Sermon for Sunday August 18th, 2013
2 Cor 8-9
The Psalms – Alive to God
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.
Yesterday, Rowan Williams spoke out publicly for the first time since stepping down as ABC on some of the things that, as AB he perhaps felt constrained from speaking about. And as I heard it reported, there were two threads to his comments, seemingly unrelated, but I suggest very entwined – and both finding a powerful connection with my theme for this evening which is the Psalms.
He spoke firstly of his irritation with those in the UK who suggested that the church there was undergoing persecution. There have been as you may be aware one or two high profile cases of people told that they cannot wear a cross to work, or city coucils declaring that they won’t celebrate Christmas, but ‘Winterval’ so as not to offend religious sensibilties. Williams, who has of course travelled the world and visited the church globally, said “When you’ve had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely,” “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness sake, grow up,’ I want to say.” True persecution was “systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day”. He cited the experience of a woman he met in India “who had seen her husband butchered by a mob”. Just on Friday, the Archbishop of the Anglican church in Egypt sent an email calling for prayer as his churches came under sustained attack. And I could come up with endless examples, one or two from friends engaged in mission in other parts of the world
I’ve used the analogy of flying in an airliner compared with sailing a small yacht on the ocean – these complaints about persecution are like people whining about the quality of airline meals whilst flying high above a land where tens of millions have never known what it is not to go to bed hungry.
Later he took aim at contemporary spirituality. “Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is.”
When I say ‘Spirituality’, I would guess that there may be a few who would find the suggestion that it is ‘absolutely bloody awful’, rather shocking – but not the Psalmist – not the person who is immersed in the prayer life that is shaped by the Psalms. Those who are shocked that Spirituality is ‘absolutely bloody awful’, that what they call Persecution is viewed by most as ‘minor discomfort’, might I suggest be less than conversant with the Psalms. Indeed they may be amongst those benighted souls who wish to protect us from the Psalms.
We are as a generation notoriously biblically illiterate. One of to my mind utterly appalling aspects of contemporary ministry is that there is little or no requirement for those being considered for ordained ministry that they are immersed in and conversant with the totality of the Scriptures which they are commanded to teach! And when such sensitive souls come to the Psalms they are shocked – and wish to protect us from the harshness of so many of the words. It is appalling, utterly patronising and in the end self defeating that our church took it upon itself to remove verses from the Psalms, indeed in places whole Psalms.
Of course this is largely unheeded for the Psalms, for the first time in the entire history of God’s people down this past three thousand years, play little or no part in our life of prayer and worship. For most of the last two millennia, the Psalms have been the daily bread of the church and Christians. My book of Common prayer marks out the Psalms in a monthly pattern, approximately 3 psalms every morning and every evening. This is a following on from the monastic pattern of saying the Psalms through weekly.
For many many hundreds of years, postulants, those seeking admission to the monastery were required to be able to recite the Psalms from memory, and even in the high middle ages, at a time when Scripture was in Latin and thus a closed book to almost everyone, the Counci of Toulouse decreed that the Psalms must be available in the native tongue.
For the Psalms of all the Scripture perhaps offer us the most direct access to God. Praying the Psalms we are addressing God in and through God’s word to us. And when we are most before God, we are most Alive. Certainly the Psalms are not the prayers of the semi comatose – to use the analogy again, they are the prayers of the storm tossed upon the ocean, not those who through wealth and other comforts have insulated themselves from many of life’s harshest realities.
Here we find people whose life’s are so raw that they are screaming at God, they accuse him of abandoning them. People whose daily experience is persecution of one form or another – ‘my enemies’ is a constant Psalmic refrain. Here is the Psalms I suggest we discover what it really means to be yourself before God, we are those for whom every moment of life is lives before God, for whom all of life is directed towards God.
This is must be said bears very little relationship to the common perception of life and faith, that ‘God is there somehow in the midst’ as I get on with My Life. A model of faith which sees God as a kindly chaplain. No! Here we see the truly God centered life – GOD is writ large. If life is hell, God is called to account, ‘Where the hell are you??’ – And if Life is good the God is Greatly to be praised. In all of life’s circumstances God is held in full view, even in his apparent absence . . . ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me . . .’
