August 30, 2019

How Good it Is to Be Together! 


Psalm 133


Finally, we are together again in worship. I know this is only a small contingent of our church community, but it feels good to be together again, to be with fellow kindred united by God’s Spirit. It is hard to believe that this is the first time in 5 months we have come back together - March 15th was the last time we held public worship. I’d like us to consider some of the things we have not been able to do in person for all of those months: Worship together during Lent, no Easter Sunday together, no celebration of the Spirit at Pentecost and no colorful decorations, no more Jazz Vespers services, no in-person fellowship together, no Bible studies in person, no Presbyterian Women’s gatherings, no Book clubs. We have missed so much. I invite you to a time of silence as we mourn losing those things.


Jesus says, blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4) We do find some comfort - gathering together here today in person, or online (and thank you all so much, worship team for making sure we have a Sunday morning service to connect with on YouTube!)


There are some of us gathered here this morning who may not have seen each other in person for almost 5 months. Not unlike the Hebrew people, who stayed in their communities for most of the year, except for when they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem for three major festivals – Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost or Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles, Tents or Booths). Pilgrims would travel from surrounding villages and towns, caravanning in small groups on foot to come and worship together. It is likely that these pilgrims would get to know other worshippers from other villages and towns, and then not see them for months until it was time for one of the major festivals once again. Then they would see familiar faces they hadn’t seen for months. Sounds a little familiar…J


The Psalm for today is one of the Psalms of Ascent, one of fifteen songs in the psalter that would have been sung by pilgrims on the way to worship at the temple. It is believed that for each step of the temple, pilgrims would sing a specific psalm. Psalm 133 was the second to last and would have been sung on the second to last step of the temple. You can imagine the pilgrims gathered together, looking around at all the other worshipers arriving at the temple. This psalm, in particular, speaks to the blessing of fellow worshipers or kindred, coming together in unity, from all over Israel to worship and fellowship together. There is such strength in community. Perhaps, as they gathered on that second to last step and got ready to sing, it sounded a little like this? (Sing psalm 133)


The Jewish people sang Psalm 133 to express their joy in coming together for worship at the Temple, where God promised to meet them. The Psalm imparts blessing and life to God's people. And it proclaims oneness in faith. These themes--abundance and unity--flow from Psalm 133.


As the Temple in Jerusalem was the high place for the Jewish people, Unity in God is also a theme in Psalm 133. "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity" (verse 1). Now, unity is not uniformity. We are not “cookie-cutter Christians” cut from the same mold - people who all think, believe, and act alike. We have diversity of thought, diverse lifestyles, etc. What brings unity is the Spirit of God. That Spirit unites us here as we worship together, and also unites those who are worshiping with us online. On my most recent vacation, I had an opportunity to worship with two other congregations in our Presbytery online. Each service connected me online, but more importantly connected me in a kindred spirit in unity as we worshiped together. Those services provided a time of blessing and hope, despite the very conflicted world around me. I certainly felt included as part of the worshiping body while I was on vacation and worshiping online with other churches in the presbytery, and I hope those of you with us online feel a part of this gathered community here and now as well. It is the Spirit that unites us as kindred.


According to the New Interpreter's Bible, the word "kindred" does not mean blood relatives, but a people joined by God's grace. So, the kindred gathered together by the thousands to the temple to worship God in unity. To do this is a rich blessing. The psalmist uses the blessing of oil as an example of how rich and wonderful this kindred gathering can be - an anointing with oil. This custom may seem strange to us but was considered an important part of consecrating a priest for duty in the temple. Sacred fragrant oil was poured upon the priest, and would run down their robes, as on the beard of Aaron, the first temple priest. As it says in Leviticus, “Moses ordained Aaron to the priesthood by anointing his head with oil," (Leviticus 8:12). "All priests have the oil of Aaron on their head," writes biblical scholar James Limburg. And though the oil is precious, God is not stingy with it. Indeed, the oil is poured out so lavishly on the head of the priest, it runs down the beard of Aaron and onto the collar of his robe. "The generous quantity of oil adds to the picture of the community gathering as 'a sweet pleasant time together.'"


