Joy That Knows Its Journey
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12, 2012
By Sarah Henkel, Parish Associate
2 Kings 5: 1-14 Psalm 30
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
‘I shall never be moved.’
By your favour, O Lord,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cried,
and to the Lord I made supplication:
‘What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
O Lord, be my helper!’
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Psalm 30 celebrates a healing that has taken place. It is the recounting of an individual who felt they were so far gone – in the realm of the dead or the pits of Sheol – that no return was possible. But God in grace drew her up from the pit. This psalm is a song of gratitude, praise, and, above all, joy. The Psalmist says, “Weeping lasts for the evening but joy comes with the morning.” “Wailing turns to dancing and the garments of mourning are turned to joy.” This is joy that knows its journey. It is joy that springs from the experience of health and healing but also from deep within the experience of pain. God’s mark on the psalmist’s life is not only in the newfound health but also in God’s presence in the pits of Sheol. If the psalmist was delivered from that frightening place it’s only because God met him there in the realm of the dead. God met me there in the dungeon AND God brought me here into a spacious place and so, the Psalmist proclaims, my heart will sing and not be silent.
Paula M. Cooey, a feminist theologian, writes that “joy is distinctively generous.”[i] It drives the self outward in relation to others. Or as the Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat writes, “With a lone person, there is not just triumph in the survival story, there is triumph in the telling of it. There is a joy at having survived, a sense of disbelief that you survived at all and that you have a new life.”[ii] I recently experienced the generosity of joy here at White Plains Presbyterian. I think of the joyful e-mail I received from Norma on the prayer list saying that a prayer had been answered – God is Good, she wrote, makes me want to read Psalm 103 over and over again. The White Plains prayer warriors prayed through the weeping in the evening all the way to the joy that came with the morning, which points to the second point Cooey makes about joy. “Joy works as a strategy for survival that has profound, subversive possibilities – joy aids the survival of a people of faith and subverts the unjust and oppressive systems and structures that dominate human life today.”[iii] Joy moves us out toward one another and the systems that isolate, that divide, that assign worth to some and not to others, all those systems start to shake. If joy breaks through then the powers of death do not have the last word.
Today as the continuation of our celebrations of Black History Month we journey through some of the music and prayers of the Caribbean – West Indies, a region that makes up over 7,000 islands, islets, and cays. As Leslie shared, the Psalms were often sung in worship in Jamaica and many of the island nations that make up the Caribbean. We just sang Psalm 100, a song of thanksgiving, the lyrics were simply the words of the Psalm, the refrain, which the children helped us sing was Hallelujah. After choir rehearsal on Wednesday I went home singing that Psalm – carrying it with me as I did things around the house. That is the power of song – the words go deeper down and you find that you are able to recite and repeat the words in your own voice. The joy of the psalm becomes embodied in you.
The chanting and singing of Psalms in the Caribbean was introduced through the Anglican and Methodist traditions, most likely around the time that John Calvin was working writing about the importance of the Psalter and psalm-singing. The chanting of Psalms was also part and parcel of the Christianity preached to the enslaved peoples of the Caribbean by the colonizing forces. Dr. Michael Miller of the United Church of Jamaica writes of the Christianizing forces in the Caribbean, “The Society responsible for the propagation of the Christian faith in Barbados sought to influence the local planters to allow evangelisation by indicating that the converted slave would be less rebellious and more industrious. We learn, however, of the complaint of Barbadian planters that the Christianity meant to soften the converts was instead causing unrest among them. Somehow the slaves’ understanding of what they had gotten into was very different from the planters’ intentions. I will resist the temptation to speculate about the slaves understanding of the theological significance of staging an uprising on Easter morning of 1816 in Barbados, and Christmas week of 1831 in Jamaica.”[iv]
The Christian Scriptures and also the practice of chanting psalms may have been offered with the intent to control but the Word of God is powerful and free…the psalms sung in the Caribbean took on their own syncopation and new meaning, they were sung in new keys, and the joy expressed took on a different tenor as those who sang and chanted passed through the death forces of colonialism, the struggle for liberation, and the bittersweet joy of freedom.
Joy that knows its journey. Today’s Psalm begins in the voice of an individual but has far reaching implications for the community of faith and beyond. This Psalm was used to celebrate the healing of one and also to celebrate the rededication of the Temple, the place of worship. Why choose this Psalm for the rededication of the Temple? To reorient the kind of joy that we lift up in worship. Not empty words of praise to mask the complexity and pain of life together here on earth but joy that was born out of pain and now speaks to challenge the powers of death at work in the world. The psalmist bargains with God – if you let me return to dust, who will be here to praise and proclaim your power over what sought to kill me? David Pleins says of the Psalms of Thanksgiving, “The ability to give thanks is a radically humanizing endeavor, by which we refuse to let the triumphs of evil destroy our capacity to see God at work in our torn world.”[v]
In my work as cross-cultural network coordinator for Hudson River Presbytery, I have traveled to visit many churches, sat down with pastors and congregants, and met with a network of people who want to continue the conversation about how we reach out to one another and those in our community across differences of race, ethnicity, physical ability, age, class, etc. The stories shared in these meetings and gatherings call to mind the movement of Psalm 30 – walking through the pain of how we have silenced or pushed aside our differences, wrestling with how to move forward, and then glimpsing and celebrating the joy that comes from the journey. This journey looks different for every congregation… but often joy is found in a movement outward to share the liberation and justice of God with the community outside the church doors. Joy in our worship becomes then not only the expression of praise for individual healings from illness but also praise for the systems of death crumbling outside our doors – new jobs for the unemployed, housing for the homeless, or Trader Joe’s finally signing on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Agreement. This is our joy to share if we walk through the struggle together.
Take in the Psalms, take in the journey of the joy in Psalm 30, chant and sing it until the walls echo with our joy. Our God has conquered even death – how can we keep from singing?
© 2012 Sarah Henkel
White Plains Presbyterian Church
[i] Cooey, Paula M. “That Every Child Who Wants Might Learn to Dance.” Cross Currents (Summer 1998): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb 2012.
[ii] Aubry, Erin J. “Raising Cane: A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat.” L.A. Weekly (1998): n. pag. Web. 10 Feb 2012.
[iii] Cooey, n. pag. Web.
[iv] Miller, Michael. “Impulses in Caribbean Theology.” CWMission (1999): n. pag. Web. 8 Feb 2012.
[v] Pleins, David. The Psalms: Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice. New York: Orbis, 1993.