Pentecost XV – Proper 17 – August 28, 2016 Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Sing with joy to God our strength *
and raise a loud shout to the God of Jacob.
Psalm 81:1, 20-16
A sermon preached by Sue Cook at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, August 28, 2016
When King David, by the Spirit, introduced the singing of psalms into the temple-service this particular psalm was intended for that day, to excite and assist the proper devotions of it. Only in reading about the origins and purpose of this passage did I consider how the faithful followers of the Old Testament and later the New, at some point in time, needed to create a process within which, the sacred was separated from the profane. Where the everyday business of life was left outside the Church walls while the interior of the sanctified space was dedicated to the devotion and worship of the Lord.
Fast forward to a contemporary processional starting one of our own sung Eucharist’s, right here at St. Paul’s – beginning with the sounding of the bell by our Choir mistress, and followed by the entry of the Cross-bearing Acolyte, then the angelically attired choir ensemble, oftentimes the Eucharistic Minister, and perhaps even a visiting preacher, all of whom are shepherded in by the liturgically colorful and most decorously robed Priest.
On the occasional Saturday that I participate in readying the flowers on the altar for the Sunday’s service, I am always somewhat surprised when I turn from my task and have an occasion to look out into this empty church to see just how short the distance actually is from the VERY last row of pews ALL the way up to this step leading to the railing and the altar itself. You couldn’t even get a good starting run on your skateboard down the sole central aisle of this wee chapel.
With the entry of the Priest, the usher closes the red narthex doors, (shutting out at least some of the cacophony of seagulls screeching and diving overhead and Harley’s squealing and careening round the corner down below). And now, the service may begin.
It is with experienced intention and an eye towards meeting the basic human need for consistency and structure that our liturgical drama unfolds in a familiar fashion each Sunday. Whether it is the more contemplative early morning gathering or the later bell ringing choir-singing service, we pretty much know what to expect, at least in the external structure of the day. Along comes a new preacher, the occasional visit by our Bishop, or even a new hue of liturgical colors, and the backdrop is new all over again.
I recently participated with 5 others from our St Paul’s discernment group in the procession and service of the ordination of our friend and sister Judy Dahl into the Roman Catholic Women Priests. As I drove over to the rehearsal site with Christine Hemp we both chattered on (as she and I are wont to do) wondering openly about what we were about to be participating in. While I had almost 20 years as an active practicing Catholic before leaving the Roman tradition and Christine, by self-definition is a cradle Episcopalian, both of us were clearly feeling the flapping outer edges of our known ecumenical world fast approaching.
And in that spirit, we volleyed questions back and forth, such as, ‘Just exactly what was Judy about to undergo?; and, Just how would this public service help her more fully realize her childhood calling to become an ordained Roman Catholic Priest? ‘And, do your really like how my individually designed liturgical mini stole turned out?’ It was a relatively short drive but we arrived at our destination with enough unanswered questions to fill a collection basket.
Within a very short time it became clear that the holy women who were there to re-create and support the sacrament of Holy Orders, were directly related to an unbroken lineage of the highly dedicated and organized nuns I had been liturgically reared by for 12 unbroken years. Without knowing quite how, I was energetically transformed from a somewhat ‘look-at-me-being-a-cool- composed-church-woman in my 72nd year to a jittery, wanting to do it just right, 2nd grader preparing for her first holy communion all over again. I believe it’s a that Sacred Time – Sacred Space kind’a thing.
Got to hand it to those former brides of Christ, now ‘Priests Forever in the Order of Melchizedek’, they know how to get stuff done; not the least of which was getting a gang of meandering elders to form into two straight Madelaine-esque lines while dipping our hands in a flowing symphonic motion as we raised the prostration cloth right side up and then lowered it down onto the floor. Thanks to repeated run-throughs led by the Priests-in-charge all of the service went well, very well indeed. And those questions Christine and I were asking on our way over to the rehearsal? They were thoroughly answered the next day through the very liturgy itself.
