Monday, July 13, 2009

Michal: Glimpses of Grace; Sermon on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-23

I suppose at some point in their lives, many little girls—at least, little girls in the United States whose families have some disposable income—have been caught up in the “princess” phenomenon: the idea that, if I were just a princess, oh how wonderful my life would be! The thought is wrapped up in very specific visual formulae—the princess gown, the tiara. And with it comes the kind of social event that every girl either dreads or longs for: the royal ball, the royal wedding, where, as princess, she gets to be the focus of much adoring attention.

The desire is not to be queen, mind you—a woman with some power of her own, at least symbolically—but a princess. The daughter of a king or queen, a girl whose power is by association, and whose power lies, at least as the story goes, in her beauty, and usually her goodness, and, of course, her desirability.

A few years ago Peggy Orenstein wrote an article about the princess phenomenon as it has been sweeping our culture for about the past ten years. She writes,

I finally came unhinged in the dentist’s office — one of those ritzy pediatric practices tricked out with comic books, DVDs and arcade games — where I’d taken my 3-year-old daughter for her first exam. Until then, I’d held my tongue. I’d smiled politely every time the supermarket-checkout clerk greeted her with “Hi, Princess”; ignored the waitress at our local breakfast joint who called the funny-face pancakes she ordered her “princess meal”; made no comment when the lady at Longs Drugs said, “I bet I know your favorite color” and handed her a pink balloon rather than letting her choose for herself. Maybe it was the dentist’s Betty Boop inflection that got to me, but when she pointed to the exam chair and said, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?” I lost it. “Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “Do you have a princess drill, too?” She stared at me as if I were an evil stepmother. “Come on!” I continued, my voice rising. “It’s 2006, not 1950. This is Berkeley, Calif. Does every little girl really have to be a princess?” My daughter, who was reaching for a Cinderella sticker, looked back and forth between us. “Why are you so mad, Mama?” she asked. “What’s wrong with princesses?” [1]

That little girl could easily have been me. I was raised lovingly reading and re-reading the stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I became obsessed, for a time, with getting my mother to try to style my hair like Leslie Ann Warren’s up-do in the televised version of “Cinderella.” Add to that the fact that I knew that I was adopted, and you have the makings of a full-on fantasy life that includes my having actually been born a princess. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with princesses?

That would be a great question to ask Michal, who, in our passage is referred to repeatedly as the “daughter of Saul,” though she is also the wife of David. What’s wrong with being a princess? In Michal’s case, what is wrong probably has something to do with the other characters in your story. In Michal’s case, what is wrong is this: she has been caught up in the struggle for power between Saul and David.

There is something about David that is just so compelling. He is a figure who will forever be larger than life, because of the number and nature of the stories that have been preserved about him in scripture. A few weeks ago we heard the wonderful tale of the prophet Samuel looking over the sons of Jesse, one by one, until he said, “No, none of these will do.” And finally, the boy David is brought in from the pasture where he has been tending the sheep… “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome,” the passage tells us. Prince Charming himself! Samuel falls in love with him, just as, apparently, the Lord has, and promptly pours a flask of oil over his head, anointing him king over all Israel.

The problem is, there is already a king, previously anointed, and his name is Saul. But he has lost favor with the Lord, and that is why Samuel has been sent in search of another. From this point, it’s game on for David and Saul. And Michal finds herself in the middle.

After David’s spectacular victory over Goliath, the Philistine, his popularity soars among the people, and Saul gets an idea. His daughter is in love with David, just like everyone else. Saul makes David an offer: he can have Michal’s hand in marriage if he will pay a particularly grisly and over-the-top bride price: one hundred Philistine foreskins. Saul, of course, has no intention of seeing this come to pass: the idea behind the plan is that David will be killed before he can perform any such feat.

But this is David. He manages to acquire the foreskins—in fact, he acquires two hundred of them—and, thus, he acquires the bride. And, as a princess, Michal helps to secure David’s claim to the throne in human eyes (though we know that, since it is already God’s will, the eyes of the people are just icing on the cake). Saul, seeing that his plan has massively backfired, sends assassins to David’s house to finish the job. Michal, still in love with her husband, helps David to escape by planting an idol in his bed and claiming he is ill to fool the somewhat dimwitted assassins, while letting David down through a window to escape to his freedom.

