Sermon - 20th May 2012
Scripture - Psalm 51
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
We focus today on the theme of prayer – our (second) reading is a long prayer traditionally ascribed to David. The clip we saw from the BBC comedy Rev focus on the dilemmas of being an inner city Anglican priest where people come to church to get their kids into the local Anglican, good, primary school and where the church is struggling for money. These are themes that are familiar to many clergy – but the heart of the clip is Adam’s prayer at the end. His prayer is interesting, not least for the easy, conversational style he has when speaking to God but also because of the depth of emotion he brings to the prayer – just as the Psalmist does.
I would like us to reflect together on what prayer is for us as Christians. For many it’s a list of things to ask for, a shopping list of needs. Sometimes it’s a short urgent list when we’re desperate for someone or some situation and we turn to God. Sometimes prayer is something we forget to do very often, or something we only do when in need. For some of us prayer might involve silent contemplation and one of the most valued parts of our service (in MCC) is the period of silence after Communion where we can in the midst of our busyness simply be still in God’s presence. Prayer might be for us, as it is for the priest in the clip a conversation with a good friend, or it might be, as it was for the Psalmist in the reading Juan read to us, a place to share emotions. For all of us it’s something we do formally in liturgy at church. Hopefully, there will be aspects of all these things in our own prayer lives.
David and Bathsheba
The Psalm is thought to be written by David and is often located in the heart of the story of his relations with Bathsheba. I always feel sorry for Bathsheba, she is a woman whose warrior husband is away fighting for David – who was part king, part warlord. Women in the ancient world generally had little or no power so when the king saw her bathing and wanted her she had very little choice but to obey. The Biblical passage doesn’t really go into Bathsheba’s thoughts about this; it maybe that she was a willing participant, but I have a hunch that she had to submit to the king’s advances. Maybe she was raped, or maybe she was put in a situation where she had few choices left to her as is the plight of so many women then and since.
When she falls pregnant we see the most repulsive side of David. Anxious to evade responsibility he calls Uriah home from the war and hopes he will spend time with his wife and so claim the child as his own in due course. Yet Uriah, the foreigner and pagan, is more honourable than the godly David and won’t go and enjoy rest and relaxation with his wife whilst his troops are at the front fighting for David. So David has him killed making it look like a military manoeuvre that had gone wrong. Now free to marry Bathsheba he does so but the Scriptures do record her sorrow at her husband’s death. She marries David and bears him a child, but the child dies. I wonder how she must have felt to marry the man responsible for killing her husband, but again I wonder what choice she had. She was to give birth to the king’s child, she was alone and without a husband to protect and provide for her the future was bleak.
Those of you who know the story will know that David is finally called to his senses through a bit of cunning rhetoric from the prophet Nathan – a sort of Archbishop of Canterbury figure who made David realise what he’d done. This is then where the psalm is set – it’s traditionally seen as David’s prayer of repentance and it’s used by the church as a penitentiary prayer – and is set in the Catholic daily prayers required of priests, monks and nuns for Fridays – the traditional day of penitence.
The prayer, whether written by David or not, is heartfelt and honest in its language. It shows that the writer clearly knew God and God’s demands and also that the writer had failed and fallen down. There are bits I am uncomfortable with in the Psalm, but as an example of a prayer which is, generally, honest in its emotional response to God it’s very good.
We see this straightforward emotion in the priest’s prayer in our clip. Adam has had a difficult day. The ever-present snide Archdeacon is concerned about the fact that Adam may – perish the thought – actually want money for church repairs. Ironically as the Archdeacon is pleading poverty he is riding around London in a black cab going off to “Chris Hitchen’s” book launch. The Archdeacon piles on the pressure by asking about numbers – all church hierarchies are interested in the number of people in the church – it’s seen as a sign of success or, at least, a sign of viability. Of course the next question after how many come is “how much do they give?” In his prayer Adam complains to God that he’s called to walk with the broken but has to be concerned about finance and building maintenance.
The flood of people coming to church for the wrong reason annoys him – he doesn’t see it as a mission opportunity – and so he piles that on to God too. I like the fact that the writers of Rev showed prayer as a thoroughly normal activity, an activity that doesn’t necessarily used formal words or gestures but is straightforward, open and honest. I also like the fact that Adam acknowledges both his slightly bad language and the fact that he’s attracted to the headmistress in his prayer.
