Text: Psalm 133
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” These words from Psalm 133 nearly dance off the tongue. Listen hard and you can hear ancient Jewish pilgrims in full voice singing this song on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” It is a still a lovely sentiment, centuries later, but it is surely not the first psalm that comes to mind when I think of the year 2020.
Quarantined in our houses and isolated to our own national news sources, we live in a time when it is unsafe to gather in close quarters and especially unsafe to sing when we do. Some say schools should reopen in person right on time and others say that to do is sheer madness. Some say masks must be worn at all times while others insist it is their right not to wear a mask. The pandemic may well have intensified national disunity and division, but we were hardly a unified nation before Covid-19.
And, disunity and division are not unique to our land. I recently finished Irish novelist, Colum McCann’s maddening book, Apeirogon. It tells the story of a Palestinian and Israeli who somehow become friends after each loses a daughter due to the senseless violence of the other side. Capturing the pathos that fills McCann’s book, Rabbi Michael Lerner laments, “I've been overwhelmed with sadness at the tragic loss of lives and harm to the bodies of Israelis and Palestinians, and outraged at all those who continue to justify their side and demean the other, implicitly cheering on the violence even as they officially deplore it! Enough is enough. Stop the violence immediately!” I love Psalm 133, but how dare we sing it in 2020?
Far closer to home and written years before the white nationalist killing of Heather Heyer on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville or the public execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis, journalist LZ Granderson laments, “I am tired. Tired of our streets being peppered with dead, unarmed black people. Tired of listening to armed assailants describe how they feared for their lives. Tired of being told ‘this has nothing to do with race’." I love Psalm 133, but how dare we sing it in 2020?
Times of great national grief and strife are almost always coupled with a growing rate of suicide. Our current times are no exception. No one feels more alone, more isolated, than someone who takes their own life. Most suicide victims do not make the national news or even the local news, but a few years ago, when Robin Williams joined the company of life-takers, Anne Lamott wrote, “Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both . . . Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long.” I love Psalm 133, but how dare we sing such a song of joy when so many around us are living in such unrelenting pain?
Into the dark cloud of 2020, I am grateful for the poet, essayist, novelist, Wendell Berry. In his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” he asks a different question about these tough and turbulent times. He asks: How can we, children of the Crucified and yet Resurrected One, not sing and dance? In his poem, he writes:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it . . .
Ask the questions that have no answers . . .
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.
I love that phrase, “Practice Resurrection.” After she laments the sorry state of health care, especially mental health care, in America, Anne Lamott echoes Berry as she sings, “Live stories worth telling! Stop hitting the snooze button. Try not to squander your life on meaningless, multi-tasking bull . .
“Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story . . . I am.
“If you need to stop drinking or drugging, I can tell you this: you will be surrounded by arms of love like you have never, not once, imagined. This help will be available twenty-four/seven. Can you imagine that in this dark scary screwed up world, that I can promise you this? That we will never be closed, if you need us?
“Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity.”
In McCann’s novel, soon Rami and Bassam, one a grief-stricken Israeli father, one a grief-stricken Palestinian father, “were meeting virtually every single day. More than their jobs, this became their jobs: to tell the story of what had happened to their girls . . . It didn’t matter that they were repeating the same words over and over again. They knew that the people they spoke to were hearing it for the first time: at the beginning of their own alphabets” (Apeirogon, p. 47). How can a Muslim and a Jew “practice resurrection”? Rami and Bassam show us how by devoting their lives to exposing the lie of violence, by using their own grief as weapons to make peace.
If you look at a church calendar, you will see that today is another of many Sundays in the long slog of what the church calls “Ordinary Time.” For me, today feels much more like Good Friday, no, actually, much more like Holy Saturday, the day before Easter when we wait on God not knowing what comes next. We wait and we wait, having no clue how long we will wait.
But make no mistake; today is Easter. Tomorrow is Easter. Two weeks from this Thursday is Easter. A year from now is Easter. The crucifixion happened and keeps happening. There can be no denying. Just look around. But, so, did the resurrection. So, does the resurrection. “Practice resurrection” sings Wendell Berry. “Be a resurrection story” sings Anne Lamott.
I doubt that the first line of Psalm 133 was ever a description of how the world is but instead it describes how God intends for the world to be. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” To sing this song and to dance to this tune is not Bible pablum saying, “Now, boys and girls, just get along.” It is a remarkably bold resurrection claim, a vision for us to hold onto for dear life in this death-dealing world. It is a resurrection vision from God that was announced by Jesus long before the women stumbled upon an empty tomb.
For four years now, I have had the privilege of singing this song with you as I have watched you “practice resurrection.” You have lined Cove’s sidewalk and not only painted in huge, colorful letters: “We Choose Welcome”; you have meant it. You have sung a song of abundant hospitality, like the abundance of the oil flowing down Aaron’s beard in Psalm 133, hospitality to those who society would have us consider unwanted and call unclean. You have been a resurrection story to grieving families as you have sung beloved dying friends to heaven and then provided casseroles and compassion to those left behind.
Soon after the Civil War, Robert Lowry, a Baptist pastor and musician, composed what is Hymn 821 in our new hymnal. With the cadence of Psalm 133 in his music, Lowry asks a question pressing every believer in 2020: “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation. I hear the clear, though far off hymn that hails a new creation. No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
I thank God that in this virus-quarantine-social distance-wash your hands-too many unemployed—too many sick—too many dying 2020 that I share ministry with a company of the faithful who sing through our struggles and dance despite our differences and who never grow weary of practicing resurrection.
CHRIST IS RISEN!
HE IS RISEN INDEED!