Hear my Prayer

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 118:1-16

Exodus 13:1-3, 7-9

John 12:20-32

Two of Jesus’s disciples get special mention as we move into the events of Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday and on to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and then, finally, Easter Day. I refer of course to Peter and to Judas. Peter, the first to be called by Jesus to be a disciple, denied he knew Jesus when Jesus most needed his support. Judas betrayed his Lord and Master, receiving thirty pieces of silver for his pains; when he realised just what he had done, he took his own life. Peter remained within the circle of disciples and was eventually restored by Jesus and charged with feeding the ‘sheep’. Peter has come down to us as the rock on which the church is built, the first bishop, and in whose name many many churches, cathedrals and schools are dedicated – including this one.

It’s an interesting question to ask: which was worse – betrayal or denial? I am not going to try and answer that tonight but I do want to point us to Psalm 55 – some of whose words we will hear the choir sing shortly. The Psalm opens with a cry to God – “Hear my prayer. Listen to me, O God. Attend to me, and answer me.” In this sense it is not unlike the agonised prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and is quite different from the later terrible utterance from the cross, also a quotation from a Psalm (22): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

If you read through the whole of Psalm 55 it becomes clear that this is the prayer of someone who feels betrayed by one considered a close friend. “It is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company.”  The psalmist cries out to God to hear his prayer. The psalm continues later: “My companion laid hands on a friend and violated a covenant with me with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war; with words that were softer than oil but in fact were drawn swords.”

As so often in the psalms the psalmist pours out his or her anguish to God in prayer, often wondering where God is, and why God does not listen; but then ends with some sort of words of trust and faith. Psalm 55 is no different and the final words are: “I will trust in you.”

Tonight’s anthem includes one of those solos that every Cathedral treble would love to sing. Felix Mendelssohn composed the music for words selected from Psalm 55 by William Bartholomew. It was first performed in London in January 1845. About eighty years later it catapulted one of the senior trebles of the Temple Church Choir into the limelight. Ernest Lough, then fifteen, recorded the anthem “Hear my prayer” on the brand new external recording unit of the Gramaphone Company in March 1927. It became an instant hit and cathedral trebles have been singing it ever since. St Peter’s Cathedral trebles may be interested in viewing a documentary on this famous early recording and listening to Ernest Lough’s extraordinary voice. Incidentally, he was one of three boys thought capable of singing for the recording – he got the job because on the day the conductor, Sir George Thalben-Hall, considered his voice to be the best. I have included a link to the programme in my text.

But why this anthem tonight – at the start of Holy Week? For a number of reasons.

  • One, because I asked for it to be sung. It seems to me eminently suitable to sing of someone in such anguish, who cries to God for help, and wishes they could just fly away on the wings of a dove, leaving behind all their troubles and difficulties. Surely Jesus must have felt like that in his last days?
  • Second, I think it is an anthem for anyone and everyone who feels overwhelmed by the troubles and anxieties they experience. This may be those facing life beyond job-keeper, a serious life-changing illness or operation, the darkness of mental or physical struggles, their own faith at a cross-roads. There is a certain escapist element in wishing for the wings of a dove, but remember, the psalm ends as it turns to God in faith.
  • Thirdly, I particularly wanted to hear this anthem again as we prepare to leave Adelaide and St Peter’s Cathedral – a place we have come to love and call home. There is a very real sense of dislocation for Christine and me as we prepare to move countries again.

We at least know where and what we are going to. But there are so many in the world who are forced to flee their homes, their families and communities, and throw themselves on the goodwill of others. I guess there have always been refugees and those who have sought asylum in strange places. At times they have been welcomed – and I think of the lovely story of Ruth in the Old Testament. All too often though, the doors, the beaches, the borders, have been closed to these desperate and needy people who want only to be given the opportunity to make a new life. In my personal experience while here in Adelaide, I have seen people grasp that opportunity and make the most of it. The world is a better place for them.

As we listen now to Crystal and the Choir of St Peter’s Cathedral singing Mendelssohn’s “Hear my Prayer” let us give thanks for those who, having been given the chance, have enriched our lives in so many different ways.