Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Singing with the Psalmist

August 23rd, 2015                  “Singing with the Psalmist”               Rev. Heather Jepsen
          Things have been pretty serious here in worship all summer.  Our months spent discussing the rise and fall of David have been heavy fodder for sermons and such.  Today I wasn’t in the mood for another big monologue and so I decided to take a different direction and spend some time in the book of Psalms instead. 
          Unlike some of the more narrative Biblical texts such as the David cycle we have been reading, or the parables of Jesus, there is a lot of leeway in translating a psalm.  Psalms are songs, they are poetry, and a lot of their original meaning is lost in their translation.  Things like tune and meter do not survive the ages.  Obviously we don’t know how to sing the psalms in the way they were originally sung. 
          If we are going to spend time studying a psalm and comparing translations we are usually working with Psalm 23.  But today, we are going to study and think about Psalm 84.  So, let’s start out with the NRSV translation of the Psalm which you will find on your pew Bible on page 472. Let’s read it antiphonally as Conan has taught us to do.  We will read it call and response, breaking it down by verse.
          (Read Psalm 84 together)
          When I read the Psalm in this translation, I am really drawn to the second verse.  The Psalmist writes that their soul is longing, even fainting for the Lord.  Commentators will often point out that the language used here is similar to language used when describing one’s desire for a lover.  It is an all-consuming longing, involving body and soul.  It is a deep guttural desire to be in the presence of God.
          It is often thought that this Psalm was sung by pilgrims as they journeyed on the way to the temple in Jerusalem.  The people of Israel would travel great distances to visit the temple of God and for many it would be a once in a lifetime event.  The temple was thought to be the most holy of places and people would feel the presence of God there more than anywhere else. 
          This is an interesting pairing with our reading from 1 Kings.  In that reading, Solomon is offering a public prayer of dedication for the temple.  We have thought a lot about what the temple might mean to Solomon and to his father David.  This morning offers us a glimpse of what the temple would mean to the average person of Israel.  As they entered the city and the famed temple came into view, their hearts would be bursting with joy and many would faint.  What sometimes has seemed marred with politics in the story of David; is nothing but divine glory in the eyes of the Psalmist. 
          I personally connect with the Psalmist’s longing to be in the presence of God.  I am someone who feels a profound pull on my body and on my soul, to seek out the divine in our world.  While not everybody is driven in such a fashion, I believe that within each of us is a core that hungers to know the divine.  We are created by God, we come from God, we are in the image of God, and a piece of us is always longing to return home.
          As I mentioned before, the Psalms were written not to be read, but to be sung.  It is hard for us to sing the psalm as it is written in our pew Bible.  Not only do we not know the tune, but we have lost the meter and the rhyme in our translation.  Of course, I’m not going to let that stop me from singing the Psalm with you today.  After all, this sermon is called “Singing with the Psalmist”.
          In your bulletin you should find an insert with another version of Psalm 84.  This is a page from the “Psalter for Christian Worship” by Michael Morgan.  What Mr. Morgan has done is arrange the Psalms in such a way as to enable us to sing them.  Rather than focusing on a strict translation from the Hebrew, like our NRSV pew Bible does, Mr. Morgan is trying to craft a sing-able Psalm.  He has arranged the texts so that they are well suited for congregational singing while also keeping the integrity of the message of the individual Psalms. 
You will see that instead of the laborious language of Psalm 84 in your pew Bible, what you have before you on your bulletin insert are several sing-able verses.  Mr. Morgan suggests three different tunes we could use for singing the Psalm.  I have chosen “Land of Rest” which I think will be familiar to many of us.  I’ll ask Andra to play the tune one time through and then we can sing the psalm together.
(Sing Psalm 84 to tune #545)
I love the second verse in Mr. Morgan’s setting of the Psalm the most.  In the original Hebrew, the Psalmist is jealous of the birds near the temple.  The Psalmist longs to be close to God, and so the birds that nest in the eaves and rafters are almost an offense.  In Mr. Morgan’s version of the Psalm, he seems to take a broader view.  The sparrow and the swallow are offered care simply by being part of God’s good creation. 
I think perhaps this is more meaningful to modern readers since we do not have a connection to the temple.  There is no holy place where we believe the presence of God resides in a similar way that the Israelites felt the presence of God in the temple.  More often, modern people experience the presence of God out in the miraculous wonders of nature.  It is in God’s care for the birds, the bunnies, the deer, and even the buzz of the cicadas that we often sense God’s providence in the world.  It reminds one of the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew that reference God’s care for the sparrows and the lilies.
Next, I am going to read to you Eugene Peterson’s version of Psalm 84 from his popular “Message” version of the Bible.  You will notice right away that he refers to God of the Angel Armies which is a bit strange.  Technically the Lord of hosts could be translated that way, as host refers to army, but it’s a bit militaristic to me.  He writes . .
"What a beautiful home, God of the Angel Armies!
   I’ve always longed to live in a place like this,
Always dreamed of a room in your house,
   where I could sing for joy to God-alive!
Birds find nooks and crannies in your house,
   sparrows and swallows make nests there.
They lay their eggs and raise their young,
   singing their songs in the place where we worship.
God of the Angel Armies!  King!  God!
   How blessed they are to live and sing there!
And how blessed are those in whom you live,
   whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
   discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
   at the last turn – Zion!  God in full view!
God of the Angel Armies, listen:
   O God of Jacob, open your ears – I’m praying!
Look at our shields, glistening in the sun,
   our faces, shining with your gracious anointing.
One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship,
   beats thousands spent on Greek Island beaches.
I’d rather scrub floors in the house of my God
  than be honored as a guest in the palace of sin.
All sunshine and sovereign is God,
   generous in gifts and glory.
He doesn’t scrimp with his traveling companions
   It’s smooth sailing all the way with God of the Angel Armies."
          As usual, Eugene Peterson manages to write things out in a way that is easy for us to understand.  On a light note, his preference for being in the physical temple versus a beautiful Greek Island is certainly interesting.  I particularly enjoy the twist he gives verse 5 changing “Happy are those whose strength is in you” to “How blessed are those in whom you live.”  It is a really interesting twist to consider one who dwells in the Lord, as oppose to one in whom the presence of God dwells. 
          Mr. Peterson continues changing “in whose heart are the highways to Zion” to “whose lives become roads you travel.”  I think this is a wonderful way to twist this Psalm to provide meaning for the modern reader.  If we remember that this was sung on the road to the temple in Jerusalem, we must admit that that is not a road we are on anymore.  There is no temple in Jerusalem.  And yet, we are clearly on a journey.  This psalm reminds us that we are fortunate to be on a journey of faith, even if we aren’t on a literal pilgrimage at this time.  And it is poetic to think not only of us on a journey seeking God, but that our lives would also become a journey for God to undertake.
          As we can plainly see, there is a lot hiding for us here in Psalm 84.  Whether you are in a space where your soul is longing for God, or rather you are feeling like a swallow on the outskirts, observing the Lord from a distance, there is something in this Psalm for you to relate to this morning.  Much like the wonders of Psalm 23, I think there is something that speaks to each of us as individuals in this much less studied Psalm 84.  It is a sure testament to the poetry of these Psalms that they can speak to the lives of people born centuries after they were originally composed and sung in worship.
          I can’t let you get away this morning without one more musical rendition of this Psalm.  The most popular modern setting of this Psalm is Arlo Duba’s “How Lovely, Lord.”  Let’s stand and sing it now.

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