Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Sunday next before Lent Sunday 26 February 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Psalm 84. ‘My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God’
If we are going to do something extra for Lent, then the decision is best made before Lent starts on Wednesday, rather than a week or two later. I know we can do more here, and we do, but the challenge for every Christian is to take the worship home. Any good works we manage, any revival of the Holy Spirit in our lives, begins with a few moments of prayer and praise at home. Whatever you decide, and it must be your choice, I encourage you to include a psalm or two, said very slowly to yourself and to God.
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 heard as an echo in the Psalter, such as when He describes himself as “the stone which the builders rejected”, which is from Psalm 118. On the Cross Jesus quotes the psalms. Into thy hands I commit my spirit is a direct quotation from Psalm 31. St Augustine finds Christ or His Church prefigured in almost every Psalm. This is not knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The Psalter is where we’ve come from, a tradition of spiritual understanding which has matured down the centuries, generation calling to generation, all there in song 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, a conflict which can become a winning partnership between ourselves and God, the desert becoming a garden. 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 the bloodthirsty bits about slaughter and destruction have their place in the whole, bringing before us the less pleasant times, places and thoughts of our own lives. It gradually dawns on us that the Scriptures are about us; our lives are there.
Take one example, the Psalm we sang tonight, Psalm 84. How amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts! It’s a pilgrim psalm. We can hear the happiness of the Israelite as he makes his way to the temple for the Autumn Festival. Can happiness be heard? Yes, it can, and then we make that happiness our own; that’s in the first and last verses which bind the psalm together. First verse: O how amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts! Last verse: O Lord God of hosts: blessed is the man that putteth his trust in thee. It is an entrance liturgy, and we should not be embarrassed to use it, not simply for coming into a church or holy place, but for entering a quiet time of prayer on our own. My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord. Consumer choice is allowed in religion, so we can do what we like with these songs, compare translations, pray them quietly, listen to them at home, spotify all 150 of them sung by every cathedral choir.
Any psalm or canticle, read or sung with imagination and an open heart, becomes a prayer. This is Lectio Divina, holy reading, which leads not to knowing more, but to praying deeply. Formation, rather than information. Christian tradition is not just handing down doctrines and rituals. Christian tradition is handing down the experience of the living Christ. 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.
In our day the psalms are a lifeline to a classical spirituality which we thought was beyond us. 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. So we tend to go on and on about ourselves, how we feel, where we are, and so on. It’s cosy, but it’s very claustrophobic, and tends to unhappiness and we see its adverse effects today in inward looking congregations, and in the uptight, rather threatened clerical caste of the Church, of which I am a member. It’s as if we guard Christianity in our hearts; everyone else somehow manages without. The books of the Bible, including 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, a glorious and uplifting world view. So a psalm or two a day can release us from our inward looking, rather threatened lives to walk in a world which is natural, inclusive, and creative, and where, as we sang this evening, “my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God”.