“Lift Up Your Heads” Colchester Federated Church, July 11, 2021, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Psalm 24        

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the coronavirus pandemic has turned our world upside down.  If we were to open the newspaper and scan some of the headlines, we would read that there’s a race between the vaccines and the variants of this persistent virus.  Vaccine skepticism remains a reality and there will be regions of our country that continue to deal with high covid case rates because not enough people have gotten vaccinated.  We can read about people contemplating summer vacation plans and the safety concerns of traveling.  The developing world continues to struggle with a lack of medical supplies, including oxygen needed to treat people who are suffering from covid.  Summer school has begun in many school districts and enrollment numbers are quite a bit higher than in years past as students struggle to catch up after a difficult year.  The work force has changed dramatically.  Businesses have closed. Some industries are struggling to find workers.  Companies are debating if workers will now permanently work from home.  Iceland was in the headlines as the country has been testing a 4-day workweek and researchers found that employees were happier and more productive!  And on and on.  The world has changed and is changing in many ways. 

The seismic shifts that have occurred in the church world are of course being written about and debated among clergy and laity alike.  It’s not as if we in the Christian Church are immune to societal changes.  The pandemic has forced the Church to adapt.  We’ve had to think about worship elements that we completely took for granted before.  For instance, there were some churches (because of their theology concerning Communion) who didn’t offer Communion at all during the earliest days of this pandemic.  Faithful churchgoers went months without Communion.  And even though we at our church encouraged people to use what they had on hand at home, it will take time to get back to sharing a common plate of bread or passing a tray of grape juice around the sanctuary.

Our church continued to have funerals to mourn and honor those who died.  Though we met outside at Linwood Cemetery.  To be technical, these were hybrid funerals and committal services.  To come up with a service outline, I spent a few hours with various liturgies to figure out how to create a fulfilling service that also considered how much time we could be outside in the heat of summer or freezing cold of winter because we live in Connecticut.  Depending on church policies and case rates in communities, there are some churches that are now offering funerals in their sanctuaries for all those who have died in this past year.  The delayed grief is difficult, and the grief that we are carrying because of the pandemic alone is difficult. 

These are just two examples—Communion and funerals.  But the truth is that there are many aspects of worship, fellowship, Christian education, and our various ministries that we in the Church might have taken for granted before the pandemic or just not given a second thought.  Perhaps now we see these traditions and rituals with new eyes. 

One of the aspects of church life that we may see anew is worship itself.  We are still not quite back to worship as it has always been because the pandemic isn’t over yet.  But we’re getting there, and just to have people walk through the doors without signing up beforehand and having assigned seats feels significant.  Because the church gathers together as the Body of Christ every week to worship God.  We gather the folks.  We break the bread.  We tell the stories.  We go forth from this place to love God and love one another. 

Now some of us attend worship here in the sanctuary.  Others of us are watching from home.  Even those of us watching from home may not always tune in on Sunday morning.  But aren’t we all part of the Body of Christ?  Do we have to worship God in a church sanctuary at the same time in order to worship God “correctly”?  We have perhaps realized that we can worship God everywhere and anywhere at any time.  And the Christian Church remains essential as a gathering place where everyone is welcome—whether that gathering happens here in person or online.  Church sanctuaries remain sacred spaces where we may more easily center ourselves as we worship God in community.  Because we need each other in order to live out our faith as followers of Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting to turn to Psalm 24 today with all of this on our hearts as we think about the worship of God—how things have changed and how things have stayed the same.  According to commentary on the Psalms found in The New Interpreter’s Bible,  Psalm 24 is often classified as an entrance liturgy for worshipers who came into the Temple.  There’s an opening profession of faith by the worshipers and an exchange with the priests about entering the sacred space of the sanctuary.  This moves into responsorial liturgy—call and response (like the Call to Worship we say together every Sunday).  The gathered people were ritually preparing to enter the Temple. 

Some scholars have even thought that this could be the formal liturgy that was said when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the Temple sanctuary.  Remember that the Ark of the Covenant is that ancient object that is as fascinating to people of faith as the Holy Grail (thanks in part to Indiana Jones who went looking for both sacred objects in his adventures).  The Ark housed the two stone tablets that contained God’s instructions to God’s people in the form of the Ten Commandments.  Psalm 24 may have been recited by the people and the priests as they prepared to bring the Ark into the Temple and had a formal procession to do so.  It may have marked a ritual in the Second Temple symbolizing the coming of Yahweh into the sanctuary and passing through temple gates that were heavily guarded to protect the sacred site.[1] 

Picture for a moment how this might have looked.  What a grand processional this must have been.  How important it was to prepare the sacred space, to acknowledge the might and power of God.  Hear the words again.

“Mighty gates: lift up your heads!  Ancient doors: rise up high!  So the glorious king can enter!  Who is this glorious king?”

“The Lord—strong and powerful!  The Lord—powerful in battle!”

“Mighty gates: lift up your heads! Ancient doors: rise up high! So the glorious king can enter!  Who is this glorious king?”

“The Lord of heavenly forces—he is the glorious king!”[2]

It must have been something to behold, and quite special to participate in this worship ritual.  Though the truth is that we’re not sure if this was an entrance liturgy that was offered to the community often or just once a year.  Were these words passed on from parent to child like we pass on the tradition of lighting our candles on Christmas Eve?  Were these words that almost took your breath away as you watched the Ark of the Covenant pass through the guarded gates as it was taken into the Temple for the glorification of God?  Yes, there’s mystery here and some of the specifics are up for debate.  Yet we know that there is power here in these words.  We can feel it.  There is power whenever we ritualize our faith.  There is power when we gather together to worship God side by side.  Psalm 24 can help us remember just in case we forget. 

As we go forth from this place, let us remember that the Psalmist was reminding the gathered faithful that God rules our lives and the world, even when we see injustice and evil and hatred.  God is still at work to bring God’s beloved children back to harmony with one another, with our planet, and with God.  We can see the beauty of the relationship between God and humanity—God reigns and God’s got our back.  We see that faith is not primarily about meeting a list of requirements, it’s more so about orienting our whole lives to God’s claim on us.  Faith is about trusting God—loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves.  Because in so doing, we truly see God.  “That’s how things are with the generation that seeks God—that seeks the face of Jacob’s God.”[3]  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Commentary on Psalm 24 in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IV, 772.
[2] Psalm 24:7-10, Common English Bible.
[3] Psalm 24:6.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.