a sermon on Psalm 84
preached on October 23, 2021 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
To borrow the words of our psalm this morning: how lovely it is to be among you today! By a loose count, I’ve probably stood in something like 70 or so different pulpits since I last set foot in this one some five years ago,
and it is truly a joy and a privilege to be back here with you today as we celebrate 150 years of ministry in and through the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone. Thank you for this invitation to join in your celebration and especially for the privilege to share the word again from this pulpit.
The psalmist was and is right, though: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!”
This is one of my favorite psalms, partly because of the wonderful musical setting that we sang a few minutes ago but also because I have always had a soft spot for beautiful houses of worship—the places that so often come to mind when we think of a divine dwelling place. When I hear this psalm, I remember all sorts of incredible houses of worship I’ve seen over the years: the simple neocolonial style of the church where I was baptized in Mississippi, the sharp angles and stark simplicity of the church where I grew up, the towering walls and flying buttresses of great cathedrals in New York and beyond, the beautiful stone of Iona Abbey that has stood for some 800 years, the towering concrete of the modernist Hallgrimskirkya in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the varied shapes and sizes and styles of churches large and small around New York and New Hope. All these are beautiful and inspiring places, where the wonders of human creativity in architecture and construction inspire “my heart and my flesh [to] sing for joy to the living God.”
But when I look more closely at our psalm for today, I am reminded that there may be something more going on. First of all, any divine dwelling place is more than a building. This was first seeded for me in the simple motions I was taught as a child:
here’s the church,
here’s the steeple,
open the doors
and see all the people.
But the psalmist also recognizes this: “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” In these words I am reminded of all the faithful people who I have encountered in this way, those in the community of faith who work and worship together, all who reach out and serve God and neighbor as they find a home in God’s house. And I think of the challenges of the last year and a half of pandemic life together, the ways in which we have found God somehow strangely dwelling in, around, and under our Zoom boxes as we have done our best to connect with one another.
So I think it is no surprise, too, that we find that these words of praise are filled with deep memory and longing. This is one of a series of pilgrim psalms, where the writer is likely not admiring the beauty of the temple while sitting inside it but rather recalling its wonder from afar in hopes of returning again soon.
The incredible images here only deepen our sense of longing and anticipation as we are reminded again and again of the incredible and wonderful gift of this place of worship and the community in which we find God present. The sparrow and swallow who find a home there, the highways and springs that lead the way, the early rain and pools of water that sustain life— all these things point the way to deeper, more faithful living in the house of God. The vision of the sparrow finding a home and the swallow making a nest might freak out the building and grounds committee, not to mention a few of the more timid worshipers, but they seem to be one of the ultimate expressions of the psalmist’s longing to dwell with God along the way. As translator and commentator Robert Alter notes,
Small birds such as swallows may well have nested in the little crevices of the roughly dressed stones that constituted the Temple façade. The speaker, yearning for the sacred zone of the Temple, is envious of these small creatures happy in the Temple precincts, whereas he, like an unrequited lover, only dreams of this place of intimacy with the divine.”Robert Alter, note on Psalm 84:4 in The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.
For 150 years, the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has offered this kind of home—thankfully not so much a home for so many actual sparrows and swallows of the neighborhood but a place and a people where those beloved by God can find shelter and hope, where we pilgrims can gather to sing and pray and learn and work as we journey together, where even those who have stepped away can still long and faint for the kind of loving divine embrace that they have experienced here.
This church has been a dwelling place for God fo the last 150 years: in this building’s history from a small wood-frame church amidst farmers’ fields and grazing cows to its simple yet secure presence amidst an ever-changing neighborhood, in the journey of the people of this congregation through changing times with the many faithful saints who walk before us and beside us, in the work of this church within and beyond its walls to provide a place of comfort and hope and share the wonder and joy of God’s love. This is a place where the sparrow has found a home and the swallow has made a nest for herself, where we have welcomed generations of faithful folks in baptism, guided so many in growing their faith, offered shelter to those struggling with addiction, shared knowledge and hope with people of all ages, sung songs of joy and lament and wonder and hope through all the seasons of life, lifted up one another so many within and beyond this community in prayer, fed the bodies and spirits of those who are hungry, and even danced a bit as we have shared the joy of being together with one another and with God.
Today we rightfully celebrate this incredible past and remember the faithfulness of God and all the saints who have brought us to this place in the present, but that same celebration inspires us to look ahead and explore what this divine dwelling place might look like in the future. What sort of place and people will those beloved by God need in the days ahead to offer them shelter and hope? How best can we welcome new pilgrims to our gatherings for singing and praying and learning and working as we journey the road together? What will it look like in the years ahead for us to evoke memories in one another and in all those around us of the loving divine embrace that we have experienced here? All that lies ahead in response to these questions is likely not to need a new building, new technology, or even a vast influx of new people but will rather draw on the incredible sense of community in God’s presence that defines this incredible congregation.
Just as we have received so many gifts from God to sustain this divine dwelling place over the last 150 years, I am confident that God has already given you all the gifts you need for the ministry of this divine dwelling place for the next 150 years. You already know how sparrows and swallows find an unexpected home here, and you continue to offer them a welcome place to share your wonder and joy. You have long explored the highways and springs that lead the way to the places that people long for, and you are always inviting others to share that path with you. You have been gifted with abundant stores of early rain and pools of water (even occasionally in the basement!) that can sustain you along the way—after all, as the psalmist said, “no good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly.” I am confident that the next generation of pilgrims who need this place are already making their way to join this community, and knowing this congregation, I am equally confident that you are always getting ready to welcome them with a warm smile, a gentle presence, and a big hug—when it is safe to do so!
When another group of God’s people look back on this church after another 150 years, I cannot say what they will see. I suspect none of us will still be around, and as such I can’t predict what shape this building will be in. The memories of this place preserved in records and archives may be all that is left, or our grandchildren’s grandchildren may be gathering to celebrate 300 years of ongoing ministry in this place. Whatever path may lie ahead, I am confident that God will keep taking all the gifts that have been poured out upon God’s people in this lovely dwelling place and will continuing using them as instruments of God’s freedom, grace, justice, peace, and love.
In the meantime, may our hearts and our flesh keep singing for joy to the living God as we celebrate this lovely dwelling place—this building and all its people that offer a welcome to all creation and help connect us to the God who created us, the God who redeems us, and the God who sustains us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Amen.