This Sunday the lectionary gives us one of my favorite Psalms. Psalm 133 is part of a grouping of Psalms called the Psalms of Ascent. Traditions suggest that these were part of pilgrimage journeys to and from Jerusalem, though there is also evidence that the Hebrew people used the Songs of Ascent as they were driven from the Promised Land into slavery under the Babylonians.
One of the more interesting insights into the Psalms of Ascent came to me at a lecture by Derrick Bell over 20 years ago. He had just finished his part history, part science fiction book Gospel Choirs. Through research, he saw a connection between the Psalms of Ascent and the Gospel Hymns of the Underground Railroad. He pointed to the obvious simplicity in words, but complexity in meaning. In other words, you can get meaning from reading them, but you can also see how they are pointing to something more.
A great example is the psalm that we have this week. On the surface it is a pretty psalm extoling the virtues of unity as something beautiful. But underneath there is something else brewing. In fact, the beauty of unity only comes when we work at it and when we accept it.
In Psalm 133 there are two examples of the beauty of unity: the precious oil on the head and the dew of Hermon. Both the oil and the dew are natural, but neither is constant. Dew falls only in certain situations, and as one of my friends pointed out the first time I exegeted this passage, it is very rare for the right situation to occur at Mount Hermon. We also know that oil is not easily attained, in some way it needs to be processed, extruded, or mined (though that would not have been relevant at the writing of the psalm). Together the images suggest that unity is not something that just happens. Like the oil it needs to be worked at, and like the dew, it needs to be the right circumstances.
This has a great deal of connection to our world today. So often we hear calls for unity and strength within countries, communities, and even churches, but we often want this unity to just happen mainly because we want it to happen. This never works. It would be like expecting to ace a test without ever studying, or getting a promotion with never doing more than the bare minimum at work. But work alone does not promise unity; other factors have to play into unity, especially the natural order.
As Christians we build on this idea of unity, which is found in Psalm 133. We recognize that we start our understanding of unity as being tied to the resurrection. This act ties us as kin and thus a family of believers who have potential for unity. Second, we work towards being the church, lifting each other up, caring for one another, turning from the negativity and other trappings of this world and turning to Christ. Finally, the unexpected grace which smooths over our lackings and helps us to see that glimpse of heaven.
Last Sunday, I think many of us saw that beauty presented at our worship, where everything aligned and we had one truly exceptional moment with God. As we think about the coming Sunday and How we prepare for worship, ask yourself what you do to work towards unity, how you witness to when you see it.
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Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen