Psalm 133, Genesis 45:1-15 “Blessing has Baggage”
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 20 August 2017
Pilgrimage is a rather unused concept for Christians today, at least as a spiritual practice.
We don’t typically travel great distances to sites of religious or spiritual meaning. Most protestant churches, as a result of the Reformation and the centuries that followed, are skeptical of placing too great a meaning on a single place as the source of our knowing and experiencing God.
Instead we generally point to God’s presence in all places, with all people. Yet we still hold something within us that calls us back to places which define our beginnings, and tell us something about how we came to be here in this particular place on this particular day.
I have travelled to Plymouth, Massachusetts twice for different reasons, and have seen the place where we as Congregationalists connect to our origin. It is just a place, but walking among the cemetery in Plymouth, and visiting the replica site of Plymouth Plantation, helps me to understand who we are in some way. It is a pilgrimage, and recalling the stories along the way gives some meaning to my steps all the way here in Anchorage.
It is interesting that in the story of Congregationalist beginnings, there was significant doubt as to whether the whole venture would even work. There is much to be said and understood about their motivations and faith, but for here at least, I find it worth noting that the moments of unsureness are the very things that hold such great prominence in the story of our own pilgrim Congregationalists.
In fact, when they arrived in what is now the area of Plymouth, MA, that wasn’t even where they were originally going. They had originally received a charter for the Hudson river valley in what is now New York.
But due to weather and rough seas, they ended up farther north without realizing it. On top of that, only 52 of the 102 survived the first year. It is a story of difficulty and unsureness, yet that is the story, the myth of origin for us as a church.
This is also what we might notice in the Psalm reading. What the Psalmist calls good, upon deeper reflection, is not the same thing as guaranteed success or self-assuredness. Good is not the same thing as great.
The word Good (the Hebrew word tob) that the Psalmist uses, is the same word used in the first creation story in Genesis 1 when God says that it is good multiple times, which might better be defined as:
things being as they should be.
It is also the same word used in the second creation story in Genesis 2 when God says it is not good for humans to be alone. In this second usage we get a little more developed idea of what good means. It is something that people experience together, as it should be.
Nancy deClaissé-Walford connects these Genesis uses of tob, good, with Psalm 133:1. She says that it “reminds the reader/hearer of God’s provision of community and relatedness for humanity.”
It connects it to the work of God creating, and the human need for connection that we share together.
The Psalmist does this in this story with the images of oil and dew. Psalm 133 is a psalm of ascension. A song to be sung on pilgrimage up to Jerusalem.
It imagines that kindred living together in community is not unlike Aaron, the priest, Moses’ brother, who led the people out of Egypt being anointed. This story in Psalm 133 is a reference back to Leviticus 8 when Moses anoints Aaron as high priest.
It is like that collective memory and myth of origin story, only instead without the suffering usually associated with being in Egypt and the fear of perishing in the wilderness. This time there is enough oil to cover Aaron’s head, and even run over his collar. To be sure, the Psalmist is speaking of olive oil, or maybe another plant oil, not crude oil. There is enough oil to eat, and even enough to bless.
The dew is a little different. Maybe it connects back to the dew-like manna that fed the people in the wilderness in Exodus 16. But with the reference to Mount Hermon, it points in another direction.
Dew itself for the climate of Jerusalem, would have been a very welcome event, and a relief from occasional drought. However, for Mt. Hermon, which is to the north of Jerusalem over 100 miles, dew would have been common. Now, in the psalmist’s take, instead of the dew covering Hermon, that refreshing and thirst quenching moisture would be coming down on Jerusalem, who would have been needing moisture.
It is interesting that these are the images that signify community. It is not always what we might think. The people along the pilgrimage journey may have been family. They may have been close relatives, but that is not the image of community the Psalmist points out.
Instead the Psalmist points back to that collective memory of communal binding together when Aaron was anointed priest. But that event referenced in Leviticus did not take place in Jerusalem, but in a tent somewhere in the wilderness. As you might remember, Moses didn’t even make it over the Jordan river.
Even in this pilgrimage to Jerusalem there is the remembrance of a time when the future of the community was still very much in question. They did not have a home, or any permanent place, yet that is the place of plenty.
This is of course also the case with the dew. The dew didn’t fall on Jerusalem. It fell someplace else. This pilgrimage psalm, this psalm of ascent, has as its two references of abundance and security for the community, two things that were not actually connected with where they were going.
It is as if this incongruence is the important thing to remember. It is the purposeful disconnect between the story and the reality of the pilgrims that holds the meaning. You see, it is not the amount of things we have, or the security of having enough oil to not only cook and eat, but also to bless, that creates community. It may even be that it is when these things are not guaranteed that community finds greater meaning.
It is not the dew that guarantees water security and reveals the continuation of the community. Its not really about the water. There is something else.
This then begs the question for me: What does it mean to be blest? That is a much trickier question, and one which we have to examine.
We know that it is easy to consider ourselves in this place as blessed. We generally have enough to eat. Our health concerns, even though they can be overwhelming and even life threatening, we are at least likely have access to care. Most of us drove here, and we have free time to enjoy rest and relaxation.
We can call ourselves blessed, and that is okay. It is even good. But it is interesting to notice that the reference points for blessing for the Psalmist, the oil and dew, are not those moments when the community had a guarantee of plenty for either. The pilgrims remember in this psalm of ascent that the community is blessed for another reason. One that confounds material abundance, and even defies it.
Maybe that is why it is so difficult to articulate what being blessed really is. It is not an easily measurable thing. Having everything does not guarantee it, although having enough seems to be a welcome part of it.
It is for us to consider what blessing looks like, because it might not be the assumed measures of success. It is somewhere in the remembering of how we got to here, and who has gone before us. It is the reassurance that God cares for us, even though we may have limited concrete evidence of that. It is in the building of a community that stands in the gap for one another when uncertainty becomes the default experience.
It is in the little things, like checking in with people who have not been here for a while. It is in the patients with children who are discovering and creating a new faith just for themselves that may not look like your’s our mine.
It is in the rituals of remembering, gathering, blessing, sharing, giving, receiving, building up, supporting, collaborating, taking a risk for. It is in the ritual of loving and eating together, worshiping and praying.
These are the signs of oil pouring and dew quenching our sometimes hungry and parched days, and I’m not just talking about food and water here.
Blessing is resting in the knowing beyond understanding that God is found in the uncertain places, waiting for us to lean in and pick up each other’s burden and carry on together. When we become communally bound together in mutual thriving, abundance knows no limit.