Sermon on the Psalms

Sermon for Sunday August 18th, 2013
2 Cor 8-9
Psalm 119:25-32

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.


Sermon for Sunday August 18th

Sermon for Sunday August 18th, 2013.
20th in Ordinary time, Year C
Isaiah 5:1-7
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

‘If you want to make an omelette . . .’

A number of years ago, just across from the school where I taught in Northern England yet another modern edifice sprang up almost overnight. Unlike so many of the buildings that had been built in recent years there, it wasn’t yet another temple to Mammon, another financial institution. Rather is was a Temple of Mars. It was the new site of the Royal Armouries, a museum dedicated to war and warfare.

Intrigued as to what it might contain I visited with my family, and children who are far less inured to violence than we rhinoceras hide adults commented, ‘it’s full of guns’, why would anyone want to come here? But one remark in particular pierced my own rhino hide. In one large hall, probably to do with British campaigns in India, there stood a stuffed elephant, encased head to toe in armour, and Rose my eldest asked, ‘Daddy, why would anyone want to hurt an elephant?’

Rose like all my children loved elephants. The thought that anyone might want to kill one was soul piercing . . . like the question, ‘why would anyone want to Crucify Jesus?’, at least for a child. Of course a child’s heart is a soft and receptive thing, open to love and thus to the life of God, and children’s Bibles almost always speak of Good Friday as a sad day, because their friend Jesus was brutally killed. But no explanation is given . . . the unwritten message is that ‘some bad people’ did it, the same bad people one supposes who are responsible for all that is wrong in the world. Certainly that is the story we tell our children, and it is a childish myth we perpetuate to rationalise all our warfare and encasing elephants in armour.

Of course many children’s bibles don’t contain today’s gospel readings, as indeed they don’t include many of Jesus’ hard sayings. Imagine for example reading Jesus stark parable of the Rich man and Lazarus to a child who is comfortably off. ‘There was this rich man, and he died and went to hell . . . There was this poor man . . .’ Actually I think Children would understand perfectly well Jesus’ ‘explanation’ put into the mouth of Abraham, ‘You in your life received good things and Lazarus bad . . . and now the tables are turned’ Children after all seem to have a nose for justice, and until they get caught up themselves in what they are taught to think of as the morally complex adult world, they can be great advocates for justice for the poor. Something which only the tiniest minority of us carry into even early middle age. We remember the vulnerablilty of childhood and we as sure as hell don’t want to go back there.

Our adult Bibles of course don’t avoid these plain words of Jesus. Yet we are the ones who romanticise Jesus. We’ve lost sight of the justice of God, and are more concerned to look after our own affairs. We either mentally airbrush out the ‘difficult words of Jesus’, or explain them away, or if we think ourselves rather theologically modern and sophisticated, we don’t take them as coming from ‘the real Jesus’ of our romantic imagination.

Of course, because we are so foolish as to do this, we too have no answer to the question ‘Why did they crucify Jesus?’, except that comfortable myth, ‘bad people did it . . . the sort of people who are still standing in the way of Jesus’. By ignoring those words of Jesus, by refusing to meditate upon them or indeed getting rid of them from OUR version of Christian faith, we deny that WE are the ones standing in his way. That we are the ones who crucify Jesus.

I have come to bring fire on the earth. Fire, a symbol of the judgement of God, and of the Spirit of God. ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and Fire’ says John. The Spirit, the Advocate of whom Jesus says ‘when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.’ The Spirit is the Holy Spirit – the vessel of the Life of God and also therefore the judgement of God. And this judgement intimately involves Jesus. and how I wish [this fire] were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed. That baptism the church has always recognised as the Cross – where all of humanity comes under the judgement of God, All of humanity. And that judgement begins with the people of God.

Jesus comes as the son of the owner of the vineyard, of which we heard in our reading from Isaiah – he is the one who finds that the vineyard is bearing no fruit. The very people of God, the ones called by God into a living relationship, saved by God from Egypt, tended and cared for by God – who have rejected him and his life. And this rejection is coming to its climax in the crucifixion of Jesus.

And this Judgement will reveal the true nature of things, separating sheep from goats, and dividing families. Above all doing away with our feeble conceptions of peace that are nothing more than a pious screen for the violence of the age. ‘Why do you say Peace, Peace, when there is no peace?’ asks Jesus. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring Peace . . .’ he says. ‘Peace’, like ‘Justice’ and indeed ‘Love’ are words that we have as it were stolen from God and put to our own distorted uses. Last week you may remember I spoke of the jet airliner, and how it all but flew itself. How it was a cocoon from reality – how we take things into our own hands and put them to our own uses, and in so doing flee from the Real Life that is life dependent on God.

We take the good things of God and then put them to our own use. We are autonomous. Laws unto ourselves. And we distort the meaning of words. Those of Jesus’ time, especially those in Palestine understood how human power distorted words, and particularly the word Peace. Imperial Rome had come to bring Peace, by the force of Sword to trample down all that stood in its way, to make straight the path for its own commerce and trade. War and Economics, the unholy alliance down through the ages? The British Empire arming elephants to make straight the way for the East India company. And we can think of many more recent examples. Jesus does not engage in such sophistry as the Pax Romana, the false peace that comes about only through Power.

