Psalm 48: Song of Jerusalem

July 8, 2012
2 Samuel 5:1-10                      Psalm 48          2 Corinthians 12:2-10             Mark 6:1-13
There are places I remember, all my life, though some have changed,
Some forever not for better, some are gone, some remain.
All these places have their moments, with people and friends I still can recall.
Some are dead and  some are living, in my life, I’ve loved them all.      Beatles
There’s something about places where we live, the people we live with.  As Churchill once said, first we shape our space, then our space shapes us.  We need to choose carefully where we live, what and who we surround ourselves with.  It can also be helpful to get away from these places now and then, to experience other spaces.  To, in a sense, go on pilgrimage. 
I took a pilgrimage of sorts this past week, driving to my brother’s cottage at Lake St. James, Houghton Lake area.  The road was familiar, not only because I’ve been there before, but because it included passing by many significant places. Lansing/E. Lansing where I had gone to college and lived after graduation and where my daughter went to college, also home of my grandmother and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins whom my family had often visited during my childhood. 
I passed Dewitt, home to St. Francis Retreat Center and my brother’s home where my family gathers on Thanksgiving, Alma where I was born and lived all of my childhood years and where my parents had lived until my mom moved, Mt. Pleasant and Clare, each with their memories, and Houghton Lake and my parent’s cottage where I had spent many vacations with my children all on the way to my brother’s cottage.  It was a trip down memory lane with each exit I passed evoking more memories= a sacred journey.
Travelling through these places where we once lived and our memories associated with them is a sacred journey.  These places are holy, made holy by our lives and the lives of our loved ones.  Our hometowns, where we grew up, where we raised our children are holy in our memories, sacred for they are part of who we are.  Is it any wonder that often when men and women go to war, they do so under the rallying cry of home, saving our hometowns?
In most instances these places are holy just to us and maybe a few others.  Now and then there are places that are holy to a greater number, to a multitude; places where God’s presence has been made known in a significant way and thus truly holy.  Jerusalem is one such place.
Our readings for today focus on Jerusalem.  In the first reading from 2 Samuel, we hear how King David captured the city and made it the center of his united kingdom. We see in the narrative how the city dwellers were arrogant and overconfident.  They sat behind their walls and claimed that the blind and lame could defend them.  David used water shafts to gain entrance into the city and conquer it.
At the time of Saul’s death, the Israelite kingdom had been divided.  David united Judah to the south with the northern kingdom of Israel.  He needed a neutral place to serve as his capital, thus Jerusalem with its central location was chosen, much as Washington D.C. was built as a neutral site for a unified nation.  This unified nation was short lived.  After Solomon, the kingdom separated once again into two kingdoms, this period is romanticized as the golden period for the Hebrews.  Jerusalem, also known as Zion, gained symbolic importance to those of Jewish faith.
Psalm 48 is one of the psalms of Zion, hymns of praise of the city used in liturgical settings by worshippers at a festival, perhaps pilgrims to the great city and the Temple.  The psalm separates into three parts. The psalm lacks the introductory formula of other psalms of praise and addresses the city, seeking its welfare and prosperity.
Verses 1-3 start by praising God, then shifts to the city of God; God is praised indirectly through the holy city and the Temple.  Verses 4-11 give the reasons for praise:  God has given them victory over their enemies and protection – just the sight of the city was enough to inspire fear and panic “As soon as they saw it, they were astounded, they were in panic, they took flight;; trembling took hold of them there, anguish as of a woman in travail” (5-6); and God is present in the Temple.  Verses 12-14 conclude the psalm.  The loud and joyous songs of praise and thanksgiving in the Temple are followed by a solemn procession about the city.  In many ways these hymns are similar to our patriotic songs, extolling the virtues of our country and praying for continued protection.  There is a danger though, as we shall see.
In or reading from Mark we see how a prophet was never accepted in his hometown.  They think they know who he is, having watched him grow up or grown up alongside of him.  They weren’t able to see beyond this to who Jesus really was.  Jerusalem, however, didn’t just reject prophets.  With good reason, Jesus wept over the city, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” (Matthew 23:37a) 
