Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, October 8, 2006
“Shouts of joy.” Three times Psalm 126 sings about “shouts of joy”. That is what Thanksgiving day is about. Here we are, far removed from the farms of our grandparents, yet stopping to shout for joy. We could be out shopping, cooking, playing, working. We could be, but we are not. We are here, rejoicing. Rejoicing because the earth is abundant, ripe, full. The tomatoes and the grapes hang on the vines. The apples weigh down the branches. The wheat and oats and barley stretch for mile after mile across huge swaths of the land. We could be looking at a screen or a monitor, not looking at the land. We could be walking down the aisle of a supermarket, forgetful that God’s good earth freely gives up its gifts of food. But we are here, here to bathe in the joy that there is a bountiful harvest in the land and an abundance of grace in our life. Joy cannot be forced. You cannot produce joy even when you know you should be joyful. I am not sure what to call joy that is offered as a duty, but I do know that it is not really joy. Joy is spontaneous. Joy cannot be silenced. Joy is a shout when the baby is born. Joy is a leap in the heart when she says ‘yes’. Joy is the sound of a family reconciled at table with one another. The pilgrims who chant Psalm 126 on their thanksgiving journey up the long climb to Jerusalem remember another return to the city of Zion. Their pilgrimages had been banned. For most of a century they were held captive in a distant land. Generations grew and died without seeing or knowing home. It was a long dark Holy Saturday between the terrible destruction of their homes and the incredible Easter homecoming that seemed so impossible. Then, one miraculous day, they returned. “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” Gathered here around this Table we remember a day of great and impossible joy. The women came to the tomb on the first day of the week, mourners doing their sad duty while weeping tears of great grief. We are here, now, because that great grief was overturned by the power of the LORD who raised Christ and restored earth’s fortunes. On that Sunday the table of Maundy Thursday - the table of foreboding and foreshadowing amid the garden of tears and sorrows - on that surprising Sunday “our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy”. In our pilgrimage - in our (literally) wandering - we look back over our shoulders and remember the great joy that we have known, joy that has been God’s doing, not our own. Joy of recovery from addiction, of recovery from despair, from shame, from abandonment. Joy of forgiveness and reconciliation longed for, now at hand. Joy of receiving a calling, a purpose, a vocation for life. All these things - God’s doing, not our own. We are a people who have been reborn by joy. But notice that the Psalm hinges on a startling truth. Joy is absent. There are no shouts for joy in the present. The pilgrims travel to thanksgiving in a season of drought and despair and longing. They are keeping the tradition. They are going to worship, but they are not shouting for joy. Instead they ask the LORD for something more. Do they ask politely? Or do they rudely interrupt the LORD’s important business with a plea? I am not sure. But I know that they do not shout for joy on this thanksgiving. On this thanksgiving they dare to intercede with God: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.” The Negeb is the arid south. There the stream beds are dry except for deluges that are few and far between, when they fill to an overflowing flood. The pilgrims are dry, worn, fatigued. Their future must surely be harsh, unpromising, bleak. In the heart of this great song of joy - this psalm that is a shout of joy - there is a moment of searing truth. Ache and loss and fear have robbed the community of reasons for joy in the here and now. So the pilgrims cry for restoration - for restoration of “our fortunes”. It is a problematic translation. Fortuna is the Greek goddess of luck. She is the goddess of lotteries, of fortune tellers and of stumbling upon treasure chests. To pray for God to restore our fortunes might have us pleading for luck, for wealth, for a fortune. Other translations name the good fortune specifically. Listen to the King James Version: “turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south.” This is the pilgrim’s prayer, the wanderer’s longing. We do not want fortunes, winnings, luck. We long for God to turn our captivity around, to end it, to bring us home. Home. Coming home. Thanksgiving is lived between our memories of coming home amid the shouts of joy at our return and our deep longing for home, even now. Our own homes are only way points on the pilgrimage. We had hoped that they would be hearths of perpetual joy, song, safety, comfort. At times it seems that they are. Yet in our homes we also live through dry seasons of absence, of exile, of captivity, of ache and trouble. Do you know what I am talking about? And this church, this home on the way home. It, too, promises to be a home to joy and peace and love. Yet even this holy place and pilgrim people know what it is to live in a season of barrenness, a time when growth is stunted and an abundant harvest is surely impossible. Is it the truth about us, here? In the heart of this ancient song of joy comes a stunning declaration of the painful truth that even as we come home to the Welcome Table of Jesus Christ we are still far from our true home. Yet the psalm does not end with longing and ache. The psalm begins with the joyful shouts of the past. Psalm 126 hinges on the dryness and silence of the present. Then it carries its pilgrim chorus into tomorrow. There we see not grief, but joy. We pilgrims’ sing our way through daring hope to shouts of joy, once more. The psalm is not optimistic. But the psalm is filled with hope. It is not optimistic because it does not call upon us to put on a happy face. The psalm is not looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. It knows that we enter the future in tears. We are not invited to wear phoney smiles that hide a cynical heart. We learn to see the world through tears because we cannot deny the trouble, the bleakness, the hurt. We are a hopeful people because we plant, we sow, we prepare for tomorrow in spite of the weather forecast that calls for a bleak season without showers, without blessings, without manna from the earth. Our hope is grounded in trust that the God who has taken us home in the past is a homecoming God still. This is the life that the psalm invites us to travel and calls the church to embody. It is a life of sowing in the midst of our tears, days of planting in spite of the dark forecast. And this is the mysterious truth - we sing this song of daring hope while we are already gathered at the table of our true home. The table of God’s kingdom, God’s will done is set before you. The welcome home table of Jesus Christ is set for all who are lost and last and lone. The joy of returning home echoes here from the past and from the future. We hear the shouts of our grandmothers and grandfathers from yesterday even as we join the song of the coming day of reconciliation and restoration. We are surrounded by joy, from the past and from the future. To our great wonder and surprise, our tears are themselves seeds. They fall to the ground in grief, in worry, in sadness. Through them God provides a harvest - a resurrection banquet of grapes and of grain, of wine and of bread, of Christ’s body broken for you and Christ’s life blood poured out for forgiveness. And, through our tears, we cannot help but sing and shout for joy. It’s the gospel truth. Amen? Amen!