October 22 | The Specter of Royalty

October 22, 2023 | The Specter of Royalty

Texts: 2nd Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5; Psalm 150

Speaker: Mark Rupp

My husband and I were nearly two-thirds of the way through the most recent performance in our Broadway in Columbus season when a brand new character came out on stage and I had to lean over and whisper “Wait, who is that?” Now what makes this a bit surprising is that the show we were seeing was Jesus Christ, Superstar, a rock-opera retelling of the story of Jesus, and I– an ordained minister in the Christian church–needed to ask my husband–a non-religious heathen who maybe attended Sunday School once in his life–what was happening in the story being presented to us. 

Before you all start drafting emails trying to get my ordination revoked, let me be clear that a couple things were happening. First, I was having a bit of a hard time understanding some of the lyrics from our not-quite-nose-bleed-but-still-mid-mezzanine seats, so I think I can be forgiven for not being able to follow everything exactly. Second, the character that appeared for the first time out of nowhere, showed up in complete contrast to the rest of the production. The show can be done in lots of different ways, but this production gave all of the scenery and costumes a bit of a drab, post-apocalyptic feel with muted earthy tones, industrial looking set pieces, and choreography that evoked almost a tribal, Mad Max feel. This new character, however, came on in bright tones, a long gold lamé cloak trailing behind him, and a face painted white, almost clown-looking in the way he was obviously trying hard to exude extravagance. Even the music shifted, turning from the driving rock-opera style to a more jaunty, vaudevillian kind of melody.

There was certainly a sudden shift happening, and in the moment I couldn’t quite process where we were in the story that should have been so familiar to me. My husband leaned over and whispered, “Well, this song is called King Herod’s Song, so I’m assuming that’s Herod.” To be fair to me, the scene where Jesus gets sent from Pilate to Herod only appears in Luke’s gospel as six short verses before he gets sent back to Pilate, so I don’t feel too bad for my momentary lapse of memory regarding the details of the passion narratives.

But when he whispered this, it made complete sense. Even if not every gospel account of Holy Week includes Jesus being sent before Herod, he is there, lingering in the background. The “King” Herod of this time period was never truly a king, yet the specter of royalty and all the power, extravagant wealth, prestige, and control that it represents is there in contrast to the reign of God that Jesus lives, teaches, and represents through his very being as God with us. 

In the show, King Herod comes on with flamboyance and flare and attempts to goad Jesus into proving that he is a king too, to show him the miracles and wonders that he has heard so much about. “Prove to me that You’re divine/ Change my water into wine…Prove to me that You’re no fool/ Walk across my swimming pool.” But a silent Jesus is eventually sent away while the decadent puppet king and his retinue fade once more into the background of the story. 

But our scriptures for today from the Narrative Lectionary are not about King Herod. But at the same time, they’re not NOT about King Herod. Last week, Joel pointed out that the Book of Ruth begins, “In the days when the judges ruled…” and he talked some about what that period of the Biblical narrative was like and how Ruth’s story fit into that as a counterstory. 

We skip ahead a bit for today, no longer in the days of the judges, but in the beginnings of the days of kings. David is not the first King of Israel, yet he is the one who begins to truly establish the monarchal line.  Now, there are lots of stories that could be told about David. David the humble shepherd boy, youngest of the sons of Jesse and great-grandson of Ruth, anointed by Samuel to be a new king because God sees not outward appearances but into the heart. David the humble warrior who casts off the ill-fitting armor in favor of a simple sling to face off against Goliath. David the man who loved his friend Jonathan as much as he loved his own soul. Or David the scheming king who used his power to cover up his sexual assault of Bathsheba.

Like most biblical characters and most humans, David is complex. 

But instead of including any of these stories, the Narrative Lectionary presents us with some simple passages about David finally becoming king, David leading the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem with dancing, and finally a Psalm of praise sometimes ascribed to David. As we look at the arc of the Biblical narrative throughout this year and this new lectionary cycle we are exploring, I can’t help but think that this represents another major hinge point in the story.

What does it mean for the people of God brought up out of the land of Egypt and slavery to become a nation so established and powerful in its own right that they desire a king? How does that change these people who are covenanted with a God of liberation and freedom?

In the book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Bruegemman writes that the community led by Moses was formed as a countercultural movement, both politically and socially as they fled from Egypt, from Pharaoh, and from a system of oppressive domination by the ruling class. In contrast, through God’s guidance and Moses’ leadership they were attempting to become an alternative type of community, one based on equality and justice.

This countercultural movement building is hard work and sometimes we stray from the ideals we try to hold at the center. The Israelites complained while wandering with Moses in the desert that perhaps it would have been better if they had never left Egypt because at least they had enough food there. Much later, I wonder if there is a parallel to those who begged the prophet Samuel to give them a king to rule over them. Samuel warns them,

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots, and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves and the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And on that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.” (1 Sam. 8:11-18)

But the people continue to insist and the shift toward the Israelite monarchy begins in earnest with the anointing of Saul as king. After a bit of a honeymoon period with Saul, he begins to act corruptly, and is eventually replaced by David, then David’s son Solomon, and so forth.

