Sermon April 17, 2022

Easter 2022

by Rev. James Rausch

One of the many things I dreaded about attending worship on Sundays in my youth was our church’s habit of reading the Psalms responsively.  They were in the back of the old Presbyterian Hymnal I grew up with.  Hebrew poetry translated into archaic English struck me as so stale and out of touch that the best I could make of the situation was to make fun of the funny words and phrases with my brother.  If anything was hopelessly “churchy” and boring, it was reciting these psalms!

Yet today, I enthusiastically chose to have us all recite Psalm 118 from today’s lectionary.  Why would I do this?  Am I vindictively trying to subject all of you to the same punishment I endured?  Well, fun as that might sound, there’s actually another reason.  Thankfully, God saw fit to open my eyes to the deep meaning of the psalms and motivated me to find a way to share it with others.

Now, today’s Lectionary’s selection of the passage from John’s Gospel makes obvious sense on Easter Sunday, but why Psalm118?  There are actually lots of reasons why, but today I want to focus on one in particular.

The opening of the Psalm contains what might sound to many of us like typical, repetitive, blah, blah, “Bible-speak.”  Why the strange repetition of the same phrase?  But I have loved learning and now teaching things that allow us to understand and even paint pictures in our imaginations that bring out the meaning.  I actually went easy on you by giving us Psalm 118 in a more modern English translation than we read back in the day.  You’re welcome.

Now, imagine a worship service in a place the size of a stadium with thousands of people gathered.  The temple in Jerusalem was like that, and going back centuries in the roots of our faith, gathering together to worship has always been of great importance.   In the temple, when this psalm was read, the leader would address the people with a call to worship, O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; and would make sure they knew the appropriate response, in this case, “God’s steadfast love endures forever!” Then the worship leader would call to the various groups gathered there, first to the Jewish people, “Let Israel say, and they would respond, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  The he called to all the many priests, saying, “Let the house of Aaron say, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  He called to those people not born Jewish who had come to worship the Lord call “God-fearers,” saying “Let those who fear the Lord say, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  Thus, the repetition.  It was to give the various groups attending a chance to hear their name called.

Coming together for worship has always been important, and on festival days when the temple was filled to capacity, there was great diversity.  It was an important to recognize this by calling the groups gathered there by name.  It was also important for them to experience unity of purpose across those lines of difference.  So the language is specifically chosen to have this effect.

We can try it here.  The response is “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  Let all the women say… Let all the men say…  Let all the choir members say… Let everyone named Eric say…

Do you hear now how the unifying phrase brings together diverse people?  Once they hear their names called, they join in and unity is established.  They are now all on the same page and ready to hear the rest in a spirit of worship.  In the case of this Psalm, they heard the testimony of one who cried out to God in distress, pushed so hard and just about to fall.  But the Lord helped and became his strength and salvation!  Great message, and the people learned these psalms by memory so they knew when and how to respond.

We do the same thing. Let me try it out with verse 24 of this very Psalm.  This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.  So the response is, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let all the deacons and elders respond…    Let the new members who will be joining the church today say…  Let all who were born somewhere other than Arizona say…

Learned responses have an important place in our faith and worship too.  Many Christians show respect in a unified way to God’s Word when we respond to the reading, “This is the Word of the Lord…”  “Thanks be to God!”

Now we can become too mechanical in our responses sometimes.  One pastor I know always started worship by saying “The Lord be with you,” to which the congregation replied, “and also with you.”  But one day his microphone was giving him trouble, and as he awkwardly fiddled with it the first thing he said was, “There’s something wrong with the microphone,” and automatically everybody said, “and also with you.”   So, we do have to think when we offer our responses.

Our Easter Greeting has become an important part of our festival day.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  He is risen indeed.  That’s the response.  Let all who have ever had a broken bone say…  Let all cancer survivors say…  Let all who have filed income tax returns this year say…

The promise of God’s never-ending steadfast love and the witness of hope in the resurrection of Jesus mean the most to those who have faced pain, loss and grief, like that of the author of Psalm 118.  It’s important that we take seriously the solemn season of Lent and the events of Holy Week.  The celebration of Christ’s victory over death did not come without difficulty, and his resurrection did not simply wipe all of that experience away.  The scars remained and carried meaning forward.  That’s a sign of hope for anyone who goes through the dark valley.  We can take hope in the message of Easter even while knowing that the trials we face will shape the new life we will come to receive.

Now, I would guess that Mary, Peter and John knew Psalm 118 well and probably had committed it to memory.  With the crucifixion of Jesus, we can imagine they were in great distress.  Pushed so hard that they were about to fall, like the Psalm says.  I wonder if they cried out to God in their distress, or if their prayers were more groans than words.  When Mary came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, it was upset upon upset.  She ran to Peter and John and brought them to the place.  John looked in the tomb, it says, and the rolled up cloths caused him to believe, although he did not yet fully understand.  Peter went in the tomb and we’re not told what he thought.  Mary, in her distress mistook Jesus for the gardener.  Grief affects people in different ways.  Eventually they would all come to know and believe, but in different ways.  When did Mary finally realize it was Jesus?  When she heard him call her name.

As we live our lives and worship together as a family of faith, we all find ourselves at different places on the journey.  Like those first followers of Jesus we all seek after him with questions in our hearts and sometimes even desperation and doubt.   When we feel we have been pushed to our limits of pain and grief and are about to fall, will we remember when our name was called today?  Will we remember the story of the psalm?  Will we remember what we have been told about Jesus and his resurrection?

Mary heard her name called by the tomb and recognized Jesus.

Simon Peter heard his name called when Jesus asked him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Thomas heard his name called when Jesus said, “Place your hand in the wound on my side.”

Saul of Tarsus, whom we know as Paul, heard his name called when he heard Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Sometimes individually, sometimes collectively, our names are called, and we are invited to respond.  Rabbouni!  God’s steadfast love endures forever!  Christ is risen… He is risen indeed.