No, his message is in no way seductive, the rich will not hear it and rejoice as they might over the Pax Romana, or Americana, or Britannica. Rather he comes to bring division, to shatter all the false securities we build for ourselves, to declare God’s merciful judgement on the world we have built for ourselves and to to usher in the kingdom of God.

In utter vulnerability, he puts himself in our hands to have our way with him . . . and thus is revealed the door to Life. Life on our own terms is judged and found wanting, and a new and Living way of humble dependence upon the Spirit of God is revealed. And so comes the division, for to live in such dependence upon God is to find ourselves at odds with those who insist on keeping control of their own lives, of trying to create ‘Peace‘ and ‘Safety’, when there is no such thing. Such is the way of idolatry which is at the heart of all of this. Jesus over and again attacks the idols which keep us from vulnerable exposure to the life of God, which if you like keep us secure in our carefully sealed jetairliner, away from the ocean below and the small sail ship which the little flock are called to.

Just a few years ago I was given a particulalry powerful vision of how our ‘Peace’ is false, of how our lives are sealed of from others as I came here on interview. And for the first time ever I crossed the teeming continent of India in air conditioned comfort, and as I flew I worked out that the cost of my air ticket was somewhere in the region of fifteen years wages for the average person 35,000 feet below me. Many of them lives of for me unimagineable poverty. Peace? It was powerful illustration for me of how we secure ourselves against life and so against the one who comes amongst us in vulnerable poverty. Our idols.

Money of course. We idolise this, we imagine that the work of God cannot be done without it – and God laughs! We reveal we know little or nothing of the work of God in our blindness. And here again, family. As people long for ‘enough money’ to secure them, so also they long for happiness in family – as if that will be all they need. We idolise family. This is why Jesus’ words, like his teaching about wealth is so shocking, our treasures, our idols, those places we put our security he scales a full on assault on, for Our sake.

As last week, I want to think about this briefly in terms of the church – and our fellowship. Here in the Diocese of course we face things falling apart, but I wonder if we might possibly see this as something good? All those things we put our hope in, money, buildings, all as it were crumbling away. Can we see this as God’s merciful judgement upon us? His taking away those things which we use to defend ourselves from him?

Last week I spoke briefly about how I knew of many small churches which were close to the end of life on their own terms and yet hadn’t woken up to Life on God’s terms. in the midst of everything, they hadn’t flung themselves on the mercy of God and cried out to him. They weren’t giving hours and hours to prayer and fasting and seeking what God was saying. Rather they just imagined that this was the end because, after all, ‘church is mainly about our money and our time and our resources an they’re all gone’. One or two perhaps half heartedly would say, ‘All we can do is pray now’ – yet THAT was all they ever Could do! The true life of the church, its true peace was not found in our power, but in our vulnerability, in understanding that Prayer was The Thing. That apart from a deep shared life of Prayer, there was no church to speak of. Apart from a people living in genuine humble dependence upon the Spirit which blows where it will, there was no life.

We, as I said last week, are very good at running the show ourselves. but that is not Life. That is not what we are called to. I think if we learned to pray together even half as well as we run the church, we may discover that we don’t need to put all this time and effort and energy into running the church. We might discover that Fire which Christ the Risen one has kindled in his death and resurrection. We might discover the Life of God.

Through the Bible in a Year – August 8

The Scheme for July and August can be found here

2 Ki 17-18; Acts 23; Psalm 119:81-96

The soul of the Psalmist languishes, looking for the salvation of God.

From the context it seems he waits for a change in his own circumstances – but we can look further afield. For most of us our circumstances are historically most comfortable – we of all people should have a bigger vision of the Salvation of God, that the whole created order which has been languishing might be transformed.

The languishing of the soul of the Psalmist resonates with the languishing of creation which still lies under the heel of our own ‘unsavedness’ – our own lack of apprehension of who and where we are that causes us to live like blind and dumb beasts, bulls in china shops, insensitive to our context.

If our souls languish – we should pray ‘open our eyes, that we might see the wonders of your law’.

The Law of God, rather than being a set of strange and arbitrary rules and regulations is a profound ordering of the Cosmos itself. Transgression of the Law, living in ignorance of who and where we are and thus destroying this ordering, is the seat of our difficulties and the cause of the Salvation of God.

The 119th Psalm in its acrostic form, is an extended meditation on the Law of God, which is perfect and converts the soul. It’s very shape and pattern points beyond itself to the very structure of the created order, hidden from sin blind eyes.

Through the Bible in a Year – August 7

The Scheme for July and August can be found here

2 Ki 15-16; Acts 22; Psalm 119:65-80

The 119th Psalm is an acrostic. Each portion begins  with successive letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. Such poetry is written with a dual purpose, firstly of course it is written as prayer full dialogue with God, but secondly it is written in order to be memorised.

