Your Holy Hill
| Psalms 43
|Sun, June 20, 2004
Rev. Ed Searcy
|I have just returned from an extraordinary gathering in Toronto. It was a national symposium on worship in the United Church of Canada. Those who organized the event hoped that 120 preachers, ministers of music and worship leaders would register. In the end, some 330 people (including volunteers, various hangers-on and presenters) made their way to Eglinton-St George’s United Church for two days of worship, seminars and workshops on preaching, music and the arts in worship. In the workshops that I led there were some 180 people in all, mostly preachers, pondering what and how to preach in the midst of much anxiety and fear in the church. Knowing that I would be flying home late on Saturday in order to be here at home today, I invited them to join me in hosting the scripture for this morning - the 42nd & 43rd Psalms (originally, it seems, one hymn to God).
It is a song of deep longing, thirsting, aching for God. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul long for you, O God.”. One commentator notes “Anyone who has heard the bellowing of stags dying of thirst on the hills of Upper Galilee during late summer drought must feel the haunting force of the poet’s image”. This is serious longing, moaning, crying “kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison ... When shall I come and behold the face of God?” This longing, this seeking after God’s presence is what drew so many to Toronto. Oh, sure, we hoped to hear some new ideas, come home with some different techniques for worship. But that is not the real reason that we gathered. We gathered because we, along with our congregations live in a season of drought when many within and beyond the church thirst for God, for the living God ... and no manner of technique or technology can deliver the face of God. This longing, this quest, is - you will remember - the beginning of the journey that brings Kate Brooke here covenanting with us to a journey of discernment. Her calling into God’s mission began with deep, aching longing. Could this also be a season of call for the whole church?
But this longing is not simply an inner soul-searching of the church. It is, says the poet, driven by the questions of others. “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”. This Psalm is set in a culture, in a society, in a time when neighbours and commentators, spouses and children say to the remnant of peculiar believers “Where is your God”. At first they, too, long for this God and want to be taken to the quenching living waters. But later in the song this question is no longer innocent. Later the question becomes the taunt of adversaries, the oppression of an enemy ... an inner enemy perhaps, adversaries that are dark and powerful spirits of despair attacking the daring trust of the church, saying continually “Where is your God? Where is your God? Where is your God?”
In the face of this contemporary question the singer remembers ... remembers times when the whole congregation gathered in the sacntuary with gospel singing and tears of joy, “a multitude keeping festival”. There have been times of presence. But this memory is not enough to answer the longing for God here and now. Then the psalmist remembers God beyond the sanctuary, beyond Jerusalem, remembers God in the midst of waves and billows and the storms of trouble: “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life”. The poet remembers that God is present, day and night, giving love and giving a song to sing even in trouble. These flowers, placed in memory of Marjorie’s mother and father whose tragic deaths two years ago this weekend immersed such a wide circle of family and friends in a dark night, are a sign saying we remember that God does not forget.
Yet even such powerful memory cannot prevent the poet from daring to question God. Not once, but twice, in this aching cry of a psalm we sing “I say to God, my rock, Why have you forgotten me - why have you cast me off - Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?” This is the heart of the matter. No amount of memory, no amount of preaching and teaching, no amount of wonderful singing or praying can generate the presence of God on a long Holy Saturday. You do recognize that this is a psalm for Holy Saturday, don’t you? This deep three-fold figure that we practice in our living struck a resonant chord with my colleagues these past few days. Naming the season of absence and longing as the heart of the pilgrimage that is a gospel life consistently brings a deep silence over any room. It is like being present when someone suffering amnesia suddenly remembers a crucial piece of identity. We have for so long silenced songs of absence and thirst in the church. Our hymn books are filled with confident songs of praise and activity. They boldly state our desire to serve the ever present God. We have put the 23rd Psalm to memory but regularly ignore the 42nd and 43rd Psalms. But Jesus knows such Psalms by heart. When he faces his season of absence he cries “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”. He has given us this same song to sing in our own long day of absence.
But the psalm includes one other question. There is the question of others, asking “Where is your God?”. There is the question asked of God: “Why have you forgotten me?”. And then there is the refrain, the blues chorus of this aching Saturday song. It is a haunting question that the singers ask of themselves: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God..” Three times this refrain returns. It is the refrain that we were singing in Toronto, I believe. It is the word we preachers and musicians and artists are called to help the church sing and live in anxious, fearful season of absence and longing. The Hebrew word that is translated “hope” in this refrain can equally be translated “wait”. Hope in God, wait for God, because there will yet be a day when we will praise God’s presence and God’s help. So, on Friday night Eglinton-St George’s United Church was jammed to the rafters for an amazing performance of Gregorian chant mingled with gospel song, organ and percussion. And late in the evening we sang together: “You better hold to His hand, God’s unchanging hand. Build your hopes on things eternal and hold to God’s unchanging hand.” This is the sound of faith on Holy Saturday, the sound of holding tight to the hope that God’s hand is unchanging even when we are not confident that God’s hand is present.
And then the poet calls God down, out, into the world. “Vindicate ... defend ... send your light, your truth - let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God”. The singer, the poet, the people of Israel and the followers of Jesus long to behold the face of God. We imagine that the holy hill of God’s presence is a Temple in Jerusalem where worship reveals the Holy of Holies, the sacred presence. And we make pilgrimage here to our own holy university hill seeking the presence, the face, of God. But notice what we glimpse when we figure this song out through the cruciform shape of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Do you see? Even as we call on God to send out one whose light and truth will lead us to God’s dwelling place, to the holy hill where we will see God face to face we notice that in the midst of our deep Good Friday grief and our long Holy Saturday thirst that we are already on God’s holy hill and are even now face to face with the One who bears all the earth’s aching grief and longing thirst. To our unending surprise, the holy hill of God is found not in the temple but on calvary, not in the confines of a sacred space but in the midst of trouble and abandonment.
This is the reason that we practice mingling together loss, longing and joy. We are seeking to be a people whose Sunday praise leaks back into our Friday grief and gives encouragement to trust God in the midst of our Saturday thirst. For we have seen the face of God revealed on a cross and in a tomb and then, on a mysterious wondrous Sunday, when it could not be possible ... but it was ... and it is. Amen.