“Pilgrim Song”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 18, 2018

Psalm 126


If you lived in ancient Israel, the psalm we just heard would likely have been familiar to you.  The words would have been written on your heart.  The tune (or tunes) would have sprung easily to your lips.  Because you would have sung it a lot.

The religious practices of the time included three major observances known as pilgrim festivals, during which people would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship and make offerings at the temple there.  In the Bible, traveling to Jerusalem is often referred to as “going up.”  Like many ancient cities, Jerusalem was strategically located at a higher elevation than much of its surroundings, and the temple itself was located on a high point that was reached by climbing up massive stone steps.  Worshippers would literally “go up” to arrive at their destination.

Psalm 126 is one of fifteen psalms that bear the superscription, “A Song of Ascents.”  These fifteen psalms are believed by scholars to have been recited by pilgrims while traveling up to Jerusalem or while climbing up the steps of the temple.  Just as people across time and around the world have done while undertaking long journeys or arduous labor, the Jerusalem pilgrims would sing together, providing a common rhythm, a common pace, a common focus for body, mind, and heart.

Psalm 126 is a song in two movements, two stanzas.  The first tells a story of restoration and rejoicing, while the second is a prayer that requests those very same things.  The first sings of mouths filled with laughter and tongues with shouts of joy and word spreading to the ends of the earth about God’s mighty deeds.  The second sings of tears and weeping, of dry streambeds awaiting the life-giving rain.  And yet the psalmist wrote this, and the pilgrims sang it, as one unified psalm, not two separate ones.  Because the psalmist knew, and the pilgrims knew, that the life of faith and the life of a community require both voices:  both praise and petition, both celebration and supplication.

At any given festival, as the pilgrims made their way up to Jerusalem, there were surely some among them who were singing the first stanza with all their hearts.  The joy of a new home, a new job, a new baby, a new relationship… reconciliation where the chasm seemed un-bridgeable, healing where the diagnosis seemed terminal, freedom where bondage seemed interminable.

And at any given festival, as the pilgrims made their way up to Jerusalem, there were surely some among them who were singing the second stanza.  The plea for help when all seems lost… the grief of a family member’s death… the worry at a loved one’s illness or decline… the struggle of unemployment or underemployment… the ache of loneliness… the soul-eroding toll of living in a system that is not set up for your flourishing… the pain of waking up to the reality that your life, your career, your marriage, your children, didn’t turn out as you had hoped, and the disorientation of figuring out what on earth to do next.

And for any given individual, who would have gone up to Jerusalem three times each year for as many years as she could, there were surely times when the first stanza was the one that resonated, and other times when the second stanza was the song of her heart.  Because the life of faith, the life of a community, the life of any one of us, requires both voices:  both praise and petition, both celebration and supplication.

As I imagine those pilgrims walking the dusty road toward Jerusalem, or climbing up those mighty stone steps toward the holy places of the temple, I think they must have paused in their singing from time to time and shared with one another what the psalm on their lips brought to their minds.  Where they were seeing or experiencing restoration and rejoicing, and where they found themselves in need of such renewal.  The things for which they were filled with gratitude, and the things for which they were filled with grief.  The times when they found themselves praising God, and the times when they weren’t so sure about God.  And as they shared those stories, those situations, those circumstances with one another, I imagine that the joys they shared were magnified, and the struggles they shared were eased, for they were not alone in their rejoicing or in their sorrow.

As we make our pilgrimage into our season of winter holidays and festivals, beginning this week with Thanksgiving, perhaps we might take a lesson from the Psalmist, from those ancient pilgrims.  In our culture, it can seem like this season is somehow supposed to be one-dimensional, all good cheer, all the time.  But the truth of our lives, our communities, our faith, is much more complex than that.  Authentic celebration requires that we hold together grief and joy, lament and praise.  Authentic community requires that that we make room for both, for one another and for ourselves.  For God surely makes room for it all, for each and every one of us.

So this morning, as one way to try holding space within ourselves and within our community for the full range of life and faith, and as one way to remember that the scriptures belong not to me, not to the clergy, not to the front of the church, not to the ones at the microphone, but to all of us—and to remember that our scriptures give voice to praise and to petition, to celebration and to supplication—and to experience the power of the scriptures when we put them in our minds, in our mouths, in our bodies—I invite you now to join me in singing this psalm.

You might imagine yourself as a Jerusalem pilgrim in days long ago.  You might imagine yourself climbing up the steps of the temple.  You might imagine yourself climbing up to another high place—a mountain or hill or lookout point.  You might stay right here, right in the midst of your everyday, ordinary life (Christmas Fair and paving trucks and all).

We will sing both stanzas, and although you might gravitate more toward one or the other this morning, I invite you to sing both.  Sing them as description, or as proclamation, or as memory, or as aspiration.  Sing them to your past self or to your future self.  Sing them to someone else in this room, or someone else beyond this room.  Sing them in full voice or sing them in a whisper.  Sing them because life is hard, and beautiful, and because God is in the midst of it all.

Would you sing after me:


When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.


Pilgrims, may this be your song, may this be our song, for we dwell always in the presence of God, who is with us in weeping and in rejoicing, who has done great things for us and will do so again.


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