“Gateways of Grace”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
2O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come.
3When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
4Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
5By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
6By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
7You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
8Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
10You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges, softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
11You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy. (NRSV)
Late in these fall afternoons, as Marianne is shuffling pots and pans while preparing supper, or as I am shuffling pots and pans while washing dishes, one of us often hollers at the other from our west-facing living room. “Come look at this!” we say. When all the playful ingredients of physics come together just right, we stand at the window in awe of the shimmering fires of sunset.
Sunset happens every evening; and yes, science can precisely explain and understand it. And some days the colors are brighter and more varied than others. Still, both sunset and sunrise can be hypnotizing wonders, experiences to enter rather than merely sights to behold.
Thus does the psalmist sing: “You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.”
To imagine sunrise and sunset as magnificent “gateways” calls our attention to them as mystical, God-given moments. And while their bright, lava-lamp magic isn’t a unique occurrence, each event is kind of like seeing a new painting by the same artist. And there’s never even a moment when those gateways are not shouting for joy. Just as it’s always “five o’clock somewhere,” the sun is always rising somewhere and setting somewhere else. Even when it’s noon or midnight for us, someone, at some far boundary, stands at the gateway of the morning and someone else at the gateway of the evening. Like grace itself, these numinous gateways are a continuous presence on the earth.
The psalmist’s reference to “those who live at earth’s farthest bounds” asks us to think not only of those who live far away, but those who lived before us, and those who lie many generations beyond us—citizens of a future we can’t imagine, but to whom we are responsible. How we live on this earth, the steps we take to treasure it and care for it, these are our shouts and songs of joy. Our deliberate acts of stewardship of the earth are songs of praise. They’re signs of our love for ancestors, for neighbors, for descendants, and thus, for God.
For psalmists, the act of praise is more than self-indulgent happiness. Praise is itself a kind of gateway. Songs of thanksgiving express human gratitude for God’s generosity. Whether spoken or unspoken, shouts of praise don’t demand answers; they acknowledge the limits of human understanding. And the only certainty declared by praise is the incomprehensible fact of existence itself. Even with all its terrifying turmoil, the earth is real, and a breathtaking wonder! Like music, awe is a universal language, and it opens doors to new ways of seeing the world, knowing ourselves, and loving God.
Water is another central symbol of Psalm 65. “The river of God is full of water.” And along with sunlight and earth, this holy flow creates the life-giving vibrancy and life-sustaining abundance on which all things depend. When our Sunday school class studied this psalm last week, someone observed that the source of the earth’s life and liveliness doesn’t hover in the heavens but churns deep within the earth herself. “The hills gird themselves with joy,” says the psalmist, “the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”
The affirmation of sun, water, hill, meadow, and valley invites us to see God’s incarnate presence in the very earth upon which we walk, the water in which we bathe, the soil in which we plant seeds and build homes, and the planet which reaches out to distant corners and which is covered by roaring seas and the tumult of diverse peoples.
If we allow ourselves to embrace the Creation as Incarnation, how can we possibly allow ourselves to take the earth for granted? One megachurch pastor recently declared that God “intended” for the earth to be a “disposable planet.”1 It seems to me that the writer of Psalm 65 would weep and gnash his teeth at such desecrating ingratitude. A disposable planet does not clothe itself with flocks. It doesn’t deck itself with grain. It doesn’t shout and sing for joy. That pastor’s awelessness leads to more than poor stewardship. It becomes a cancer that consumes the Creation by encouraging people, even people of faith, to turn blind eyes toward injustice, poverty, war, and humankind’s unbridled abuse of the environment. The earth may have a life cycle, but if it’s disposable, then no lives matter. And that is not the witness of scripture.
Psalm 65 presents a vision not unlike Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom in which “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…The cow and the bear shall graze…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (From Isaiah 11:6-9) The psalmist is convinced of the God-purposed goodness of the Creation, the very same goodness affirmed in the stories of Genesis 1 and 2, and reaffirmed in Revelation 21 with the prophecy of “a new heaven and a new earth.”
In no way is the psalmist unaware of the challenges to that vision or to the arguments that question the Creation’s fundamental goodness. He openly confesses human iniquity and transgression, but his song of praise is his impassioned Nonetheless. Psalm 65 is his declaration of faith that the “river of God” will continue to flow and to bless to the earth. It’s also his vow to live in faithfulness to God who delivers and redeems, who silences the roaring waves and the tumult of the peoples, and who redeems the Creation so that the earth may sing and shout for joy, again.
The psalm calls us to live, individually and corporately, as visible and tangible signs of God’s presence. When we pledge ourselves to lives of grateful praise, we can become gateways of grace, witnesses to God’s will and power to fill deserts with rain, hopelessness with hope, and brokenness with wholeness.
As Christians, we claim that Jesus is the unique and specific incarnation of the same God incarnated in the Creation as a whole. As God-Incarnate, Jesus enters the world as an expression of God’s own praise, of God’s own delight in and pledge to the Creation. As the body of Christ, then, we, the Church, are called to be a place where every Friday finds its Sunday.
When we commit ourselves to God through a particular congregation, we pledge more than money. We pledge ourselves to living as gateways of grace. The praises we sing, the missions we do, the care we offer each other, the study, laughter, tears, and meals we share—all of this is our witness and our praise. It’s our love and hope enfleshed.
Even under the constraints of Covid, we are called and equipped to be a fertile field, an overflowing pasture, a meadow clothed in flocks, and a valley decked out with an abundance of grain. Even when the tumult around us is loud, violent, and splintered by tribal bitterness, God calls and equips us to live in grateful wonder, to “shout and sing together for joy.”
So, as our mission statement says, we keep on telling God’s story and our stories. We keep on singing to and serving God. And we keep on laughing—together.