Speaker: The Rev. Jake Joseph
October 25, 2020
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 NRSV
First Congregational Church of Guilford, Connecticut
Do you have any movies that you watch over and over? One of my seasonal traditions around this time of year is to annually re-watch a favorite Disney movie from 1993 called Hocus Pocus starting the great Bette Midler. In an opening scene set in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1990’s, the new kid in town named Max Dennison from California, is in his classroom wearing tie-dye and smirking while the teacher in full costume tells a scary story about the early years of Salem and three Sanderson Sisters. Max scoffs at the story and tells the classroom that their local history and legends are just a bunch of “stuff” nothing more than Hocus Pocus without value. He continues and says that Halloween was just invented by the candy companies for profits. He thinks all of the stories and the myths and superstitions are just a conspiracy with commercial interest at heart. The rest of the movie, as you may expect, is all about Max learning his lesson and coming to see that history is sometimes very real, just under the surface of things, dangerous, and that it can come full circle and repeat itself if we ignore it. Hocus Pocus is an entirely silly movie, yet under the surface it has a serious message about the power of story and the compelling influence of history on the present day.
Like Max from California, coming from Colorado, even having spent part of my summers growing-up in Connecticut, I thought I knew what I was in for with autumn in Connecticut: Harvest Fairs and commercial endeavors. I thought it would be similar to other places I had lived. How different could it really be here? I thought…wrong.
October and this liminal “thin place” time of year is filled with traditions and superstitions no matter where you live. It is natural I believe as humans to have big, existential and haunting thoughts about the past and about life and death when the days get colder and shorter and the sky is bright with color. I thought I knew what to expect moving to New England, but something special and unique happens here in the fall. I cannot put words to it, but this time of year is haunting. History and the past seem to encounter the present and we feel the memories of the earth, the memories of the past in a tangible way.
It might be a cliché and something overstated, but there is a good reason why this time of year is marked by a keen sense of collective memory. As winter closes in and the leaves fall from the trees, our views and perspectives literally expand. We see this long view of history likewise in the church with the marking of All Saints Day of Remembrance next Sunday, our Memorial Music Concerts at First Church, Stewardship Season (a time of recommitting to the future because of the past), and our traditional Harvest Fairs and deeply felt signs of community and living story. It might be cliché, and like Max I didn’t believe it until I moved here myself last year, but New England gets the autumn, really gets Halloween, gets seasons, gets the deep power and the danger of being rooted and cemented in the quicksand and foundations of historical perspective.
Psalm 90, our Lectionary reading for this Sunday, is also a Psalm about history and its impact on the present. It is a folk tale for the community using familiar language. Like Max in Hocus Pocus, we have to sometimes be reminded of the presence and power of history. The Psalms were written expressly to do that. They were composed over a long time by many authors and redactors as a community remembrance and a way to retain collective memory.
The Psalms are storytelling like we do in Connecticut and New England Folk Tales. Michael Coogan of Harvard Divinity School writes, “The adaptation of existing psalms and the composition of new ones continued throughout antiquity…The book of Psalms in more or less its present shape was probably formed before the end of the Persian period in the late fourth century BCE…The book of Psalms…as an anthology contains poems from several periods in Israel’s history.” It is a sung history. Psalm 90 is considered a Psalm of Community Lament and tradition holds that it is the Psalm of Moses. It is the only Psalm traditionally attributed to Moses. Now, we know that Moses predates the Psalms by many thousands of years, yet the authors of the Psalms borrow pieces of Exodus Chapter 32 in order to help tell a story in the voice of Moses. This is a folk tale or really a folk song of the ancients to help evoke history and remind them of a lesson of hope in the midst of the wilderness wandering.
Dr. J. Clinton McCann is a UCC professor of the Psalms at Eden Seminary in Saint Louis. Professor McCann write extensively about Psalm 90, saying, “These facts do not imply that Moses is the author of Psalm 90, but rather that the editors of the Psalter invite readers to hear Psalm 90 as a prayer offered by Moses on behalf of the people in response to the crisis of exile…Of course, for the people, the exile was a stark reminder of the vulnerability and brevity of human life in general…For the psalmist [the author of the Psalm], the recognition of human finitude and fallibility is not finally cause for despair, but rather an occasion for prayer.” How is Halloween and encountering finitude and fallibility an occasion for prayer?
Psalm 90 is a folk song telling the story of moving with Moses from sadness to hope. History, flawed, dangerous, scary, complicated can still offer hope. Moses sings, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or even you had formed on the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’ For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night…. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power in their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper us for the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!” This is a Psalm written in the voice of an ancestor as a reminder of history and story in order to provide hope for people.
