“Object Lesson”

  1. 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Some of you may remember the old movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

If you have ever seen the film, you will have some context for understanding the strange text that we heard read earlier today.

The movie stars Harrison Ford; it’s about his search for a sacred cabinet called, “the Ark of the Covenant.” In the film, the Ark contains the Holy Grail, which was the chalice Christ used at the Last Supper.

Now something called, “the ark of God” is also the subject of our First Lesson. This ark was an object that the people of Israel believed represented the presence of the Lord. The ark didn’t contain God; as the text says, God “is called by the name of the LORD of hosts, enthroned on the cherubim.” That is, the Hebrew God is the Great Lord who reigns in Heaven, surrounded by angels.

Yet for the people of Israel at that time, that God in Heaven was intimately connected with a cabinet on earth and it’s hard for modern people to grasp this idea.

We have a much grander idea of the divine. God for us isn’t merely local, belonging to a single town or a tribe of people, as gods were for most believers when this text was written. God isn’t connected with a physical object so that if you carry the object around, you’re carrying around God!

Nevertheless, the story says that King David assembled the best men of Israel to transport the Ark of the Covenant in a “new cart.” The men formed a procession and brought the Ark all the way to Jerusalem, “the city of David.”

The text then reports that, as the men escorted 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 we see that this text is a precedent for the dancing and singing that the Jewish groups of Hasidim love in our own day. The text also provides a precedent for the dancing that a few churches enjoy today.

Still, the story seems primitive to us. We believe that God is infinite and all-powerful—the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of the Universe. Surely God isn’t connected to a box!

Yet even though this ancient story reflects an early understanding of God, it is relevant to us. For don’t we modern people have objects that we call sacred.

The Shroud of Turin recently went on one of its rare public displays in Italy and, as usual, it attracted a great deal of attention. Scholars debate whether or not it really was the burial cloth of Jesus, and whether or not the image on it was imprinted when Christ rose from the dead.

But even if you question whether the Shroud did once cover the body of Jesus, you will have to admit that it is a puzzling relic with images that scientists can’t duplicate or explain. More important, you’ll have to admit that many people find their devotion to the Lord of the Universe strengthened by finite objects in the material world.

And, of course, there are secular parallels to the Ark of the Covenant in our consumer culture. Physical things are still held sacred.

How else can we explain the sale of a work of art for over $100 million? Such choices can’t simply be a matter of appreciating beautiful things, or making financial investments. Don’t the buyers find a mystical value in the sculptures of Giacometti or the paintings of Picasso? Isn’t that one reason why people pay such stupendous sums for art?

For that matter, you may have jewelry that belonged to a beloved family member. I wear a watch that belonged to my father; my wife has a necklace that belonged to her mother.

Today we have a philosophically sophisticated notion of the divine as transcending space and time. But we still believe in a God who is incarnate in the material world. In my sermons this summer, I’ve been trying to look at different aspects of the Incarnation in various sermons. (I never stop explaining this word to visitors, anyway!)

And it is part of the incarnate nature of our faith that physical objects can have a spiritual power. So many of us also find a value in wearing crosses. I wear one around my neck that is a miniature of our altar cross; a member of our parish got some reproductions made some years ago.

I am not superstitious about my cross; I don’t believe that it has special powers like the Ark of the Covenant.

But the Cross does comfort me. It reminds me that I’m a member of the Church of Christ. I’m part of the community of the One who died on the Cross. The cross around my neck makes me remember God’s love for me in my heart.

So what things are sacred to you? If you had to evacuate your home in the face of a hurricane, what would you throw into your suitcase?

You might grab an old photo of loved ones or a piece of pottery your child made in primary school—things of little monetary value but that are precious for you because they’re irreplaceable.

Your devotion to these items isn’t blasphemous. You know that God doesn’t dwell inside these things—or in any material object.

But you recognize that your human associations have a spiritual component, and that spiritual element can be represented by things.

In other words, objects around us can be holy without being idols. A good example of a practical Christian approach to the material world is the tradition of Celtic spirituality.

This kind of prayer and devotion was the form Christianity took in the British Isles when the Gospel first entered the pagan culture of that region. Eventually, in the year 597, the Pope sent missionaries to Britain to establish the Roman version of Christ’s teaching.

But vestiges of the pre-Roman church remain there to this day. The British church treasures its churches and its sacred places and shrines from Westminster Abbey to the pilgrimage island of Iona. Celtic blessings have experienced a resurgence in popularity. People recognize the value of this tradition that points to the holiness of the world around us.

Celtic spirituality is represented in the hymn we just sang:

“Be Thou My Vision, O Lord of my heart,

“All else be nought to me, save that thou art—

“Thou my best thought, by day or by night,

“Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”

Celtic practical religion is also seen in the many blessings it has left us, such as this ancient prayer to bless one’s home. The prayer reminds us of all the gifts of God in this material world God has given to us.

“God bless the corners of this house,

And be the lintel blest,
And bless the hearth and bless the board,
And bless each place of rest,
And bless each door that opens wide
To stranger as to kin,
And bless each crystal window pane
That lets the starlight in,
And bless the rooftree overhead
And every sturdy wall.
The peace of man, the peace of God,
The peace of love on all.”

AMEN.


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