Taking Off Sackcloth and Clothing with Joy
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
June 5, 2016 Third Sunday after Pentecost,
Joint Service with the West Newbury Congregational Church
Psalm 104; Acts 2:1-17, 37-47; John 14:8-17
The 30th Psalm talks about terrible troubles—
enemies and illness, depression and grief,
about being as strong as a mountain one minute
and brought down into the pit the next.
But the Psalm says, “To you, O God, I cried…
O God, be my helper!” And as a result,
“You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy.”
The Psalm gives us the beautiful assurance,
“Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.”
The Psalm ends saying that God
clothes us with joy for a purpose:
“So that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O God, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
What we have here is a spiritual formula.
The Psalm gives us a formula for the alchemy
of turning the lead of suffering into the gold of joy.
We see the same formula at work over and over,
in our own lives, in the world around us, in our churches,
and in scriptures like those we heard today.
The Prophet Elijah faced terrible troubles.
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had turned from God
and Elijah’s prophetic rebuke made them
his deadly enemies. Drought and famine
descended on Israel, and Elijah had nowhere to hide
and no way to survive.
He kept turning to God, trusting in God’s help,
and God led him to a poor widow and her son
who had troubles of their own. They were starving
and preparing to die, but she, too, trusted in God and served,
and her almost empty jar of meal did not run out,
and her almost empty jug of oil did not fail,
and her son who died rose again from the dead.
Elijah survived and bore witness to God’s power.
The woman gave God thanks and praise.
God took off their sackcloth and clothed them with joy.
The same pattern is in the gospel passage.
The whole town of Nain
was suffering the day Jesus came.
A widow’s only son had died. Jesus stepped forward
and they turned to him in trust.
He raised the son from the dead.
Then the people glorified God with thanks and praise
for taking off their sackcloth and clothing them with joy.
The Apostle Paul suffered his own set of troubles.
He was filled with hatred and rage,
violently persecuting the early church,
trying to destroy it. Imprisoning
and executing good, loving people
based solely on what they believed about God—
this was trouble enough in Paul’s soul,
but then he was struck down on the road to Damascus,
and the proud, prosperous mountain he had been
was thrown into blind confusion. When he emerged,
he was no longer on the fast track to success
as a Pharisee in Jerusalem, he was an outcast
serving the very church he had oppressed,
removed far from the center of social and religious power.
Yet Christ took off Paul’s sackcloth and clothed him with joy,
and the early church marveled at the miracle of it
and glorified God because of him.
We see this formula for joy in our own lives
and in the world around us.
Think of the people you know
who have gone through illness or loss
and gained wisdom, peace and strength
and become a source of hope and inspiration to others.
God takes off our sackcloth and clothes us with joy.
The spiritual writer from India, Eknath Easwaran,
wrote, “Most of us look upon defeat and reversals
as weakening us; but when we are defeated
it is possible to go deeper into our consciousness
to bring out greater resources….
Defeat is found very often in the lives of selfless people
as an opening into opportunity.
When you follow the spiritual path, living for others,
there come to you increased challenges….
If there were no difficulties, you would only be
skimming on the surface of life.”
The Bishop Desmond Tutu
of South Africa talked in his book
No Future Without Forgiveness
about the terrible suffering of his people from brutal
violence and oppression because of the color of their skin.
He experienced the worst of dark nights
and then felt the joy that comes in the morning.
Bishop Tutu writes of the day
when for the first time in their lives,
black South Africans were able to vote.
He says, “The moment for which
I had waited so long came
and I folded my ballot paper and cast my vote. Wow!
I shouted, ‘Yippee!’…. It was like falling in love.
The sky looked blue and more beautiful….
After voting, I went outside
and the people cheered and sang and danced….
It was a mountaintop experience.
The black person entered the booth one person
and emerged on the other side a new, transfigured person.
She entered weighed down
by the anguish and burden of oppression,
with the memory of being treated like rubbish
gnawing away at her very vitals like some corrosive acid.
She reappeared as someone new, [saying]
‘I am free’ as she walked away with head held high,
the shoulders set straighter,
and an elastic spring in her step….
It is a feeling that makes you
want to cry and laugh at the same time,
to dance with joy.” (pp 6-7)
That is how it feels to take off our sackcloth.
Today I am thinking about churches
that were like strong mountains
within the memories of some of us. It seemed as if
they would never be moved from the center of life.
Then a slow erosion began in the landscape around them,
as the church became less central to people’s lives
and other activities began to crowd it out.
Sunday Schools went from many children to few,
and the median age in the pews grew older and older
and empty pews began to outnumber the full ones.
It is natural for such churches
to put on sackcloth and ashes,
to sink into depression and grief, to constrict
in anxiety over scarcity as the jar of meal gets low
and the jug of oil runs dry. But then a day comes like today,
when we hear the ancient wisdom, the eternal truth,
the formula for taking off sackcloth and clothing with joy,
a day when we are reminded to turn to God
no matter how deep the pit of despair we have entered,
and cry out, “O God, be my helper!”
a day when we sing again the old songs of God setting us free,
a day when we come together to celebrate
all the good that still is being done in our churches,
all the lives that are being raised from the dead,
all the scarcity that is turning miraculously into enough,
all the ways we are praising God by serving others
within our sanctuary walls and in our villages and towns
and all the way across the world.
We churches are living in a new day.
The mountain we were has passed away,
but here we are, still turning to God in faith,
still praising and giving thanks
for God’s help in our lives,
still loving and serving others in the way of Christ.
It is time we as churches take off our sackcloth!
It is time we stop comparing ourselves to a long gone past
and let God clothe us with the joy of who we are!
We are more than enough no matter what our size
when the power of the Holy Spirit is flowing through us.
This is a day of celebration! God has brought us here
so that our souls may praise and not be silent.
So let us say together now the final words of the Psalm:
O God, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.