We in Guilford, like the people of the ancient world, have a lot of folk tales of our own. Within a week of arriving in Guilford, I had already been gifted my first book about local history. The word was out that I love history. It was a weathered, orange book published in the 1970’s simply entitled, The Folk Tales of Connecticut. I devoured the whole thing in one night.
As I have expanded my reading about our history, I’ve made my way through the story of the Charter Oak and the devotion to our Fundamental Orders and which became the first written Constitution opposing tyranny, the Regicides hiding in Governor William Leete’s barn after escaping certain death under Charles II, the bravery of the New Haven Colony, the Independent Milford and Guilford, and stories about Devil’s Hopyard that would scare even the bravest on Halloween. I have learned that we sit here upon a spiritual well of messy humanity, of story, and quicksand and stone foundations of history. So much of it is good and brave and hopeful and yet so much of it is equally painful, flawed and unjust. Having a well of history like Connecticut (1662), New Haven Colony (1643) and Guilford (1639) is a precious gift and a delicate challenge.
I learned about our history at First Church was that our ancestors in faith didn’t call themselves Separatists or Puritans. Those were derogatory names given to them by their detractors. Rather, our ancestors in faith who escaped to New England called themselves “Hot Protestants!” Maybe we should reclaim this old name? Hot Protestants were often brave and always complicated people who only used the Psalms in worship. As New England Congregationalists, the Psalms like our Scripture are our hymns and resonate in these walls. For almost the first two hundred years of New England Congregational worship, all you would have heard in meetinghouses like ours were the Psalms sung with simple instruments and voice.
The Psalms stir in us like autumn leaves in the breeze turning slowly to the earth in the fading suns of an October Sky.
I believe that joining our voices in the singing and the reading of the Psalms is an incantation of history—a powerful prayer beyond even our own consciousness. When we encounter the Psalms like Psalm 90, we are entering into a story that is as ancient as the changing leaves of autumn. It is familiar and yet mysterious. Some call this a thin place. That is what Halloween at its best (not gore or fear) is about—naming thin places as dangerous and also Sacred. A thin place is a Celtic concept that many Christians have adopted. I believe that the Psalms, read with intention, create these thin spaces.
In a 2014 Guardian article call “This Column Will Change Your Life,” secular Health and Wellness columnist Oliver Burkman wrote about Thin Spaces telling this story, “I was in Milan, alone, for work, with time to kill, so I bowed to tourist cliche and went to see the Last Supper. The only slot available was early on Sunday, and just after sunrise the city was deserted; I reached the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie as the priest was welcoming the first worshippers. Minutes later, I was escorted, with 20 others, through security doors to the dim convent hall where Leonardo's painting fills one wall. The hour added something otherworldly to the atmosphere. None of us seemed fully awake; the silence felt tangible. I'm aware this was a boringly predictable location in which to feel the spine-shiver of something beyond words (transcendent? divine?). But I did, and powerfully. I'm no expert, but maybe there's a reason this particular picture of some guys eating some bread is more celebrated than any other.
There is a name for spaces such as this: "thin places", a Celtic Christian term for "those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses", as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, Man Seeks God. They've been called "the places in the world where the walls are weak", where another dimension seems nearer than usual. They might be traditionally religious spots, but they needn't be. We're in the territory, here, of the ineffable: the stuff we can't express because it's beyond the power of language to do so. Explanations aren't merely useless; they threaten to get in the way. The experience of a thin place feels special because words fail, leaving stunned silence.”
Our Psalm today 90 is unique insofar as it was meant to bring back, resurrect, reanimate the voice of Moses for a new generation in need of its history, in need of hope of escape from exile, in need of home. It creates a thin space by which Moses may return. It was a Psalm that our ancestors at First Church, those Hot Protestants, knew by heart and sang with simplicity and faith on this very earth. Can you hear them?
In the movie Hocus Pocus, Max learns the hard way that the stories and legends and folk tales of New England, especially in the thin space and the liminal time of October’s All Hallows Eve is no joke. These fragile days are serious spiritual business. The space between heaven and earth is thin. Max encounters the evil and the love that is buried in our story—our history, and the power of legend. Legend and folk tales are more than just “stuff” to us here in New England. We feel the pain and the joy of the history in our bones, and this October we remember that we are not alone.
Psalms are magic keys—secretive gateways to thin spaces, and our Psalm today of Moses in particular evokes the finitude of life and the grace of God’s presence. May we remember these incantations of courage and keep them with us in these days of so much hocus pocus—both seen and known and also unseen and yet in the shadows of this very thin space time and place.
 Michael Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 90.