I can still remember coming into Jerusalem for the first time. It had been a long day of touring and then an even longer drive to get us to this most holy of holy places. The bus was unusually quiet; most of my companions were asleep, but I was nowhere near being asleep. My yearning was in high gear; I was not going to miss this crossing over. This transition from ordinary to extraordinary. This movement from thick to thin. It seemed that my entire life had been leading me toward this sacred spot, and if this song is about yearning for God and longing to be at that place where God dwells, then my background music that night was Psalm 84. The temple had long since been destroyed – the swallows disbursed; the best I could hope for was to touch the wall that used to surround it. It didn’t matter; I just needed to be in that spot – that spiritual crossroad where the linear and the non-linear intersect – where divinity collides with humanity.
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but there are those who believe that deep inside every person there is a tug pulling us toward some sort of Jerusalem – that the concept of a focused search for meaning and transformation is fundamental to human existence, spanning thousands of years, and is central to every religion, culture and nation. Whether it’s Moses and the Israelites trying to reach the Promised Land, Odysseus sailing for Ithaca or Jesus’ journey to the cross, the basic story line remains the same…setting out for something unknown, confronting the obstacles, and then triumph or tragedy, transformation or failure – or —more than likely—a combination of everything. When the pull comes, all you can do is move with it.
I have found that faith is like that sometimes. Sometimes it’s just pure movement toward God and all you can do is let it carry you along with it. God is timeless and exists in all places, yet there are appointed times and places when we must move toward God. For instance, every time we come together, whether it be in the sanctuary of our church or in the sanctuary of the outdoors, we are making a movement toward our God. Right here in this very moment of our gathering together, God abides with us, and it is this presence of God that draws us into our worship and praise. Psalm 84 is a joyful song that praises God, whose presence is mysteriously and powerfully experienced in the Temple but is not contained by it. The intense excitement of the psalmist is about going to a particular place at a particular time because of who and what may be found there – it is about being in the very presence of God, and it is because of God’s presence that the psalmist says, “Happy are those who live in your house.”
Psalm 84 literally bursts with the supreme goodness of experiencing God’s presence through corporate worship. An ancient gathering, at an appointed time and place – together – everyone eagerly anticipating the presence of God with them and among them. There are some pilgrimages that are best done alone; but most pilgrimages require that humans move together through space and time toward the everlasting God who meets us where we’re at. And for us, today, through the indwelling Spirit of Jesus, God abides with us; we have witnessed God’s salvation, and like the ancient pilgrims of the psalms, God’s presence draws us together and into praise.
And that’s the key, isn’t it? Staying together and keeping God at the heart of everything?
I believe that we are all incredibly blessed to have two of the most beautiful sanctuaries that I have ever been in as our spaces of worship. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O God of hosts!” It doesn’t matter which church I am heading for, I am always accompanied by a sense of eagerness – eagerness just to be there and be that much closer. It is in a sense for me a mini-pilgrimage each time I move in the direction of either of our churches, because I know myself to be moving towards GOD’s church, and it is that knowledge that makes my heart beat a little faster.
I guess what we experience today though is only a shadow of what it was like in the glory days. Much has changed in our lifetime. Most of us here today can remember when our churches were bursting at the seams. Not just here, but everywhere. We all felt the roll call on Sunday mornings, and if you didn’t go to church people wanted to know why not. Now, too many of our churches look like ghost towns as people feel called to worship in other ways and in other times and places. Some say the church became its own idol and that may be partly true, but I think we forgot to stick together and keep God at the heart of everything; we fragmented ourselves into too many pieces. The church with a capital C is confusing; it’s complex; heck, it’s downright scary…to watch… as the idol slowly destroys itself. And now, the closest most Americans come to making a pilgrimage is a vacation trip to Disney World or Dollywood, or, for the truly devout, Las Vegas or Graceland.
If you listen closely, this psalm is speaking directly to us as it reminds us of our need for that pilgrimage, for a home, for God. We all need holy places; we all need to go home or we wither up and die. As I stood next to the temple wall in Jerusalem, there was such a press of bodies. I was on the woman’s side of the wall which was a much smaller slice of the wall, yet there were more women present than men. Some were in fervent prayer; others were crying tears of gladness, others tears of sorrow. Some had written prayers and stuck them into the crevices of the wall. Some were reading the OT in Hebrew. Everyone wanted to touch the wall – just for a second. The raw devotion was palpable. I will never forget the color of the wall, the color of sand, or the smoothness of the wall, like glass, under my hand as I prayed. It was an amazing thing to be at the location of the temple. It was an amazing thing to come home and be surrounded by others who had made the same journey.
There is a powerful urge within us to go home – all of us; all of creation – not just humans. The psalm tells us that “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars.” I have to smile at that verse as I remember Plymouth’s bat problem.
We are a mobile society. Our planet is shrinking. It is not uncommon for a person’s job to send them somewhere far from home where home then becomes, wherever it is that we are. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing because nothing reinserts God into the heart of everything faster than exile. So then imagine the church throwing open its doors and inviting people home, or better yet, going out and bringing people home. Can you imagine us doing that? Can you imagine yourself doing that? That is the business we are in after all, the business of offering shelter in the storm, shelter to the spiritually homeless. It is the most important thing we do; it affects every dimension of our lives. Worshipping in a holy place, being the church, and showing that God not only lives in our church buildings, but that God lives in each of us. That is our mission – our pilgrimage – to be the church, to be the dwelling place of God.
The church will never again experience the so-called “glory days” and that is a very good thing because none of this is about going to church; it’s about being the church. It’s a hard transition to make, and staying on course will take commitment and dedication, sacrifice, courage, vulnerability, persistence, self-acceptance and a whole lot of faith. It will mean challenging ourselves to get somewhere we want to go, and hoping and praying we will be given the strength, courage, faith and growth we’ll need to get there. But more than anything else, it will mean sticking together and keeping God at the heart of everything.
We can do this because we were made for this pilgrimage. We were made to seek and find meaning in life, to live with purpose and joy, to learn and grow and be transformed; to live into healing and wholeness, to allow God to do new and great things in and through us. We were made to make a pilgrimage to the very heart of God, and to trust that God is waiting to welcome us home.
Psalm 84 is the joyful song of all people who have honored the longing in their hearts for acceptance and love, who have recognized their need for God and indulged their yearning for the security and home God provides. They have set out to love and worship God and, in their purposeful seeking and faithful following, have found meaning and healing, blessing and beauty. “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” Amen