Sunday, June 9, 2013

Finding Your Way Home: Sermon on Psalm 84

 Scripture can be found here...

I have been thinking this week of what makes a place “home.” That persistent longing for the place where we belong doesn’t always make sense to us when we first become aware of it, when we first notice that we are actually longing for it.

As a child I never had any doubt that I was home. As an adoptee secure in a loving family, I was confident of my place and my welcome. Home was the air I breathed. Then, when I was 14 years old I went on a retreat with a group of students from my Roman Catholic high school. I was a religious kid to the point of overt nerdiness… remind me to tell you the “rosary on my belt” story sometime. Anyway, on this retreat, we stayed in an old lighthouse keeper’s house on Long Beach Island. About 25 students and two priests, we spent the weekend doing the following: studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; playing our guitars together (those of us who had them… a girl named Judy taught me the chords to “Diamonds and Rust”); walking, running and generally playing on the beach; and (though I doubt any of us could have articulated it this way), living out a new but really very ancient model for Christian community. At the end of the retreat, we had what was called a “love feast,” with bits of bread and juice, in which we took turns going around the room, each of us saying one thing we cherished in each and every other person. It took a long time. It was over in an instant.

By the time the van pulled into the high school parking lot, late Sunday afternoon, I knew I had experienced something completely new, a way of living in my faith I’d never known before. It was out there, ahead of me. It was completely unlike anything I’d known, and yet it felt like home. For years afterward I longed to find it, or to return to it, or maybe even to create it anew, that powerful sense of being home.

A powerful sense of being “home” permeates Psalm 84. This psalm is one of the most well-known and beloved in the entire Book of Psalms. Some of us grew up with this psalm. Some of us know it from its setting in Brahms’ German Requiem; the setting we sang of it this morning is inspired by that music. For some of us, it is brand new. It describes a powerful experience of the temple in Jerusalem as “home.”

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.          ~Psalm 84:1-2

The psalmist sings, How lovely is your dwelling place! And by all accounts, the temple, especially the first one built by Solomon, was truly a beautiful structure. 1 Kings 6 describes a building impressive for its day, though somewhat modest for ours: at approximately 90 feet long and 30 feet wide, it would have fit comfortably inside, say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral (which is about 360 feet long and 190 feet wide). It was constructed of stone, inlaid with cedar wood and pure gold, decorated with intricate olivewood carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers in bloom. And clearly, the lavishness, the richness of the temple was meant to convey the absolute power and sovereignty of the God who dwelled therein (and probably, to be completely honest, the power of the king who built it). The temple was believed to be the literal home on earth of the presence of God, symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, which it housed. Of course the literal home of God was lovely!

But it is not only God who is at home in the temple. For the composer of this psalm, a song meant to be sung in worship, it is a place of such beauty and power that he feels something akin to physical pain when separated from it. The psalmist describes himself as fainting with desire to be within the temple courts, and his entire being—heart and flesh, in other words, “all of me”—sings for joy to the living God. The temple is God’s home on earth. And the temple is where the psalmist feels utterly at home.  And he’s not the only one.

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.         ~Psalm 84:3

This place, built to convey majesty and power, is so welcoming that even certain wildlife can find or create a home there. Tiny, insignificant birds can build their nests, twig by twig, and lay their eggs, and perch and hover until their babies are hatched, and then shelter them there. The temple is home to God. The temple is home to human beings. The temple is home to the birds of the air.

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.    ~Psalm 84:4-7

Happiness is living in the temple. The temple is a source of strength to those who long to be there so deeply, so earnestly, that the maps there are written on their hearts. In fact, the longing for the temple makes even the most arduous journey…the journey through the dry and inhospitable valley… pleasant, easy. They go from strength to strength, and they find themselves, inevitably, joyfully, ecstatically, at home. The temple is home.

Funny omission in all this… it feels like a funny omission to me, anyway. The main activity taking place in the temple is nowhere described in this psalm, though there is a delicate allusion to it. The main activity taking place in the temple is something that is pretty foreign to us, pretty hard to approach in a way that makes sense. I’m going to let novelist Anne Rice do it for us.

