The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

As we gather in St Peter’s Cathedral at Evensong sung by our cantor, in a world that changes week by week with different restrictions in response to the movement of the coronavirus, we rejoice that we can be together, albeit a little hidden behind our masks. And we ponder, as we do week by week, what it is to be a human being and how it is we might live well as children of God in such times. As we ponder the psalm and the readings that have been chosen for us, it seems that it might be not so much instruction as story that helps us live well in the way of God. There are lists of rules, the Ten Commandments, for example, of course, but when it comes to the conversion of our hearts to knowing our need for repentance and to trusting in God for redemption and for thriving in relationship with God, it seems that the telling and retelling of stories is what might reach us. This evening’s psalm, Psalm 78 is a case in point. The story of David, part of which was told in our reading from the Second Book of Samuel, is another.

We heard sung verses 14 to 30 of Psalm 78, but the psalm opens with the following words:

 Hear my law, O my people 
 incline your ears unto the words of my mouth.
 I will open my mouth in a parable 
 I will declare hard sentences of old;
 Which we have heard and known 
 and such as our fathers have told us;
 That we should not hide them from the children of the generations to come 
 but to shew the honour of the Lord, his mighty and wonderful works that he hath done.
  He made a covenant with Jacob, and gave Israel a law 
 which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children;
  ….  That they might put their trust in God 
(Psalm 78:1-6,8)

That is it. That is what this is all about. That we might put our trust in God. That is what we are made for. A trusting relationship with God.

But the people of Israel didn’t put their trust in God at times, do you see? Any more than we do, now. They tried, and we try, but in the end our fear gets the better of us and we look around for things of this world to sustain us or protect us, when we become a bit too frightened or a bit too sure that God is too distant and we had better manage on our own. The Psalm speaks of this.

And the way the psalmist addresses the lack of faith is to tell some of the story of God and God’s care for God’s people. The psalm retells the foundational Jewish story. The story of the Exodus. The story of God freeing the people Israel from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land. The psalm speaks of the journey.

He divided the sea, and let them go through 
 he made the waters to stand on an heap.
 In the day-time also he led them with a cloud 
 and all the night through with a light of fire.

The story of the journey. And then the story of sustenance. Of God giving water.

He clave the hard rocks in the wilderness 
 and gave them drink thereof, as it had been out of the great depth.
  He brought waters out of the stony rock 
 so that it gushed out like the rivers.

The people of Israel had been led to freedom by God and then God gave them water to drink, but still they did not trust. The psalm tells also the story of the people’s lack of trust.

Yet for all this they sinned more against him 
 and provoked the most Highest in the wilderness.

 They spake against God also, saying 
 Shall God prepare a table in the wilderness?

The people did not trust God to supply them with food. The psalm tells the story of God’s trustworthiness and of the people’s lack of trust. God was angry and yet God did give the people food to eat.

 He rained down manna also upon them for to eat 
 and gave them food from heaven.
…  He caused the east-wind to blow under heaven 
 and through his power he brought in the south-west-wind.
 He rained flesh upon them as thick as dust 
 and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea.
…  So they did eat, and were well filled …

The portion of Psalm 78 that we heard sung tonight tells the story of the exodus but not for mere entertainment. Not even for instruction. The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann reflects on what the psalm is doing like this:

“The recital of ancient Israel’s community memory is central to Psalm 78; the text rehearses the memory so that the community can learn from it and pass it on to future generations. … memory has a clear function in warning the community to learn from its history. In the recital of memory there is hope for the future. … The psalm’s historical recital … reveals the continuing mystery of divine grace and human frailty…The clear call is not to be like the faithless ancestors but to hear the history of the faith tradition and live by it: keep the covenant faithfully, for therein is wholeness of life. … Loss of memory [involves] forgetting the relationship that gives identity and hope.” [1]

Our relationship with God gives identity and hope. And rehearsing the story of God with the people of God in the psalm helps us respond to the call of God to live trusting God. Story nurtures faith. Story told, spoken, chanted in psalms.

Sometimes, it takes a prophet to tell the story that brings conversion. In recent Sunday morning services, we have heard read the story of King David, the story of his seduction of Bathsheba and of his orchestration of her husband Uriah’s death. This morning we heard of God sending the prophet Nathan to the king to tell him a story. Nathan’s parable goes like this:

‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. … [and] Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:1-7)

Nathan did not recount David’s sins. Nathan did not quote the books of the law. The prophet Nathan told the king a story, a parable. And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man in the parable. And he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.’ And in this telling of the story and in the feelings it engendered in the king, the king saw what he had done, saw sins he had committed and so we heard in our reading tonight of his sorrow and the consequences of his sins. What converted him was a story.

Stories told in psalms, stories told as parables. What story would reach us this Sunday night as we gather again after another time of lockdown, conscious that in Sydney the lockdown is going on for so much longer, conscious of countries in other parts of the world where the virus is raging even harder? What story will reach us, I wonder?

It will be different for each one of us, of course. It may be a story of Jesus’ healing. If we feel utterly lost, it may be the parable of the lost sheep. If we wonder where God is we may find ourselves remembering Jesus’ words, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “I am with you always.” It may that we wonder if we will ever come out of this pandemic. And then it may be that the story that reaches is that of the image given by the prophet Isaiah in the words quoted by the Archbishop of Canterbury this week, words we chose for our Cathedral community “quote for the week”, God’s voice spoken by Isaiah, “Behold I am about to do a new thing, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”

[1] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr Psalms pp340-343.