaps you have stood where Michal stands, unable to relate, in a place of profound discord. You could say Michal is the patron saint of adults, anyone and everyone who has lived long enough to know that life is not always beautiful; anyone and everyone who knows that life can be harrowing, disappointing, sorrowful. If life is a journey, Michal is the one who will tell you that the road is full of potholes and hairpin turns. Michal’s way of seeing the world is like that of someone newly divorced at a wedding – there are no stars in her eyes. Michal would sympathize with the woman who could only glare at me as I presided over the funeral of her young niece. “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today,” Michal says to David. Michal accuses David of making a fool of himself, dancing into Jerusalem, throwing dates, singing about the great sovereignty of God. “If he were standing where I stand, with my experience,” Michal might have thought, “would he still be celebrating God’s presence?”
During this month of July the theme we’re following here at Rosedale United is “finding harmony.” We chose this as a theme because it really captures the invitation of summer. After a year where our lives have been so off-balance the schedule-clearing that summer brings is just the time to try to regain a sense of harmony again. But already in exploring this theme we’ve realize it’s not that straightforward. Last week the insight we came to is that there isn’t this ideal state of being called “harmony” where we can permanently abide if only we find the right balance in life. Discord isn’t a one-off aberration in our lives but a normal and consistent part of our experience. Our takeaway from last week was that discord and harmony are states through which we are constantly cycling; we are all, always moving through experiences that disrupt our equilibrium, our sense of harmony, order becomes disordered. It’s as we process experience and emotion, learning and growth – as we listen for the voice of the Divine in the midst of discord – that we come to a place of integration and wisdom, a reordering of ourselves and into a kind of harmony of again. At least that’s what we’ve discovered so far. I have a lot of compassion for the character of Michal in this story because she stands in for all of us who have found ourselves moving through a profound experience of discord on what feels like the other side of harmony.
At Eglinton St. George’s you’re spending the summer talking about how we relate to one another. Michal represents that alienation we can feel when an experience suddenly shifts us away from the “normal” of everyone around us. Michal is stands for those of us who might be moving through an experience of grief, who are coming to terms with news, who are living through crises and challenge – anyone who looks out the window and finds it hard to relate to the people outside who are living it up, as though life were a big parade. Michal is living through an experience that makes it difficult for her to relate to the people around her. Maybe you’ve stood where Michal is standing. Michal stands in tension with David, the perennially blessed, the one who never seems to have any trouble singing, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” I want to propose that Michal might not feel so alienated, so unable to relate, so discordant, if she were encouraged to perceive her experience differently.
Last Saturday night, after almost an entire year, my family went out to a restaurant for dinner. We went to a local Italian place. The tables, covered with red and white checked cloth, lined Bloor St, next to the bike lane. Cars roared past and lines of people crowded through the narrow bit of sidewalk open for pedestrians between tables. Horns honked and bike bells clanged and noise was everywhere and the word I’d use to describe the evening was sacred. Now, we had been ordering takeout every Saturday night during this pandemic, but no experience of eating takeout equaled this experience of a meal together on this makeshift patio. At home we’d rush to unload the plastic tubs of food and within 15 minutes it seemed we’d scarfed it all down. By contrast, this dinner lasted for two hours; it paced itself, took place over long intervals. The waiter greeted us, then came back to take our drink orders and later our food order, and then one by one by one the dishes appeared: bowls of warmed olives drizzled in oil and garlic bread spread with hunks of garlic and parsley and mountains of pasta. Every detail of the evening, from the wait staff to the food conveyed the sense that something was here that was deserving of reverence and respect, that we were in the presence of the sacred. It turns out the meal wasn’t about the importance of food, but the importance of relationships. It was an encounter with sacredness that had me proclaiming, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” as we walked by home – it was a profound experience of harmony.
Sacred is a word I’m always thinking about, given my profession. It’s a word that means “entitled to reverence and respect.” Our relationships are sacred. A human body is sacred. Living plants and animals are sacred. Clean water and air are sacred. A building like this one, built by the hopes and dreams and care of generations before us and designed to protect spirit and soul is sacred space. And I want to propose, now that we have this understanding of the sacred as that which is entitled to reverence and respect, that the experiences of our lives are also sacred, that experiences are to be respected and revered because they change us, shape us, open us, bless us. Michal’s experience of “discord” is as sacred as David’s experience of “harmony.” What if we encouraged all experiences to be held with respect and reverence? What if we could perceive moments of discord to be as sacred as moments of harmony? What if we understood our “Michal” moments – our experiences of grief, of disorder, of disappointment, to be as deeply shaping of us and as such equally entitled to respect and reverence as the celebratory “David” moments in our lives, when the marriage is celebrated, the milestone reached, the baby is born, when all is good and right and it’s easy to agree that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. What if we didn’t judge our discordant experiences? The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. What if our “Michal” moments could be called “sacred” too, if not exactly worth celebrating at least we might approach them reverently. For me it has been the Michal moments of my life that have deepened my humanity, chipped at my propensity to judge, widened my compassion, cracked open my heart. I see my uncomfortable and painful experiences as sacred, as entitled to reverence and respect, because of what they taught me, how I was encouraged to grow. What if, instead of saying to ourselves, “I’m going through a harrowing experience” we said, “I’m moving through a profoundly sacred time; I will not emerge from this unchanged”?
I recently read a book called Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. It’s a fascinating book that follows the progress of her research over three decades into how trees communicate – yes, communicate and cooperate! – sharing carbon and nutrients through underground networks of fungi attached to the trees’ roots. The book is also an autobiography. What strikes you while you’re reading is that each of Professor Simard’s scientific discoveries were linked to a time in her life when she was having a “Michal” experience – an experience that set her apart from others, an experience of disorder, disequilibrium, discord – a profoundly sacred experience, entitled to reverence and respect, that changed her, that altered her perception. Reading Professor Simard’s story a person of faith might by moved to proclaim that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.
If you are living through a “Michal” moment right now I would like these words to anoint you, in the same way that patio meal anointed me, so that I could see the sacred in my experience. Peak experiences aren’t the only appropriate time to shout and dance, alongside David singing, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Before it entered Jerusalem the ark of God travelled with the people of Israel wherever they went, through all of life. There is no place or experience that God cannot be conceived as being a part of, no experience beyond the reach of God. There is sacredness even in experiences of discord and the knowledge of this is harmony. May you be filled with the tenacity of Michal and the awe and wonder of David; your experiences are sacred. May you relate through the unrelatable, find harmony in discord, and know that through it all you are held – isn’t the earth the Lord’s and everything in it!