A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
On 9th August 1942 a group of musicians gathered to perform a new symphony in the besieged Soviet city of Leningrad, now St Petersburg. They had been called in from across the Russian front lines to rehearse and, such was the significance of the work, composed by one of their own, that rations were provided for the performers, while those around them had been starving, resorting to eating rats, horses, dogs and some say worse.
The composer, Dmitry Shostakovich, had completed the work – forever known as the Leningrad Symphony – as a response to the German invasion. He had been a fireman in the city during the early stages of the invasion. Such was the power of a piece of music that it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm and had its first performance away from the front line, and before the Leningrad performance, by Sir Henry Wood in London. But it is the Leningrad performance that will go down in history. It was broadcast across the starving, besieged city by loudspeaker and, such was the power of the music to express both firm resolution, determined resistance and, above all, hope. The conductor of the performance later said that, after the war, he was visited by some tourists from East Germany, who had been soldiers on the edge of the city at the time of the performance. They heard the music from the loudspeakers. The men told him that when they heard the performance of Shostakovich’s symphony they understood that a city of people who showed such spirit would not capitulate. One is reported to have said that his comrades shed tears when they heard the music.
On Wednesday, on a cold, snowy morning, a young woman stood to read a poem at the inauguration of President Biden. She, in a very different way, captured a moment of crisis and opportunity in her words, among which were:
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb
Both of these stories to me say something about the power of words and music to speak what cannot be said; in very different ways they bring our deepest longings into the present moment and offer them back to us, fresh and new. It’s that power of speech that is at the heart of the psalms of reorientation, or perhaps new orientation, that are the theme of our third week’s journey through the psalter.
It would be very easy for this third set of psalms, especially after the disorientation of the psalms of lament, to become about everything being all right again. But, while some of these psalms do suggest that all is well, very rarely do they imply that everything is the same as it was. I think that’s really important for us right now because, to use Amanda Gorman’s image from the inauguration, we are still climbing the hill. I feel very reluctant to take us beyond the current struggle right now: we are most definitely not there yet and, if the news of recent days is anything to go by, we will never be quite the same again after this pandemic. The hill may in fact be steeper for a long time to come.
But Psalm 66, this hymn of both corporate and individual thanksgiving, offers us a more enduring hope, one that comes not just from a loudspeaker determined to defeat an implacable enemy, nor from the voice of a young black women with an uncanny ability to speak into the moment. The hope of Psalm 66 is hope from God, hope of deliverance, grounded in history, lived in thanksgiving and strengthened by being recited again and again. Let me say just a word about each of these things.
Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him, who rules by his might for ever. Psalm 66 reminds those who speak it and who pray it of what God has done in the past. For the people of Israel, from whom this psalm comes down to us, it is always and everywhere the Exodus, the deliverance from Egypt. For them – even to this day as the Passover is celebrated – it is this event of liberation that defines and shapes their identity. They escape the power of control by Pharoah by the power of liberation by God. This God, the God of the Bible, acts in history – and before the nations – to set his people free. It is this image above all others that the early Christians established as the metaphor for speaking of their own experience of liberation through knowing Jesus Christ. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, they said, and we do in our Easter liturgy. These psalms of new orientation speak of a God who acts to bring us through adversity, to set us free from tyranny (personal, social and, yes, political) and who, from the perspective of faith in Jesus Christ, has acted decisively to defeat the last enemy itself, death. As a bishop said in a webinar I took part in with him on Thursday, the Christian journey is always one of preparation for death and what lies beyond. These psalms, addressed in praise, recognise the ultimate deliverance, and in a voice of thanksgiving grounded in God’s action in history – the Exodus, the Resurrection – speak into our own anxieties about the future, in this world and the next.
But the characteristic voice of response to that is always first, gratitude. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me. Such an act of deliverance merits a response of gratitude, a cycle of grace. When people talk about “paying it forward” they capture a deep wisdom of faith. For the person of faith, however, there’s this vertical axis of thankfulness and gratitude, which begins with the action of God in history. We dare to believe that God can be taken at his word, that what he promises has and will come true, that God can be relied upon, even as we face those reoccurring or ongoing moments of disorientation. Because you have done this, therefore I have hope. Like a recurring motif in a symphony building to a recapitualtion or a repeating motif in a poem emphasising the point, the habit of being grateful builds up our lives to be those of blessing, to others and to God. These psalms of new orientation root us in gratitude as the defining virtue of Jewish and Christian living. As Frederick Buechner puts it: “We listen to the evening news with its usual recital of shabbiness and horror, and God, if we believe in him at all, seems remote and powerless, a child’s dream. But there are other times–often the most unexpected, unlikely times–when strong as life itself comes the sense that there is a holiness deeper than shabbiness and horror and at the very heart of darkness a light unutterable. Is it only the unpredictable fluctuations of the human spirit that we have to thank? We must each of us answer for ourselves, remember for ourselves, preach to ourselves our own sermons. But “Remember the wonderful works,” sings King David, because if we remember deeply and truly, he says, we will know whom to thank, and in that room of thanksgiving and remembering there is peace.”
And that leads me to the importance of recitation. These psalms are the Church’s first hymnbook and the words Jesus used to praise God in the synagogue. They tell these stories of deliverance in poetry and song and, because they have been prayed over the centuries, they have become hallowed. These psalms have been prayed in the darkest night, the deepest dungeon and the most sublime moments of triumph and victory. They give voice to our need to be rescued and saved, not just in the final hour of our death, but in the countless moments where a reminder of God’s action and the reliability of thankfulness are so vitally needed. Moments like this dreadful pandemic where, if we listen closely to the deep music or the poetic structure of the world, a voice of hope still sounds: “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.“ Sometimes a psalm of thanksgiving of new orientation can be spoken or prayed with unfettered joy; at others through gritted teeth; occasionally in spite of the evidence before us. But to recite these words of thanksgiving and deliverance is to persist in the faith that sustained the Israelites and has empowered the Church, it is to dare to believe that, through God’s action in history, through lives lived thankfully, and through use in prayer and praise, God can be trusted, God will be trusted and that, to use Julian of Norwich’s famous phrase, “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
We are a people of faith. The new orientation of trust that is ours by faith and baptism is the musical motif or the poetic form our lives. Amen.
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