Psalm 15: Who May Sojourn in God’s Fathomless Tent?

Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church
Williamstown, Massachusetts
July 17, 2022

Today’s Psalm reads, “Lord, who may sojourn in your tent, who may dwell on your holy mountain?

In Biblical times, Psalm 15 functioned as an entrance liturgy to the Temple, a dialogue between the priest and arriving pilgrims who wished to enter the Temple precincts.

Some scholars suggest it was not a literal entrance exam, but rather a processional liturgy for entering into the presence of God.

This morning Christians throughout our country are entering old stone structures and little white clapboard historical buildings and store fronts and giant mega churches. 

Christians whose sincerely held beliefs are sharply incongruous from one another are worshiping concurrently with us.

This summer, as we witnessed more mass murders by radicalized young men, and then a politicized supreme court decision disrupted the nation, I confess to you: I was grateful to be away from the pulpit. 

I was stunned by the pain in the world, and by how the teachings of a pacifist, first century Jew could be so divisive among us who consider ourselves his followers.

For example, many Christians of good will interpret the verse from Psalm 139, as a directive to protect life from conception.

“it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139: 13 – 16)

This is a beautiful sentiment. However Judaism, which gave us the Psalms, holds very nuanced beliefs on the matter, beliefs not elucidated by Psalm 139. If you would like to read more on that, you can find an article by an ObGyn at Hebrew University here:

Many progressive Christians are compelled by Jesus’ announcement of his ministry, when he read the words of Prophet Isaiah in the temple at Nazareth, 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me.
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18)

Progressive Christians believe this to be a mandate to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, to the marginalized and to the oppressed, and by extension to women and girls and their health decisions. 

On sick leave at home, I watched conservative Christian friends on social media celebrate victory and progressive friends head out into the streets to protest.

I, relating to Mary in today’s Gospel ––in my own mind at least––preferred to stay put at the feet of Jesus. 

I posted on Twitter something to the effect, “We are not physiologically designed to thrive in perpetual shock and outrage. Retreat. Regroup.” Then I quoted Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” 

A couple of weeks ago, an Episcopalian woman I follow on Twitter and whom I know only as “Marguerite The Parishioner” offered a correction: ‘“Be still and know that I am God”’ she said, “is regularly taken as a call to contemplation, but its context is battle.”

With about a minute’s study last night, I learned Psalm 46 is a national Psalm of thanksgiving for victory after battle. Much more appropriate for protest, for fevered action, more like Martha than like Mary.

I myself cherry-picked scripture to suit my own agenda.

“Lord, who may sojourn in your tent, who may dwell on your holy mountain?”

All of this to say I have been mentally bogged down by religion, by religious division.

Bog: characterized by vegetation, decayed and decaying, and a treacherous softness . . . a quagmire. . . depths of mud, and perhaps a shaking surface.

Then something spectacular occurred to pull humanity’s collective gaze up and out of the bog, something breathtaking, something bigger than church and politics.

Most of us have had the experience of feeling insignificant in the presence of a mountain range, or the ocean, the Grand Canyon, or the night sky. That feeling of insignificance can sometimes bring peace to our overactive nervous system.

I grew up in Arizona; my father lived remotely in the virgin desert of Cave Creek. There was no light pollution then, and at night the sky was black and clear and layered with stars. 

In the evenings, a friend and I used to climb onto the warm hood of whatever car was in the driveway and lie back on the cool windshield, and stare at the sky. The majesty of it gave us pause.

The wonder of creation can sometimes calm our hopelessness.

This week the Webb telescope revealed never before seen galaxies in spectacular clarity. There are legitimate physicists in the congregation so I tread cautiously here. Please take any questions you may have to them.

The mirror of the Hubble telescope, our former best view into space, was 7.9 feet across. The mirror of the Webb telescope is almost 3 times that at 21.6 feet. It is much more sensitive to infrared light, and able to see much back further in time than Hubble could—

13.6 billion light years back, offering a portrait of our universe just after the big bang.

God’s tent is much bigger than any temple. God’s holy mountain is beyond any galaxies our minds can conceive.

The largest image sent back from Webb is Stephen’s Quintet, a grouping of 5 galaxies. You may think you don’t know it, but if you’ve watched the 1940s “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas, Stephan’s Quintet is the image of the night sky depicted in black and white where the angel Clarence receives his call to go down to earth to help George Bailey who is despairing.

FYI, the story of Clarence and George Bailey is not scriptural. But the Episcopal Church is a big tent, whatever your beliefs. I find it remarkable that in 1947, a grainy, black and white image of Stephen’s Quintet was a metaphor for hope.

The Webb telescope shows us these same 5 galaxies as gold and orange, swirling and bright against black space, described as

“sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth. . . sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions.”

I encourage you to go home and Google the 1940’s version of Stephen’s Quintet juxtaposed against the Webb telescope image. Let that be your prayer, your antidote to despair.

Eucharistic Prayer C begins God’s cosmic power and presence:

God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of

glory and praise. Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of 

interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,

and this fragile earth, our island home.

By your will they were created and have their being.

Then the prayer brings us to our earthly predicament:

From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, 

and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us 

the rulers of creation.

But we turned against you, and betrayed 

your trust; and we turned against one another.

Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

This is the prayer we pray before we celebrate the memorial of the life, death and resurrection of the God of the cosmos who broke into time and took on flesh to dwell in our humanity, reconciling us.

“Lord, who may sojourn in your tent, who may dwell on your holy mountain?”

The liturgy of Psalm 15 answers this question in the body of the psalm.

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,

and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors. . .

We are to live both morally, and justly, speaking truth, guarding our tongues and loving our neighbor, dwelling humbly within God’s vast, fathomless tent with one another through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.