This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Advent. The Scripture it references is Psalm 85.
Last week I began a series of sermons for Advent, each week preaching on the psalm, which I am thinking of as a series on “songs for the journey.” I suggested that we are, each of us, on our own individual pilgrimage in life; and that we as a community are also on a pilgrimage; not just towards Christmas (although that is coming scarily fast!), but in engaging in a process of change which will take us towards being who and what God calls us to be.
And I raised the question of what sustains us on those journeys; what helps us to know who we are, and what motivates us to keep going. And I suggested that our cultural resources – including, especially in church, our songs – can be an important source of hope and joy for us.
So it’s worth pausing to see what the psalms have to offer us.
So today’s psalm, as it’s given to us in the prayer book, finishes by saying that “righteousness shall go before [the Lord], and tread the path before his feet.” But I actually prefer the translation that we’re singing at 10am today, which puts it this way: “truth and justice are our guides.” I think that’s much more helpful; it explains to us what righteousness is doing in walking ahead of the Lord, and, by implication, ahead of us as we follow as well. Righteousness is there to guide us on our journey.
Is it encouraging, to think that we have a guide, and we don’t have to work it all out for ourselves? I found that a bit comforting, myself.
I think I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “righteousness” – or doing what is right – isn’t just about playing within the rules (however we understand them). It has a sense of relational loyalty and faithfulness; of giving of yourself to the full in your relationships. Your relationship first with God, of course, but also those around you. It’s a very warm term, not one to be read as forensic or legalistic.
So our guide on our journey – our pilgrimage – is our sense of righteousness; of loyalty and faithfulness and full-heartedness in our relationships, with God and others.
I think that’s often difficult for us, actually. Divided loyalties have always been a human problem, but I think they’ve become even more acute in the complexity of modern life. Just in the last week, I’ve had conversations with people about the divided loyalties we experience in parenting, and the competing demands on us in trying to be “good parents.” (If anyone has a magic formula for perfect parenting, I’d certainly appreciate hearing it!)
Or the particular tension that new technology has brought into our working lives; now that we can all be instantly contacted, and our work can be done anywhere we have mobile phone reception, the boundaries which once helped keep working patterns healthy are slipping, and instead, those of us who are still working constantly have to negotiate our divided loyalties to our work, and everything else in our lives. (A point which I make while writing my sermon on my day off, because this week there was more work than there were working hours to do it in). And I know I’m not alone in finding that balance point difficult.
So if righteousness is our guide on this journey of faith, and righteousness is about our loyalty and faithfulness in our relationships, and our relationships are pulling us every which way… is it any wonder we sometimes feel like we don’t know which way is up?
What do we do with that?
I suspect that part of the answer is to stop, regularly, and re-assess our relationships and the demands being made of us in those relationships. Sometimes, the most righteous word in our vocabulary might be “no.” “No, I’m sorry, I can’t take that on.” “No, I won’t be able to make it.” “No, that doesn’t work for me.”
We often feel guilty for saying no. Many of us have taken on board the message that we’re supposed to help others, we’re supposed to please others, and we’re supposed to be “nice,” and saying no – politely, of course, but firmly – can feel like we’re not doing that. In some families, saying no is seen as being unloving.
But I’d challenge that sense of guilt. A well-deployed “no” is actually not a betrayal, but a protection of our loyalties. I might say “no” to extra things so that I can say “yes” to time spent with my husband. “No” to busy work so that I can say “yes” to prayer. “No” to taking up a new hobby so… you get the idea. In a world where it’s easy to feel like our lives are a constant act of juggling confetti, the only way the important loyalties will get their due will be if we vigilantly guard them.
Start with your primary, biggest loyalties and work outward from there. What would it look like to give your relationship with God everything it needs? Would you need to find time every day? Where would that time come from? What else might need to be put aside?
What would it look like to give your marriage everything it needs? And so on. But if you start from the centre and work outwards, then you’re not going to end up treating things which mean less to you as if they’re actually the most important thing.
Maybe, part of our process of pilgrimage is working out what the most important things to us are, and being willing to let go of others; or at least, let others take a diminished role in our lives. A kind of spiritual de-cluttering, as it were.
Before we moved house in July, I – ah – encouraged my husband in a process of fairly ruthless de-cluttering of our house, because I definitely didn’t want to be packing, moving, and unpacking, anything that wasn’t of any value in our lives. I think he found that a bit stressful, at times, but by the time we got to unpacking the last box, I think he did see the value in what I was trying to do!
If we’re a church on the move, on pilgrimage to where God is calling us, maybe it would help us not to carry stuff that isn’t of any value to us, either. Although I can’t decide for us all what’s of value, and what isn’t. That’s something we need to work on together.
Anyway. That’s what it seems to me our “song for the journey” offers us this week; righteousness – right loyalties – as our guide to what we do and how we do it. If last week our request was that God “restore us,” this week it’s that God “guide us.” And that’s a good thing for us to carry into the week ahead!