A Reflection on Psalm 118

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Talk given at this month’s Service on Sunday:

Today I want to think about the process of healing. We had our St John’s Annual Parochial Church Meeting today – a chance to take stock, review and plan ways forward for our Church, our partnerships in the community, and ways forward working with God’s Spirit to bring healing and hope to others through our Church. Psalm 118 is the appointed Psalm for today, full of praise for our faithful God, and images of celebrating his love and worshipping together as a family of believers. It begins with a call to the congregation, to declare God’s never-ending mercy. Without him, we would not have got to this point – a point where our individual journeys of faith, our hopes and fears, all unique to our experience and to who we really are in God, start to come together in a new journey; no longer “mine,” but ours.

William Blake, the poet and visionary, wrote that, “without contraries, there is no progression,” and this Psalm talks about that idea too: that we can feel besieged and surrounded, hard-pressed, about to fall, afraid – and God’s love still is there for us: our salvation, our strength and defence.

As a Church, we are in process. We are responding to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We are called to persevere and be brave. In our relationship with Jesus, we are asked to offer ourselves daily, to rejoice and give thanks. Not because everything is easy – but because God is working within us to bring to the light what he wants us to work with him to change, to form new habits with him, to ask us every day what we want to work on with him today, so that the old may fall away and the new ways be built. That’s why we can say, as in verse 24, “The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.” We are not being asked to do everything all at once, to make commitments we cannot keep, or to think too much about tomorrow’s troubles and temptations; but simply, just for today, to live in this grace and give thanks – and as in this Psalm of community celebration, to do what we can, together, and to be glad and joyful in that and in one another.

On the question of contraries, let us not forget that this is Jesus’ Psalm, a reference to the Holy Week journey we have just shared, incorporating Jesus’ Crucifixion – and now his Resurrection. From his rejection, to the radical acceptance and inclusion that is the new life for all that his death and Resurrection bring:

The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the LORD has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.
The LORD has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
LORD, save us!
LORD, grant us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.

This is a glorious word for us, as we look for confirmation of our way forward as a Church, and indeed for the healing ministry that goes out from here. We embrace the inclusion being offered to us through Jesus, because he is our cornerstone. We embrace it because God has done it, and it is marvellous in our eyes. We rejoice because God has done it this very day; and tomorrow he will do it again, and then again, as the contraries and hurdles we encounter become points of progression and blessing. We see God’s healing and opportunity through every person who comes to us, and to our Churches, as we trust that whoever comes, comes in his name to bring us closer to his purposes. We will bless and be blessed by every person who comes because they come as Christ to us. As a gift from God. We remember that Jesus’ rejection by the authorities was a process – those in power did not approve of his origins, of his lack of formal education, of his disregard for traditions; or of his choice of friends. So our acceptance and inclusion of others, our call to open the “gates of the Lord,” is a process. Moreover, this Psalm tells us that it is a two-way process, that by opening those gates to others we actually open them to ourselves. To liberate others to be themselves is a liberation for us to be ourselves too – a step towards the abundant life in Christ, the wholeness and healing for which we yearn.

The Psalm goes on:
The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.

This is a wonderful image of our praise and worship being renewed and processing up to the altar. We are laying out the red carpet for honoured guests, those from the “back roads and lanes” (Luke 14:23). People young and old, who have been passed over for whatever reason, or have not thought that Church is for them, God wants us to invite and welcome, to fill his House with praise. Though there is debate about what the horns of the altar in this verse actually are, it seems that were used, at the time this Psalm was written, in the consecration of priests and were also a place of refuge. Today’s reading from Revelation talks about God making us priests in his Kingdom (Revelation 1:6), and of course, living in and ministering from the gifts God gives us is a way of being priests to one another. And the idea of people coming to our churches as places of safety and refuge if they have not found a welcome elsewhere, or have been hurt, is part of our ministry of healing and hospitality.

This is a picture by the artist Michael Cook, just so that we can start to visualise this idea of radical acceptance and inclusion from the Gospel story this illustrates:

An Idle Tale by Michael Cook

It’s called “An Idle Tale,” and is a painting from Luke’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, who told the Apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead, and were dismissed as telling “an idle tale,” in other words, utter nonsense. But to this group of women was entrusted the message of new birth: the mystery of the Gospel that blesses the poor, the marginalised, the judged, condemned and dismissed. Let us take this message to our hearts today, as these women, symbols of all who find what’s important to them devalued or who struggle to make their voices heard, fling open the gates to proclaim the Risen Christ. With this Psalm on our lips, let us praise God and say,

The LORD’s right hand is lifted high;
the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!”
I will not die but live,
and will proclaim what the LORD has done.

C Barracliffe 28/4/19

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