Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 22nd July 2012
22nd July 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
Sunday by Sunday at this service and day by day at Evensong choirs in this Abbey sing that most distinctive aspect of Anglican worship, the psalms set to various chants. That is just part of a much wider use of the psalms here, for in our daily said matins on weekdays we also recite them on a daily basis. As I said last week in the first of this series of two addresses on the psalms, Anglican worship has been steeped in their imagery, language and spirituality. That is not exclusive to Anglicanism of course, other Christian churches use psalms regularly in their worship as well, but perhaps our style of doing it through the use of Anglican chants is distinctive.
But what are we to make of some of the themes in the psalms? There are many to choose from, praise on the one hand, to laments on the other; rejoicing yet penitence, confidence and trust in God yet some grave questioning of God in the face of suffering. They are all there in the psalms.
The psalm set for today, Psalm 67, is one of the ones that express great confidence in God not just for Israel but for the world as a whole. ‘O let the nations rejoice and be glad: for thou shalt judge the folk righteously, and govern the nations upon earth.’ And the consequence of that is clear: ‘Let the people praise thee, O God: let all the people praise thee.’ It represents huge confidence in God as the person who ultimately governs the world.
But does he? Since that psalm was written perhaps the Jewish people of all people have had good cause to wonder about that. Of all the pograms, persecutions and disasters the Jewish people have faced three stand out in their corporate minds as exceptionally dreadful. The first was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, when not only was the building that had been the centre of Jewish worship destroyed, never to be used in that way again, but literally thousands of Jewish men were crucified as punishment for rebelling against Roman rule. The second was the expulsions of Jews from different European countries, including from England, at various stages in the Middle Ages; vast suffering and disruption was caused by, sad to say, Christian rulers who thought they were doing God’s will. Then the third disaster was of course the Holocaust, or Shoah as Jewish people prefer to refer to it as, when six million Jews from Europe were systematically murdered on the orders of Hitler. It is remarkable that a people who have been through all of that can still use a psalm that says ‘thou shalt … govern the nations upon earth.’
So what can that really mean in a world that has known such terrible suffering, not just for Jews but for many other people as well? Some of the suffering was caused by ghastly regimes that had no compunction in killing countless numbers of people, but some were also caused by natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, described by insurance companies as ‘acts of God.’ In the face of all of that in what sense can we really say that God ‘governs the nations upon earth’?
That is, of course, the most fundamental question one can ask about God, and there have been a wide variety of different answers over the centuries as both Jewish and Christian theologians have struggled with the question. It would be very foolish of me to think that I could provide anything like an answer in one, or even a hundred sermons. But let me just give a few pointers to possible ways of thinking about that theme from the psalms.
First, and has so often been said, it is clear that humankind has been given genuine free will, and some people have abused and no doubt will continue to abuse that freedom in the most dreadful ways. Human beings do evil things, and it is quite clear that God does not as it were step in to stop them in some miraculous way. But it is worth noting that even the most dreadful regimes do not last for ever; the most barbaric of governments whether of the right as in Nazi Germany and in the old white dominated South Africa or of the left as in aspects of the old Soviet Union do eventually collapse in the face of their own internal contradictions. It does seem that those basic human aspirations for a measure of freedom and a desire for truth and goodness are ultimately more powerful than the forces of repression. That does not, of course, mean that what follows is always perfect, manifestly it is not, but that basic drive towards something better, a drive that I would call God-given, does seem to be very powerful. So I do not believe it is naïve to hope for such changes, even though sometimes they may take a long time in coming. Or as the psalm puts it ‘Let the people praise thee, O God: let all the people praise thee. Then shall the earth bring forth her increase.’ It is, of course, far too simple to say as some Christians used to say that if you get God right then the rest of the world will fall into place, it does not necessarily do so because the problems are huge, but getting God right does help if for no other reason because belief in God provides the motivation to challenge injustice. And a rabbi friend of mine who I consulted about this psalm said that the original Hebrew could equally easily translate the word ‘govern’ as guide’, so the verse would read ‘thou shalt judge the folk righteously and guide the nations upon earth.’ In other words God will guide the nations of the earth if their rulers open their hearts to him and his guidance and justice.
But then what of those so-called ‘Acts of God’? How do we fit them in to the psalmist’s view of the world? It was an Anglican theologian, Austin Farrer, who, when asked where God was in an earthquake, replied ‘he was there allowing the earth’s crust to behave according to its nature.’ Just as it is possible to see God as the provider of human freedom which nonetheless sometimes goes wrong so it is possible to see him as the creator of a world in which natural disasters can happen. And perhaps the place to see God is not in the disasters themselves but in the human response to them, where people sometimes motivated by faith but not always, nonetheless respond with extraordinary determination and sometimes outstanding courage to help those caught up in the consequences of a disaster. It was the poet Keats who spoke of this life as a ‘vale of soul-making’. Perhaps we need the challenges imposed by disasters to generate that character that we might call ‘soul-making’, although that is scarcely a comprehensive explanation of why things sometimes go so wrong.
So while personally I think it is impossible to believe that God governs the nations upon earth in any simplistic way, as though he were some form of master puppeteer pulling imaginary strings to make things happen as he wants, it is possible to have a view of God that sees him governing those individuals, organisations and even governments that respond to him by asking us always to aim for something better than the present. But then it is up to us. As St Teresa of Avila put it nearly 500 years ago: ‘Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.’
It is both a challenge and a responsibility.