Yr B ~ Pentecost 13 ~ Psalm 84
This being my last Sunday preaching for three months [sabbatical], I can’t tell you how tempting it was to choose Exodus 31 and 32 as my text today and cast myself as Moses the hero who goes away from his people, up the mountain to pray and encounter God, and receives God’s teaching about the Sabbath. While he was away the folks got into a bit of trouble with golden calves and wild parties and generally forgetting their spiritual roots.
But I’m not Moses, and you’re not exactly the golden calf party types, so instead of wasting energy thinking about what might happen if… I’d rather immerse us in those spiritual roots – and Psalm 84 (which was on today’s lectionary readings) is perfect for that. I’m going to take us through this richly spiritual psalm verse by verse.
84:1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
How lovely indeed is the place where God’s Sacred Presence dwells!
And where exactly would that be? Everywhere!
And where then isn’t God’s dwelling place? Nowhere!
So if God’s dwelling place is everywhere, and that dwelling place is lovely, then everywhere is lovely because God is there. The word for dwelling place also means tabernacle, as in church. But in other places in the bible we’re assured that our hearts, our physical bodies, are God’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place. You are God’s dwelling place, and because God is present you are lovely!
84:2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
What do you think it means to have your soul faint for the courts of the Lord? It’s not faint like you’ve just seen the Beatles or One Direction for the first time (not that I’m equating them!). It literally means to be complete, at an end, finished, accomplished, or spent. So it’s fainting in the sense of being so overwhelmingly open to God’s presence that you become both exhausted and complete in the same moment – complete as in fulfilled, having accomplished something worth giving your entire being to. My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord!
Like an earthly queen or king would have a royal court where a person could have an audience with them God is described as having a court. It means a place within whose bounds that person has authority or reign or power. When talking about God we’re obviously not talking about a physical place called God’s court. God’s court is wherever God has authority and power. God’s courts are wherever God is. And where’s God again? Everywhere.
So wherever you are, if you are open to and aware of God’s Presence in that sacred place where you are – or that sacred place that YOU are – you can give yourself over completely to that gushing Presence and your heart (or more literally your inner being) and your flesh (your physical being) will sing for joy (cry out with joy) to the living God.
84:3 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.
Not only can God dwell in you and you in God’s courts (which are everywhere God’s Presence is known) but you can build your home in God’s presence. You can reside there, live and move and have your being there. God is not something or someone you visit – God is home.
84:4 Happy (or blessed) are those who live (or dwell) in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
In other words, blessed are those that notice!
‘Singing your praise’ can also be translated as ‘shining’! When you sing praises to God you are shining, glowing in the light. Selah!
(Selah is an untranslatable Hebrew word but it basically means to stop and think hard about what you’ve just heard. It’s like saying, “Really!” or “You can say that again” or “Word!” Selah!)
84:5 Happy (blessed) are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart (inner being) are the highways [to Zion].
The ‘to Zion’ bit actually isn’t there in the Hebrew text – it’s inferred from a couple of verses later. It’s a complicated Hebrew sentence that’s tough to translate. Essentially it’s saying if your strength is in God that your inner being will be on the right path.
84:6 As they go through the valley of Baca (weeping) they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
This is a beautiful bit of writing and wordplay in the Hebrew. Those dwelling in God’s presence will, like anyone else, travel through the valley of weeping from time to time, but they will experience fountains or springs – not water flowing from us but water flowing to us.
‘Early rain’ is a poetic way to indicate purity, freshness, newness. ‘Covers it with pools’ is not a great translation. ‘Covers’ more means to enfold yourself with or to wrap yourself in a thing.
And ‘pools’ here is actually ‘blessing’. I think they were trying to capture the poetic flow of the water imagery so they substituted pools in.
I prefer the idea of being enfolded in blessing.
Also, in Hebrew weeping is bakah and blessing is barakah so there’s a great bit of wordplay there. So those fountains or springs are like early rain that the journeyer is enfolded by as a blessing. Weeping has turned to blessing – bakah becomes barakah in God’s presence!
84:7-8 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
84:9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
The NRSV is strange sometimes. It translates hinneh which means ‘behold’ as ‘see’ and here translates ra-ah which means ‘see’ as ‘behold’.
‘See our shield’ is poetry. It doesn’t mean a literal shield but something that functions as protection. It’s a poetic way to say something like “we see our dwelling in you and your dwelling in us as our shield or protection or strength for life.”
