The Rev. Emily Williams Guffey
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Chicago
17 April 2016 • 4th Sunday of Easter, Year C
In the past couple of weeks, as I have gotten to rehearse that psalm1 with the choir, I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. It has stuck with me.
One way it has captivated me is that at the top of the page of music, the composer has written a note – which I think came through this morning – that the musicians should sound “serenely confident”: serenely confident that the Lord is my shepherd, and though I walk through dark valleys, I am not afraid because God is with me. And God is spreading a table before me in the midst of my foes. The Lord guides me and comforts me, guards me, anoints me, and loves me.
What also has captivated me is the little word the composer has added throughout the psalm. This little word, lauda, is Latin for “praise”, and if it had been in the original psalm, which was in Hebrew, it would have been the Hebrew hallel – like “Hallelujah”, “Alleluia”. So the composer punctuates this familiar psalm with joy – joy that bubbles up in response to God’s presence with us, even in our darkest, most hopeless times. Some of the words of praise are bold and jubilant, others soft and yearning, but it is the effervescence that strikes me: the impulse to praise God naturally and frequently.
What does it mean to praise God? In everyday conversation, when we “praise” someone, we’re saying good things about them. But I think that it’s deeper than that.
I looked in my trusty Hebrew dictionary and saw that hallel, “praise”, means to shout with joy…or with wonder…or even in terror. So it’s like a Yayyyy! and a Wow…and a Whoa.
Now bear with me down a short rabbit trail. We’ll come back. See, by mistake as I was looking through the Hebrew dictionary, I saw that hallel looks and sounds a whole lot like this other word, challel. Challel means “to pierce”. This would have a negative connotation – that whatever is pierced would be damaged beyond what it is meant to be, no longer desirable, polluted, broken. I wonder if the fact that these two little words look and sound so similar can help us understand what it means to praise.
If challel is to pierce, then maybe hallel is like it – piercing the air with our shouts of joy or wonder or awe. If challel is to puncture, then might hallel be like it – punctuating our lives with the joy of God-with-us.
If challel is to puncture, then might the punctures in Jesus’ hands and feet have become causes of joy, because they are not the end of his story – just as our wounds, as deep and true as they are, are not the end of our stories.
So, “even at the grave,” as one of our ancient chants says, “we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” So we punctuate this service and so many services with Alleluias all over the place: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!” “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, Alleluia, alleluia!” (There are some churches where you all would be punctuating this sermon with Amens and Alleluias – but please don’t do that, because it would make me feel uncomfortable!) Because sometimes the Alleluias, the Laudas, bubble up out of us, as if they are the carbonation of our joy that cannot be contained, and there are other times when we might not be feelin’ it and it helps to have those words in front of us because we need to practice. We need to practice joy.
I was walking around yesterday on that glorious day – just like this glorious day – thinking about all this, and when I had an urge to check my phone.
It was a familiar urge, because it had only been five minutes since the last time I checked it. Had I missed a text? Did I have any notifications? Any of those little red circles with numbers in them? What were the numbers? I can’t stand those things – I like to keep the screen neat. But if I’m completely honest, I do like them, because it means that someone has paid attention to me.
When it hit me: I am punctuating my time with an iPhone!
What if every five minutes, instead of checking if someone has paid attention to me, I stop to pay attention to what God is doing. If I noticed that magnolia tree that all of a sudden is bursting with blossoms. If I looked up and out and into the eyes of my neighbor, and realized that I recognize him from the train and around the neighborhood. If I remember that even during all of the tough times, somehow there always has been enough.
Then maybe I would see the table that God is always spreading before me, the green pastures and still waters to which, though hidden, God is always leading me, and in which my soul may find joy and rest. Alleluia, alleluia!
1. The choir had sung a setting of Psalm 23, the psalm appointed for the day, by Z. Randall Stroope:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Lauda, lauda!
Through death’s dark valleys, no fear shall I know, Lauda, lauda!
My head is covered with the finest oil, my cup runneth over and over. Lauda, lauda!
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow!
Green pastures, still waters, the Lord provides! Lauda, lauda.
My soul restores, my heart renews. Lauda, lauda!
The Lord prepares me a table, lauda, no fear have I from my foes.
The Lord anoints me, guards me, loves me.
The Lord provides me with a rod and staff, lauda,
They comfort and guide me, lauda, lauda!
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow!
And in the house of the Lord I will dwell forever. Lauda, lauda!