This is the text of a sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I’m placed this year. The Scripture text it references is Psalm 146.
Let me start today by telling you about another service, in a church not terribly far from here, a little over a year ago. My daughter Zoë was only a few months old, and I was preaching; but from where I was sitting up the front, I could see – and hear! – that she was upset and not settling for her dad. So after the sermon, at the peace, I said quietly to the priest that I would go and sit down in the pew and hold her. And he said to me, “No, no, don’t do that, bring her up with you into the sanctuary.”
I thought this had the potential to go quite pear-shaped. But he was insistent, so trying to make the best of it, I spent the rest of the service in the sanctuary with Zoë on my chest, where she promptly snuggled up and went to sleep.
This is, in and of itself, not really remarkable. So I was very taken aback, after the service, by the large number of people who approached me, very emotional and even teary-eyed – and it wasn’t just the women or the mums – and told me how deeply moved they had been, to see a young mum and baby sitting quietly in the sanctuary.
It left me thinking, what was this about, this really quite profound outpouring of emotion from the congregation? I had obviously touched a nerve, but what was it, and why was it so sensitive?
(Nobody actually mentioned my sermon, mind you. But perhaps I ought to get used to being upstaged by my own child).
After reflecting on it for a while, here is my best guess as to what happened that day. All too often, in our churches, we have a culture which expects that people be a certain way. That varies a bit from place to place, but there tend to be unwritten expectations about being happy and upbeat, or about holding particular opinions, or indeed tendencies to elitism – or whatever it is in that particular place. And the corollary of that is that people feel that they can’t be honest, can’t be fully themselves, at church, when it contravenes those unwritten expectations. We present a certain face to the community, and leave anything not consistent with that at the door, to be picked up again on the way out.
And by taking a baby into the sanctuary during a service, I broke the unwritten expectation that the liturgy is an occasion when individuality – whether personality quirks or family ties – needs to be set aside. And – remarkably – instead of being punished for breaking that expectation, I found people responding with joy. I’m going to come back to that joy shortly.
But if you’re wondering what any of this had to do with today’s readings, let me change tack and draw your attention to the psalm, and its refrain, “Praise the Lord, my soul!” I think, for many of us, this brings to mind ideas about the soul as something distinct from the body; the spiritual part of us as separate from the physical.
But that sort of dualistic view of human nature owes much more to Plato and other Pagan Greek philosophers than to any scriptural source, and it definitely doesn’t accord with the sense of the Hebrew in this psalm. Rather, what we’ve been singing refers to the vital spark which makes us who we are. It’s much closer to our concept of personality, which expresses itself through body, mind and spirit, through every aspect of a person and all that we do. In the Psalms, “my soul” is an emphatic and poetic way of saying “I” – I with all that I am.
The response of the psalmists to the revelation of God’s power, faithfulness and justice was not simply an intellectual acceptance of what he had revealed. We see in the words of the psalm joy, a sense of liberation, and encouragement – “God raises up those who are bowed down.” The spirituality of the psalm is a matter for the heart, as much as the head. And in response to God, the psalmist sings in worship in a way which indicates his total self-giving and commitment to the reign of God.
And the clear, ringing joy of the psalm brings me back around to the joy of the congregation I was talking about earlier. For one morning, I broke the rules and quite literally brought a part of my life into the sanctuary which we normally keep separate. And the people around me responded with joy; joy at seeing that I didn’t have to divide my life into neat little separate boxes to worship God; and, by extension, neither did they.
The message they got that morning in a silent action is the same message the psalm tells us in words and music. We don’t need to divide our lives into neat little separate boxes to worship God. We can come before him with all that we are; with the messy bits and the sad bits and the ugly bits and whatever else we might be tempted to try to leave at the door. And when we do, when we refuse to compartmentalise but instead seek a wholeness and integrity about who we are in worship, we find a sense of liberation and joy.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to rearrange the sanctuary complete with toddler furniture while the vicar’s on leave. But what I learned from that morning is that if I spend energy trying to maintain a particular persona in church, not only am I wasting my energy, but I’m giving the unspoken message that everyone else has to conform to unwritten expectations as well. Sometimes, it’s important instead to be very clear that we do best to come together before God as fully who we are, whoever that is.
And that gives us a two-fold responsibility; not just to find the courage to be true to who we are, but also to learn to recognise and challenge the systemic barriers which exist within our communities.
I leave you with a final thought from a commentator on this psalm: Other texts may exhort to faith, hope and patience, promising that the world’s sufferings will at last be changed. But in our psalm are open gates to a celebration already begun. Perhaps what this psalm offers is a life in this world of suffering, but suffused already with resurrection light, if we dare to take it to heart.
The Lord be with you.