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Homily by Rev. Dr. William W. Emilsen

Ordinary Sunday 30, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 28, 2012

Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126:1-6; Hebrews 5:1-6; Mark 10:46-52

Come…listen to me’

Come, children, listen to me!
I will teach you reverence for YHWH.
Which of you loves life,
and wants to enjoy a long life of prosperity?
Then keep your tongue from gossip
and your lips from telling lies;
turn away from bad and practise good;
seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34: 11–14)

It may seem odd to choose a little wisdom saying embedded in a psalm of praise—a passage not found in the three-year lectionary — for today’s service.

Apart from the obvious reason that the Psalms are of paramount importance for the Christian life,(both Luther and Bonhoeffer placed them on a par with the Lord’s Prayer and the Gospels), I like the passage because it speaks about longevity in an uncertain and troubled world—not just about personal longevity, which obviously has its attractions, particularly for those of us who are getting on a little) but also institutional longevity (which, as you might imagine, ought to hold some interest at a time when we see all kinds of institutions banks, businesses, local churches close down.)

You may not be aware that the enticing question of Psalm 34,

‘Which of you loves life,
and wants to enjoy a long life of prosperity?’

is placed at the very beginning of the Rule of St Benedict—a book of instructions for living in community—which has shaped a fifteen-hundred-year educational tradition that makes even the great medieval universities—Paris, Bologna, Oxford—seem like innovations.

Perhaps then, we as a Church, only thirty-five years down the track, could learn something from the Benedictine tradition, by placing Psalm 34 at the forefront of our life, letting it set the tone for our Church for generations to come.

The other reason why I like this text is that it speaks about life, human flourishing, a subject that is of immense interest to almost everyone; ordinary life, life in all its manifestations, life in times of personal distress and economic uncertainty, life with its ups and downs, its joys and discouragements, life in the workplace, the community, the home and the church.

I also like Psalm 34 because it offers simple, honest, practical, wisdom—doing good, avoiding evil, seeking peace, not speaking evil about others—These virtues necessary for living well together. This simple wisdom is universal. It is found in all the great religions. It is the essence of the great way of non-violence, made famous by Gandhi. It is there in the Buddhist teachings for community harmony. One of the rules of Buddhism is not to be critical of the sangha or community. (How I wish the Church would observe this rule!)

In some parts of the early church, it was necessary to memorise the whole Psalter before you could be ordained. (I have teased the candidates at College that we should introduce this idea at UTC. It would certainly shake-up things up. Just imagine if we insisted that first years be expected to memorise one of the NT letters. (I’d expect that there would be a great rush on Philemon and the letters of 1 and 2 John, each with only one chapter)

Then, in second year, perhaps a gospel could be set. (I’d imagine that Mark’s Gospel, the shortest, would have obvious attractions.)

Then all 150 psalms in third year for the advanced candidates, the spiritual athletes, the shock troops in this new regime—the Uniting Church’s equivalent to those select Muslim scholars who completely memorised the Qur’an.

Sadly, or perhaps not so sadly, I hear you thinking, such whimsical, countercultural imaginings belong to another era, certainly before the I Pod, the smart phone, the internet, Facebook, and the ascendency of digital living.

Our challenge today is not connectedness, our challenge is listening and a shift to a slower, less restless, more relaxed way of thinking (and living).

Our little wisdom saying from Psalm 34 begins with a call to listen: ‘Come…listen to me.’ Benedict read Psalm 34 (and so does 1 Peter) as though it is Christ calling out to us in the market place:

Listen up!
Open your ears!
Pay attention!
Listen!

It is worthwhile pondering the implications on that one word, ‘listen’.

It has implications for our personal relationships. We all know people who are listening but not really listening. The message they give off is that you don’t really matter.

Good listening makes for good conversation and good conversation is pleasurable and life-giving.

The fact that we have two ears and one mouth, someone once said, is highly suggestive; we probably should do as twice as much listening as we do speaking.

Too much prattle says the prophet Amos, can lead to a famine, not of food or water but “of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:10-12).

James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (Jas 1:21).

James is referring both to listening to others and listening to the Word of God; both kinds of listening are linked.

Listening should be a key spiritual discipline for all Christian people. The spiritual life is a process of listening to God. This listening has very little to do with being able to physical hear, or not hear.It is a listening with what St Augustine called “the ear of the heart”,

It is listening to the lessons of life; when the bell rings, listen; when the young speak, listen; when the poor cry, listen; when a person speaks at their birthday, listen; When there is singing, praying, mourning, and laughing, listen. When music plays, when night stands still, when loss cuts deeply,

when you feel like doing cartwheels down the street, pay attention to the moment.