In several places the scriptures exhort us to commit them to heart – not that as so many treat memory verses nowadays, as a handy motto for a tough time, but rather that our hearts may be constantly feeding on the Goodness of God revealed in his word.

The early monks would commit the entire Psalter to heart – indeed it was demanded of new postulants, those who sought to enter into the way of Christ.

Jesus, when he criticised the Pharisees for their lack of mercy and justice used their tithing of herbs and spices as a contrast.  ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.’

it strikes me, what might seem to our Romanitcally atuned hearts, to be the wearisome work of memorising Scripture might well find a parallel in the tithing of herbs – the small things which we should not neglect. Those who are faithful in small things will be given charge of great things. How can we know what is ‘Justice and mercy and faith’ if we have not imbibed deeply at the well of the Psalms?

Through the Bible in a Year – August 6

The Scheme for July and August can be found here

2 Ki 13-14; Acts 21; Psalm 119:49-64

The Lord is my portion, says the Psalmist.

Apart from me you can do nothing, says Jesus

The 119th Psalm is an extended meditation on the total sufficiency of God for those who seek him with all their heart, soul mind and strength. It is a Life transforming work.

Through the Bible in a Year – August 4

The Scheme for July and August can be found here

For a couple of days we enter the wonderfully comic world of Jonah, the unwilling prophet.

I am sure that if you have been following this blog with any degree of attention, you will understand that you aren’t about to find any attempt here to either rubbish the story for its fantastical elements, nor to argue for the authenticity of prophet swallowing whales. If that’s your gig, good luck to you, but frankly life is both too short and also too wonderful for such things.

Jonah is sent to Nineveh, a byword for evil in the Scriptures, and of course runs in the opposite direction, as we all would. Eugene Peterson in his beautiful book, ‘Under the unpredictable plant’ makes the observation that Jonah wants something more glamourous than the hard reality of prophet work in Nineveh. Nineveh is not about how life is meant to work out – Tarshish is. But it is Nineveh that God is to be found at work – he is not called to the healthy. God is at work in places of absence, not abundance. And the prophet is the symbol of that, so go to Nineveh Jonah must!


Through the Bible in a Year – August 3

The Scheme for July and August can be found here

Joel 1-3; Acts 18; Psalm 119:1-16

The prophet Joel confronts us with a way of being that is all but unknown to us. In a day of disaster people are called to prayer, fasting and repentance.

Again, as earlier when we considered the Psalms, the prophets direct us to an understanding of the world where God is all and in all, and that whatever life brings is only ever an occasion for communion with the Living God.

Fasting it must be said is not a discipline much practised nowadays with respect to prayer, yet for our forebears in faith, up until this last century, fasting was seen like prayer as part and parcel of a life turned towards God.

I wonder, next time we face great need, perhaps we too might listen to Joel, and fast.

Through the Bible in a Year – August 2

The scheme for July and August can be found here

2 Ch 21-24; Acts 17; Psalm 118

As Paul walks through Athens he notices how religious they are, to the point of as it were hedging their bets. He finds an altar to ‘an unknown god’.

Let us ask ourselves, are we too hedging our bets in the matter of belief? Is our life like Athens full of idols to which we pay great devotion, whilst paying lip service to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Through the Bible in a Year – August 1

The scheme for July and August can be found here

2 Ki 10-12; Acts 15:36-16:40; Psalm 116-117

Gratitude for healing is the mark of Psalm 116, and gratitude marks out much of the language of the Psalms. In this sense they are somewhat alien to us. the Psalmist seeks at all times to see the hand of God in his life – at times that is a struggle – but even the struggle is expressed in prayer. the Psalmist understands that all of life is held in the hand of God and expresses himself accordingly. Thus when he recovers from illness he gives thanks to God for his deliverance.

For most is not all who read this blog, such a sense is something which is difficult for us to maintain, primarily because we have bought into the myth that we are in control of our own lives and destinies. A myth which our wealth, which historically is monumental, enables us comfortably to maintain.

Let us look around the room in which we are sat now. Look at our possessions. How many were gifts? How many have we accumulated ‘by the strength of our arm’, bought for ourselves out of our wealth? This is one simple expression of the way in which we are able to ‘build a life for ourselves’. And if we have built this life for ourselves, then why be thankful?

We may say, ‘I can be thankful that I have been given the strength to accumulate these things’, but is that the purpose of our lives? ‘Ones life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions’

The Psalmist on the whole lives much more on the edge. Even if the Psalmist is King David himself. Unlike Solomon who follows him, David is not renowned for his wealth and the David story which we read in 1 and 2 Samuel tells of a man living very much on the edge for much of his life – indeed his downfall occurs precisely at the point where he is settled and made a palace for himself. When he starts to live life on his own terms, taking that which is not his, seeking to possess.

Imagine what it would be like to live on the edge – not to know where your next meal was coming from. Imagine gratitude when it does come along.