Last Sunday evening at the end of a very long day, I more or less dragged myself to Kol Shofar in Tiburon for the Marin Interfaith Council vigil. It was a gathering to express support for the Jewish community after the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and for everyone, regardless of faith background, to express deep grief at the loss, the hatred, and the senselessness of an attack on a worshiping community. I went partly out of a sense of obligation – obligation as a representative of this community and as a colleague to the two rabbis at the larger Jewish congregations: Susan Leider at Kol Shofar and Stacy Friedman at Rodef Shalom. We’ve met in a group of rabbis and Presbyterian pastors for the past four years. At this point, I consider them friends.
It was growing dark when I arrived, and I knew it was a bigger than average event when I had to park about three blocks away. The Kol Shofar sanctuary is round, like a Greek theater, with the bema, what we would call the pulpit or chancel, in the center, lower than the seats that rise up around it. I arrived just before the start time of 6:30, and found a seat in the very back row, the top row. Scott Quinn, the director of the Marin Interfaith Council, found me and gave me a candle – the official representatives of the 35 or so congregations represented held lit candles throughout the service. Within a few minutes, it was standing room only, with many people lining the walls surrounding the pews.
Rabbi Alana Brown of Rodef Shalom began with an achingly beautiful Hebrew chant in a minor key. It was the perfect non-verbal, non-rational introduction. A series of speakers from churches, temples, mosques, and the Green Gulch Zen Center offered prayers, wisdom, and song. People shed tears, people laughed, people felt hope, people were reminded that “Love Lives in Marin.” Love Lives in Marin is the interfaith anti-hate project that grew out of that monthly rabbis and pastors meeting I mentioned.
When Floyd Thompkins from the seminary next door spoke, he put words to the holy mystery we were already experiencing. The Rev. Thompkins pointed out that more was happening at that service than sharing a common grief. More was happening than consolation, or even support. “When we gather in worship,” said Floyd, “we affirm that our lives are not a random biological accident. Rather our lives are miracles given from one generation to the next with a purpose to make us all better. When we gather for worship, we affirm that we are the expression of a kind and powerful force of the universe that calls us to reimagine our community and replenish our hope in every generation. When we read the stories of our sacred texts of resiliency, resurrection and responsibility, we create an expectation of a destiny for humanity that is far more expansive than just a present reaction to our current circumstances. Churches and synagogues [and mosques and temples] deconstruct the notion that faith is only about a personal search for individual fulfillment. Community worship changes the pronouns of our faith from ‘me and my’ to ‘us and we.’”[i]
The theme of the psalm that Jim read, Psalm 146, is lifelong worship – lifelong wonder, lifelong celebration, lifelong attention and lifelong devotion to God through bearing witness to God’s faithfulness and God’s justice. The psalm begins and ends by encouraging us to “praise the LORD!” which is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase hallelu-yah. It celebrates the good news that in the face of human frailty, in the face of trials and tribulations, in the face of evil and even mortality, God remains trustworthy. What’s more, from the creation to eternity, God is dedicated to assisting those in deepest need and direst circumstances. God, says the psalm, “executes justice for the oppressed.” God “gives food to the hungry, … sets the prisoners free, … lifts up those who are bowed down, … watches over the strangers,” and upholds the most vulnerable.[ii]
Praise the Lord. We 21st century Americans, we Marin County dwellers, we progressive and enlightened Christians might shudder at the phrase, “Praise the Lord!” It doesn’t roll easily off our lips. We might associate it with a different brand of piety than we are used to; something more … conservative? Narrow? Simple? You choose your own adjective. But it isn’t conservative; in fact it’s radical, even dangerous.
Think about it. We “worship” what matters most to us, right? People in our culture worship wealth, power, status, security. And we can see how that shapes them. Worshiping security or worshiping wealth shapes people. Likewise, worshiping God shapes us. In worshiping God, as opposed to these other options, we are drawn into the heart of God and sent out to embody God’s love. Cheryl read Mark’s version o