Embodied Presence



Workingpreacher.org Commentary for July 11, 2021 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

Amy Oden


While the account of David’s ascendance is the stuff of movies, consider focusing this week’s preaching on what it means to be in the presence of God.

Ark of the Covenant At its most basic level, the ark is a wooden box that held the stone tablets with the commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai. The box was attached to two long staves for carrying, so it could accompany the people wherever they went. However, the ark was more than a box carrying stone tablets.

The ark is a concrete symbol of God’s self-revelation to Moses. As a ritual object, the ark tells a story. It points to the larger narrative of God’s delivering the people from slavery and divine guidance into the promised land. It reminds the people of this salvation history and of the nearness of God’s Presence with them always. It provided continuity from the time of Moses to the present moment described in 2 Samuel 6. First and foremost, the ark is a concrete sign of God’s Holy Presence.

Divine presence How do we recognize God’s Presence? In 2 Samuel 6, the ark of the covenant signaled God’s Presence and promise among them. What symbols, objects or stories help us “have eyes to see and ears to hear” God’s Presence among us? Stories from scripture, such as the exodus from Egypt, can make God present now. Or our congregation’s story—perhaps about immigrants whose determination founded this congregation—can do this. Perhaps divine Presence is signaled through a symbol for our community—a rainbow flag that brings God’s love for all into our present awareness.

Or it may be an object, like the stained glass window at 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that commemorates the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing by the KKK as they came from Sunday School (https://www.16thstreetbaptist.org/our-history/). The window features a black crucified Christ. Each time the people gather, this window brings God’s Presence, even or perhaps especially, in the midst of racism and violence, into this present moment. Moreover, the window was a gift from the people of Wales in 1964, so it also recalls the story of the unity of the human family. God’s Presence in this act of solidarity signals, each time the community gathers, that this community does not journey alone. The danger, of course, is that the special objects or rituals will become idols in themselves, rather than signs pointing to God-with-us. So we must cultivate dynamic awareness that allows our rituals and objects to act as a sort of hyperlink, moving us beyond them to the larger Presence there.

Our Christian spiritual traditions teach that this dynamic awareness happens in ordinary, daily life. God’s incarnated Presence is revealed in nano-seconds of noticing: a shaft of light on the floor, a tiny hand reaching out for ours, the quiet dignity of the elderly man on the bus. We do not have to wait until we are in church or opening a Bible to know God’s Presence. The proclamation of Immanuel, God-with-us, means that Holy Presence is available always, if we will pause and pay attention, if we “have eyes to see.” The ancient contemplative traditions and the more contemporary mindfulness movement invite us to be attentive to God’s Presence right here, right now.

Embodied rituals David could have received the ark in private, within the sanctum of his tent or a circle of trusted advisors. Given the profound holiness of the ark itself, that would be an understandable strategy in order to not risk polluting the ark or risk dishonoring Yahweh inadvertently. Instead, the presentation of the ark is a public event in the midst of the people. The ark then makes a ritual entrance that enacts the inauguration of a new era. Not just David, but also “all the people with him” go to bring in the ark together (verse 2). Their pilgrimage to the ark embodies this new journey with God toward a newly united kingdom in a new royal city, Jerusalem. Once they arrive at the ark they don’t stand idly by as observers. The people accompany the ark, singing and dancing “with all their might” (verse 5). What shared rituals bring your community into God’s Presence? Since the Enlightenment, Christians have tended to focus on faith as mostly a set of ideas or beliefs. In this pos-modern world, we are discovering that humans are perhaps more powerfully shaped by our shared rituals and enactments than by ideas alone. People are hungry for ways to pray together, to lament together, to celebrate together and to serve together. Spiritual practices and communal embodiments help make God’s Presence real in everyday life. Take time to identify the embodied practices or rituals particular for your community’s recognition of Holy Presence. For many Christians, the eucharist table may a central one.

Response to Holy Presence Once we are aware of Holy Presence, how do we respond? David and “all the house of Israel”—all 30,000 of them!—dance before the Lord “with all their might” (verse 5)! Even the list of instruments: “lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” (verse 5) conveys exuberance. Holy Presence may invite us into quiet contemplation, into bold action or renewed commitments. Here it evokes festive joy. We have moved from lament in chapter 1 of 2 Samuel to joy in chapter 6. Lament and joy share the same root system in the same ground. In fact, our capacity for celebrative joy is in proportion to our capacity for lament and grief. In chapter 1, lament was raw and real. There is something about grief that takes us to the depths of our being, our knowing, our understanding, a spiritual nakedness that strips away illusions and constructs, leaving us more radically aware that everything is more mysterious and expansive than we thought. We discover a joy there that is even deeper than lament. At the same time, joy melts our hearts for the world that God so loves, increasing our capacity to see suffering and to know loss. Grief and joy hold hands in the spiritual life.

What symbols, objects or stories help us to have “eyes to see and ears to hear” God’s Presence among us? What is our response?