“The Watcher at the Window” / II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 / 15 July 2018
Oh, she hates them! The watcher in the window, scowling at the crowds. She stands in her lonely window, on the inside looking out at all those happy souls, dancing in the streets with their trumpets and their raisin cakes. She hates them more than the Grinch hates the Whos down in Whoville, and she loathes her husband, King David, most of all. She’s the bitter queen who’s been showing up in folktales and stories ever since. As the father of two girls, I long ago discovered a strange phenomenon about Disney villains: most are women, and many of them are jealous. They’re jealous that someone else is the fairest of them all. Jealous that their own two daughters are graceless buffoons compared to Cinderella. Jealous that they weren’t invited to the party. Jealousy. It makes me think of the old Pantene shampoo commercial that says, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” Some of us have surely been there: hating someone else for being beautiful, or wealthy, or successful…and not deserving it. You know too what it is to be on the outside looking in, and maybe even feeling a little bit of envy for all the seemingly happy folks in there. Jealousy! It’s the ugliest, most corrosive, most debilitating feeling. Jealousy has taken down many a good soul.
Today of course is the biggest sporting event on Planet Earth, far bigger than the Super Bowl. Today at last is the final game of the World Cup. It’s down to France and Croatia—of all the nations of the globe. I had great hopes for Belgium, since I visited there long ago and very much liked the place. And of course it was in Cameroon that I learned to watch soccer, and I’ve always wanted Cameroon to take the cup. I’m not a sports fan in the slightest, but I can never quite look away when it comes to the World Cup. Soccer recalls to me the children of the world, especially rural Africa, where all that was needed was a few square feet of level ground and a makeshift soccer ball, woven out of reedy grasses, and those kids would play for hours and hours. The sport gave them a joy that nothing else could—kids who had not a thing in the world to be joyful about, kids who had a single tattered shirt to their names, kids who knew not where their next scrap of bread might come from, they took such real delight in soccer. It lifted them from poverty and worry for a few hours and put them someplace good. And I know that joy isn’t limited to the poor children of Cameroon, but it extends to kids rich and poor, of every race, and religion, and nationality of the earth. The World Cup is a kind of spiritual experience, for it reaches into each village across the nations of the world and says to people there, “Watch this. Someday maybe this could be you. Dream on. Play on.”
Well, I tried to watch the World Cup when we moved here in 2010, only to learn that you have to have a special cable channel that we didn’t have. Not willing to go every four years and watch the event in a crowded sports bar, I have slowly drifted away from the World Cup in recent years. The last time I watched was in 2006, when Italy beat France. The French probably would have won except that they committed so many “fouls” that the Italians were given several penalty shots. The French fouls against the Italians were truly foul, too. At one point Zidane, the eccentric star of the French team, approached an Italian player, pretended that he wanted to speak to the man, and when the fellow leaned in to hear him, Zidane head-butted him in the chest. It knocked the guy flat on the ground. And of course, that meant another penalty point for Italy. All sports carry an emotional impact for the winners and the losers, but it seems to me that soccer fans take it all a little bit more personally than other sports fans.
After Italy’s win, the TV continued to broadcast the Italians’ victory celebration: dancing, and hugging, and marching around on each other’s shoulders. They’re Italians, so they’re a little freer with their emotions than a lot of Germanic types. They sang songs and stood around in a circle and did a funny sort of jig. They kissed each other, in a way that American athletes never do, and took running leaps into each other’s arms. It was quite a celebration…for the Italians. Occasionally the camera would pan over to the other side of the soccer field, where a band of dejected Frenchmen sat around glowering. They sat motionless, glaring at the camera and frowning at those happy Italians. The French coach was a merciless-looking little man with rectangular glasses. They say he believed so strongly in the Horoscope that he wouldn’t allow a Scorpio or a Leo on his team. And he had a frown that could make lettuce wilt. It was quite a spectacle, almost as good as the game itself: jubilant Italians frolicking and playing like a band of overgrown kittens, while the moody French brooded and glared at them from a distance. That dark, Gaulish frown full of jealousy. “This game should have been ours!” It reminds me of the watcher in the window.
Oh, that watcher in the window! Have you ever stared on in frustration as some happy soul lived it up? Have you ever been the one on the outside looking in? Her name is Michal. That’s M-I-C-H-A-L; it doesn’t have an ‘e’ like the male name Michael, but it’s pronounced the same. Michal is the queen of Israel. She’s the princess daughter of the former King Saul, and the wife of the great King David. And Michal’s not happy. It doesn’t make sense; everybody else is happy. Her husband, David, is so happy that he’s dancing like a fool in front of his whole kingdom. He’s so happy that he’s dancing around in a priest’s robe, called an ephod, even though he’s not a priest. David and all Israel are rejoicing because they’ve retaken the Ark of the Covenant, which had been stolen by Israel’s enemies. All Israel is happy today because they’re tired of war; they’re happy in a crazy, holy way. And to make the celebration all the finer, King David hands out raisin cakes to everyone in the city. Everyone is having a grand time…everyone that is, except Queen Michal. Watching from a window of the royal palace, Michal sees the procession entering the gates of the city. She sees the people dancing and playing their wild music. She hears the cymbals and the lyres, the castanets and the tambourines. The rhythm has the crowd worked up into a frenzy. The music has gotten to all of them, the booming drums and the strumming harps. Noblemen and priests are dancing. Judges and wealthy citizens, soldiers and peasants. The wild Mediterranean music has gotten into their souls, and it’s making them move. But not Michal. Oh no! Maybe “the rhythm is gonna get you,” but not her. Michal stands at her window looking down on her husband the king. And she despises him in her heart. She hates him for all she’s worth. She hates him for his joy. She hates him for his silly dance, his ridiculous, unkingly behavior. She hates him for reasons she doesn’t even understand. She just hates him.
