Sermon November 14 Psalm 16 Rev. Betsy Hogan
So we have a new cat at our house: the latest in our series of old lady cats whose sad need for a new home roughly coincides with when the cat-shaped space in our house starts feeling very empty. So I picked her up last weekend, and brought her back to our place to commence her gracious living in her comfortable retirement residence –
And she took one look around her, and she disappeared. And I do mean disappeared. For the best part of 24 hours we had no idea where she was – to the point that David actually rigged up the outside security cameras inside so we'd maybe catch a glimpse of her –
And then for the subsequent 48 hours we literally only saw her on the security camera. Creeping out in the middle of the night to have some food and water.
So at least we knew she was alive! But to say she was terrified in her cosy new home is putting it mildly. Never have we adopted a cat so frightened by a move. And much of our past week can be distilled into fortunately lengthening blocks of time of us just saying over and over: "it's okay, honey, it's okay. Everything will be fine. This will all be fine."
It's reminded me of the famous words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, one of the great Christian theologians of the medieval church, whose work Revelations of Divine Love is still considered a cornerstone of Christian mysticism.
Because her most famous words are these: "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."
It can be easy to dismiss such things as pablum, even patronizing. Fit perhaps for soothing frightened pussycats who've landed in strange houses, but not much more.
But here's the thing. Julian of Norwich may have been a mystic but she very much did NOT have her head in the clouds. And for all we sometimes imagine that never before has anyone experienced the kind of trials or tribulations or turmoils that WE have, it's simply not true.
Julian of Norwich wrote those words – "all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well" – she wrote those words at the height of the Black Plague that was decimating Europe, and in the midst of the Hundred Years' war that was essentially a feudal war of attrition and the Peasants' Revolt that arose in response to that same feudal system that was trapping people in desperate poverty.
And mystic notwithstanding, she served in urban Norwich in that context of horrendous poverty and fear of disease, and in the constant shadow of permanent war.
So her words – they weren't pablum. They weren't patronizing. They weren't ivory tower nonsense from a comfortable pew. They were hard-earned and hard-won and THAT'S where their import came from. THAT'S what lent them authority and made them remembered.
Because they're fierce. To look around and see what's what and STILL at the end of the day come back to "all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well" – that's fierce. Whether it's articulated with absolute conviction or repeated desperately as essentially a prayer, as she surely must sometimes have found herself repeating it, it's fierce.
And it's biblical. Because we have its precursor in Psalm 16. And to no small degree also in Psalm 23. But Psalm 23 is so confident, it's already so secure. In Psalm 23 all IS well, beside the still waters with our souls restored.
Whereas Psalm 16? It's not quite there yet. But it's fierce. Which can be easy to miss. Because just as the famous words of Julian of Norwich can too easily get dismissed as mere pablum or even patronizing, if we don't take seriously the reality of what she was actually experiencing in her world at that time –
The words of Psalm 16 can come off as trivializing. Totally out of touch with actual fear and actual worry and an actual need for protection and hope. Apparently confident by virtue of privilege that obviously the writer of the Psalm rests secure.
But that's not quite the case. Psalm 16 emerges out of a time in Ancient Israelite history when the fear was very real. But it wasn't just a sort of ancient-times version of the medieval experience of the constant threat of war or uprising or plague –
What's important for us to remember in ALL these past times, whether medieval or ancient or the First World War or the Second, or the upheavals of the 1970s, when we think about them NOW, is that what's reflected in the writings of these various ages can't be dismissed as a sort of temporal fear, a transient fear, a specific fear of a specific threat.
In all these cases, what's being experienced is deeper. It's inarticulate. It's existential.
For the writer of Psalm 16, just as surely as for Julian of Norwich, these words that get lifted up – "you are at my right hand and therefore I shall not be moved" – they're arising as a response not to war or to poverty or to plague or to a particular fear or a reason for uncertainty –
They're arising as a response to ALL of it. To just an overwhelming sense that it's all going wrong and there's not enough right, and everything's falling apart, and what'll be left? Anything we've thought was precious? Anything we tried to build?
For the writer of Psalm 16, just as surely as for Julian of Norwich, it absolutely feels like the end times. So what emerges isn't pablum. It isn't patronizing, it isn't trivializing. It's a fierce faithfulness that's been hard-earned and hard-won, and I think we need to hear it as the gift it absolutely is.
Because this is the writer of Psalm 16 regrounding himself – fiercely regrounding himself – in Godness and goodness for strength and for courage. This is the writer of Psalm 16 fiercely reminding himself whose he is.... so he can rest.
All will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well. It's not trivializing. It's survival. The Psalms didn't arise as one book fully formed – 150 Psalms for your pleasure and delight. The Psalms got collected over time – this prayer, that song, this old favourite, that instant classic.
And the ones that shook down through oral tradition into the Book of Psalms we now have are the ones that got remembered. They're the ones that turned out to be useful, to individual people and to the community, because whatever it was that they said... it was needed.
It mattered. What we call Psalm 16 got remembered because it mattered to people. "With you at my right hand," the Psalmist wrote, "I cannot be moved. So my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, and my body too can rest. Secure."
I have a feeling that at least part of the reason why Psalm 16 got remembered was because it probably had to be repeated night after night after night.
But that's not pablum. That's survival. Ours is a faith tradition that locates itself firmly in historical context – our stories of faith don't hover outside of time on a spiritual plane or even in the time-transcending plane of the natural world around us.
Our stories of faith happen in the actual world at actual times when actual people and nations and leaders and armies were doing actual things that created actual chaos. And because of that, our stories of faith include prayers and words and poetry that are JUST about survival.
That are just how someone stayed grounded, made it through, got some rest, when everything really was fearsome. And wrongness did seem to be taking over. And it did feel like the end times. And that's a gift.
Because none of those feelings are new. They've always been part of the human story, it always felt real, and people have always had to get fierce with their faith to get through them. And they have. "In you, Oh Lord, I take refuge; in your presence is fullness of joy. And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
Do you know what Julian of Norwich is the patron saint of? She's the patron saint of cats.
I think that really can't be an accident. But we all need that reassurance sometimes. Thanks be to God, in whom we can find it and rest secure. Amen.