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Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Missioner
Title of sermon: Lament and Hope – Prayer and Poetry
Date/time/service: Sunday 3 April 2022, 4pm, Passion Sunday, Choral Evensong
Here in the Minster, as in many cathedrals and churches the psalms have a special place in our daily acts of worship. In fact, it’s not difficult to argue that the Psalms have a special place in Christianity. Often you will find them in a copy of the New Testament – the only part of the Jewish scriptures routinely included. Why? Why should these songs and poems be of such critical importance that they stand out from all the other books that stretch from Genesis to Malachi.
During Lent at the Minster we’ve been holding a series of talks that look at the relationship between the arts and prayer. One of these talks, given by Wendy Lloyd, discussed ‘Prayer as Lament and Hope’. For many, ‘lament and hope’ might be a good description for what Psalms express. They don’t shy away from the realities of human pain and suffering.
According to the Richard Schmidt:
“It is not that every sentiment expressed by a psalmist is admirable, but that in praying the Psalms, we confront ourselves as we really are. The Psalms are a reality check to keep prayer from becoming sentimental, superficial, or detached from the real world.”
In Lent many of the Psalms we hear in church articulate lament. The music to which they are often sung reflects that sense of anguish and sorrow. If this was all the Psalms conveyed it would indeed be a very bleak 40 days before Easter. As it is, in every Psalm, lament is peppered with hope. Anguish is countered by resolute faith and trust. The lost dare to believe that they might be found; embraced and loved.
Like a rainbow the Psalmists’ hope can seem beyond reach. Despite the grim realities we can all face the Israelites nevertheless believed that this arc of hope was worth pursuing.
It transcended the journey through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ and gave people who might otherwise have been crushed by life the determination to endure.
Perhaps this is the reason why Psalm 31 has become the key text in the spiritual response to the war in Ukraine. It’s a Psalm that touches on the realities of conflict, with the Psalmist writing: “I was beset as a city under siege”. The text gives full recognition to the distress, grief, horror, alarm and sense of shame felt by victims of violence. Yet it moves between those feelings and expresses a great sense of hope in God – a conviction that God will come;
that God will restore justice; and that we will be saved through the steadfast love of the Lord.
Our prayer tree here in the Minster is littered with words that express the anguish of what we are all seeing and the longing for peace. Mostly the prayers consist of just a few words – a cry from the human heart for an end to this senseless conflict and the passionate desire for peace. Time and again these prayers express a human solidarity with people whose lives have been ripped apart by conflict.
In holding together gritty realism and spiritual hope the Psalms are strongly poetic.
Like so many of our prayers, poetry allows us to allude to a hope that vanishes if we try to pin it down too exactly. Hope is about something that doesn’t yet exist – but might. The form of language reflects the emerging nature of what we long for; pray for; work towards.
It was a great privilege for us to have here in the Minster recently the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. He had written a poem commissioned by the Chapter of York to mark the second anniversary of the first UK lockdown. Reflecting on our experiences of isolation Armitage writes about how we “candled our own hearts till the air was fit to breathe again”. Entitled ‘Only Human’ the work concludes with the words: ‘We are better now – that is the hope’.
As the Psalms illustrate, and poets tell us, believing that things will one day be better isn’t an idle or an easy hope. The hope of faith can test the best of us. Whether it’s the Psalmist, Jesus on the cross, or ourselves, there can be times on the journey of faith when we wonder where God is in the darkness.
These fundamental questions are of concern to people of faith and as we, at the Minster, see and hear on a daily basis they are also questions raised by those who come here as tourists but through the experience of this place they find space to explore their spirituality.
At times this can be tentative and ambiguous such as the prayer offered the other day by a visitor which said: ‘I am not a Christian but please God do something about this war’. Rather than dismissing that complexity we need to respond with skill and sensitivity.
The Explore Project is designed to address these kinds of questions.
That’s why I’m delighted that we are launching tailor made resources: prayer cards, booklets and a website, which are informed by research into the kind of questions people experience here and in other Cathedrals and Churches across the UK.
And so to mark this launch I would like to finish with a prayer of dedication:
God of all our explorations,
let this ancient place of prayer
and the churches and Cathedrals of this land be places where faith can blossom and lives be transformed.
We dedicate the resources of the Explore Project, that they may be a means by which the gentleness of your invitation to know and to love you is stirred; a means by which fears and anxieties can be named; and an opportunity for questions and doubts be explored. In your name we pray and give thanks.
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