In 2005, following her embrace of Christianity, this writer famous for her stories about vampires released her novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Her description of the temple, informed by meticulous research, can fill in the psalm’s glaring omission. In this passage, the narrator is describing his first glimpse of the temple as an eight year old child, when he traveled with extended family and friends to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem:

I could hear the pipes and the cymbals and the deep blended voices of the singers. Never had I heard such rich music, such full music as that of the Levites singing. It wasn’t the gay, broken, and high song of the Psalms we sang on the road, or the happy fast-paced songs of the weddings. It was a dark and almost sad sound that flowed on and on with great power. The Hebrew words melted in the chorus. There was no beginning or end to any part of it.

It caught me up so completely that only slowly did I see what was happening in front of me, in front of the railing.

The priests in their pure white linen with white turbans on their heads moved back and forth with the animals from the crowd in which we stood to the great altar. I saw the little lambs and the goats going to the sacrifice. I saw the birds being carried.

The priests were so thick around the altar I couldn’t see what they did, but only now and then see the splashes of blood high and low. The hands of the priests were covered in blood. Their beautiful linen robes were splashed with blood. A great fire burned on the altar. And the smell of roasting meat was beyond words. I smelled it with every breath I took.[i]

The main activity taking place in the temple is the sacrifice of animals upon the altar, animals that will become burnt offerings to God, most of whose purpose is to atone for sin. The purpose of the temple is, yes, to provide a home to God’s presence on earth. But it is also to make right relationship with God possible by the work of the sacrifices.

And so the temple, about which the psalmist sings with such ineffable beauty, is shown to be home to so much more than we first imagine. It is God’s home on earth. It is home to the humans who wander in and out, hoping to set things right with God. It is home to the flying creatures who nurture their small and growing families. It is home to the rituals of life and the rituals of death, and as such, it is home to the deepest human hopes and aspirations as well.

Home. I have been struggling this week with what makes a place “home.” I think of my 14-year-old self, playing in the sand and sharing in the love feast, and the genesis that weekend nearly forty years ago of some half-formed notions of what kind of spiritual home I would inhabit in the future, meaning, the years after 1975. And I realize that what I found on my weekend at the beach with 24 other teenagers and a couple of middle aged priests is both light years apart from what the psalmist finds at the temple, and strangely similar, too.

My 14-year-old self found a place and a time where God and people were at home together, and the sense of all-encompassing welcome was profound.

I found a place and a time in which I could engage in a ritual of, not simply reconciliation, but affirmation, in loving words and gestures between myself and God and God’s other beloveds.

I found a place and a time in which to focus on the wisdom of the ages in scripture, a spring of living water in the dry valley that was often life as a teenager.

I found a place and a time where the music of my heart could find expression, and even grow.

And, more than anything, I found something I knew was big enough and strong enough and enticing enough to stake a life on. Anne Rice places a prayer in the mouth of her 8-year-old narrator, his response to what he has witnessed in the temple. He prays:

Lord, Lord, whoever I am, whatever I am, whatever I am meant to be, I am part of this, this world that is all of a flowing wonder—like this music. And you are with us. You are here. You have pitched your tent here, among us. This music is your song. This is your house.[ii]

This child has found his way home.

And, yes, my heart is longing, fainting for this, always. Isn’t yours? This sense of welcome, this sense of complete belonging is at the heart of all our searching, our whole life long, whether for a life’s partner, or work we love, or a kitchen whose window looks out on morning glories climbing a trellis. And in all these things, in all these ways we are tantalized by the idea of “home,” what we are really longing for is the very Presence so beautifully described by Augustine of Hippo when he speaks directly to God of his deep and unrestrained longing. He says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

This restlessness for the God who is our home is at the heart of all we do. It is the basis of every program and plan we have here at Union Presbyterian Church, whether it is our plan for Christian education or our mission trip to the very same Jersey shore on which I had my teenaged epiphany. It is the reason we want a good roof over our heads and beautiful music to inspire us while we worship and praise the God of our longing. This restlessness for God is what gets us out of bed on a Sunday morning, and puts in our hearts much the same prayer as that eight-year-old boy:

Lord, Lord, whoever we are, whatever we are, whatever we are meant to be, we are part of this, this world that is all of a flowing wonder. And you are with us. You are here. You have pitched your tent here, among us. Our music is your song. Our home is your home. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 271-272.
[ii] Ibid., 273.

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