A Sermon on Psalm 126
The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed!
In my early days here, I wrote something for your e-newsletter. It was about Robert Wicks, a writer, therapist and spiritual guide. Wicks is also a popular speaker. His Brooklyn accent helps bring his stories to life! Here’s the story I once heard Wicks tell, a story I hope never to forget.
A father has a daughter who goes off to college in a faraway town. He has just received her first letter. The letter is filled with lots of good news.
At the bottom of the first page, he reads, “Dad, I just know you and Mom are going to love Ichabod. The drug rehab center, where we met, says the baby I’m carrying probably won’t be addicted.”
With fear and trembling, the father turns the page. “Dad, there is no Ichabod, I haven’t been doing drugs, and I’m not pregnant. But I did get a D in Chemistry, so keep things in perspective!”
This story helps me remember how quickly and easily I can magnify stressful situations – if and when I don’t keep things in perspective. For me, prayer helps keep things in perspective— God’s perspective.
Speaking of prayer, your prayers have been answered. The season of interim ministry here at the Ascension has now come to an end. A new season of ministry with Candice as your rector has begun. Today, you and I say goodbye. For me, perhaps for you, today is a moment of perspective.
I’ve said hello and goodbye to congregations in ten different dioceses of the Episcopal Church since I was ordained priest thirty-two years ago. My perspective about myself is now this: I’ve become a permanent interim priest. And while God is still not done with me yet, Alabama isn’t either. A month from now, I’ll be the interim rector at St. Luke’s in Scottsboro, up in the northeast corner of the state, in the middle of the mountain lakes region of Jackson County. Surely that will be a new and different perspective!
Today, we can find perspective in Psalm 126. Let’s read once more the words of the first verse, found in your bulletin: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.” In another version of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson put it this way: It seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles.
Zion is the Hebrew name for the hill on which Jerusalem was built. Zion is also a metaphor for Jerusalem and for the land of Israel. But, you may ask, what was this dream that seemed too good to be true? What was this great, fortunate restoration from exile all about?
The children of Israel, who had been enslaved by Egypt’s Pharoah, were later conquered by Babylonians, six centuries before Jesus walked the earth. Fifty years after they were forced to leave their homeland and go into Babylonian exile, something happened. For decades they had been suffering deep grief and humiliation. Their families were scattered and separated. Fifty years after that exile, King Cyrus of Persia and his troops defeated those Babylonians, setting the children of Israel free.
Is this real? They must have wondered. Are we really free to go back home? Then, reality sets in. We are free! Free to go home again! Free at last! But free from what? I suspect we Episcopal Christians tend to think of freedom as something less tangible, less real than, say, African American Christians, who for centuries have been enslaved in various ways.
White American Christians can have a hard time understanding just how freedom applies to us, today. But it does. I wonder: From what do you need to be free? Perhaps you are a prisoner of love. Or circumstance.
In 1985, twenty-nine-year-old Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested in Jefferson County, Alabama, and charged with two counts of capital murder. Anthony knew it was a case of mistaken identity. He believed the truth would prove his innocence and ultimately set him free. But with no money and a different system of justice for poor black people in our country, Anthony became enslaved in a different way. He was sentenced to a life lived out, day by day by day, on death row. Thirty years later, thanks to the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative, Anthony was released from prison.
Over time, Anthony became a beacon of hope, transforming his own spirit and those of his fellow inmates, fifty-four of whom were executed just a few feet from his cell. The Sun Does Shine, his memoir of that three-decade journey, tells how you can take away someone’s freedom, but you can’t take away imagination, humor, and joy. What I want to know is: Who doesn’t want that kind of perspective— imagination, humor, joy?
That’s the perspective we can find in Psalm 126. It’s a perspective that holds things in real-life, both-and tension: both weeping and reaping. We prayed with the Psalmist, “Those who sowed with tears, will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves” (vv. 6-7). For millennia, this Psalm has been a source of challenge and comfort for countless people of faith.
Psalm 126 shows us both where the children of Israel had been and where they were right now. A new, agricultural crisis had arisen. Their old, miraculous restoration was but a memory. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” they prayed, “like the watercourses of the Negev” (v. 5). They petitioned God once more, trusting in divine help. The tears of their present time were watering seeds of a future harvest. Before reaping, there was weeping.
Tears and laughter. Lament and praise. Sin and redemption. Slavery and freedom. Petition and thanksgiving. Summer and autumn. These are the seasons of our lives. Sisters and brothers, you are embarking on a new chapter of your journey as the Church of the Ascension, a new season of life and ministry together. There will be sorrow, and there will be joy.
A Lutheran professor of church music, Paul Westermeyer, writes, “Sorrow inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its moan. The physical equipment we use to cry is also the physical equipment we use to sing. From mourning to song is but a small step. To cry out to God in lament, the deepest form of sorrow, is to make music.”
Westermeyer goes on to say, “Joy also inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its hilarity. The physical equipment we use to laugh is also the physical equipment we use to sing. From laughter to song is but a small step. To praise God, the highest form of joy, is to make music” (Te Deum: The Church and Music, p. 28, quoted in Brian Wren’s Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song, p. 83).
There’s plenty of sorrow in our world, but I believe there’s a real deficit of joy. Research professor and storyteller Brene Brown says joy is the most vulnerable emotion we feel. When we can’t tolerate the depth and breath of joy, she says, joy becomes foreboding. As a society, we run from joy. We fear the catastrophe that could rob us of our joyful moments.
Maybe that’s why we need Christmas carols, like “Joy to the World,” and classical music set to hymn texts, like “Ode to Joy.” When we hear or sing them, they speak to us in a real, deep way of joy. In a world filled with pain and suffering, trauma and violence, we need more joy.
We need to celebrate the joy we have in our lives, not squander or minimize it. We need to be grateful for our joy and to practice and embody our gratitude for joy on a daily basis. We need to sing our joy, both boldly out loud and quietly to ourselves (any quiet singers here?).
We need to sing of the freedom we’ve been given by God in Christ, who came into the world to free all those who dare to follow him. Surely blind Bartimaeus sang for joy! The man who begged Jesus to be freed from his blindness, the man whose sight was immediately given to him – surely he, too, could joyfully sing of the Lord who had done great things for him!
We need that kind of perspective – a perspective of both dying and rising, of both sorrow and joy. There will always be sorrow, but what about imagination, laughter, and joy? Isn’t that God’s perspective?
Sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus, when was the last time your mouth was filled with laughter? When have you shouted with joy? When might you dare to burst into song?
The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed!