Thursday, 27 February 2020

Lent 1: Psalm 32: Ian Green


One parade service, years ago, I had one of those ideas that seemed good at the time, but which tuned out, in practise, to be an absolute disaster.

Always keen to involve the youngsters, one Sunday I set up a flip cart at the front of the church and introduced the prayer of confession by saying: Boys and Girls, if any of you have committed any sins this week, just call them out, I’ll write them down and we’ll use the list as a basis for our prayer.  My youthful naivety, for this was the first church in which I served, was meet with a predictable long stony silence.  Not one Scout or Guide wanted to publicly confess their misdemeanours before a full church, probably containing their mum and dad.

The lectionary reading from the Jewish Scriptures, set for the first Sunday in Lent is Psalm 32.  It’s one of seven penitential psalms often read in services in the lead up to Easter and it has much to say about the value of confession and the joy of forgiveness.

Although confession starts in a moment of reflection doesn’t it have to go somewhere?
Confession really is a verb, it’s a doing word and one that, with God’s help, can bring about restoration and renewal. 

The psalmist has a great conviction running right through this temple song and it’s this: if you stay silent, verse 3, our sins and transgressions eat us up.  The psalmist puts it more poetically: our bones, he says, waste away.

Keeping the bitterness going because we have been wronged or refusing to say sorry when we have been the wrong doer, such stalemates do our souls no good. 

The psalmist’s prescription for better mental health is there in verse five, a verse all about confession of sin to God and consequently sensing an immense release from guilt.

It is hard, isn’t it, to put into words the joy we feel at being forgiven.  Maybe we’ve held back, but then we find the courage to speak honestly with a person we love but who we’ve let down and our apology is met by their graceful, life giving response of forgiveness, suddenly we feel we are no longer at the sad ending of a story but at a wonderful moment of new beginnings.

It's that moment when the Prodigal Son returns home to find a forgiving Father enfolding him in those welcoming arms.  It’s the moment felt by Peter on the beach remembering his fireside denials of Easter yet encountering the Jesus who gives him a second chance with the commission to ‘feed my sheep’.

Such moments can be the most profound and precious of our lives as our failures and sins are met by the grace and forgiveness of those we have wronged, and in their response, we met the love of God.

Early in World War Two, in November 1940, Coventry was bombed under the codeword ‘Moonlight Sonata’.  Its medieval cathedral was raised to the ground.  Two charred timber beams from the roof were strung together and became a makeshift cross upon the battered altar. Three roof nails were twisted together to become the Cross of Nails that stands today upon the new Cathedral altar.

Just six weeks on from its near destruction, on December 25th, 1940 the Christmas Morning service was broadcast from Coventry by the BBC on national radio.  By then two words had been inscribed on the altar front, now standing open to the elements in the bombed-out cathedral: Father Forgive.  Provost Dick Howard pledged in that radio service not to seek revenge for the bombing but promised after the war that his cathedral would work for reconciliation.

So began the Fellowship of The Cross of Nails, active today in Britain, America, Germany, Holland and South Africa.  A Fellowship striving to do three things: to heal the wounds of history, to learn to live with difference and to celebrate diversity.  The Cross of Nails Fellowship works with hundreds of primary schools in and around Coventry promoting these values of peace and reconciliation.

And isn’t Coventry’s story really one of resurrection. A resurrection that Provost Howard saw was only truly possible if it began with forgiveness.  The beating heart of the Cathedral today is that old altar, left open to the sky as a permanent memorial, with the words Father Forgive still clearly visible, first inscribed in the dark days of 1940.

So much becomes possible when we forgive. 

That’s the message, I believe, of this Psalm.

I was at a meeting the other day with a high church colleague who, with tongue in cheek, lamented a choir who had sung an anthem in church during Lent with an Alleluia.  That, I was told, was bad form.  No flowers and no alleluias in Lent, they are reserved for Easter.

Well, I sort of get it.  But I think it’s wonderful that Psalm 32, a penitential Psalm for Lent ends with a kind of alleluia.  The psalmist just explodes with praise and thanksgiving in its concluding verses, having received forgiveness the only response is: Rejoice in the Lord and be glad.

Psalm 32 reminds us that forgiveness is always a process.  It involves pain, reflection, a longing for justice, encounter and confession.  And if we are prepared to follow this process through, however tough and demanding that may be, it offers us the prospect of something that is liberating, constructive and full of new beginnings.

It's the message of Coventry.

It’s the message of the Cross.

It’s the message of Psalm 32. 

And, it’s the message of Lent.


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