However, this anointing of oil was not limited to the priesthood. A generous host would provide oil for anointing as guests entered their homes. Oil from the olive was an important commodity in the dry environment of the ancient Near East. Olive oil was mixed with sweet-smelling spices and used for hair and skin care. The oil was poured over the head, and, for men, ran down into the beard. A basic act of hospitality when visitors entered the homes of others was to wash the visitors’ feet and pour soothing and refreshing oil upon their heads. This blessing is like coming together in worship with fellow kindred - It is a deep and rich blessing - one of hospitality. Hospitality is part of that kindred fellowship together, when we greet one another in worship with Christ’s peace, share communion together, and then enjoy goodies after worship at a common table. I am sure we will cherish these gifts of hospitality more once we can gather together again freely.


This fellowship of kindred spirits together is also like another blessing, the dew of Mt. Hermon. (verse 3). Mt. Hermon, located some 125 miles north of Jerusalem, was known for its abundant dew - those water droplets condensed from the air, usually at night. And in Palestine, which saw little rainfall between the months of April and October, dew was an important commodity. Without the nightly accumulation of dew, the land would be parched and dry for many months out of the year. Mt. Hermon is 6,690 feet tall at its peak. For comparison, it is just a bit shorter than our Mt. Ashland at 7,500 feet. Like Mt Ashland, Mt Hermon rises above its valley and gets its share of morning dew, which ends up landing on flowers and shrubs during the early part of the summer, especially in Grouse Gap valley. That dew, along with melting snow is such a blessing! There is such an abundant variety of flowers thanks in part to this gift of dew at night.


This dew symbolizes the refreshment that can come to our parched spirit when we come together in unity. A word from another, a handshake or hug, the words to a hymn, the message in the sermon, a profound moment in silence or prayer - all of those things are opportunities for our souls to find refreshment. Dew also provides growth, and we grow in faith as we worship together and go through scripture together.


Through the blessings of fellowship, God brings us together, uniting us and making us one in faith. For there, God ordains the blessing - LIFE forevermore. What is a blessing? Professor NancydeClaisse-Walford, who teaches at the McAffe school of Theology in Atlanta, writes, “Blessing - is - Barak in Hebrew. The word reverberates throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible -- God says to Abram “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3); after Jacob’s long night of wrestling, we read, “And there he blessed him” (Genesis 32:29); and Moses says to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, “Surely the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 2:7).” Being blessed by God means knowing that God is for us, loves us, and desires good things for us in this life. We experience that kind of blessing in part through in the fellowship of kindred sisters and brothers together.


That blessings from God also gives us life - new life in Christ, life beyond the daily struggles in this world of pandemic, politics, and pain. We can glimpse hope through God’s blessings and find strength in community - Those things give us life!


Yet it is difficult right now to fully be community as we wear our masks, keep socially distant, and refrain from gathering in large groups. Right now, it is so important for us all to reach out to one another through the phone, email, an outside visit in person, or a note in the mail. For some in our community may be struggling as we experience this pandemic, as we see the anger in the streets over America’s original sin of racism. We so need fellowship as kindred, united in the Spirit, for this world can weigh us down.


If you all remember, when my family and I arrived in January of 2017 to preach at a neutral pulpit in Grants Pass, it was a rather unique winter, to say the least! The snow was everywhere, and it stuck to the ground. I wondered a bit what we were getting into when it came to the weather but was assured by folks on our pastor nominating committee that snow rarely looked like this in Ashland. As we drove from Ashland to Grants Pass, I noticed something about the trees along the highway. In the large groves of tall pine trees, due to the excessive snow that year,  branches of the trees were bowed down with heavy snow - so low that branches from one tree were often leaning against the trunk or branches of another. Where trees stood alone, however, the effect of the heavy snow was different. The branches had become heavier, but without other trees to lean against, some of the branches had snapped. They lay on the ground, dark and alone in the cold snow. We people of faith so need to be together in kindred community, rather than alone and apart, especially in times such as these, when life itself is so heavy. How good it is indeed when we can find the support and strength to make it through those heavy snow-laden storms, by being together in kindred community! So, in such times when it is difficult for us to come together in person, reach out and offer that support of community. Someone in our church may be carrying a heavy load, and your care for them will make a difference.


And so fellow kindred, we give thanks for the blessing of community, and for the gift of life, God gives us. Alleluia! Amen.

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