‘See our shield and look on the face of your anointed’.
Anointed is the same word as messiah! Where God dwells, in whom God dwells, is what makes a person anointed. Messiah means the anointed one.
No, it’s not saying we are all THE messiah, but that we can all share the anointing which is dwelling in God’s courts – being fully and wholly present to God’s Presence here, and now and always.
“Our life in you is our shield, O God! Look at us! Our faces shine because we are anointed by your Presence!”
84:10 For a day in your courts is better (more pleasing, more beautiful) than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
One day, one moment, one fully exhaustive giving of your whole self to be fully present for an encounter with the Sacred Presence of the ground of all being, one glimpse of the loving presence of God is more pleasing, and satisfying, and beautiful, and better in quality than a thousand days or a thousand years of doing anything or experiencing anything else. Even if this hour this morning is the one and only time you ponder God’s Presence, contemplate Jesus’ life and teaching, and breathe deeply of the flowing power of the Holy Spirit this is better than a thousand days spent doing anything else. Wow!
Did you realize how precious this moment is?
Did you realize how much spiritual potential there is in every moment you pause and ponder and become present to God’s omnipresence wherever you are and whenever you allow yourself to notice?
This building alone isn’t God’s court. Everywhere you are is God’s court. And better is one moment in communion with God’s Presence than a thousand elsewhere.
84:11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; God bestows favor (or grace) and honor (glory, abundance). No good thing does Yahweh withhold from those who walk (go) uprightly (in sincerity).
84:12 O LORD of hosts, happy (blessed) is everyone who trusts in you.
What does it mean to trust in God? The same word in Arabic suggests throwing oneself down upon one’s face. Trusting in God carries the connotation of that kind of whole-self commitment and openness. Trusting in God is what this whole psalm has been about.
So what does all that have to do with sabbaticals? It reminds us of what they’re all about. Sabbatical comes from the word Sabbath which means to set aside time to awaken to the profound truth that everything and everyone around you is sacred, to notice, to embrace, to sense and savour God’s Presence which can get lost as we’re distracted by the busyness of our lives. If my sabbatical does nothing more than to provoke all of us to seriously think about Psalm 84 and how it speaks to our faith then it will be more than worth it.
Sabbaticals work both ways. I get Sabbath time away from my role and responsibilities in the Church in order to allow me the gift of focus, deepening, and rest.
And you get Sabbath time away from me!
You’ve had my voice in your ears for 8 straight years now. Another voice for a while might help you hear things afresh – and when I return you might be able to hear fresh things through me.
And remembering that none of us is the centre of the universe and that everything won’t fall apart if we’re not personally guiding it is a very healthy thing to have reinforced.
I’m grateful that the United Church has a sabbatical policy for its clergy that provides for a minimum of 3 months sabbatical time for every 5 years in a pastoral relationship.
I’m grateful to the Council here and to all of you for being gracious and working with me to make my absence manageable.
I’m grateful for Rev. Dan Yourkevich who I know will lead you faithfully and graciously.
People have been asking what I’m most looking forward to about this time and my answer is to be able to pour all my focus and passion into just one thing, because ministry is all about juggling multiple things all at once.
The other question people ask is what I’ll be doing. I’m finishing up the research and writing phase of my doctoral studies that have been going on for the last few years.
What’s my topic? You just heard it. Reread today’s message and you’ll hear it loud and clear.
How can we grow to be more present to God’s Presence more of the time?
I’m going to miss you! It’s going to be hard to not be part of the goings-on of a place and people that I’m in deep relationship with. It’s going to be hard to miss various events and happenings. I’m not in isolation and quarantined, but I will be conspicuously absent from everything until Advent. But here is something that we will share in while I’m gone:
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my inner being and my physical being sing for joy to the living God.
3 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.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise, ever shining! Selah
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you for their inner being will be on the right path.
6 As they go through the valley of weeping they make it a place of springs; the fresh, early rain enfolds them with blessing.
7-8 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
9 Our life in you is our shield, O God! Look at us! Our faces shine because we are anointed by your Presence!
10 For even one day in your Presence is better, more pleasing, more beautiful than a thousand elsewhere. Better is one moment in communion with your Presence than a thousand years apart. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; God bestows grace and honor and abundance. No good thing does Yahweh withhold from those who walk in sincerity.
12 O LORD of hosts, blessed is everyone who trusts in you, ever present to your ever Presence.