Remember your Heritage
Preacher: The Revd Rob Ryan, Cathedral Curate (2010-2012)
3 October 2010, 10:30 (Trinity 18)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been in the Gulag, a Soviet prison camp. He had been forced to do back- breaking labor until he came to the point of exhaustion. With little food and little rest, he was constantly watched by guards and never allowed to communicate with another human being.
Never permitted a newspaper or magazine from the outside, he came to believe that he was forgotten by everyone, even God. In his despair, he decided to commit suicide, but he could not reconcile that act with the teachings of the Bible. Then he decided to end his misery by trying an escape, knowing that he would surely be shot. He rationalized that his death would then be at the hands of another and not his own doing.
The appointed day came when he would put his fateful plan into action. Sitting under a tree during a brief respite from work, he glanced at the guards to see where they were positioned. Just as he started to jump and run, a prisoner he had never seen before stood in front of him. Looking into his eyes, Solzhenitsyn said he could see more love than he had ever seen before emanating from the eyes of another human being.The prisoner stooped down with a small twig in his hand and began to draw the symbol of the cross in the soil of Soviet Russia. When Solzhenitsyn saw the cross, he knew God had not forsaken him. He knew God was right there beside him in his deepest pit. Little did he realize that at that very moment, Christians all over the world were praying for his release, and within three days he would be sitting in Geneva, Switzerland, a free man. (From Battle Fatigue by Joe Brown, p136)
Today’s Psalm is written from within a prison of sorts.The Babylonians have destroyed Jerusalem and taken the people back to their country. (This is where you fit Daniel in the history).The people are in exile, they are downbeat, they are being oppressed, life is pretty rubbish and, to make it1 worse, it’s been a little while and people are starting to forget what it used to be like. Some of the Jews, the chosen race, are forgetting their heritage and where they have come from.
The major theme of this psalm is ‘memory’. In verses 1, 6 and 7 we see the language of ‘remember’. With these three remembers we see three responses: of anguish, accountability and anger.
This psalm breaks into three parts, The first part being vv 1-4, talks about the anguish of the entire community.The memory of the destruction of Jerusalem is painful to them.This is not just a town, this is where the temple stood that housed God! Not only is the memory painful but the Babylonians are making it worse by taking the micky: “awww sing us one of those old songs again!’ They are being taunted!
This causes us, I think, to ask the question, ‘does this happen today?’ ‘Are we taunted?’ ‘Do we bite?’ What should be our response?
In verses 5-6 we get a more personal dimension. Notice the subtle shift from ‘we’ to ‘I’ in the text as the psalmist thinks on his personal responsibility, his accountability or his duty in all of this. And that duty is .... not to forget! May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I ever forget where I have come from, if I forget my heritage or if I give in.
Another question to us: have we forgotten our heritage? Do we forget who we are? Do we deny who we are?
Verses 7-9 give us the final part of the psalm.This communal and personal remembering causes them to shout, get angry and ask God to remember. Here we see the boiling over of raw emotion. Here we see the anger that can be birthed as a result of people being oppressed and suffering injustice. First, the Psalmist here commands God. He commands God? Isn’t that shocking? Or is it?
I have had countless conversations with people about reality in their prayers.These people have often told me they need to use the right words and keep emotion out of their prayer. They could not possibly be real with God and tell God how they really feel, what they really think, particularly if they are angry with God, or blame God is some way, or be confused because God seemingly did nothing to make things better or different.
But ... the mad thing here is that God already knows. God already knows our attitude. God knows when we are angry, confused or when we are hurting, God knows when we blame others or blame God. So ... logically we may as well speak it out because God is already aware of it. There is no point hiding it for it is to God we are deceiving but ourselves.To hide things from a God who we believe knows everything already is senseless. we don’t protect God from our feelings ... we merely fool ourselves and avoid reality.
So ... they shout at God!
‘God don’t you dare forget!’
They beg God to act.
Now ... as the preacher for today I’d really rather this Psalm ended there at verse 7, for how do you ever start to explain verse 9?
We see horribly disturbing fantasies of violence that seem to come straight from a Tarantino movie. It’s easy to denounce the violence of these words and it is right to do so. But .... we must also ask why these words are there.Wemust not avoid them!
Part of our perceived exile, part of the baiting and the growing disregard for our faith is down to our choice, regularly, to avoid the tricky questions.
In this past week we have seen Ed Milliband make his first speech as leader of the Labour Party. He was honest, in my opinion, and said where the previous government got it so wrong after starting well. He asked, and partly answered, the difficult question of how, in a few years, had they managed to lose over 5 million votes.