The Irish speak of a tradition of “thin places”. It is believed that thin places are sacred places where, if you listen very carefully, you can hear God more clearly and sense God’s mysterious power.

Possibly, you have come across places like that. People say that the little Scottish island of Iona is a “thin place”. I have found the Ruined Castle, that rock formation off Echo Point in the Blue Mountains to be a thin place.

If ever there were a thin place, you would think that it would have to be Mt Sinai because that is the Biblical place of revelation, and presence, and covenant, and the giving of the Law to Israel.

I don’t deny that there are thin places and special moments of revelation, but I prefer to think of a thin places not in terms of some special geographical locations like Iona or Mt Sinai but as places of revelation lying within each of us.

We don’t need to go on pilgrimage to some holy place, all we need to do is practise listening to every moment to the small clear voice within.

Psalm 95 says,

“Today, if you hear my voice,
harden not your heart” (vs. 7-8).

That verse makes a wonderful opening to daily prayer, daily worship, daily living.

It is not a call to some kind of Christian pietism; It is not necessarily listening for God’s voice in the quiet of a garden or on a mountain top; we need to listen for God in the fire, the flood and the cyclone, in institutional decline, during budget restrictions, and in times of uncertainty.

We remember that God spoke to Elijah in a still small voice; and we also remember that God also spoke to Job out of the heart of the whirlwind.

We must try to listen and listen intently. Try to make a habit of being more attentive. Count to three before you are tempted to speak. Write the word ‘listen’ at the top of your daily diary. (Later, you might like to share other ways you cultivate the practice of listening.)

The question,

‘Which of you loves life,
and wants to enjoy a long life of prosperity?’

is not simply as a question about living a long, healthy, happy and ethically-responsible life, it is also a question about vocation, about living a ‘called’ life; it’s about heeding the transcendent challenge in our lives, the sublime expectation that exists over and above all things.

With that question from the psalm comes the challenge: What shall you do with your existence? Your Life?

In, over, around, and under the din of our own desires there is a calling, a demanding, a nudging, an expectation; there is a challenge that follows you wherever you turn.

The Jewish rabbi, Abraham Heschel, called it “indebtedness”, “Indebtedness”, he says, “is given with our very being. It means having a task, being called.”

This sense of indebtedness is present in the consciousness of everyone. St Benedict says, it is like the Lord calling out very loudly, urgently, in a crowded market-place: “Is there anyone here who yearns for life?”

It is an open invitation to anyone who cares to stop and listen. It is addressed to each of us.

Response

If you hear this question, and your answer is “I do”, then, inevitably, you will start asking questions about your life and wondering whether what you are doing is being spent on dross or gold.

There are so many things in this world that drag us away from the good, the true and the holy.

It is so easy to talk destructively of another person, to be vengeful, and spiteful; which sadly, is too rife in the church. The psalmist shows us another way: he believes that for life to be lived fully it must be lived by paying attention to God and attention to the good of others.

It is not enough simply to distance ourselves from doing what is bad. It is not enough to refuse to slander others; we must rebuild their reputations. It is not enough to disapprove of climate change; we must do something to save the globe. It is not enough to care for the poor; we must do something to stop the poverty. We must bearers of hope and witnesses to a living God.

We are also called to be peaceful peacemakers—“to seek peace and pursue it” says the psalmist.

In whatever capacity we have, our task is to be a peaceful voice for peace in a world that usually thinks that everything can be accomplished by force.

Restraining the tongue, doing good, resisting evil, and pursuing peace peacefully—these are the virtues, the good habits, that the psalmist stresses are necessary for “life” and “good days”.

The psalmist is not concerned with the question, “is there life after death?” His great spiritual question to us is, “Is there life before death?”

In 1 Peter, however, Psalm 34 is used to instruct Christians facing persecution and oppression about eternal life and good days with God.

And there the virtues needed to obtain this life are exactly the same—don’t misuse the tongue, don’t curse or criticise another person, practise doing good where evil might be expected, and live as peacemakers.

With the hardship we now face as a Church, Psalm 34 and 1 Peter promise that a good life can be found in the mist of struggle, depression, suffering and decline. Both texts invite us to experience the kindness of God, to “taste and see that God is good”.

The evidence of our readings this morning suggest that things are more likely to go right—that is to say, to be “blessed”, to be assured of a good outcome—if people act responsibly, faithfully, justly, lovingly.

We believe this not because we believe in a doctrine of works (God forbid that we should preach a doctrine of works on Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday in October!) but because we believe that Jesus is some kind of clue, a “peep hole” into the nature of ultimate reality, and that these virtues are consistent with what he teaches about the good life.

Rev. Dr. William W. Emilsen