Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
July 8, 2018 10:30 AM Proper 9B
:כי הנה המלכים נועדו עברו יחדו
:המה ראו כן תמהו נבהלו נחפזו
:רעדה אחזתם שם חיל כיולדה
:ברוח קדים תשבר אניות תרשיש
For behold, the kings gathered.
They came across together.
They looked and were astounded.
They panicked and fled.
Trembling seized them,
labor pains like in childbirth,
(as) with an east wind
that shatters the ships of Tarshish. (Psalm 48:5-8)
Who’s kidding whom here? What king ever panicked before the walls of Zion and fled, trembling and screaming like women in labor? There’s a Mt. Zion in Wilkes County, NC, just off US 421. Maybe that’s the beautiful mountain where the kings had their panic attack, but it couldn’t have been the Mt. Zion of the Bible, could it? Whoever quailed before the ramparts of that old Jebusite city? David took it easily. Shishak, evidently, didn’t want it and so left it to King Rehoboam. The only king I know of that failed to take it was the Assyrian Sennacherib in 701 BCE, who had managed to devastate all of the major cities of Judah but had to lift his siege of Jerusalem because of a plague that devastated his army. But even Sennacherib did not quake before the holy city; he just left it and went home to Nineveh unmolested. We search the pages of the Bible in vain as, indeed, we vainly search the inscriptions of the great kings of the region and the archaeological record for those shuddering kings this morning’s psalm mentions.
I used to think that psalms like this were just so much bravado. While I can imagine the peasant farmers of Judah falling for slogans like “Make Judah Great Again” from Good King Hezekiah or Wicked King Manasseh, I have to wonder about educated officials in Jerusalem, receiving emissaries from all over the Middle East, directing military and trade policies in this most volatile area of the world. Didn’t they know that nobody feared Mt. Zion? Didn’t they realize that the main reason Jerusalem survived as long as it did was because it didn’t like on a major highway in the Fertile Crescent? Or maybe all the patriotic songs, all the God and King slogans, and all the glamor of the court in Jerusalem existed to razzle-dazzle the poor people who dutifully brought their taxes, their tithes and offerings, to the house of the LORD. At the end of the psalm, the priest advises the pilgrims in the temple to take a tour:
Walk around Zion,
and inspect her carefully;
count her towers!
Take note of her ramparts
Look at her fortified structures
so that you can tell the next generation. (Psalm 48:13-14)
Tell them what? Tell them that Jerusalem was impregnable, that no army could ever defeat her? Talk about fake news!
But I’ve mellowed a bit in my old age. I don’t think the pilgrims from Lachish and Hebron that sang this hymn in Jerusalem’s temple were the rubes I once believed them to be nor do I think the priests and Levites who composed songs for these pilgrims to sing were churning out propaganda to enhance the royal coffers and keep patriotic fervor at a high pitch. Instead, I’m convinced that they meant what they wrote and sang, and that their idealism about a holy Zion where God would reign over a righteous king and people was exactly what those pilgrims—and I—needed to hear.
We have just completed our own brief patriotic season, and I am in my old age convinced that Americans of good will made every effort to lay aside their partisan differences to celebrate the creation of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as President Lincoln summarized our founding dream. Black and white together celebrated the birth of a country that was once only willing to count its black residents as three-fifths of a human being and that wrote a constitution that weighted political power heavily in favor of slave-holding states. Yet, we heard the longing in speeches and song from white and black together for a country in which no difference of skin color, religion, or gender would deprive our fellow citizens of their standing and dignity in that new nation. We heard the authentic desire from men and women of every political stripe to create a society in which we could bring up our children in charity and peace. Do we believe that? I think that we do. Despite the continuing scourge of racial bias in our politics more than a century and a half after our Civil War, we still believe we can be a nation in which skin color plays no role in our self-government. We actually believe, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that we can be a tolerant, righteous, and whole people.
Few people went up to Jerusalem to delude themselves about a nation and a people that never existed but to confess their faith in a God who could make them a righteous and holy nation before whom the unjust rulers of race and clan had no defense, even when those unjust rulers were their own. The longing for that righteous kingdom leaps up from every line of the text:
O God, we ponder your faithfulness
in the midst of your temple.
Your name, like your praise
[extends] to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is full of righteousness. (Psalm 48:10-11)
The poem isn’t about how mighty Jerusalem is or how impregnable her walls might be. It doesn’t long for a time back then sometime when Judah was really great, when its kings terrorized the surrounding nations. No, the song is about God, about God’s faithfulness; about how beautiful Jerusalem is as the city where the faithful and righteous God dwells: its ramparts and citadels are not impressive because they are so unassailable but because they are the ramparts and citadels of a city where the holy God rules in righteousness. And that is the message the pilgrims from Hebron and Lachish, Beersheba and Gezer need to tell the folks back home when they return from their tour of the holy city. The city is holy because of the holy God. The walls are beautiful because that God’s righteous law is beautiful. And those rulers of this earth that would trust in their own craftiness, their own power, their own wealth should indeed quake in terror before such a God.
As we consider the future of Trinity Church in this time of transition, we must not lose the lesson of our psalm. The holiness of this community, the force for good it can be in this city and state cannot be determined from the size of its membership, the dimensions of its sanctuary, or the variety of its programs. We could be a congregation of thousands with a cathedral for a sanctuary and the question about our future would be the same, and that question has nothing to do with how good or dedicated or faithful we are but has everything to do with how faithful, dedicated, and good we find the God we worship here to be. The single most important resource for this church has nothing to do with demographics or median income but with knowing the God who claims us for God’s own abode, who makes us beautiful because God’s love for us is beautiful, who makes us joyful because God’s righteousness is an everlasting joy.
Being pilgrims can be a tiring business, even in a holy city. After a while, one might stone structure looks pretty much like every other mighty stone structure, and we’re more conscious of how much our feet hurt than we are conscious of how magnificent the city is. Being God’s community in this place and this time is no less a pilgrimage for us than the priestly tour our psalm suggested its first singers take of Zion. After a while, it’s hard not to give in to tired feet, to factual overload, and to the assault of everyday reality; but those are not the things people go home and tell their neighbors about when they recount their pilgrimage. The tour guide’s recital of unfamiliar names and meaningless dates may not have lasted much past the first bathroom break, but the magnificence of the holy city was never in its names and dates, the excellence of its construction, or the many sieges it endured. The magnificence of the holy city came from the One who made it holy, from its loving and righteous God. And the magnificence of this holy place too consists in the love that we come to know here from the God we come to meet here, and what we tell others of our pilgrimage at Trinity Church will be that we encountered a healing presence:
This is God,
our God forever and ever,
and [this God] will lead us.