Brueggeman writes, “The revolution, both religious and political, of Moses was able to sustain itself until approximately 1000 BCE as a viable social reality…By the time of Solomon…there was a radical shift in the foundations of Israel’s life and faith. While the shift had no doubt begun and been encouraged by David, the evidence is much clearer and unambiguous with Solomon. The entire program of Solomon now appears to have been a self-serving achievement with its sole purpose the self-securing of the king and dynasty.” (23)

By the time we get to Solomon, things have radically shifted for the Israelite people.

Our scriptures for today are not about Solomon, but they’re not NOT about Solomon. 

Brueggeman calls this a shift toward “royal consciousness” and describes three main ways that it represents a deviation from the alternative consciousness of Moses’ Exodus community. These three shifts paint in broad strokes, but I invite you to consider where you see their influence in our own time, how we too can get caught up in a royal consciousness.

First, is the shift away from an economics of equality toward the economics of affluence. No more are the people wandering in the desert, gathering up only enough manna and quail for what they need, now the feast tables of kings overflow with abundance that spills over only as far as is needed to maintain control. As Brueggeman notes, “It is difficult to keep a revolution of freedom and justice under way when there is satiation…Questions of civil rights seem remote when we are so overly fed.”

Does our own affluence keep us from hearing and feeling alongside those near and far who cry for justice? Are we merely consumers of the social order that is handed to us, or are we creating relationships and communities where more justice and more equality and more peace can flourish?

The second shift is away from the politics of justice toward a politics of oppression. The source of the affluence of the first shift so often made possible by social policies favoring the few. The Levitical commands to care for strangers and sojourners as if they were your own family fade toward the forced labor Solomon used to enhance his rule.  Rather than making decisions about how we should live based on discerning God’s will for justice for all, policies begin to be crafted with a focus toward enhancing security and maintaining the status quo. 

Does our own desire to feel secure keep us from having the courage to advocate for policies that upset the status quo? Do we desire the stability of the way things are more than the visions of God’s kin-dom that call us into an uncertain future?

The final shift that Brueggeman outlines is a theological shift away from a religion of God’s freedom toward a religion of God’s accessibility.  The first two shifts are undergirded by this third shift, providing theological sanction for the royal agenda. Once again, these are broad strokes that Brueggeman paints with, but he points out that Moses tended to stress God’s freedom, God as “I am what I am” and God who declares in Exodus, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Prophets will continue to rise up and speak of the freedom of God over and against the royal agenda, yet the prevailing idea of God in a royal consciousness is one in which God is “on call” to those with the most power to provide divine endorsement for their whims.

Does our own faith rest in a God who provides only comfort or one who continues to unsettle us? Do we have ears to hear the prophetic voices around us or are we unable to discern the voice of God amidst the clanging gongs that clamor for our attention?

Our scriptures for today are not about us. But they’re not NOT about us. 

These scriptures ARE about David, who sits at this hinge point in Israelite history. He’s largely lauded as a good man, a wise and passionate king, and a person who seeks after God’s own heart. Our second passage for this morning shows him dancing and singing with all of his might in front of the Ark of the Covenant as he leads it and the people toward the new center of the kingdom in Jerusalem. Perhaps they sing something akin to Psalm 150. “Let all that has breath praise God.” David, the shepherd boy from humble beginnings, chosen against all odds, leading with deep wisdom, making one of his first royal actions placing the symbol of the people’s covenant with God in the center of the new kingdom.

Brueggeman admits that this shift did hold some promise. It moved the people toward what he describes as “creation faith,” which focuses less on matters of survival and more on what can be built through order and coherence. Similarly, this shift gave rise to messianism, which has the potential to see those in this Davidic line as agents of God’s purposes of justice for all. 

Power is neutral, neither good nor evil, and we all carry some measure of it in our relationships with the world around us. Yet, the accumulation of power is dangerous and alluring and has the potential to change the way we see ourselves and the world. The royal consciousness can seep into our lives through both big and small ways, pulling us away from the reign of God and the kin-dom God is creating within and through us.

One final word from Brueggeman,

“The royal consciousness with its program of achievable satiation has redefined our notions of humanness, and it has done that to all of us. It has created a subjective consciousness concerned only with self-satisfaction. It has denied the legitimacy of tradition that requires us to remember, of authority that expects us to answer, and of community that calls us to care. It has so enthroned the present that a promised future, delayed but certain, is unthinkable.”

Whether we stand before Pharaoh or dance alongside King David or sit silently while King Herod berates us to prove that our vision for the world has any power behind it; for any of the other ways that metaphorical kings seek to subsume us into their vision of reality, we must be willing to ask deep questions about power, about justice, about the kind of world we wish to live in and to create. 

For every moment has the potential to be a hinge point in the stories of our lives. Every decision can lead us toward the prophetic calls of justice and peace or toward the royal insistence on the security of the status quo.  Maybe David was doing his best. Maybe we are too.

Wherever we are, I hope that we can be honest with ourselves and one another about what we are placing at the center of our lives, what we are letting guide our views of ourselves and the world around us. May that center be NOT just a fancy golden box or an obligation we feel to show up to “Church” on Sunday morning. Instead, my hope is that our center can be our covenant with a God of freedom and liberation who wants us to dance with all of Creation and to sing a new world into being.