Psalm Sermon Series: Living with the Psalms

Given by members of St Giles’ Lenten York Course Group on 13st May at St Giles’, Horspath.

Readings: Psalm 100, 23, 13

PSALM 100 by David Rule

For several years during Lent, a group of up to 16 of us have met in the village for a weekly Bible Study. We have used the York courses as a basis. Each year there is a different theme, and the accompanying CD has a commentary and discussion for each week led by prominent Christians, both clergy and lay people. This year the theme was Psalms, with a different Psalm on each of the five weeks.

Julie, Sheila and myself, led one session each, and today we are sharing with you some thoughts about our Psalms. They are printed on the sheet that you have been given, and are in the order that we will be talking about them.

Mine was Psalm 100 a fairly well known Psalm. It stands alone in that it is the only Psalm that is given a title – “Psalm of Thanksgiving”. Many commentators talk about it as being sung either on entering the temple – ‘enter his gates with thanksgiving’ or at the temple. It’s a corporate Psalm – us, we – and is an invitation or a call for us all to be part of the joy, praise and thanksgiving to God.
I very much liked the quote in our course book by St Athanasius in the 4th century….He said “Most of scripture speaks to us while the Psalms speak for us… I think the Psalms are like a mirror, in which one can see oneself and the movement of one’s own heart.”

So Psalms speaking for us in reflecting our feelings and emotions. All of us at times feel sorrow, despair, depression, anger, frustration, happiness, excitement, thankfulness or wonder. I’m pretty sure that all these emotions can be found somewhere in Psalms, and as St Athanasius says they speak for us in our developing relationship with, and our understanding of God. Thinking of emotions Psalm 100 is certainly different compared with others that we studied, in that it reflects just one very positive emotion – one person’s joyfulness, certainty and thankfulness in the love of God.

Whilst there are many themes that could be picked up from this Psalm, I’m going to focus very briefly on Worship – the different patterns of worship and beliefs in the Christian church.
One question that was asked was “Does worship bring joy – or is it a duty to perform?” Though the three contributors felt it to be very much joy at the centre, two admitted that there can be an element of duty. Several of us felt that it was reassuring that Timothy Radcliffe, an eminent Roman Catholic Dominic friar and author, admitted occasions when during their four times of worship each day, he sometimes has no recollection what has happened at all. **. He did go on to say “I think any deep joy probably requires long periods of slog.” So working at our faith, just in the same way that many things that have given us real satisfaction in our lives, have invariably been as a result of a great deal of effort.

A further question was – how do we serve the Lord with gladness whether in our lives or in our corporate worship. When you think about joy in worship – what do you think of? From the contributors to this course it was fascinating to picture the huge range of contrasts in their worship. From the movement and exuberance of worship in an east London Caribbean community church to the total silence of a Quaker meeting. In their daily lives, one person sings hymns as she moves about, and another sits in complete silence and isolation in a monastery. Despite the contrasts they all very definitely saw joy and gladness in their worship of God, and it being part of serving the Lord, and doing what God requires of them, both in Sunday Worship and everyday life.

Obviously, differences do exist between Christians of various world faiths, different denominations in this country, or even within the same church, and it has always been a problematic area right from the early days of Christianity.

Whilst thinking about these differences, I remembered reading a talk given by Rowan Williams. The talk was to students in a Theological college concerning being sensitive with regard to each other’s varying beliefs. The quote for the talk was from William Blake
That vision of Christ which thou dost see Is my vision’s greatest enemy –
He refers to it as a horrifying couplet. It certainly struck me as a very powerful statement, and refers to how difficult we find it when our long held, personal views are being challenged by someone else’s views. And how threatened or undermined it makes us feel.
With the varying forms of Christian worship and beliefs, it seems to me Christians have no choice but to look at the bigger picture – the common ground. Rowan Williams suggests that the face of Christ in the gospel and the body of Christ in the Eucharist are our common ground. He also reminds us that our vision of Christ cannot be a settled one, but that He continually challenges and unsettles us.
Finally, returning to our session on Psalm 100 – “How common features override the differences” was how Jane Leach, principal of a Methodist college summed up this session so well by suggesting –
There are many ways to “be lost in wonder, love and praise – in the silence of a Quaker meeting; in the glory of the Orthodox liturgy; in the singing of a great hymn.” She goes on to refer to “praise that takes us out of ourselves: transcends despair: overrides arrogance and overcomes anxiety. For in the act of praise we are never the focus, instead we are blessedly released from the tyranny of our own concerns as we are transported by God’s dazzling goodness”

Psalm 23 by Shelia Frankum

Before I attended the York course this year I did not have any real knowledge of most of the Psalms, what they were, or what they meant, as my early experience of church services did not include a reading of any Psalm. So for me Wednesday mornings became very interesting and made for some thought provoking discussion. Having offered to lead one session I was worried what this might entail however the week I had to actually lead was the most well known and indeed the one psalm I did know Psalm 23.
This is the psalm that is most dearly loved and with soul comforting passages, which is why it is used a great deal at funerals sometimes at weddings and baptisms so it can mean very many different things to very many different people.

