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 of the Great Commandments.[iii] Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. These really aren’t two commandments; they’re one. We are deeply loved by God – everyone is deeply loved by God – and so we love God best by loving our neighbor, whom God deeply loves. In John’s first letter we’re reminded that, “We love because God first loved us.”[iv] What we call faith is really nothing more – or less – than being grasped by the power of that love.[v] That love is a calling. We are called by God’s love to show God’s love to the rest of the world. What we do here in worship on Sunday mornings is discover that, celebrate that, and let it shape us. Then we share it with each other and take it out into the world, changing the pronouns, as Floyd Thompkins put it, from “me and my” to “us and we.” And that, said Floyd, “That is what is such an anathema to evil. Evil counts on people believing themselves to be small, disconnected and discounted.”[vi]
The service at Kol Shofar was a confirmation of something William Sloane Coffin wrote: “To love God by loving my neighbor is an impulse equally at the heart of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” And I would add: “…and other faiths as well.”[vii] Instead of fighting over, “My religion is right and yours is wrong,” it’s time to notice and celebrate that although religions are different, most seek to fulfill the same purpose, which is to transform people from self-preoccupation to the wholehearted giving of oneself to the love for God and others.[viii]
I was reminded at Kol Shofar that every gathering of worshiping people, every gathering that has, “Praise the Lord!” as its heart and soul is a powerful “Nevertheless!” to the voices of despair, to the subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to dominate, bully or deny the humanity of our fellow human beings. That includes our worship, here. Worship is always a declaration of hope, and that means worship is resistance. Worship is always a wake up call to act. In a world like ours, where many forces would prefer that we stay asleep and succumb to despair, that does indeed make us dangerous.
Worship doesn’t take place only when we gather on Sunday morning, of course. We worship when we visit someone in the hospital or console the bereaved. We worship when we rebuild homes destroyed by a hurricane in Puerto Rico, and when we serve a good hot meal and offer companionship at one of the Street Chaplaincy dinners coming up. We worship when we march for gun safety, climate justice or an end to the separation of families at the border. If a church has life, what we call “programs” are not just busy work, but worship. But something important happens here when we gather specifically and intentionally to say, “Praise the Lord. Hallelujah!” We Presbyterians aren’t known for … unbridled enthusiasm and that’s okay. However people worship the living God, we are shaped, we are transformed by that worship.
Today, on All Saints’ Sunday, we also celebrate that somehow, in a mysterious way, when we gather at this table, we sit not only shoulder to shoulder with each other and shoulder to shoulder with Christ but also shoulder to shoulder with all those who have gone before us, saints like Mardys Whiteman, Johnny Holm, Nan Harle, Carl Basore; saints like those whose names you’ve written on the clouds on the sanctuary walls – the “cloud of witnesses,”[ix] borrowing a phrase from the book of Hebrews. These are people who accompanied us, mentor us, serve as role models for us. In his letters, Paul uses the word “saints” to refer to the church, here and now and at all times and places, and that’s how Presbyterians define saints. On All Saints’ Day, our focus is not on extraordinary achievements of particular Christians, but on the grace and work of God through ordinary worshiping people.[x] People like you and me. Whether or not you are comfortable claiming the title, we are the saints of God. We, the saints of San Anselmo, are called to love God and neighbor; we are called to worship in community, to serve a community, in order to create a community, and in all this, we encounter the God who is greater than all of our communities.[xi]
And so we gather at this table today. Here we worship; here we find strength for the journey. Here, where the time and the distance between heaven and earth thin out, we give thanks to God for all the saints who have led us, encouraged us and inspired us. Including you. Here, we encounter the living God, and nothing, my friends, is more dangerous than that, because it means nothing will ever be the same. Here, we remind each other that there is now a greater power in us than any other power we may encounter in the world. Here, we boldly and unapologetically praise the God that calls us to rise in faith; and here we declare our resolve[xii] to be courageous and creative in our loving in the face of all that lies ahead. Thanks be to God for you, the saints of San Anselmo, and for all those, past, present and future, who raise their voices or their fists to cry out, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
[i] Floyd Thompkins, “Let the Worshipers Arise,” delivered on Sunday, October 28, 2018 at an interfaith vigil held at Tiburon’s Kol Shofar in response to the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and published on November 1, 2018, https://appliedwisdominstitute.org/let-the-worshippers-arise/.
[v] William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 7.
[vi] Thompkins, ibid.
[vii] Coffin, xv.
[viii] Coffin, ibid.
[x] The Worship Sourcebook (Grand Rapids, MI: co-published by Faith Alive Christian Resources, The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and Baker Books, 2004), 747-748.
[xi] Thompkins, ibid.
[xii] Thompkins, ibid.