A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Psalm 51:1-17

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

This weekend our city is awash with the psalms. A series of 12 concerts involving four different choirs entitled 150 Psalms is being sung in our Cathedral, Pilgrim Church, St Francis Xavier Cathedral and a Jewish synagogue. An exhibition of photographs housed in the Festival Centre has on display a photograph illustrating each psalm. And next Wednesday in our Cynthia Poulton Hall at 2pm a seminar will take place where a Christian scholar, Matthew Anstey, and a Jewish rabbi, Shoshana Kaminsky, will reflect on the significance of the psalms in their traditions of faith.

And so, this evening, at Choral Evensong, where week by week we reflect on one psalm as it is sung by our Cathedral choir, I thought we would spend a little time exploring the significance of this moving and powerful set of texts in the life of faith.

The first and most important thing to note about the psalms is that they are to be articulated. To be spoken or sung. The second and just as important thing to notice is that they are an address and an address to someone, to a presence, to God. The writer and the speaker of the psalm is making an assumption and that assumption is that the words spoken are heard. And, in fact, in many of the psalms the one addressed also speaks their response. The psalms assume that we are not alone, and that the one who accompanies us is deeply concerned to hear whatever we have to say. There is no politeness in the psalms, no covering up the truth of joy or grief, fear or guilt. Whatever is being experienced can and, in fact, must be spoken.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, once described God as a presence that is a witness.

“The dependable presence that doesn’t go away; the presence that remembers and holds in a single gaze what has been true and is true of us; the eternal, unshakeable witness to what we are. That presence is love. We are seen, known and held, but above all we are welcomed.”[1]

What is particularly welcomed is our speech. For speech nurtures relationship and invites the possibility of transformation. Many of the psalms, in fact, tell a narrative of transformation.

The psalms articulate all the possibilities of human experience. They speak of joy in words of praise. They speak of trust in times of struggle. They speak of despair and the desperate need for rescue. They speak of the fury known when life is ripped away from us by violence or natural disaster or illness and they speak of guilt, the awful guilt known after we have “done what we ought not to have done and there is no health in us”, as the prayer says.

David knew that guilt and, in that guilt, wrote the words of this evening’s psalm, Psalm 51. David wrote them as he begged the forgiveness of God for a terrible sin. David coveted and took for himself Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and, in order to keep Bathsheba for himself, he arranged that Uriah be placed “in the forefront of the hardest fighting … so that he might be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). David broke the Ten Commandments, the law given by God to help the Israelite people live well with God and with one another. David committed a terrible sin.

 Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness 
 according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.

In this first verse of the psalm, the two characters are clearly portrayed. God, to whom the psalm is addressed, is a God of mercy and goodness. The psalmist is the one who has caused offence, who in later verses describes himself as being a person of wickedness, sin and evil. The psalm is a plea for forgiveness. A plea spoken in clear assumption that the one who is addressed hears and will act. As the psalm goes on the restoration is imagined.

Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean 
 thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
  Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness 
 that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
  Turn thy face from my sins 
 and put out all my misdeeds.
  Make me a clean heart, O God 

The psalmist then imagines a life in which, once reformed, he teaches others the ways and he lives a life of praise. The words that we sing each Sunday night as part of the preces are then sung to God:

Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord 
 and my mouth shall shew thy praise. 

The psalm enacts the transformation and, through the speech of the psalm, the relationship of the guilty one with their God is given voice,  so that restoration may take place.

In his book, The Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann has written about the psalms and he explores them as falling into three categories. He approaches his discussion on the psalms by noting that human life seems to move through what might be thought of as seasons. He describes three seasons. “Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing” (p8), he writes. Expression in such a season can be found in what Bruggemann names psalms of orientation. These psalms describe the “joy delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God’s creation, and God’s governing law” (p8).

Not all life, though, has the feel of a season of well-being. “Human life consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death. These evoke rage, resentment, self-pity and hatred.” (p8) The psalms that befit these seasons of anguish, Bruggemann names psalms of disorientation.

Brueggemann describes the use of psalms of disorientation, one example of which is Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me …”  as an “act of bold faith. … because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. … it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” (p27) God invites us to speak the truth and it is in speaking that truth that transformation might come.

Bruggemann describes a third season. A season which has at its heart the element of surprise. “Human life consists in turns of surprise,” he writes, “when we are overwhelmed with new gifts from God, when joy breaks through despair.” (p8) The psalms that befit this season of surprise, of new light, where a human being might have thought they were forever to be in a place of darkness, are described as psalms of new orientation.

Psalms of disorientation such as this evening’s psalm, Psalm 51, assume that all experience can be spoken to God and that God will hear and respond. In difficult times, though, it can be more comfortable to turn one’s back on what is happening. Brueggemann writes, “The linguistic function of the psalms is that the psalm may evoke reality for someone who has engaged in self-deception and still imagines and pretends that life is well-ordered, when, in fact it is not.” For example, one guilty of a terrible sin, such as David, might deny their guilt or not even entertain the possibility of it. The psalm gives the guilty one words to speak to come to the reality of what they have done. Brueggemann goes on, “in such a case, language leads experience, so that the speaker speaks what is unknown and unexperienced until it is finally bought to speech. It is not this way until it is said to be this way.” (p28-9)

Language leads experience. The psalms lead us as we struggle to live well whether we find ourselves in difficult times or in good. It is in speaking or singing the psalms that we are enabled to pray the truth in which we find ourselves and in praying that truth to be transformed in it.

Language leads experience. I wonder if the psalms might be the texts that lead us through the experience that is Lent. As we enter this time of reflection, this season when we might give a little extra time to pondering the presence of God, perhaps the psalms might be our guide. I certainly would not encourage us to attempt taking on the whole of the 150Psalms as our city has done in photographs and music this Festival time, but perhaps one psalm might guide us. The morning psalm, Psalm 95, might be said each day in the dawn light, the evening psalm, Psalm 31, might be said as the day draws to a close; we might have a particular guilt that Psalm 51 will help us articulate or we might simply wish to spend Lent hearing God saying to us, words from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God”. A verse will do. It need not be even a whole psalm that guides us. A verse will do.

Our city is awash with the psalms this Festival time. May the words of the psalms nurture us as we embark on the holy season of Lent.

[1] Rowan Williams Being Disciples p32