Spring Into Psalms
This Sunday we begin a six-week sermon series on the Psalms. Psalms kind of sounds like songs, doesn’t it? And that’s a pretty good way to think about the Psalms. They are the ancient hymns and poetry of Israel. They are prayers. Just like in church today, in ancient Israel, psalms would be used in worship and religious rituals. And outside of worship, fragments of psalms, like poems, like a few lines of a beloved song, got lodged in minds and hearts – they make their way into what you hum while cleaning up after supper, or what you write in a note to a friend going through a hard time, they work their way into everyday speech, and so psalms appear throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, not just in the book of Psalms.
The Psalms provide us language in faith and prayer that can go deeper than our own understanding. They teach without a clear lesson, they tell a story without a clear plot. Psalms give us a voice to express big feelings of happiness and praise, but also fear, despair, and anguish. Maybe you’ve heard a song and it’s brought you to tears because it just speaks to your situation – a heartbreak, maybe. Or a song comes on and you can’t help but move. Can you think of a song that no matter what you are feeling, if it comes on it just makes you feel better?
Since our children were babies, if a car drives by playing loud music with a good beat, they can’t help moving to the music. There is something deep within us that responds to music and poetry, even if we don’t understand it. It moves us, body and soul.
The psalms are a gift from God through our Jewish ancestors to move us, to open us to God’s desire to part of the fullness of what we feel: our praise, our pain, our joy, our rage, our hope, our despair. Sometimes folks will share with me what they are feeling about something they are going through, and they’ll say, “I shouldn’t say this but…” or “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” and I ask why? Because it’s simply what they feel, and it’s all in the psalms, which means nothing we feel is too much for God. The psalmists give us permission to, “take it to the Lord in prayer,” all of it, even if it is scary, raw, rude. Chances are a psalmist has felt it too.
There is something about the season of Easter and the springtime that lends itself to some poetic reflection, so we will spend the spring in the psalms, taking a close look at just a few psalms as a way to open a door for you to explore the psalms on your own, or with a group, and make them a part of your regular devotion, reading a psalm each day, or even one psalm all week, or simply listening more closely to the psalter we read together in church each week. The psalms we will hear in worship are the psalms prescribed by the lectionary each week.
We begin with Psalm 133. In the Bible, Psalm 133 is in a group of several other psalms called, “Songs of Ascents.” The psalm itself has a kind of ascent to it, a climbing aspect, ending on a mountain top. The title of these songs of ascents likely refers to them having been sung by Jewish communities on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Imagine the songs we would sing on the bus if we went on a road trip together for a spiritual retreat, or what we’d hum along to if we were on a hike, or what we sing in worship as we bring the offering and communion elements forward: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise God all creatures here below,” traveling songs. Listen again to Psalm 133, “A song of Ascents.”
1 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. 3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133 is a timely song for our own ascent as a church, because it is a full-throated celebration of community, of togetherness, and unity. Last Sunday, on Easter, when I climbed into the pulpit as I have done almost every week since the pandemic began, it was the first time in a long time the actual faces of the congregation looked back – your faces. And I was not prepared for how that would feel. Last week was full of logistics: bulletins, health, music, Easter baskets and supper, that I hadn’t really paused to prepare myself for the emotional impact of being together, and “how very good and pleasant it is.” It took my breath away.
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” declares the psalmist. And ain’t it the truth, after these many months of living our lives apart. Doesn’t 133 sing the song of many of our hearts?
I’d sometimes receive a call asking when we’d be returning to worship. My reply was always the same: when the council feels we can do so safely. But I felt that longing to be together which was part of the pain of being apart. “How very good and pleasant it is when,” the family of faith can actually live our lives together again.
This is a psalm that declares the precious gift of the family of faith. We are not only friends and neighbors who gather to worship, we are a family, siblings, with our brother Jesus. That is what makes it so exciting that Jim and Leta are publicly joining Christ Church today, and that Bridgette and John will be joining next week. We’ve long known they are a part of this unique family, but today, publicly, they will declare how good and pleasant it is to be committed to each other as siblings, the church.
What is better than a family being together? Well, when it is actually good for that family to be together. For some, family isn’t fun. For some, there is nothing good or pleasant about the kin folk, the family, being together – if there is unresolved conflict, or hostility, pain. “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity,” says the psalm, and how awful it can be when that family is filled with conflict and turmoil.
I think the Psalmist knew both, many families do. All families have their struggles and pain. Psalm 133 is a vision of hope, knowing that often families and communities fall short; can be places of hurt and division. But how good and pleasant it is when we can be a part of a harmonious family, a community that believes in taking responsibility, in reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing; a family of grace that can deal with conflict and move forward in love, in unity. It takes, grace, love and forgiveness for a community to live together in unity for any significant amount of time, because we are a human family. We will sometimes let each other down. But grace abounds in a community of faith. How good and pleasant it is when things are working out. And how worth-it it is to put in the work to stay a community of healing and love.
“It’s like, the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.” Oil was a costly and precious luxury in ancient Israel, it was used for healing, for purifying, for anointing. In the dry heat, it soothed your skin and made you shine. Community, healthy community, is like that, isn’t it? For the lonely, it soothes, for the emotionally and spiritually dry, community can comfort and heal. The gift of a loving community is luxurious, and priceless.
After the resurrection, according to John, Jesus visited his disciples. He was alive again. The community wracked by grief was suddenly overwhelmed by the healing of Jesus’ presence. They were whole again, and “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” He spoke his peace, forgave them, blessed them with the Holy Spirit, let them touch him, and they declared, “My Lord and my God.” He heals their community with forgiveness and love, and how precious is that gift. “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the face, running down over the collar,” beautiful, excessive, costly grace.
And we have learned not to take community for granted. A virus altered our community for months. Death shakes us. In some communities around the world, they cannot gather for fear of persecution. As precious as community unity is, it is also sometimes rare. Like the dew that falls on the dry mountains of Zion. Dew in an arid landscape, like Zion, may be rare, but it is cherished, it nourishes the plants and animals, and so does community nourish each of us, and so a community like ours is called to be a source of nourishment for others. That is what the first disciples did, and the book of Acts says, “a great grace was upon them all and there was not a needy person among them.”
Beloved, this community, this family of faith, this kindred, how very good and pleasant it is, like a precious oil running down our faces, like the morning dew on the flowers. This kind of community is a luxury, and necessity, and a precious gift from God, for here the Lord ordained his blessings evermore. Amen.