The watcher at the window is on the outside looking in. She’s cut off from the festivities, alone with her hatred and her exasperation. That watcher at the window still haunts our world today. Wherever there’s rejoicing, wherever there’s success, wherever there’s affluence and satisfaction, Queen Michal is there, looking on from her high window, nurturing hatred in her heart. But don’t hate her back, because if you do, then ours becomes a world of hate. And what then?
Ah, but you know a little something about being hated, don’t you? At least, we’re told that someone out there hates us… We all know something about the Michals of the world, glaring at us from a distance, plotting out a course for their anger. It’s not just terrorists; most of the world stands on the outside looking in at all that you and I take for granted, our great dance of life. Impoverished ranks of South and Central Americans stand on our southern border willing to risk their lives just to come over here to Arkansas and process our frozen chicken fingers. They’re eager not to destroy us but rather just to come and get their share of the pie. They stand on the margins of our country, the margins of our society, excluded from the dance, looking in with hungry eyes. Is that a reason to hate them? Then there’s our own homegrown breed of outsider, the desperate poor who grow up knowing nothing but the dehumanizing cycles of generational poverty. Some are just decent folks trying hard to get by. Some are drug users and dealers, criminals or potential criminals, the underprivileged, the fatherless, the ones we pass in the streets without making eye contact. We have our own dispossessed folks, our own outcasts. Many native-born Americans are desperate people, too, looking for their share, angry that they’ve been left out. Bitter, resentful, mad all the time. They’re ready to take down the whole system, they’re so mad.
Michal still glares at the party from her lonely upper window. And we dance unawares, living our lives of relative ease! For most of us, life is one great big party of affluence with trumpets and raisin cakes. But anytime there’s a party, there are a whole lot of folks who didn’t get invited. And wherever there are folks who didn’t get invited, there’s a Michal, looking in from the outside, perhaps despising all the revelers in her heart. Does hating her fix anything? Would it not be better to…include her?
You have your personal Michals, too. There are people in your life who resent you, people who are jealous of you, people who’ve felt slighted by you at some point and never quite got over it. Someone despises you, too, perhaps for some long-forgotten reason. I know I’ve got at least two such souls. Who are your personal Michals, glaring at you from afar? And ask yourself this: When have you been Michal, gazing down from your solitary window, nurturing bitterness and anger in your heart, begrudging the good that another enjoys, wishing it were your own. Whoever Michal is, she’s mad for a reason. It might not be a good reason, but hers is the pain of one who’s on the outside looking in. To meet her hatred with hatred is the worst thing we can do. Yes, you’ve been an outsider, haven’t you? Surely it’s your lot to love the watcher in the window.
Besides, didn’t the greatest Outsider of all tell us to love our enemies? Take a long, hard look at the Michals of this world: the Russias, the North Koreas, the rural poor who say they want to put America first, but who ironically fly the Confederate flag. There are no good guys and bad guys, just…guys, with issues and problems. People who hate are just regular people who get caught in a whirlwind of personal problems, and history, and politics, and economics, and religion. They’re just people who want to matter, people who want friends and options, people who get trapped in unbearable conditions. People who get used. And nobody will do crazier things than the person who feels like he or she just doesn’t matter. Look at the Michals in your own life. Are they really evil? Or is it more complicated than that? Are they evil, or do they just believe that they’ve been wronged, left out? Or think of it this way: Were you evil? Are you evil when you find yourself gazing on from afar, hating the revelers at life’s party? Are you evil or mostly just alone?
In Cameroon, I used to travel by motorcycle between remote villages. Most Cameroonians are gentle and hospitable. But some of them don’t like foreigners. In such villages, I would arrive to find the people glaring at me silently from the windows of their huts. They might hiss, or spit, or mutter, “ntangan,” which means “white man.” Their hostility often rattled me. But the only way for a rich traveler in a poor land to disarm that bitterness is…to try to speak their language. Whenever I arrived in an unfriendly village and the folks glowered at me from their windows, the best way to diffuse the situation was to say, “Ambollo.” It’s not a magic word; all it means is “hello.” But it’s their tribal word for hello. As soon as they heard a white foreigner speaking to them in their language, without exception, their faces broke out into the most beautiful smiles. They were laughing at my bad pronunciation of their word, but perhaps happy that a foreigner made the attempt. “Ah, ambollo!” they would answer. “You’re speaking our language! Ambollo!” And suddenly a whole village of formerly hostile people would become my eager language instructors. Sharing one’s flawed and often laughable humanity with others is usually the key to building bridges, and it’s not so hard to do.
Human nature responds to hatred with hatred. But look beneath the hatred at the fear and despair that cause it, the loneliness, the jealousy. Respond to hatred with love. It’s called grace. It makes the world go round. At this point in the life of a divided world, and a profoundly divided nation, grace is our only way forward. Michal stares from her lonely window, hating you for reasons you and she cannot comprehend. But the answer is not to get her before she gets you. We have to find the root of Michal’s alienation. The only solution to the problem of Michal is to treat her with grace. Surprise her with just a bit of respect. The love of family, the love of country, the love of neighbor; these are the easiest of loves. Loving Michal is harder…and holier. Jesus’ teaching is hard love: love your enemies. It’s the thing they least expect. When you love the one who hates you, he’ll recognize a strange holiness in your behavior. And that surprise can change the world. Amen.
“The Watcher at the Window” / II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 / 15 July 2018