Thus they are prayers of faith – and perhaps that is why we who in the main enjoy such untroubled lives chose not to pray them, for our lives are relatively ‘calm’. Our lives are much more those of the airline passengers. The pleasant breeze, or the violent storm, both of which the Psalmist sees as God’s work, we do not feel – we are not dependent upon the wind, we are not in the main dependent upon God. We may pray for daily bread, but following the warning of God to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy, the land is pleasant, we have forgotten God, and we imagine vainly that ‘we have what all the years of our labour deserve’ – by the strength of mine own arm have I gotten me these things.
We think suffering a reason to doubt God’s very existence – and that which is good no longer evinces our tears and shouts of Praise and thanksgiving.
Put another way, the dimensions of our lives have so shrunk (despite the illusion technology grants us of vastly superior and grander lives than those of our forebears) that unbearable suffering and overwhelming Joy are all but unknown to us. Persecution is ‘a mild inconvenience’ – not finding yourself in prison for being a Christian, Spirituality ‘a nice feeling’, not ‘absolutely bloody awful’ – leaving us spent and unable to speak.
The difference if you will between dealing with the Living God and Father of Jesus Christ, whose love leads to a Cross, and a god of our own imagining, made in our image, reflecting ourselves back to ourself.
The Psalms call us to life. And this Psalm which we sang this evening does just that. Psalm 119, famously the longest of the PSalms is an acrostic poem. Te Psalmist, knowing these prayers are prayers of life writes it in such a way as to be memorised, so each section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. It is an extended meditation upon the Torah, the Law of God – that which is the expression of Godself, made known to us in Jesus. But one which is not disconnected from the storms. So the Psalmist cries out – My soul clings to the dust – here is the prayer of one who is in extremis, and what is his cry? revive me according to your word.
When I told of my ways, you answered me;
teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
My soul melts away for sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
Put false ways far from me;
and graciously teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
I set your ordinances before me.
I cling to your decrees, O Lord;
let me not be put to shame.
I run the way of your commandments,
for you enlarge my understanding.
That law of God which points unerringly to God, this is the Psalmists focus – in the midst of his suffering he clings to the decrees of God, he runs the way of God’s commandments. It is I think telling that Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his last years in prison, found in Psalm 119 the greatest comfort. This mediation upon the reality of his life and the reality of God expressed in the Torah
Of course in the Christian tradition, the PSalms, the prayers of the church are found upon the lips of Jesus. We read them as it were Christologically. So Christ is the one beset by the wild beasts, the Son of Righteousness persecuted, the one for whom his relationship to his father will quite literally send him to hell and back. When we pray the Psalms we pray with and in Jesus Christ. They are given to shape and form us – as all true prayer does, conforming us to the likeness of the Son of God.
I conclude with a word or two about those opening verses from Second Corinthians. As I have said, the PSalms are not just about the Hard reality, they also open us up to Joy the like of which we can barely understand. ‘Where?’ asked Martin Luther in his preface to the Psalms,‘Where does on find finer words of Joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving’ Real Life is not all unimagineable suffering, it is also unimagineable Joy. And the church in MAcedonia reveal this Life. Paul writes to the comfortable Corinithians and tells them of the poverty stricken Macedonians
who ‘during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints’ A severe ordeal of affliction . . . and extreme poverty . . . has been the vessel of abundant joy and overflowing generosity. It is if you like a little vignette of Christ himself – Life in its fulness. Like the Psalms, Life in its largest dimensions.
As I said last week – I think Christ does not come to protect us from the storm, he calls us into it – to live in vulnerablilty, where our very lives become gift as His Life has been poured out for us. We cannot know life whilst we are protected from it, the Psalms are the prayers of those who live in daily exposure to life and thus God himself. MAy GOd in his infinite love and mercy draw us into such lives that the Psalms become Our prayers once more.