Jerusalem, sacred to all three of the major monotheistic faiths, is a site of controversy, violence and abuse of the sacred, a place of contradiction.  Karen Armstrong, in her book, Jerusalem:  One City, Three Faiths, describes thousands of years of history of this city, a history filled with bloodshed.  Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered, repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt.  Periods of relative peace have been just that, relative and short lived.
The city of David and home to Solomon’s Temple, it is holy to Jews.  The place of Jesus’ final days and resurrection, it inspires faith in Christian.  It is also considered holy to Muslims as one of the three holy cities proclaimed by the prophet Mohammad and the site where Mohammad is said to have been transported before his ascension into heaven.  It is the same God, the one God, yet differences in beliefs about this one God have led to on-going controversy and bloodshed.  As is so often the case, people take that which is holy and try to use it for political and monetary gain. This happens repeatedly in Jerusalem.
The story of Jerusalem is a story of sacred geography, how some places seem closer to God.  As Armstrong explains in her first chapter, “But long before people began to map their world scientifically, they had evolved a sacred geography to define their place in the universe emotionally and spiritually.  Mircea Eliade, who pioneered the study of sacred space, pointed out that reverence for a holy place preceded all other speculation about the nature of the world.  It is to be found in all cultures and was a primordial religious conviction.  The belief that some places were sacred, and hence fit for human habitation, was not based on an intellectual investigation or on any metaphysical speculation into the nature of the cosmos.  Instead, when men and women contemplated the world about them, they were drawn irresistibly to some localities which they experienced as radically different from all others.  This was an experience that was basic to their view of the world, and it went far deeper than the cerebral level of the mind.  Even today our scientific rationalism has not been able to replace the old sacred geography.  As we shall see, ancient conceptions of holy topography still affect the history of Jerusalem and have been espoused by people who would not normally consider themselves religious.” (pp. 7-8)
It is also a story of myths and symbols which can bring meaning to a place.  Jerusalem has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries, from the early Jews going to the Temple to worship, to Christians walking the path that Jesus walked, to Muslims journeying to Haram where Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
There have been great leaders, David, Solomon, Saladin, as well as mediocre leaders, weak leaders, corrupt leaders and unwise leaders.  Unfortunately, one great leader does not mean those who follow will be equally great.  Site of the brutal killings of the Crusades, it was not the Christian crusaders who exemplified Christian values of mercy but a Muslim, Saladin who showed mercy to those of other faiths.  “Christians in the West were uneasily aware that this Muslim ruler had behaved in a far more ‘Christian’ manner than had their own Crusaders when they conquered Jerusalem.  They evolved legends that made Saladin a sort of honorary Christian.” (p. 294) 
Armstrong states in her introduction:  “It is not enough to experience the divine or the transcendent; the experience must then be incarnated in our behavior towards others.  All the great religions insist that the test of true spirituality is practical compassion.  The Buddha once said that after experiencing enlightenment, a man must leave the mountaintop and return to the marketplace and there practice compassion for all living beings.  This also applies to the spirituality of a holy place.  Crucial to the cult of Jerusalem from the very first was the importance of practical charity and social justice.  The city cannot be holy unless it is also just and compassionate to the weak and vulnerable.  But sadly, this moral imperative has often been overlooked.  Some of the worst atrocities have occurred when people have put the purity of Jerusalem and the desire to gain access to its great sanctity before the quest for justice and charity.” (p. xxi)  In this area, all three of the faiths making claim to Jerusalem have failed.  It has yet to prove itself truly holy by compassion to the weak and vulnerable.  We’ve yet to see a truly holy city anywhere.
Paul in our reading from Corinthians, relates a significant religious experience.  He doesn’t boast about this experience for he recognizes that such experiences are only significant in that they change the person, making them more kind and compassionate. 
Sacred places are important but only in that they point us to God.  Countries are important.  They give us a sense of connection and community, they provide for security, but not in the place of God.  It’s God first, country second, anything else is idolatry.
Perhaps someday this city of three faiths under one God, might show us the way to peace, how to live together respecting the beliefs of each faith, recognizing our connection under one God.  Then it truly would live up to its name as being holy.

Robertson, Copyright July 2012

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