Sunday, February 14, 2016

First in Lent

Psalm 91

Again, good morning—on this first Sunday in Lent, and of course with cherubs and cupids and floating hearts all around us in honor of St. Valentine.  Valentinus, Roman priest and martyr, executed in the 3rd century. Beyond that, nobody really knows much.  One tradition says that his crime was related to officiating at marriages of Roman soldiers, who weren’t legally allowed to get married.  Another says that while he was imprisoned he learned that his jailor’s daughter was ill, that he prayed for her, that she was healed, and that he later wrote to her an affectionate letter encouraging her in Christian faith and signed, “your Valentine.”  In any event, good to remember him in the great cloud of Christian saints and I’m sure in that heavenly choir it must be nice to be remembered on a day devoted to the expression of love.  Hearts and flowers and Happy St. Valentine’s Day--and we’re reminded that the fast of Lent is relaxed on Sundays as an anticipation of Easter, so it’s just fine to enjoy a chocolate or a glass of wine with your sweetheart today . . . .

I’m preaching  through the Sundays in Lent this year, with the exception of the Fourth Sunday, Laetare, at the beginning of March, when Dan Isadore will be in the pulpit, and as I was a while ago looking at the propers through the season in this Year C of our lectionary I was struck by the sequence of psalms appointed to be read or sung, and it occurred to me that one way to allow the Scripture to speak to us during this Lent would be to pause over these psalms and to ask what word is being given about the character of this season, as we turn our attention off in the distance to Holy Week and Good Friday, the great mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, and our redemption, and the new life that opens to us and for us in the miracle of Easter morning and his resurrection from the dead.

The psalms were a central part of the Scriptures for the Hebrew people in ancient times, as they are for us, and were experienced in several different ways.  They would of course be read devotionally and studied as God’s Word.  But they also functioned liturgically, many of them clearly offered as what we might call a part of the Temple hymnal, some even with comments about musical notation, and perhaps that even extended out to the liturgies of village synagogues, though probably without the kind of musical instrumentation they appeared to have had in the Temple.  The Psalms also were memorized, and would be sung in daily life, while working in the fields, or perhaps while cooking or doing laundry or casting nets off the side of fishing boats.  They sunk in deep in memory and consciousness, gave shape to what we might call the “spirituality” of faith.  What parents might sing to their children at bedtime, words that would pop up in moments of joy or celebration, times of victory or moments of defeat and loss.  Jesus himself often quotes from the psalms, even in the words that he speaks from the cross.  My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

And I think pretty much all of that continues to be true for us.   When I lead the afternoon Protestant service over at the Forbes Nursing Home on Fifth Avenue every couple of months I always conclude our time of intercessory prayer at the end of the service with the Lord’s Prayer, and then with the invitation for those present to join me in reciting the 23rd Psalm.  And it is so interesting to me that so many who have lost so much of cognitive ability and memory, who will have been sitting quietly during the service, or perhaps even who have been distracted, talking to themselves, rustling uncomfortably in their hospital chairs, and so on, and as soon as I begin, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” there is this warm and gentle spirit that settles over the whole room, a kind of focus, and in all these voices they gather in, “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”  Just amazing.  Words deep in our heart.  And it’s interesting that when publishers created what we used to call “pocket Bibles,” so often they would include simply the New Testament and the Psalms . . . .

In any event, the 91st Psalm for us today.  Selected by the compilers of the lectionary I suspect because Satan quotes from it in his effort to test Jesus in the wilderness.  A reminder that even the Word of God can be taken up to be used for evil rather than for good.

In any event, even given that particular rationale, I find it helpful to hear this Psalm with good intention here on the First Sunday in Lent.  For those who follow the pattern of the daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer or of what is called the monastic diurnal, following St. Benedict’s order of worship and prayer over the last 1500 years or so--we would note that Psalm 91 appointed every night at Compline, the last set of prayers of the day.  Bedtime prayers.   I can’t hear this psalm without being lifted in my association to the monastery where I go on retreat every fall—, “he who dwells in the shelter of the most high abides under the shadow of the Almighty. ” To hear the monks as they chant these words in the candle lit darkness of the abbey church, as we prepare  to enter the Great Silence of the night.  The spirit of the moment more or less like those last minutes of the day that mom or day spend with a child to say goodnight.  The lights out, soft words, a quiet prayer, and then the comfort of a gentle song.  That is Psalm 91, for us this morning, First Sunday in Lent.

Perhaps just to follow along here, page 7 in the leaflet this morning.  The first two stanzas, this wonderful affirmation.  God is pictured as a shelter, a home, a roof and four walls, a place of safety, protection. Hard not to think of the familiar Isaac Watt’s hymn, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, a shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”   For a people of the desert, he is an oasis of shade from the assault of the midday sun. 

And now the one who makes his home here, in God, offers and gives voice to this hymn of praise.  The second verse of the psalm: “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”  A word of prayer as your head lies down on the pillow for a sleep in safety.   And then these words of assurance, verses 3 – 13.  God as I guess a mother hen in verse 4, hiding her chicks under the protection of her wings.  Or God as a mighty warrior, lifting up shield and sword to fend off every enemy.  God as the source of health, pushing back the threat of disease, “the plague that stalks in the darkness . . . the sickness that lays waste at noon.”  All around there may be death and destruction, but for the one who dwells in this sheltering God, who is held in his embrace, there is no reason to be afraid.  “A thousand shall fall, ten thousand, but it shall not come near you.”

“The wicked,” always the psalmist’s word for the one who lives outside of a relationship with God, he will have his inevitable reward, but the angels will watch over you, over God’s faithful child, lifting him up over the rocky path, closing the mouth of the venomous snake and the hungry lion.”

And then at verse 14, we hear who has been speaking these words of assurance.  God himself.  “Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.”  His promise.   The first Christians read this psalm and realized that in it here God was speaking, yes, about faithful Israel in her covenant, and also speaking to  each of us as we listen for words of comfort and assurance, but also and even more as a song of love sung within the Holy Trinity, the song of the Father for the Son.  He shall call upon me and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him, show him my salvation.”

The officiant at Compline marks on his body the Sign of the Cross.  “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night, and a perfect end.”  Here under the Cross of the Great Rood of St. Andrew’s Church on this first Sunday in Lent, we hear Jesus say to his friends in the 12th chapter of St. John, “and I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”  The love of the Father for the Son, and for all those brought into his presence by the Son.  And we would know how it is to enter this holy shelter, his embrace, to know his protection and love, his promise for this life and the greater life to come.  The words of invitation to Lent as we heard them last Sunday and of course on Ash Wednesday:  “I invite you in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”   Sometimes people talk about Lent as a hard journey of austerity and struggle, but the word here is of an invitation to sacred rest, to peace, to be folded into his arms, the hope and sure foundation and blessed assurance of all who put their trust and confidence in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

And so, Week One, may this be indeed for you, for all of us, a holy and rich and secure rest, as we place ourselves in his care and come to know more deeply his strength and his love.  As we are told in Psalm 2: Happy are they who put their trust in him.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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