The opening verses of the Psalm are why it is used so much in liturgical forms of prayer as a prayer of penitence. We see the request to “wipe away my sins” and to “wash away all my evil and make me clean”. The writer is “always conscious” of his sins and he has “been evil form the day I was born.” It’s strong stuff and makes us feel a little uneasy. Some of it is, of course, poetic hyperbole but it’s certainly a heartfelt expression of remorse. I’d be uneasy if we took those words as an example for our own prayers of contrition. There has to be a balance in our own Christian lives between a healthy and unhealthy sense of guilt. Clearly we do things wrong and it’s good to feel sorrow for those things. Equally clearly we don’t need to get into pity parties, rejoice in being sinful and disgusting or feed into negative self-images which are often too prevalent in our community (society).
The Psalmist goes on to reflect that he does know what God wants – “sincerity and truth are what you require” but I am fascinated by his line “create a pure heart in me O God and put a new and loyal spirit in me” as it reads as if the writer is expecting God to do it all. All the 12 Step programmes like Alcholics or Narcotics Anonymous have to wrestle with the dichotomy that we are powerless in the face of our addictions, that we need to ask God to change us yet, at the same time we have to effect that change ourselves. The Psalmist is spot on in expressing his sorrow and he shows that he knows what God wants but I just get the sense that he’s shifting the responsibility back on God – do this God, create a clean heart for me and then all will be well. Similarly, Adam in our clip is busy telling God of his financial woes and is majoring on people coming to church for the wrong reasons but isn’t seeing all this as an opportunity.
Finally in the Psalm the writer makes a good link between salvation and restitution into a relationship with God, joy, obedience and proclamation. Restoration is more than simply saying sorry we have to try and put right that which we’ve done wrong. If I run off with the collection and then say sorry I don’t think that would be enough! Kath/Walt would want a little more than a heartfelt apology – they’d also want the money back! David couldn’t bring Uriah back to life but he did provide for Bathsheba. The Psalmist ends the Psalm by recognising that in returning back to God he moves into a place of obedience and that obedience is about proclaiming the Good News in our own situations.
Now the Good News is always about God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ but changes subtly depending on our own context. To those oppressed by materialism the Good News is about giving some money away to help the toxic effects of consumerism. To those addicted to behaviour patterns which drag us down, it’s the Good News that we can change. To those conscious of their burden of sin it’s the Good News that we can be forgiven. [To those who feel guilty about their sexuality or gender identity, it’s the Good News that we are created in God’s own image and we need to accept that gift of His creation.]
Our Own Prayer Lives
So what does this all mean for our own prayer lives? We, hopefully, don’t commit sin on quite the scale that David did seducing other people’s partners and then having the unfortunate cuckold murdered, but we can learn lessons from the Psalm and from the clip from Rev.
Prayer like a good diet mixed. We need the discipline of formal prayer which gives a structure and pattern to our day and our week. The priest’s prayer life we see in the comedy Rev is mixed between conversations we saw today, the formal liturgy of Sunday worship and also the set daily morning and evening prayer which give rhythm to his day. Some people are rather against formal, liturgical prayer, but I think it does help give us words and a pattern which is a very useful discipline when we feel we have nothing to say or when we don’t feel like prayer.
But formal prayer isn’t enough. The beauty of the Psalm is that it gives us an insight into the person who wrote it, their struggle with sin and self-image, their subtle shift of responsibility onto God and their, eventual, realization that restoration, joy and proclamation are bound up with each other. We can pray, informally, at any time or point – in the quiet, on the move, in a spare five minutes. It’s good to express our feelings, frustrations, temptations and attractions to God – it’s also good to spend time simply being quiet and reflective in God’s presence.
It’s also good to find resources to help us pray – there are loads, online, on paper, using the Psalms as a way to help us pray is good – especially if we want to see how to express every human emotion in words to God – it’s all there from the saintly to the murderous! The point, I think of both the Psalm and the clip is to be honest in prayer and to bring every aspect of our lives to God in that way – our anger, our frustration, our despair, our sexuality, our worries, our joys and our concerns. Will you pray with me?
Teach us to pray.
Help us to trust you:
With our emotions,
With our fears,
With our desires,
With our doubts,
With our anger,
With our joy/
Help us to find time to pray:
Quietly in silent awe in your presence,
Weekly with our friends and family in church,
Formally when we need the discipline and haven’t got the words,
Informally when we can pour out our hearts to you.
And help us, loving God:
To be open and honest in prayer,
And to tell others of our joys and struggles in prayer.
All this we ask, in the name of Jesus Christ,
Our friend and brother.