Our errand now as it was in David’s time is ‘to give unto God the glory due unto his name’, and in all our religious assemblies we must mind this as our business.’
In “Worship in Ancient Israel”, Professor Walter Brueggemann writes about Psalm 81: “According to the tradition of Deuteronomy that comes to dominate the theme of Torah I the Old Testament, it is most probable that Israel assembled regularly – in order to hear the commands of YHWH reiterated and to make fresh assent to them…Psalm 81 moreover is commonly taken to be a residue of what was a regular, periodic assembly for covenant making and renewal….Brueggemann then writes: “Recalling and revisiting Israel’s history and its covenant relationship with God is the thrust of this Psalm. The Israelites were urged to hear again and remember God’s words to their forebears; their ability and willingness to listen and hear these reminders seemed to be an ongoing issue throughout their many, many generations.
I am deeply moved by the “yearning” in God’s voice as he laments, “If only the people of Israel would listen and hear”.
Joan Stott writes on the topic of the Timeless Psalms, “Oh that my people would listen to me! Oh that Israel would follow me, walking in my paths. The early Christians were called “people of the way”, because they walked in the path of their Lord and Liberator, Jesus – in this “New Covenant” – the new agreement between God and all creation for fullness of life which is more nourishing than “the finest wheat and wild honey from the rock.”
I imagine, in that primordial soup of swirling stars and plump bite-sized planets, humankind was once but a glimmer in the realm of divine possibilities. I also imagine, since God is so smart and all, that THEY thought long and hard before imagining US into being. My guess is, God had some time to make more stuff up and fantasies of cute little cooing jolly selves started populating the celestial plane. You know how it goes when you let your inner-kid really dive in. And it was in that moment, with the thought and will, that you and I came into being.
But even for God there was the honeymoon phase of parenting. Excitement and delight reigned supreme. I can just see God and the Almighty Missus gloating over their cute little creations. “Cigars and brandy all around!” sez HE…”What shall we call them sez SHE? Adam and Eve seemed to have been an old family name – so there you have it! Done! Fini!
“Let the kids play in the garden, while we take a few days off. They’ll be fine.”
One could almost hear Julian of Norwich light years later, quietly humming and chanting the words, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’
81:11 But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. 81:12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsel.
The world recently witnessed a larger than life, “Come to Jesus” moment when a well-known medal-bedecked Olympic swimmer thought it expedient to lie after being stopped and confronted about his drunken & aggressive behavior. We life-experienced grown-ups probably all cringed as we saw this masterpiece of a learning moment unfold…
I vividly recall such an ordeal I once created in my very early 20’s. It also involved making up a story where I conveniently killed off my sweet granny back out in CA so that I might get out of NYC for a vacation I had neither the funds to pay for or time-off earned. I spun a great and complicated piece of malarkey, got just enough contributions to buy an airline ticket to San Francisco from kind- hearted colleagues, and off I flew. Well that was easy…I confess tho’ I did have a little rumble in my gut about what I had put into play…but God, who would ever know? I would be back in NYC in 4 days and none would be the wiser.
I was so happy to be back home in Berkeley, that I lost all track of time. 3 days led to 5 and then 6, but the 7th day, the phone rang at my grandmother’s house (where I was staying) and my NY boss asked my Grandmother if the funeral had happened yet? They wanted to send flowers and how long did she think Susan would be staying after the funeral.
There were no TV camera’s to capture the moment when I popped in a little later that afternoon and was greeted with, “Well Susan, the next time you want to knock me off, you should at least have the good grace to let me know in advance; you know how I hate to appear the fool”, but I have every last moment of that tableau forever seared into my memory.
I learned that there were actually consequences for my not so clever actions. Not end-of-the world consequences but ones that mattered. I accepted money under false pretenses from some who could ill afford it. I blithely used my very alive grandmother’s life to suit my own purposes, and finally, I had the hubris to think God was asleep and that I could get away with it.
I thank God I did not get away with it. It took a while but my Grandmother, the Lord and I forgave me and came to chalk it up as the foolish behavior of a beloved child of God. Amen