Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Psalm 84 The Joy of Worship in the Temple
To the leader: according to The Gittith. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah. Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
When I needed evergreen boughs for an altar, I liked to cut branches from the juniper bush down by the road or the white pine out by the hay field and the compost pile. When I wasn’t careful... which, to be fair, was several Sunday... I got white pine sap all over my hands. I also learned that the alcohol in the hand sanitizer (of which we had quite a lot) is great for getting rid of pine sap. That was a new piece of learning for me during Covid times.
Marie Hatfield always brought me pussywillow branches for the altar on Palm Sunday. In northern European countries, where palms were once in short supply, the fuzzy willows became the traditional substitute. When I made an altar at home, in my dining room, for digital worship, I found the branches for the altar in the messy flower garden to the north of our house. It’s like one of the families that lived here before we did just knew that there would be a preacher living here during a plague and trying to figure out how to lead worship from home. The pussywillow, when I realized that I could cut branches from it for worship, felt like a gift.
For months, my worship preparation on Sunday morning began like this: I get up, put on my clerical shirt, a cardigan, and some jeans. I scrounge around in the kitchen for scissors. And, then, I walk outside and across the land where we live to look for flowers and sticks and sometimes rocks for the altar, which was really the bar in our dining room. In my pre-worship walks, I learned that the crabapple in front often has red fruit that hangs on through the winter and early spring, good for a bit of color on a cold morning. The bare red twig dogwood branches out by the old goat barn are nice and red, too. As I walked and looked, I realized that there are at least three varieties of daffodils in so many places in the yard, evidence of the borders of flower beds, long gone, once planted by families who lived here 50, 30, 15 years ago. The poet narcissus that I found growing along the bank near the road are so lovely. They also make me sneeze so much, a fact I didn’t learn until I cut roughly 20 of them for a squat little vase I have and placed them 2 feet behind my head, on the altar, one Sunday. I think I made it to the Call to Worship before I had to move them. I had the same issue with the lilacs.
Grape Hyacinths, tall phlox, hawkweed, scilla... beautiful flowers that grow every year on the land on which we live that I hadn’t bothered to learn the name of until I began to walk and gather them for our altar. The tall phlox grows alongside the peonies next to the driveway. The hyacinths spring up with the scilla and jonquils along the wall outside of our living room window. The hardy rugosa roses grow along the road. The multiflora roses are slowly devouring one of the flower beds on the north side of the house. Lupines, chervil, black-eyed susans, bleeding hearts are all in that same garden. I walked and I looked and saw that asters, dandelions, goldenrod, and red clover are... everywhere. On fall mornings, when jacket weather returned, I gathered white oak leaves and red maple leaves for the altar, both brilliant red, after most of the flowers were gone.
Dr. Dennis Bratcher, in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, defines a pilgrimage as “a journey to a shrine, holy place, or sanctuary for a religious reason.” In the Bible, Jacob once built an altar in a place called Bethel because he had seen God there in a dream. He made a pilgrimage back to that altar later in his life. King David and his son Solomon, through their kingdom-building centered in Jerusalem, helped to create the traditions of pilgrimages to Jerusalem. You see, the Ark of the Covenant was in the Temple. And, the Temple was in Jerusalem. Even after the Ark was taken and the temple destroyed, Jerusalem, Zion, was still a focal point of the people’s faith. In his article about pilgrimages, Bratcher notes that when the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, even without the ark, faithful Jewish people would often make the pilgrimage to the city, the center of their devotion, three times a year: for Passover, for Pentecost, and for Sukkoth.
Today’s reading is a psalm about the joy of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God!” The pilgrim longs to be in God’s presence... to be near God in the temple. The scholar J. Dwayne Howell notes that it is not simply people who find solace near God in the temple. The animals of creation have found a home there as well: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” Remember when the birds nested in the forsythia wreaths on the church doors five or six years ago? These verses remind me of that.
But, it is not simply the Temple that is close to God. The pilgrimage itself is blessed and hope-filled. Happiness is having the highways to Zion start in your heart and move into your feet. You heard the reference to the Valley of Baca. It turns out that that was an actual oasis in the midst of the pilgrimage, a blessed place of refuge on the way to the greatest sanctuary. From longing in one’s heart through the oases into the temple... the Psalmist calls this “going from strength to strength,” being inspired by God, moving with God, and drawing near to God in Zion.
So many of our recent readings have centered visions of God as one invested in humanity’s well-being, as close to us as the bread we eat and the table we sit around, a God that is invitational and welcoming, invested in relationships that are loving, intimate, and tend to humanity’s basic needs. We can remember the house Wisdom built in Proverbs... big building, broad table, piles of food ready for any who would walk in the door. The Psalmist is so deeply moved by the potential for an intimate relationship with God that they would take the job of a servant in God’s house just be close to God. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” Psalm 84 calls the ones who trust God happy. And, God will provide for the people on the pilgrimage both a sun for warmth and light and a shield for protection. No wonder the Psalmist yearns to be near God. As the scholar Mary Alice Mulligan puts it in a commentary she wrote on this text, “In God’s house people live in safety, holiness, and justice.”
After returning to lead worship following a couple Sundays off, I realized that I had come to appreciate the walks around the land where we live. I knew the land and the plants better for having walked through them. I thought more intentionally about what it meant to make good use of what someone else had planted for the worship services of this moment. The walks to find flowers for the altar at home became a kind of pilgrimage, leading me to a different sanctuary in a time when gathering in the sanctuary of our church building was not safe. As I pulled together the flowers and branches I cut along with paraments from church and art from our house, and sometimes even bread and wine from our kitchen, the bar in the dining room became, if not Temple, an oasis along the way to the sanctuary where I was accustomed to drawing near to God. Isn’t it good to be reminded by Psalm 84 that God is in the midst of the pilgrimage as well as the goal of the pilgrimage. God is found on the highways and trails in the wilderness and creation will find a home in God.
Where have you met the God of your longing lately? Have you found your Valley of Baca, a place of holy respite on the journey? May we find all find God’s home of safety, holiness, and justice. And, may we serve in that sanctuary as doorkeepers, ready to open the door to the next one’s who come seeking God.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.