Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh, Clergy
Jill Bryant is a friend of our church member Charlotte Lindgren. She lives in Dorchester, Dorset, England, and she came to visit us at church with Charlotte two years ago. Last year, she noticed that her church was going through staggering losses, and she decided to collect people’s stories and make a little book. She saw also how people were making do, coping, helping each other.
In this booklet, she herself tells the story about a time, during the quarantine, when she walked to a local park, and she saw an elder Frenchman there taking care of his grandson. They stopped in silence for the longest time. And then they spoke together about how they both were longing for peace. Then there was a long silence again. And then Jill said to him, because it was just that kind of a day and she wasn’t trying to impress anyone, rather, just to say the first thing that came to her mind, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” It was kind of like a Rorschach test, a hundred years to the year after it was invented, as she looked at the world, its conflicts, its intense suffering, and her longing.
The Frenchman loved hearing her say that. It was as if he had never heard it before. He asked her all about it. He was surprised when she answered that it was a hymn that they sang at her church. He wanted to learn it. So she sang it to him. And taught it to him. And they sang it together, through their masks in the wind in the windy park while the little boy played.
This year has been a year of desperation and loneliness, of violence and suffering due to Covid and unjust policing and violence in cities around the globe. And it has also been a year when strangers have come together in the isolation and the quiet and the protest, and helped each other. I am so fascinated by this exquisite insight and kindness, rising up out of the suffering, and this is what I want to speak about today.
The psalm of the day is psalm 47, one of the 11 psalms of the sons of Korach. What happened to the Sons of Korach is important as we think about this psalm. Their story is this, and it comes from the Book of Numbers. Korach and his people got into a huge battle with Moses, perhaps because they were resentful of him. And a giant earthquake rose up, cracked the earth, and swallowed them whole. Dr. Avivah Zornberg, who is my teacher, and a Hebrew Scholar in Israel, asks the question, If they went down into the earth, how can their descendants sing in the temple? Could these songs be an expression of their experience? She has written a beautiful book about it, called Bewilderments, digging into what could have happened and how to understand it.
She writes so many beautiful things about it, and for today I want to consider this: this battle with Moses, who was their cousin, resulted in terrible suffering for them. They made fun of him, and ended up in literal hell. And yet somehow the Talmud describes them singing, from the bottom of the earth, as they repented of their fighting.
I am so interested in this: that the cracks from our worst humiliations and actions give us the option for growing spiritually, often the greatest growth we ever will have. It is when we look at our own brokenness, all the times we ourselves might have mocked Moses or back-bitten each other, and ask forgiveness and make amends, it leads us to a chance to be grateful for every scrap of this world, which of course then leads us to want to vigil for its integrity, work for its wholeness.
So here’s the thing about Psalm 47, this song from the Sons of Korach. It has several layers in it. On the one hand, there is a line in the psalm where the Sons of Korach say that God helped us trample our enemies under our feet. And yet then, there is a line that God holds together all the nations, and gathers the nobles of all the nations. It is as if the Sons of Korach get wiser even when they look on their own experience. They may have initially wanted triumph and victory, and then realize how wrong they were to want to trample these enemies. They realize the nations are all held by God, cherished and loved by God, and that all the guardians of the earth are God’s.
Indeed, Korach’s close relationship with his first cousin Moses makes it both easier and harder for the two of them to be in the conflict that has such disastrous ends. Because the brokenness of Korach’s fall is a brilliant sharp edge for the light to get in. Dr. Zornberg says it this way: that an uncontainable awareness came to them and they burst forth in their song that their descendants would sing in the temple.
So for the French man and the English woman in the park in Dorchester Dorset? 250 years ago they were mortal enemies. Last year they were side by side, overwhelmed with the racism, sickness, and suffering of the world, praying for peace. And the gift of a song came to them then, as the gift of a song came to the Sons of Korach in their looking at their mortal enemies again through another lens. And truly, all of the psalms are songs, gifts from human hands and instruments and harmonies.
Because songs come to us, and psalms, in our most brutal suffering, and they bring us close to each other and to God and that pure and perfect stillness. My friend Pamela just gave me this song, which I would like to sing you: a song of peace again, as the world draws us together, as God helps us synthesize our suffering and make it into transformation.
It is from Mark Miller.
Draw the circle, draw the circle wide. Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.
No one stands alone, we’ll walk side by side. Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.