Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost 8:30 AM

June 5, 2018

 

Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
June 3 2018 Proper 4B 8:30 AM

תִּקְע֣וּ  בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שֹׁופָ֑ר  בַּ֝כֵּ֗סֶה לְיֹ֣ום חַגֵּֽנוּ ׃

כִּ֤י חֹ֣ק לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֣ל  ה֑וּא מִ֝שְׁפָּ֗ט  לֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹֽב׃

Blow a shofar on the New Moon;
At the Full Moon, on that day, make a procession.
For it is a law for Israel,
a commandment of Jacob’s God. (Psalm 81:3-4 [Hebrew 81:4-5])

I

I miss the children. I miss stomping up and down the halls of St. Paul’s with them, singing George William Cooke’s raucous gospel song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy/down in my heart/to stay.” That got us some looks, but none of my young charges seemed to care, so, I didn’t either. Then there was the time that we disrupted the 9:00 service up in the big church because my lavalier microphone got stuck in the “on” position and we drowned out the Prayers of the People with a boisterous song about Zacchaeus getting stuck up in a sycamore tree and being ordered down by the Lord who was going to visit his house that day. Although the choir director had hurried down to end the distraction, I thought maybe a little enthusiasm couldn’t hurt the very serious adults worshipping above us.

I confess to enjoying the looks of alarm that flashed across the faces of the parents who had doubtless brought their children to children’s chapel to get a dose of due reverence and instead found their kids wearing the priest’s stole and taking turns giving sermons to their classmates. And they were good sermons too—and not just because they were short! We played guessing games in the courts of the Lord, danced happily when the music moved us, laughed and played and made of the chapel the one thing, I suppose Episcopalians might find most uncomfortable. We made the chapel and its worship a place where we put fun back into the joy of the Lord. From then until now, I’ve looked back on my assignment to kiddie chapel at St. Paul’s as the high point of my liturgical life, worshipping with young men and women who actually thought God was real and God’s worship could be exciting.

II

Jews came to call Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles, simply, “our season of joy.”[1] Joy at the successful conclusion of the fall harvest, joy at God’s freeing Israel from slavery and guiding them through the Wilderness. While the temple stood, Israelites recognized Sukkot as one of the three great times of pilgrimage to visit the Lord enthroned upon the ark, where Judeans enjoyed unbridled pleasure in God’s house with songs and chants, lyres and trumpets, with children and adults dancing to the songs of Zion. Whatever decorum people ordinarily observed in the temple gave way during Sukkot to loud music and shouting, hardly the prim and proper temple liturgy well-bred Episcopalians might expect. Palm branches and boughs of leafy trees would find their way into the temple, representing the fruits of the earth and perhaps the temporary shelters or booths laborers would have built in the fields for their convenience as they harvested the crops that year. As access to the temple became difficult or impossible for Jews of later generations, these booths became shelters for the Sukkot worshippers over the nine days of the festival.

When the people of Jerusalem sang this morning’s psalm during days of Sukkot, they did not recite it responsively by whole verse or half verse or in unison but shouted it, accompanied it with flute and harp and maybe did a two-step because their bodies just couldn’t stay still as the sheer delight of God’s presence washed over them. And all this clamor, all this cymbal-smashing glee, came at the command of God, who did not tell the sons of Jacob to sneak into the temple quietly, bow their heads unobtrusively, and speak only when directed. God’s command went like this,

Blow a shofar on the New Moon;
At the Full Moon, on that day, make a procession.
For it is a law for Israel,
a commandment of the Jacob’s God. (Psalm 81:3-4, Hebrew 81:4-5)

A law about happiness, a regulation to make worship into a joyous celebration—none of my five-year-old’s at kiddie mass could have done any better! Instead of shushing, instead of “every head bowed and every eye closed, the Lord’s prescription for robust prayer sounded like a riot!

III

Friday, the Jail and Prison Ministry of Forsyth County called on churches to come to the Forsyth County Jail. Despite the rain, several hundred Baptists and Lutherans, Methodists and Pentecostals, Catholics and Quakers stood in around the 400,000 square-foot structure on Church, Chestnut, Second and Third Streets, alternately singing, praying, shouting encouragements, and sometimes just extending arms toward the unseen 800 women and men incarcerated there. Nobody would describe that event, I suppose, as a joyous occasion. The long, brutal days prisoners must spend behind those walls don’t allow for much joy; and contemplating the plight of those men and women, the hurt they have caused and the hurt they are suffering while incarcerated hardly makes for good cheer. On some Sunday afternoons, I get to celebrate the Eucharist in that facility with the prisoners who want to attend; and let me confess before you how hard I find it to witness to the love God has for those sisters and brothers in jail and how difficult I find it to summon up the joy of salvation in that context. And yet what else does the gospel have to offer them or me? I felt the same Friday evening as we stood vigil outside the jail; but I also had on my mind the commandment God gave us to be joyful, to sing and shout, and so I joined the prayers and the songs, looking for that joy that both the beloved incarcerated and the beloved worshippers encircling the jail needed to experience. So I sang “Amazing Grace” with tears in my eyes and prayed for the shadows that moved behind the jail’s windows that God would do for them what I couldn’t do: bring freedom and peace and above all, joy.

Before commencing worship, I always thank God for the gift and honor of leading God’s people in their praises; but I always include in that prayer a plea that God will help us go beyond just confessing our many sins—which we need to do—and searching for the presence of the Lord to lead and comfort us—which we desperately need as well. I pray that God will help us get over ourselves, step beyond our very human and understandable concerns and find that place of humor, of happiness, and of joy that finally fulfills God’s commandment to go into his courts with thanksgiving and might with the psalmist approach the altar of God, the God of our joy and gladness.[2]

I often long for those St. Paul’s children to whom worship came so easily and freely. Many of them are married now, and I wonder whether they ever dance with their children in the hallways of the Lord, or climb up Jacob’s ladder, or tell Zacchaeus to get out of that tree to greet the Lord. I hope so. But out worship at Trinity Church and in our homes, and in the streets of Mt. Airy needn’t be any less gleeful, any less Spirit-filled than the St. Paul’s children’s chapel, and we have no age requirement for participation, only the love of God that unites us to each other, to the men and women in prison, the residents of the area hospitals, and the sisters and brothers who move among us without homes, without food, and without hope. God calls us to be their joy too and to dance with them in the courts of the Lord. It’s our great commandment. It’s our life.

Amen

 

 

[1] זמן השמחתנו.

 

[2] Paraphrased from Psalm 43:4.

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