It struck me that we should ask the same question as as believers living in a country of a strong Christian heritage that built a church in every parish and cathedrals like this.We can also ask how did we manage to lose so many people? In a country where as recent as 150 years ago more or less everyone could walk to their local parish church, and did so, because it was central to their life and the community ... a church that spoke meaningfully into peoples situations because it understood and responded with helpful initatives such as education for the poor ... a country where churches were regularly sending missionaries to other countries ... with such a healthy church how did we lose so many people over a relatively short space of time?
‘We have a responsibility to leave our world a better place than when we found it.We have a duty to never walk by on the other side of the road when we see a need.’
Does anyone know who said those words in this past week?
A guess? Rowan Williams maybe? The Dean?
It was in fact Ed MIlliband in his first speech to the Labour Party as the new leader.
I wonder, have we stopped remembering what it is to be a Christian? Have we lost sight of our heritage? Part of the reason the Labour Party lost the last election was that they stopped dealing with the difficult questions.They dismissed and hid from the questions that they did not want to answer or were embarrassed by (Immigration, Iraq, benefits).
I believe part of the reason for not only our decline but the dismissivness of many towards the church is beacsue we have avoided the embarrassing questions. I meet people all the time who are interested in Jesus. Only this week someone said to me ‘Jesus the person and son of God ... yes! The church and their judgmental attitudes ... no!’
So ... we should not avoid verses like verse 9: ‘Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’.
It’s a horrible verse. I think I rate amongst the sickest in the BIble, a verse that concerns me, a verse that is offensive to someone that believes and worships a God of love.
The Psalmist is, however, being honest to his feelings! The violence towards me, he says, has given me a hate and a desire to retaliate. Is this still the case today in our society? What comes out of the mouths of the oppressed children and their parents? A short google search revealed many poems from Gaza, for example, written by Palestinians that seeth with hate and revenge due to their oppression.
So why do I think it is in this Psalm? The raw articulation of pain can have enormous healing potential. The danger is, of course, that the very idea can quite quickly become obsessive and cause people to commit the very acts of violence that they actually hate. So maybe it is here as a guide - when we feel like this, for all of us will sometime (some more regularly than others depending on your situation) then maybe we should verbalise it to God and then, more importantly, leave it with God. If we harbour it or hold on to it, it can become an obsessive trait that inevitably will only be able to express itself in disastrous ways!
I said I do not wish to avoid the difficult questions, but neither in this case would I wish to place to much focus on this verbalisation of anger.This Psalm is not about revenge or violence.This Psalm is about memory and it’s important that we go away with that.
The Psalm is about remembering our heritage and the questions it demands of us today is ‘are we in touch with who we are in Christ?’ and ‘What does this mean for how we live?’
In our other readings today we can also see this theme of remembering who we are and what we re about. In 2 Timothy, Paul’s words urge those early Christians to remember they have a spirit of discipline, self love and power! We need to remember that so do we!
In the gospel reading Jesus reminds us about simply doing our duty. What is our duty? To remember who we are.To remember that following Jesus means we live differently.To remember that our duty is to help with the building of the Kingdom here on earth. That little reference to mustard seed faith resonates with Jesus talking of the kingdom back in chapter 13.The disciples will have made the link ...didn’t he say mustard seed before? The KIngdom of God is like a mustard seed .... now he is saying if we had the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains.
How may we do this ... by simply using what God has given us.
Before closing I’d like to give one option to use that mustard seed of faith.This will be attractive and right for some of you, and for others it will not be.As part of this cathedral community we have amaz- ing opportunities to get alongside people, to hear their stories and to show interest. (interested is in- teresting!) In a few weeks time, during the Dickens festival, in the south transept just over here we will have a gazebo with various activities inside it just like we had at Sweeps which some of you will have noticed. These activities, under the theme of angels, will be designed to get people to pause a while while they pass through the cathedral. I am looking for people to work on that team with me.
The stall we will be running will be called Dekhomai, which is a Greek word that means ‘the welcoming place’. We aim to offer a place of welcome and hospitality for visitors, a space where we can listen to people, a space where we can share something of the spirituality from the Christian tradition which will include a number of things such as prayer with them, foot massage or simply listening. It is not a place for evangelism or proclamation, but rather a place to be missional by serving in a Christlike way ready to respond when asked and allowing God to do the rest. Really we are simply helping people to remember.We are helping them to remember that they were created by a God that still wants an on- going relationship with them.
If you would like to talk to me more about getting involved ... please do so.
If that’s not for you .... then simply it is about using our gifts, our interests and our talents. In the words of the Bishop of Durham:
Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or walk; every act of care or nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings, and for that matter for ones fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world - all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make.
Let us pray:
Lord help us. Help us to remember who we are, help us to remember what you have done, help us to remember what we we can be.This week may we remember our promise in you and may we live lives that will attract others to you Lord Jesus. Amen.