David is on the lamb. He is hightailing it from the courts of King Saul where his very life stands under threat. Now, the young up-and-comer, the Goliath-slaying savior of Israel, he and King Saul – the two of them were not natural sworn enemies. On the contrary, David had been welcomed into the old man’s inner circle and had become something of a son to him. David’s closeness to the king came not through guile or craft. He had not cozied up with the intent of currying favor. No, David’s high regard was hard-won. He served the throne dutifully and defended the land. To demonstrate his worthiness, to cement the king’s respect, to prove himself deserving of Saul’s daughter and secure the princess’ hand in marriage, David had went out marauding against the ever-menacing Philistines. David had struck down two hundred of them, returned to the palace in triumph, and laid at the feet of the royal family, as testament to his great victory and as trophy, a sack filled with those dead Philistines’ fresh-cut foreskins. (I think that must have been the ancient equivalent of ‘He went to Jared’s.’)
But, for all that, what grew within the king was not fondness and affection for his son-in-law but rather jealous rage. Saul would go out to greet the commoners and kiss babies, but all the while, the crowds would cry out for David. David had surpassed Saul in military savvy. David had wooed away Saul’s daughter. David had become best of friends with Saul’s son. David had dazzled Saul’s subjects. Saul did not beam with pride over his protégé’s meteoric rise, but, in David’s growing popularity, he saw only his own legacy slipping away. He saw assassination attempts and coups. He saw his reign toppled. In obsessing over these far-fetched suspicions and fears, the old monarch descended into madness and paranoia and began plotting David’s demise. Saul’s mind was utterly tormented; the king had torn off his clothes and run, clawing at himself through the streets. On more than one occasion, he had tried to stab David outright. So suddenly and inexplicably violent and bizarre was Saul’s behavior that scripture described him as being possessed by an evil spirit. Fearing for his life, David fled. He fled.
In today’s scripture, here he is, seeking respite and refuge at Nob. Here he is, stopping in for the night at a small temple, in search of safe lodging and even but a few crusts of bread to sustain him on his desperate flight. Ahimilech, the priest, trembles at the sight of David. Rumors must have preceded this renegade, and so when the king’s former right hand man shows up breathless and bereft, the priest suspects that there may be trouble afoot – that there may be danger, that there may be more to the story than David lets on. So Ahimilech asks him, Why have you come to this house of God? And why have you come alone? Where is the entourage? Where is the military escort? And David lies through his teeth. He is starving and he is scared and so he lies: he says, in effect, If I told you, I would have to kill you… I’m on a secret mission, acting as an undercover agent. I am not at liberty to say anything more than this; if that bothers you, old timer, take your complaint straight to the king. Now, help me with my boots, and what have you got to eat? And Ahimilech – probably he is more afraid than he is convinced – Ahimilech gives David all he has. Ahimilech gives David the by-now stale bread, the bread that has been sitting there on the altar all week, the bread that the priests sort of symbolically put out as food for God. Then, because God rarely stops by for a snack, the bread that the priests end up eating themselves in a grand ritual, the rigmarole of which seems like a cross between Catholic clergy downing the undrunk communion wine and parents sneaking the cookies their kids leave out for Santa.
This is an odd episode. On the surface, it would seem that David finds himself fleeing for his life, faultless though he is, and so perhaps feels that his deception can be forgiven, can be written off as a little white lie in the great scheme of things. It would seem that David is in survival-mode and shelves whatever moral qualms he might have had about pulling one over on a priest. It would seem that David scams his way to a seat at the table and then steals God’s supper. But I have to say that I find myself not disturbed by the fib David tells or the food David takes, not troubled by his trickery, but taken by him, taken by this tale of a guy who goes into God’s house misguidedly for all the wrong reasons and meets God anyway. I am taken by him, taken by the possibility that though some measure of self-interest and insincerity may just be par for the course when it comes to church, God can and will wring pure religion from feeble and flickering, from even false piety. I am taken by him, taken by the truth that what he, and what we, expect and intend to get out of worship does not determine what God expects to, intends to, and does get out of worship.
We may think we have come to church out of habit or duty because that is just what we have always done. We may think we have come to church because we want our children to grow up knowing good from bad and right from wrong, because we want our children to be guided by moral principles, and because, in our mind, the church can impart them. I suppose – on the flip side of that – we may think we have come to church, that is, we who are kids may think we have come to church because our parents made us. We may think we have come to church because that’s what our AA group has asked of us. We may think we have come to church because we are paid to sing in the choir. We may think we have come to church because we want to get married in the Gordon Chapel and are gaming for a discount. We may think we have come to church because we are new to Boston and seeking community. We may think we have come to church because it will give us a gloss of respectability. We may think we have come to church because, well, we happened on by, and it is such a beautiful building, and we had time to kill before the flight home.
But whatever truth there is to that – however much it does indeed appear to be routine or curiosity or mom or dad driving us through those doors, however much it does indeed appear to be the music or the architecture or the children’s programs or concern for our sobriety or respect for our spouse driving us through those doors, at the end of the day, want it or not, ready or not, we are here. You are here for no other reason really than because God has drawn you, because God has ordained it, because God desires it, because deep, deep in you, underground in you is a pool of goodness and beauty upon which God delights to gaze, because God is pleased to pass the time dipping a toe down and down into the vastness within you and to see in the shimmering ripples God’s own face reflected back. We are here, you are here because God enjoys sharing this moment with you, would do no other than share this moment with you. We are here, you are here, because God has created you to crave communion and to pine for God’s company, as God pines for yours. We are here, you are here because God has made you to be a worshipping animal, because God has planted within you the impulse to praise and to sing out and not sing under your breath because God has seen to it that your soul throbs, and your heart aches, and that within you is a hunger primitive and low and pure, is an uneasiness you can never quite name, is a longing you can’t shake, is a joy you cannot contain, is a love you cannot but share, is an itch of the spirit that you cannot scratch, is a yearning to lose yourself and to find yourself in something larger than yourself. We are here, you are here because by the secret wooing of the Spirit, because by the mysterious courting of the Holy One, you have been brought here to tarry with God in in a time outside all time in a stolen hour of higher significance and truer preciousness than on any given Sunday we could dare explain or imagine.