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‘O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and declare the wonders that he doeth.

Date: 20 April 2024

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York


O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and declare the wonders that he doeth.

In the name of…

You’ll know, I’m sure, the story of the very capable gardener who bought a run-down cottage in one of those picturesque villages that regularly feature on the front covers of magazines that expound the delights of rural living. The building was structurally sound but the property had been unoccupied for some years since the previous owner had died, and it exuded an air of shabbiness, matched by the overgrown and unkempt condition of the garden.

The new owner put his back into the very necessary work of restoration with energy and enthusiasm, and after a few months, there had been a huge transition. With a mown lawn, existing plants trimmed back and many new plants in place, the garden had been transformed into a place of nigh-on perfection and utter beauty.

One sunny summer’s morning, the new owner was sitting on a well-positioned bench in the garden, enjoying a cup of coffee and surveying all that had been achieved, when the vicar of the parish walked past, and stuck his head over the garden gate.

“Gracious,” said the vicar, “your garden is looking wonderful now. It is so heartening to see what man and God can do when they work together.”

“Well,” came the swift reply, “I’m not so sure God had much to do with it, vicar… After all when he had it to himself, it looked awful!”

This afternoon, of course, our thoughts are focused not on what happens on the land, but what happens at sea – and that can be a much more intimidating business, as much of what we have heard in today’s service has reminded us. The beloved hymn we have just sung, complete with its special lifeboat verse, speaks of the ‘angry tumult’, of ‘wild confusion’ and of the ‘foaming deep’ – scary images of chaos and danger, not scenes of comfort or beauty.

And that famous hymn echoes words penned well over 2000 years before its author was born, from that portion of Psalm 107 that was read to us. For the psalmist also knew of the dangers of the ‘stormy wind’ and the waves it could produce. What is slightly more unnerving, is that the psalmist also speaks of the role of God in the dangers that are found on the high seas.

Now, at first, this seems quite straight-forward. Many people across the ages have looked at the vastness of nature and felt the presence of God. But this psalm goes beyond the ‘awe and wonder’ approach to the natural world, for its author is happy to attribute to God direct involvement in creating both storm and calm – for, we are told, it is at His word that the stormy wind ariseth.

Let’s be honest: the nature of God as portrayed in those eight verses is really rather fickle. This god snaps his fingers and a storm flares up, causing those at sea to ‘reel to and fro’ until they are ‘at their wits’ end’, and then – if asked nicely enough –  the same god ‘maketh the storm to cease’. If you are just beginning to wonder whether this god sounds suspiciously like the playground bully you tried to avoid when you were at school, you are not – in my opinion – very far wrong.

Which means we might have to do just a little bit of work to understand why it is we should therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, because it’s a pretty narrow definition of goodness that understands it as simply being the relief which comes when a bully stops tormenting you. And, indeed, I would feel really rather nervous about attempting to honour the selfless work of the 5600 crew volunteers, and the 3700 shore crew volunteers, in a building like this, if all they were really doing was trying to rescue seafarers unfortunate enough to have been picked on by a callous or angry god who was just having a bit of heartless fun at their expense.

But there is a reason that the collection of writings we refer to as the Bible is a rather weighty tome. For the Hebrew and Christian scriptures cover over a thousand years of reflection on the nature of God and how God interacts with the world and with humanity, and, as you would both hope and expect, the understanding of the nature of God and of how the world ‘works’ matures substantially over these centuries. And, of course, for those of us who are Christians, it comes to its fullest revelation in the story and person of Jesus.

For the hard but undeniable truth is that the fallen world in which we live is challenging and dangerous – both in terms of horrors committed by corrupt, greedy and violent human beings, and also in terms of what we usually call natural disasters. And the real Good News of the Bible is that God is not some moody and immature supernatural being who turns storms or earthquakes or droughts or famines on or off depending on whether he got out of bed on the right side or not. The Good News that we are gathered to celebrate this very afternoon is that God cares about us – cares about us so much that he allows himself to be born into this world, becoming just as vulnerable as you or I, to show the world that when disaster and death occur – which, inevitably, they do – they do not have the final word.

And the God whose love inspired the building of this vast and wondrous cathedral – the God whose journey traces its steps from a humble crib in Bethlehem to a cross atop a skull-shaped rock in Jerusalem – the God who encounters danger and death (without which there can be no resurrection) – the God who is so intimately involved with the totality of human experience that he knows fear and pain and death… this God endures all this, as St John puts it in a famous passage in the fourth gospel, so that the world might be saved through him.

Not some of the world. Not the people who vote Tory or the people who vote Labour. Not the people who hold this passport or that passport. Not the people whose skin is this colour or that colour. Quite simply, God rolls up God’s sleeves, God walks the roads that we walk, and God sails the seas that we sail, and endures the dangers we endure, because God loves – loves without judgement or discrimination – and in the economy of God, even though there are storms and tempests a plenty, in the great economy of God, love wins.

Which is – to my mind – what is modelled in the remarkable work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. For when a lifeboat crew goes out to save frightened humans on a capsizing vessel, those volunteers don’t demand to know why the people were stupid enough to get into trouble in the first place. They don’t check people’s documents or bank balances or voting records before offering them the hope of rescue. They don’t cross examine those who are in need to make sure they are ‘worth’ saving. Without judgement, they just get out there, into scenarios that I suspect those of us unused to nautical life would find utterly terrifying, they just get out there to offer unconditional assistance to those in great need.

So when the psalmist suggests that we should therefore praise the Lord for his goodness and declare the wonders that he doeth, I hope that we can see the big picture – the enormous picture of a divine love that intervenes in the world not by flicking some heavenly on/off switch that controls the waves, but – so much more wonderfully and importantly – by unconditionally walking alongside the world both in its joys and its fears, and by showing the world that terror and disaster and even death do not have the last word.

“It’s so heartening to see what men and women and God can do when they work together,” said the vicar to the gardener.  And what we celebrate today in the glorious bicentennial of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a glorious example of how we can emulate God’s getting alongside God’s children to love them unconditionally – for that is what has been happening around Britain’s coastline these last 200 years, day by day by day as the storms come down and the waves arise and hearts fail in terror. That is the point when countless petrified seafarers have discovered that they are not alone and that someone they don’t even know is risking their life for them.

Long, long may it continue, and may we all say O that they would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and declare the wonders that he doeth.


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