We sat for hours in the bright sunshine, one of the first truly sunny days this spring. Not a cloud in the sky, pale blue, warm and getting warmer, a beautiful day. We were sitting on folding chairs set up the night before in a quadrangle of academic buildings and the library, neatly ordered rows fitting in between the sweeping curved concrete pathways. There were suits and fancy dresses with hats, there were t-shirts and cut-offs, children and old folks, water bottles and programs become fans. And joy. Lots and lots of joy. Some of the joy was mixed with relief, some was tinged with anxiety over an uncertain future, but even there the joy would not be denied. We were proud to be sitting in those seats. Proud of the ones we were waiting for. Proud that we had journeyed this far, taken this step, ready to embrace a future with hope.
There was chatter and laughter, greetings and introductions, the buzz of hundreds of people gathered for a common purpose, a single focus. The orchestra was playing, mostly ignored until the familiar notes began to sound. How Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance became associated with graduations, I don’t really know, but I can’t imagine anything else. (The baccalaureate service had as processional music “I’m on Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons! Now that was fun.)
The faculty appeared, bedecked in their multicolored academic regalia, some accentuated by headgear that wouldn’t have passed muster in the institutions of high learning conferring their degrees, but now adding to the festive moment. Then they came, some five hundred plus of them, the graduates, the 2016 class of DePauw University, beaming with a light that they couldn’t contain, and didn’t want to. After speeches and awarding of honorary degrees, they began. Name after name, one black robed scholar after another strode across the stage to the accompaniment of hoots and hollers and the applause of proud parents and siblings and friends. Again I found myself wishing I wasn’t a W, having to wait until the end almost (not, however, Zupanic, thankfully) Then it was our turn, his name was read - correctly, I might add - and he strode across the expanse to receive the official document representing four years of knowledge and many thousands of dollars, and an exit visa into a different life. A new and exciting but somewhat terrifying life in an increasingly complicated world. Can he possibly be prepared, equipped with everything he needs for what might be next? And who will walk with him, who will carry him to the next stage and the next journey and the next?
I sat there in the holy splendor of that day and wondered who was in charge. There was a time when I thought it was me, or us, La Donna and I have been a partnership from the beginning. She does the important stuff - like paying the bills and making the plans and filling in the forms. I ask the questions, ponder the meanings, worry a lot. But now, as he strode across that stage I realized I have even less control than I used to think I had. So, who is in charge?
Psalm 96 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. 2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. 4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. 9 Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth. 10 Say among the nations, "The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity." 11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
The collection of Psalms in what we call the Old Testament is arranged into different books, and is sometimes called the ‘Hymnbook of the Second Temple.” Psalm 96 comes from the fourth book, which include most of what are understood to be enthronement psalms. Some believe that these psalms were written to commemorate the occasion of a new king taking the throne. And that while the celebration was about the person invested with this authority and the pledging of the nation to be obedient to the king, the psalms themselves were not about the king, but about God. If you read any of the enthronement psalms you won’t find a celebration of a human king, but the joy of declaring God as ruler of all of life.
Which then causes some scholars to say that this was never about a human king, even with the understanding that the king is God’s representative on earth, in the nation of Israel. Instead, they argue, these psalms were used on a regular, perhaps yearly, celebration of the authority of God. In the ordering of the Christian year, the church thought it important to signal the ultimate authority of God, and the God in Christ. So, the last Sunday of the Christian year is called Christ the King Sunday. The enthronement celebration was like that, a celebration, a reminder that God is in charge.
Book four of the psalter, some argue, represents the exilic period of the people of God. Driven from their homes, the people of God sought to live their lives cut of from the land God blessed with Presence. There are many stories from this period of history, some more positive than others. But in all of them there is this deep sense of longing for home, of the need to belong, to believe that they had not been abandoned by the call who created them and called them to be a nation, holy and righteous. They needed the answer to that same question that gripped me as I sat in the sun of my son’s graduation from college: Who’s in charge?
Psalm 96 has no shadow of doubt. Sing to the Lord a new song. Newness often brings anxiety, but if we see newness as part of God’s plan, then we can indeed sing with joy, knowing that God is in charge. And sing out loud, psalm 96 says, loud enough for the nations to hear, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. We are called to live out loud, not keep behind closed doors, not declare that faith is personal matter. Or rather acknowledge that it is personal, but personal in a way that it influences everything we say or think or do. Every invitation we make or accept, every encounter, every relationship, every breath we take is influenced by our allegiance to the one who sits on the throne of our lives, the throne of all creation.
We are asked to pay attention in the courts of the Lord. To see the joyful obedience given the king by the creation itself. Hear the applause for God in the roar of the sea, watch the celebration of God’s presence in the dancing of the trees in the wind, in the glory of the sunrise and colors of the sunset. He are called to be alive to God’s presence in the working out of the activity of the lives all around us.
Ah, so that’s what brought a tear to my eye as I applauded my son on his achievement, it was the blessing of the hand of God. His academic finery robe and cords, hat and tassel, was not just a celebration of what he had accomplished, but how God had blessed and guided and kept company along the way. The holy splendor that surrounded us was less of our making and more of the awareness that God is in charge, thankfully.
Here on this Memorial weekend, we honor those who gave their lives for this nation, but it is God we worship in holy splendor. Hoping that as a people we can sing the new song with joy.