Enter God’s Gates with Thanksgiving – September 13

A sermon based on Psalms 96 and 100
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 13, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I am very glad to be here today with all of you beloved church sisters and brothers gathered in-person in this newly refurbished one-hundred-and-fifty-two-year old sanctuary. We have not met together up here since March 15th (The Ides of March!). That was twenty-six Sundays ago! Having not had in-person worship within these hallowed walls for a half year, it does my soul good to be worshiping with you this morning. Each of you are a God spark and those sparks gathering together makes God’s presence burn all the brighter. And it warms my heart. I missed you much!!!
I have appreciated being able to have worship on-line since the Ides of March. It was necessary because of the pandemic and work being done up here. I am grateful for all who joined us on line and for the great production team that made it all possible. Laura and Christa have been wonderful to work with in the services; and behind the scenes Scott and Charlotte were so helpful with tech stuff. Denny and Jene’ had nice cameo roles too. Be sure to thank all of them.
As well as on-line worship went, there is nothing like worshiping in the same room, especially with all of you in this very special room, this sanctuary in God’s house. I figured those of us here this morning would be rejoicing to be back in our beloved church with others to worship and to bask in the glory of God. So, I decided to set aside the Lectionary readings for the week and I chose two Psalms instead, psalms that lift up rejoicing in worship and being glad and thankful to enter God’s gates . . . as Psalm 100 puts it. Psalm 100 and Psalm 96 both set out ways for humans to respond to God in worship, they mention song, praise, thanks, blessings, proclamation, and reverence. We have opportunities to do all of those things today. And actually, if you think about it, we try to do them every Sunday up here, as well as in our on-line efforts. It is a big part of what we do at church services.
The two psalms for today address worship responses in such an upbeat way I thought they were appropriate on this first day back in this space. The big difference between in-person services and on-line services is, of course, our physical presence and proximity together joining in the common cause of worshiping God. As nice as our on-line services have been, the three-dimensional real-time presence of others can help us better experience God.
God’s always around, but we often need prompts to help us, including other people, as well as words, music, sights, sounds, and even stillness and quiet. They can all cause us to zoom in on God’s 24/7 presence. At worship we respond to God in gratitude, wonder and love– and with hope. This includes hope to moments of experiencing better glimpses of THE God who soaks our existence. Marcus Borg calls those moments thin places, “where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us. (The Heart of Christianity, 156).
Lots of things can aid in the creation of thin places, the things we usually do in worship are tried and true and easily available. But coming back together after a long absence in our much-loved sanctuary that has been buffed and shined like new, that opportunity is much rarer. This special occasion has some of us jazzed about it to the point it alone can serve as a thin place, and we are in awe and wonder and rejoice. And we can have thin places even in times of hardship. As much as the masks, social distancing, sanitizer and soft singing and such might be seen as dampening the experience, they are actually visible signs of love, the great care and desire for the well-being of others. Love is the most important thing on Jesus’ Way. So even the Covid protocols here have good news imbedded in them. They evidence a serious adherence to the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
That is not to say we do not miss and mourn what Covid has taken from us. Family and friends lost to the virus, some still ill, others too vulnerable to attend just yet. Covid has disrupted normalcy, livelihoods and good health. Life is full of adversity in ordinary times, however, Covid -19 has been extraordinarily hard on humankind. But in the face of it, many, many humans have stepped up with love to quell its effects. Those extraordinary acts of love themselves can lift the veil and in them “we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us.”
In our worship services within the walls of this wonderful church we do not abandon the outside, we bring it in with us, our individual and collective ups and downs and everything in between are not erased. Worship here is not about forgetting life. It is about remembering love is in life, always. And that God is love. It is about trying to create in the midst of adversities of all sizes, that thin place. The place where in the storm we see the ever-present rainbow of light. The light of God that can outshine any darkness, get us through any storm, and help us help others through them.
Worship is an intentional portal to God in both the calm and stormy seas of life. A portal that can open up our eyes to see God here and now, and also down the road and even back behind us where we’ve been. God is everywhere all the time! God is what we live and move and have our being in– now . . . and backward . . . and forward. Our lives are– in every time frame (to borrow from Psalm 23)– a cup that runneth over with God, who is love and loves us unfailingly.
The Creator of all that IS, cares about us . . . about you. The Psalms that Laura and I read lift this fact up. Psalm 100 names God as good and steadfast love that endures forever in all generations. That includes US . . . you! Psalm 96 rejoices, praises and thanks God for being salvation, glory, marvels, creation and greatness. That God is all around us and you!
These attributes and blessings from God exist all the time, everywhere. Events in life take our focus from them, from the goodness and glory of God soaking existence. In worship we try to refocus in on God in this space, and provide tools to focus in the rest of the week as well. The negative – and even the seemingly ordinary– can veil our vision from the presence of the goodness, love, glory and salvation of God. But when we stop and work at taking down the veil we create opportunities to behold God. God’s positivity can always overpower the negative and can always make us see the extraordinary in what have taken for granted as ordinary.
Psalm 96 and Psalm 100 instruct us how to bring the veil down. As Laura read so nicely just a few minutes ago, Psalm 96 in the opening three verses tells us to:
Sing to YHWH a new song! Sing to YHWH, all the earth! Sing to YHWH, bless God’s Name! Proclaim God’s salvation day after day; declare God’s glory among the nations, God’s marvels to every people.
Psalm 100, our invocation, gives similar instructions to create a thin place and provides a very uplifting reason to do so . . . love. I am going to end by reading those words again as a meditation, a prayer. You can close your eyes if you want or look down whatever might help you picture, imagine, doing what the Psalm instructs, as you see in your mind’s eye . . . yourself entering God’s presence.
Before we do this meditation, this prayer let’s take a short moment of silence to softly breathe in and out and focus, focus on God’s presence and then listen carefully, prayerfully, to the Psalm. As I re-read Psalm 100 try to hear it speak so positively it lifts the veil for you to behold God in this place and elsewhere in your life. Okay be aware of your breath, softly breathe in and out in this moment of silence . . . and as I break the silence and read Psalm 100. Breathe in . . .Breathe out . . .
(SILENCE) . . .
Acclaim YHWH with joy, all the earth. Serve YHWH with gladness! Enter into God’s presence with joyful song. Know that YHWH is God! YHWH made us, and we belong to the Creator; we are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and the courts with praise! Give thanks to God! Bless God’s name! For YHWH is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations”. . . AMEN!