Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Psalm 119:129-136

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

And so, we have come home. Home to our Cathedral. I wonder if we have missed being here, and, if so, what it is about being here we have found difficult to do without. Is there something we gaze at when we worship God, a window or the reredos? Is it everyone being seated in their regular place? I have missed my stall with the books of prayers and the palm cross that I try to keep in its place throughout the year and the view of the cross carved in the Dean’s stall across the chancel. Is it the sound of choir and organ in this place? If we went elsewhere in the last three weeks, is it the journey here, up King William Road approaching the Cathedral in the distance? Did we peep in and see the Cathedral as a work site with the literally thousands of organ pipes and the scaffolding reaching so high up that those who climbed it could see above the reredos? Were we disturbed by the sight of our cathedral so changed or was it, in some strange way, a wonderful insight into what is involved in the restoration of our organ and our building? Have we marvelled at the Saint Cecilia window, a window that I had imaged as one small image of the patron saint of music with her harp?

And if we found the time away troubling what did we hold onto? What sustained us in this brief time we have named an exile. A time when some of the things that comfort and sustain us are taken away. What do we hold onto to sense something of the presence of God who created us and redeems us and blesses us wherever we are and whatever we are doing, when our usual circumstances change?

The people of Israel found themselves in exile in Babylon and one of the key things that they held onto in that time were their stories and prayers and psalms. We are people of story, people of prayer, people of psalm.

Before we reflect a little on the stories and prayers and psalms of scripture, though, I think I might be forgiven, in this month when we remembered the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, for reflecting on the blessing of writing other than scripture, and, in particular, on the blessing of Jane Austen’s writing. Often in a time of change or challenge I will turn to Jane Austen. In May 1998, my family, a two year old, a six year old, two adults and two cats together with a van packed full of boxes and furniture moved into the house that is now our home. The two year old and the six year old expressed their disapproval of this change by refusing to go to sleep in this strange place that was not, for them, home at all. “Time for Jane Austen,” I remember thinking to myself. And so that first week, each evening, the two year old and the six year old, accompanied by their weary parents, fell asleep curled up on our lounge sofa watching the six episodes of the wonderful 1995 BBC adaption of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” What is it about her writing, that admittedly many of us know well through television and movie adaptations, that makes her few, really, stories a key part of the literature that brings not only comfort and delight but also insight into the way of human beings. It is indeed wonderful to witness Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s BBC portrayal of Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy as they move from their meeting at a country dance, via her caustic rejection of his first arrogant and offensive proposal to the moment of their betrothal filmed walking down a country lane. But it is Jane Austen’s writing that is the real blessing. Her insight into human nature is profound. She understands our motivations and our frailty. And she exposes character flaws at times with ferocious humour. What member of the clergy has not shuddered at the portrayal of the Bennets’ cousin, Mr Collins?

What matters in the writing of Jane Austen, in any writing, and most particularly, of course, in the writing of scripture is its capacity to speak the truth. Texts that sustain us speak of what it is to be a human being. Texts that sustain us shed light on our frailty and our struggle and, children of God, our giftedness. “Time for Jane Austen,” I think to myself when life seems challenging and I need the ground to calm a little. When I need to be reminded that we are deeply held. The author’s voice, the voice of insight and also hope, seems to do this holding work.

Day by day, though, every day, whether life seems to be pottering along gently or whether it is a time of struggle, whether we are home or we feel that we are far from our home, day by day, it is time for the word of God, time for the reading and the speaking and the reflecting on scripture.

This evening’s psalm, sung by the choir, is a portion of that mighty psalm, psalm 119.

Thy testimonies are wonderful: therefore doth my soul keep them.
When thy word goeth forth: it giveth light and understanding unto the simple.
I opened my mouth, and drew in my breath: for my delight was in thy commandments.
O look thou upon me, and be merciful unto me:

          as thou usest to do unto those that love thy Name.
Order my steps in thy word: and so shall no wickedness have dominion over me.
(Psalm 119:129-133)

Order my steps by thy word. The psalmist says. That says it all really. Order my steps by thy word.

Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem whose 22 sections are based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section has eight verses, each verse beginning with the key letter. In this mighty reflection on the Torah, the Law, each verse contains the word Torah or some word that points to the idea of the law. Each verse in the 22 sections each with 8 verses. The powerful structure of the psalm illustrates its theology. The Torah, the law, encompasses the entire life of the “the servant of God” as the writer refers to himself.

And when we fail, we cry to God that God might “order our steps by thy word,” to use the words of the psalm. The word, the law, is not so much a set of instructions, though the commandments and statutes do make up part of the law. The law, to quote one scholar “means wisdom or God’s will. This poem, [Psalm 119] represents an understanding of the law [that is] a balanced ordering of human life. Law is a handrail which steadies and guides a person to walk rightly and it represents divine revelation.”[1]

Law is a handrail which steadies and guides a person to walk rightly. Or as the psalms says “order our steps by thy word.”

Whether it be the words of scripture or the words of a writer with the insight of Jane Austen whose 200th anniversary of death we remembered just under two weeks ago, that guide us, that performs the task of the handrail that steadies us, we are blessed indeed to be a people of the word. As we gather in gratitude in our cathedral once again, may we give thanks to God for the spoken, written and sung word, and may we give thanks to God, indeed, for authors whose names we know like Jane Austen and the authors of scripture, so many of whom we hesitate to name.

 [1] Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry – Psalms ed David W. Cotter p. 291.