Thanks and Praise
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Thanks and Praise: 26th June 2011: pm: The Very Revd Frank Nelson
- Psalm 50
- 1 Samuel 28: 3 - 19
- Luke 17: 20 - 37
This time next week I will be in Christ’s College Chapel, preaching at Evensong for the Christchurch Cathedral Community. Along with your greetings, I will be taking a framed piece of calligraphy. Done by our own Alison Furminger, the words are those of Peter Beck, Dean of Christchurch, uttered shortly after the February 22nd earthquake. "This is not an act of God, this is the earth, doing what it does. The act of God is how we love each other, how we reach out to one another." It is perhaps not surprising then, that I have found myself wondering what one says to a cathedral community which no longer has a cathedral, and indeed, whether, and how, a cathedral can be a cathedral when there is no building, especially when it is the one cathedral in this country which is not a parish church. Cathedrals tend to have a gathered congregation, and Peter Beck himself, in conversation with me and other deans, has frequently said that at each act of worship a new community is formed.
Incidentally, among my chief reasons for going to Christchurch is to keep a promise I made to Peter earlier this year. When I asked him what we in Wellington Cathedral could do, his words were something like, “Frank, don’t forget about us.” In some ways I feel next week’s short visit will be a little like giving a bunch of cut flowers to a close friend, rather than a more practical and longer lasting pot-plant. The extravagance of a gift with a short shelf-life has a very special message.
But it is not only collapsed cathedral’s I have been thinking about. Today we mark what is called Te Pouhere Sunday. As Anglicans we recognize three cultural streams within one Church – those of Maori, Pakeha and Pacifika. While what we do here often feels little more than tokenism – the occasional Maori greeting, the Lord’s Prayer sung on Maori - that does not deny or undermine the sense of pride in being able to worship God in one’s own cultural way, or being able to make decisions in culturally appropriate ways – not always using a pseudo Westminster system.
Then there is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Your synod representatives will have to get their heads around that by September. In a creative piece of writing published this week Glyn Cardy, vicar of an Auckland church, likens the Anglican Church to a rambling old building which is big enough to welcome all. The presenting issue behind the Covenant is to do with sexuality and sexual orientation, and who is welcome in the house. There are those, on both sides of the argument, who say that a Covenant will exclude some from the house.
And those who stay on tonight will be learning more about the Orthodox Church – in its Greek, Romanian and Russian forms. Among other things we will hear about the single Latin word that continues to keep the two great western church traditions apart in a schism now lasting a thousand years. The word filioque means “and the Son”. It is a tiny addition to the Nicene Creed and has to do with the Holy Spirit. For nearly 600 years Christians happily said, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” And then, in 1054, the Catholic Church decided to add the word “filioque” changing the Creed to read – “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” You don’t see the issue? Well, it has been enough to keep Catholic and Orthodox apart for ten centuries!
With these thoughts buzzing about in my head then, I approached tonight’s readings in preparation for this sermon. King Saul in 1 Samuel 28 seems to be doing a typical politician’s thing; campaign against witches and mediums, and then, when it suits him, go and consult one anyway. Luke 17 reminds us that we should be ready to meet our maker at all times, and that natural disasters, such as those outlined in the Gospel, and of which we are so vividly aware at this time, strike unexpectedly and randomly.
But it is Psalm 50 that really caught my interest. Divide the whole psalm into three sections and an ending and there is much food for thought. While we will use the translation as sung tonight from the Book of Common Prayer, it is well worth looking at how modern translators render these ancient words. See BCP page 556.
Section 1, verses 1 – 6, is a summons from God to the whole created universe, from the rising up of the sun, unto the going down thereof (v 1) … and the heaven from above and the earth (v 4). There is to be a case made against God’s own people, those who claim to have entered into covenant with God. In words reminiscent of the appearance of God to Moses and then Elijah on Mount Horeb in the Sinai, God’s presence is signaled by a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest. This time though, God is on Mount Zion, in the midst of the holy city of Jerusalem, the place of the Temple where the psalm is being sung and sacrifices are offered on the altar.
It is sacrifice that is the subject of the second section, verses 7 – 15. “Hear, O my people, and I will speak.” (v 7). The opening words of the Ten Commandments are called to mind as God begins the charges against the people. It is not the sacrifices themselves that are offensive to God; it is the sense that God in some way needs the sacrifices of people that offends. In a non too subtle rebuke the people offering the sacrifices are reminded that the he-goat out of thy folds, the beasts of the forest, the cattle upon a thousand hills, the fowls upon the mountains, the wild beasts of the field, all of these are God’s already. God doesn’t need any human being to offer them as sacrifices to God. As soon as we think God is in need of our sacrifices God is conceived as being dependant on us and our gifts. The upshot of this thinking is that rather than mankind being created in the image of God, God becomes created in the image of man! There are plenty of people around today who ridicule the whole notion of God as simply a figment of human imagination. And they are right. If God is a figment of our imagination, something created out of our need to control, to manipulate, then this is not God – at least, not as the psalmist, the prophets of the Old Testament, or Jesus Christ himself, understood God.
Verses 14 and 15 suggest that the Temple cult has become bogged down in external ritual – something easy to happen in a place like a Cathedral which prides itself on its tradition and doing things properly. The ritual should not replace a continuous spiritual attitude of mind; a closeness to God which resembles the worship in spirit and in truth suggested by Jesus to the Samaritan woman in their argument over another mountain. (See John 4: 20 – 24).
The third section of the psalm, verses 16 to the end, verses not sung tonight, like the cry of the Old Testament prophets, is echoed later by Jesus in the Gospels. One of the unique things about Judaism ( and therefore Christianity) is the ethical demand made by God on worshippers. This third section is addressed not, as the word ‘ungodly’ in verse 16 suggests, to those who do not know God, but to those who, while claiming to be God’s people, ignore the ethical demands made by God. It is a stinging rebuke against the hypocrisy of those who claim to speak for God, but who blatantly ignore the commandments of God. Listen to verses 16 – 20, read from the NRSV, ‘What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you. You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers. You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child’.
The final verse, number 23, offers something simple and straightforward: “Whoso offereth me thanks and praise, he honoureth me.” And that’s it in a nutshell. Sacrifice maybe, ethics and morality certainly, but mainly thanks and praise to God in whose image we are made – not the other way round. Constitutions and Tikanga, Covenants which include and exclude, filioques inserted into Creeds: in the end the question is simple.
Is my life an offering of thanks and praise to God?