Psalm 133 ; Acts 4:32-35
Joy. Today is all about joy!
Ages ago, I was sitting in a congregation listening to a pastor preach about joy. His message that Sunday was, “YOU should all be happy!” but his tone, said, “Bad, bad, people—God wants you to be happy and you’re not!” wagging a finger at us as it were—berating us for not being joyful. I won’t speak for the other listeners, but I slinked out of worship, head low.
On the other hand, I have a pastor friend, who reserves cannonball Sunday— this Sunday after Easter, a day when historically you can shoot a cannon ball through church walls and not hit one darn soul—he reserves THIS Sunday for joke telling.
How does he do that? Well, it’s a congregational effort. Talk about unity!—which is, if you were listening closely, you know, is the subject of today’s scripture passages. People in the congregation submit their best jokes to my pastor friend over the course of the entire year. On cannonball Sunday, he reads them out loud. A good time is had by all! Good way to raise attendance, I’d say.
We have not prepared for this second option, though. Actually, if truth be told, even if we had, I myself am a terrible joke teller. The awkward reality is, I can never deliver a punch line right. So, if we ever decide to do what my pastor friend does, I’m not your jokester.
Option number one is also unappealing to you and me, both. You don’t want to hear me preach on joy from the perspective of “You don’t have enough joy, shame on you!” And I don’t want to preach that sermon, either. But the issue is, can pleasantness, joy and good vibes be sustained throughout an entire sermon without any further agenda? Without taking on an issue? I don’t know. But I am willing to try.
This IS a happy day, right? I mean, Jesus has been resurrected—and Jesus’ followers have come together to celebrate that. Good feelings abound!
The scripture reading I would like to focus on first today, though, is not Acts, which tells the stories of what Jesus’ followers did immediately following his crucifixion and resurrection, but on Psalms 133—which if you still don’t know, is a celebration of life together in a believing community.
Psalm 133 is attributed to King David, who may have written it, or he may have had it commissioned. It’s called a Psalm of Ascent. It’s called that because, in the years following David’s kingship, after the building of the temple, it was maybe sung when people came to Jerusalem to worship on special holy days in their tradition. Jerusalem was built on a hill, so it was an upward climb—an ascent.
I have this image in my head, which I share with you. Old worshipers, young worshipers, middle aged worshipers, --that is, Jews of whatever age, from all over the Near East, walking slowly with a cane, trudging, skipping, hopping, dancing—and singing, of course, up Mount Zion to the temple in Jerusalem.
Alternatively, it could be that the words were sung by worshipers or by special singers as the priests ascended the 15 temple steps. So if you prefer, you might want to have an image in your head--of priests. They are wearing regal garments walking slowly, with dignity and purpose. There are worshipers on either side of them and coming up from behind. This, too, is a happy time of unity. The worshipers and priests coming together. All praising their God, our God, the God of all that is.
The Psalmist then shares with us an image of Aaron. Who is Aaron? He is the brother of Moses, and the Jews’ very first priest, appointed by Moses while he and Aaron and the band of Jews were on their wilderness journey. Our Psalmist is a time traveler! He is imagining a time when Aaron might have been so happy that he grabbed a jar of scented oil, and poured it on his head. That oil dribbled down his beard and onto his robes. It doesn’t just soak his collar, mind you, which is the way it reads in our English Bible translation. In the original Hebrew, the Psalmist relates that the oil travels down Aaron’s beard and onto his priestly skirts! That’s extravagance. And Aaron carries out this joyful action, in my imagination anyway, while he s laughing. That’s how happy he is to be in community with his fellow travelers and worshipers.
But we’re not done. The Psalmist says that this happy time of unity in Jerusalem—it’s the same happiness you experience when you see dew on the mountains. Like you are—happy-- when you look at dew-covered mountains, I guess.
I say “guess” because I have never actually experienced that particular joy myself, or even ever noticed dew on mountain grass. I am willing to go with the metaphor, though. Maybe you can, too. We can imagine that in the dry summer in the middle east, living so close to nature, as those Jews did, they might have really appreciated proof that in hot temperatures, the grass, the trees, and the plants, were not going to just crumble into ashes and blow away. God provides dew which keeps the land moist until the rains come. AND, the Psalmist may be ever-so-subtly reminding listeners of an earlier time in Jewish history. A time again, when Moses and Aaron, and the rest of the Jews, were out there in the wilderness. The Jews complained of hunger. Manna came down from heaven, and lay on the grass, like dew.
And NOW we turn to Acts. Jesus has been crucified and resurrected. These new Christians, although not yet called that, have gathered together and they are experiencing that same joyful unity identified by the Psalmist. They may have even sung this Psalm together, like we sing hymns of joy. This Acts passage, though, isn’t poetry. For that reason, it lacks metaphors. We read real evidence in Acts, though, that these Jesus followers are celebrating a new turn of events by being together. Like Aaron, they too are acting extravagantly. They share—everything—even selling their land and giving the proceeds to the apostles, to be used for the good of the community—that’s how happy they are. They are figuratively, anyway, pouring scented oil on their heads.
Happiness, joy, togetherness. Sharing good times together. Good times are meant to be shared—or maybe it is that good times become great times WHEN they are shared.
That’s just about right, I think. Shared times are not always good, certainly. but when there is peace, when people are living in harmony, well, those are picture-perfect moments. I really mean, picture perfect. Because when we are having good times together, we take pictures. Those pictures fill albums—we know that: we’re talking weddings, birthday parties, family reunions. I am the keeper of family albums. I have a drawer full, a shelf full and a trunk full of albums spanning nearly a hundred years. I’m not that old, I promise! I have my parents’ albums, too.
I was in a meeting once, with people I did not know well. As a way of getting to know each other better, the leader asked each of us to share what we would take with us if our house was on fire, and we had to leave asap-assuming our pets and loved ones were safe elsewhere.
What would YOU take with you? Really. Your hair dryer and tooth brush? Your suitcase, with a change of clothes and pajamas? To a one, people said, “The family photo albums.”
I have to confess here that that question was asked in the days before cell phones and computers. Not sure family photo albums would get top billing these days—but remember, our photos are on our cell phones and computers, or up there in the cloud, which we access by cell phones and computers. So if people were to say cell phones, and computers it might be for the same reason: to have access to those pics that remind us of the good times.
No cameras back in King David’s time, when Psalm 133 was written, and no cameras in the first century either. When people experienced moments of God’s grace in community and wanted to remember them, they wrote poems and letters and histories. Our Bible then, is our family-of-faith photo album.
We here know intimately about the grace we experience in community. That’s why we keep coming back, week after week. It may be that one week we have an off Sunday, but on the whole, we are talking good times.
You’ve heard people say, maybe, as I have heard people refer to themselves as, “Spiritual not religious,” Honestly, hearing that they are spiritual and not religious, is kind of offensive to me —as if we who are religious, who DO go to church, dare I say it, go to church religiously, are NOT spiritual. Can’t you be both?
But back to scripture--Both passages for today point us to blessing, the blessing that is found in unity; in community. And that is the truth, and those of us here know that it is the truth.
I want to end this sermon with a different interpretation of Psalm 133, not a word-for-word translation, but a decent interpretation, I think, by a modern-day poet. The poet’s name is Stephen Mitchell—It’s a poem with modern day images that point us to God’s grace in community:
How wonderful it is to live in harmony with all people;
Like stepping out of the bath,
your whole body fresh and vibrant;
like the morning dew, glistening on the tiniest blade of grass.
It is God’s infinite blessing, a taste of eternal life.