Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 16 February 2014
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning
‘How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord, for ever: how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?’
A psalm is worth a dozen sermons. A sermon is one train of thought aimed at many people. A psalm becomes your own. The Psalter, as we call the Book of Psalms in the Bible, is one of the most valuable resources you have. People often say these days, I can’t pray, I can’t meditate, I can’t switch off and go into the silence I need. This is because whatever you have been thinking about before prayer inevitably comes back to us through the memory. So we need a period of quietening down, as our predecessors did. As John Cassian wrote in the fourth century “… we must prepare ourselves before the time of prayer to be the prayerful persons that we wish to be.” A psalm, because each psalm is so personal in its composition and in its emotional content, can capture our attention, and so prepare us to enter the silence as a prayerful person. The psalms are the achievement of prayerful persons. Tonight’s Psalm 13 is striking in its use of the appeal ‘How long’ four times. ‘How long shall I seek counsel in my soul, and be so vexed in my heart?’ What we read there is an example to follow, the life of a prayerful person, an attitude to the world which we might have forgotten, needs and desires simplified, so that nothing distracts us from the Divine, from our relationship with a living God. Then, from that intensely personal appeal, ‘How long?’ we move, in verse 5, to a confident trust and joy. ‘But my trust is in thy mercy: and my heart is joyful in thy salvation’. We don’t know the circumstances in which the psalm was composed. But we can see ourselves in every verse. The outpouring of prayer in itself, talking truthfully to God, has led to an unexpected calm. Maybe nothing’s changed, maybe no problem has been solved, but we can see emerging the signs of a mature belief: reconciliation, forgiveness and healing.
This isn’t psychology, nor is it the power of poetry, although many of the images in the psalms are of sublime beauty. One of Thomas Merton’s early books was called Bread in the Wilderness, about the Psalms, and he emphasised this point which might pass us by. The desire for God, your religion, has nothing essential to do with art. The desire for God is not satisfied by poetry, nor by philosophy, music, ceremonial, nor intellectual speculation. All these things are wonderful and helpful, but they are not faith, which is God’s free gift to us. The Psalms are not just inspiring poetry, they are theology, that is to say they put us into eye contact with God as Saviour and Creator, and our life and our view of the world are changed as a result.
Christians can’t do without the psalms. Jesus read and lived the psalms. In the Gospels Jesus applies metaphors to himself which only make sense if we hear an echo in the Psalter, such as when He describes himself as “the stone which the builders rejected”, which is from Psalm 118. Knowing the Psalter shows us where we’ve come from, the traditions of spiritual understanding which have matured down the centuries, generation calling to generation, all there in a book, waiting for us to release the words, to use them in our day with understanding and reverence. Here is an authentic conversation, in words of great beauty, between God and those who long to know Him. It’s all there, the desire, the frustration, the sense of exile, the loneliness, the happiness, the exhaustion, the hope, the fear and the love. Here is the conflict we know within ourselves, the conflict between the grace of God and our own will. We’re not the first generation to feel that way, to find, along the path of religion, a way home which is not extraordinary, but entirely natural: ‘the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young’: even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Even the bloodthirsty bits about slaughter and destruction and so on have their place in the whole, bringing before us the less pleasant times, places and thoughts of our own lives. Of course the psalms need a bit of work. There’s a lot in the psalms about Sheol, the netherworld, because at this point in Old Testament history there was no clear belief in an afterlife. Sheol was a sort of shadowy existence after death, a forbidding place, where you were separated from the power of God’s love, because God only saved those on earth. It gets a bit gloomy. But deep prayer can integrate even those images which are foreign to us.
Any psalm or canticle, read or sung with imagination and an open heart, becomes a prayer. It’s formation, rather than information. Through our prayerful psalmody, Christ comes back into our lives, and our lives are transformed. As St John of the Cross wrote: ‘The dogmas of the faith are like the shining surfaces of the ocean’. They point to the mystery that lies beneath, but they cannot provide the experience of that mystery. The Psalms, like many other books of the Bible, are that experience, the experience of the mystery, now offered to us in our turn, to refresh and deepen our relationship with God.
The psalms are our lifeline to a classical spirituality which we thought was beyond us. Because of the decline in religious belief, because of the decline of institutional religion which began long before our time, we are used to interpreting our religion now solely in personal terms – my faith, what I believe, and so on. It is as if we have relegated God to the last secret safe place we know, within our hearts, the inward life. We learn less about God there than we do about ourselves, so we go on and on about ourselves, how we feel, where we are, and so on. It’s cosy, but it’s very claustrophobic, and we see its adverse effects today in inward looking congregations, and in the uptight, rather threatened clericalism of the Church. It’s as if we guard Christianity in our hearts; everyone else somehow manages without. The Psalms do not recognise this distinction of outer and inner worlds. The Psalms are concerned with the whole person in his or her worldliness and our relationship with God and the rest of his Creation. They cut though our subterfuges, and our artificial divisions between secular and religious, they link us with a world in which what matters is the whole good, the goodness of God and all he has made.
At every service in this church we say or sing a canticle or a psalm or two. It’s easy to see the psalms in particular as musical interludes between readings or liturgical acts of greater importance. Let’s try to read them or pray them in a new, or rather the old way. Singing these songs is much more than just serenading God. It is a discovery that we can be a prayerful people, enjoying a relationship with God which will last for ever.