While David is off navigating the final coup against Saul, the elder king takes his daughter—perhaps as punishment for her role in securing David’s escape?—and gives her to another man, Paltiel, to be his wife. The text is silent as to what transpires between Michal and Paltiel. After the death of Saul, David has already acquired two more wives, each of them politically advantageous in her own way. But Michal is a politically necessary wife for David, helping to prove his claim to the throne. And so he sends for her. As she is taken away, there is a heartrending scene in which Paltiel follows her, weeping, until he is chastised and sent home by one of David’s lackeys. In Paltiel, at least, Michal has found someone who actually loves her. But David needs her, for his own purposes, and so he takes her.

This is the background to today’s passage, in which we see the triumphant David dancing with all his might in the presence of the Lord, as he brings the Ark of the Covenant into his city. Michal, the daughter of Saul, taken by force from the only man who has loved her for the purposes of political expediency, sees her husband the king dancing nearly naked in front of all the people. She witnesses what must be described as David’s unfettered joy in the service of the God who has put him in power. She is, perhaps understandably, less than enthusiastic.

What’s wrong with being a princess? Perhaps Michal’s story is a painful illustration of what is wrong when your story is not your own, but is told in the service of another story. What’s wrong with Michal’s story is that it is not her story, but David’s. I cringe at verse 23. After giving us David’s rather petulant response to Michal, that hey, you may not like my naked dancing, but I bet all the serving girls do—we read Michal’s post-script: “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” Because, that’s what you get when you are an ancillary character in someone else’s story, and you complain, however obliquely, about the person who has treated you as no more than property.

The story of Michal is preserved for us, and that, in itself, constitutes a kind of good news, on at least two levels. First, we can read the story of Michal with eyes and hearts that have been informed by a kind of evolving ethic of human relations, and we have scripture to thank for that ethic. The same scripture that elevates David to be the greatest king of Israel (despite his often abysmal track-record with women, his abuses of power, and other foibles) has spoken to us of the great dignity imparted to us as men and women by our creator. “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Even as we read of David’s harsh use of Michal, we have a point of reference that tells us that no one made in God’s image should be subjected to that kind of treatment. Even as we read the story of David, we can choose to shift our perspective, and read it as the story of Michal. Sometimes the most powerful thing about a terrible story is that we try never to forget it. Sometimes our memory is our most potent weapon against repeating the outrages of the past.

The other glimpse of grace we can find in Michal’s story is… David’s story. David is courageous, and faithful, and devoted to Yahweh. And he is brutal, and ruthless, and conniving. He exemplifies the great glory and the great brokenness that lie at the heart of humanity. John Calvin called that brokenness “total depravity.” He recognized that, when push comes to shove, we human beings will act in selfish ways, even in ways that separate us from the love of God.

And yet, in the end, the moral of David’s story is that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God. In our reading from Ephesians, we are told that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Our chosenness is another essential principle of Calvin’s understanding of our relationship with God. Like David, we have been chosen by God to be in relationship with the divine. But note—holy and blameless in love. In other words, God’s love for us does not depend on our perfection, thank God. It does not depend on our being good, on our doing good, though—of course, good can and should be the fruit of our relationship with God, our response. No. Our relationship with God depends on one thing and one thing alone: Grace. God’s love for us, despite everything. God’s love for our fully glorious and broken selves. The good news in this story is the recognition that God’s grace is far bigger than our brokenness, and that we can depend on that grace to see us through.

What’s wrong with being a princess? Perhaps the heart of the matter is this: our story must be fully our own. Our relationship with God must be fully our own. Our dancing before God , our pouring out of our sorrows before God must be our own. We cannot live out anyone else’s life of holiness but our own, the one we have been given, the one that is the truest expression of our glorious, and broken, and very real connection with the source of our being. David and Michal are not so different, really—Michal who risks her reputation by helping the man she loves to escape, David who risks his reputation by dancing with abandon before God. What I would have wished for Michal in her life would have been a sense that it was God who ultimately owns her, and not one of the men between whom she was shuffled time and again. What I would have wished for her—and perhaps she did come to know this in time, in the silence after her story ends—would be a sense of that overwhelming grace of God that transcends our actions and the ways in which we are acted upon. We are not our own, Calvin says, but “we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.”

With tenderness towards this unhappy princess, we close the book on her story.


[1] Peggy Orenstein, “What’s the Matter With Cinderella?”, New York Times Magazine, December 24, 2006.

1 comment:

MaineCelt said...

Beautiful-- and what a...well, what a RELIEF, for starters, to read a sermon that deals so tenderly with Michal.

Although I was preaching my own Michal/David sermon yesterday, it would have brought me equal joy to sit in a pew at your church, soaking this sermon up.

I always appreciate this "from the underside" approach to biblical interpretation. Thanks again.