It has been set to music very many times form Bach to Bruckner and many songs have included the text. Most recently Psalm 23 became the intro to the Vicar of Dibbly composed by Howard Goodall

“The Lord is my Shepherd therefore can I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.

The idea of a God or Jesus akin to a Shepherd appears many times in the bible and at that time shepherds were very important and respected people and certainly looked after their flocks with great love and care.
However there could be a question over us being the sheep???
This is a quote from Friar Timothy Radcliffe who is a director from Blackfriars in Oxford.

“ to be a sheep is to belong to a community and the community, certainly in Jesus’ times was held together by attentiveness to the voice of the shepherd. So it is to belong to a community, which despite all the temptations to disappear over cliffs keeps them together. The sheep hears the voice that is addressing them. That it seems to me is a brilliant description of what it is to be a Christian. It doesn’t mean to say we’re stupid. Or brainless but it does say we listen to the voice of the shepherd.”
As Timothy implies if we are the sheep we don’t want to be thought of as brainless followers! But we do listen to the teachers and the Lord himself, but we should also have our own opinions, thoughts, ideas and be prepared for discussion then go back to the Shepherd possibly for reassurance and guidance.

He shall refresh my soul and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
The next part of this Psalm is probably the verse that appeals to those arranging funerals as it has an important impact especially for those grieving.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

It speaks with a particular resonance to the fears and trepidations that all humanity encounters including death itself. Death is indeed the darkest valley and the psalmist does not flinch from the reality of death..
The words can give great comfort and hope to those left behind and also to those who are sitting with loved ones who know that death is close.
For some, however death can be a merciful release for people who are suffering great pain, indignity and helplessness.
At the lent course an emotional discussion took place about assisted suicide with everyone giving some moving opinions. A quote from Tanni Grey-Thompson “why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to, we focus on how to make that possible? a very thoughtful and interesting point of view.

The next verse
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full.
It is hard to understand exactly what is meant here and there are many thoughts and ideas and one is from
John Ellinwood who argues that this verse refers to the sober raucous dinner before major battles. These were raucous in order to demoralize the hostiles that were camped within earshot, and (only) the king ate from a table. “Thou anointest my head with oil” because tomorrow this ceremony might be impossible. After each victory there was no longer a need for sobriety, so “my cup runneth over.”

Or is it that even in the very midst of life’s trials we will be succored and strengthened by God’s good provision, a source of nourishment for the soul, protection against evil and a foretaste of heaven’s banquet.

Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a very moving final verse and can be understood easily and can give much hope to those preparing for death. It also gives a great deal of comfort for those grieving for a loved one. It can also be interpreted for the start of life or a new stage in ones life, which is why this Psalm is sometimes used in weddings and baptisms.

Here is an interesting reflection from the reverend Dr. Jane Leach who was a spokesperson as part of the York course:-

“ We live in a consumer society and we still suffer from anxiety about scarcity, hoarding goods as if our lives depended on it. To the extent that I have learned that God is sufficient for the journey, it’s through the faith of those whom I’ve had the privilege to meet at the end of their lives who were able, even in the face of death, to make this prayer their own.

However and whenever we come across Psalm 23 it is powerful and remains as relevant today as it has ever been.

Psalm 13 by Julie Gurden

1. How long will you forget me, O Lord; for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

2. How long shall I have anguish in my soul and grief in my heart, day after day?
How long shall my enemy triumph over me?

3. Look upon me and answer, O Lord my God;
lighten my eyes, lest I sleep in death;

4. Lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed against him,’
any my foes rejoice that I have fallen.

5. But I put my trust in your steadfast love;
my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

6. I will sing to the Lord,
for he has dealt so bountifully with me.

The Psalms were written not merely as poems, but as songs for singing. More than a third of the psalms are addressed to the Director of Music as is this one. It is also described as a psalm of David, although it is not thought to be written by him.

The repetitive use of the line “How long” in the first two verses, makes us feel that the psalmist is in perpetual turmoil, that the sense that God is not there listening and has turned his face away feels unbearable. During our lent group we discussed having to sometimes just abide and wait to recover that sense of his sparkling vitality, or sometimes we need to revisit that experience when we left God behind and find God where we left him. But that it felt for most that there are those moments when we cry out to God.

In verves 3 and 4 the psalmist asks how long these feelings of abandonment will last, he goes further in saying that even his enemies are triumphing over him. Some thoughts that were discussed within the group were about prayer, and praying with others, for others and for yourself. In the bible Job has everything stripped away and yet he says ‘I know that my redeemer liveth.’ That perhaps we have to live in hope, otherwise we just become embittered.

The final two verves finishes praising the Lord and acknowledging the gifts he has been given. We discussed how the psalms gives a voice to feelings of anger, distress and sorrow, or helps us to understand that others are experiencing these feelings. But this Psalm also carries you through to the joy and praise of God.