All Saints Margaret Street | Advent Sunday Litany in Procession and High Mass Sunday 1 December 2013

Sermon for Advent Sunday Litany in Procession and High Mass Sunday 1 December 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

“I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Was I? Am I?

Were you? Are you?

We’ll come back to those questions later, after we have looked more deeply at the Psalm whose opening words they are.

Psalm 122 is third of a group of fifteen psalms (120-134) that each has the title “A Songs of Ascents.”

With their repeated references to Jerusalem and Zion, it is likely that this collection was sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, or during the great festal celebrations there to which pilgrims made their way. They alternate between singular and plural suggesting group participation, as do the frequent liturgical elements, such as invitations to response, professions of faith, and benedictions.

The term “Ascents” comes from the Hebrew “to go up.”  As our psalm points out, it was decreed that “the tribes go up” regularly to Jerusalem. It can also mean steps or stairs, and elsewhere is used to the steps of the Temple and the steps to the city. The sequence of psalms moves from dispersion, by way of journey, to Jerusalem. Because it locates the speaker in Jerusalem,

These psalms deal often with matters of daily life, home, work, routine activities, spouses and children, family and friends.  Another sign that they were originally used by ordinary folk – like Mary and Joseph and the young Jesus – on the way to or on arrival at Jerusalem.

Daily concerns are found alongside national ones, which makes sense in the context of festal celebrations, where individuals and families from all over would have been brought together by loyalties that transcended the personal and familial.

Psalm 122 begins and ends with “the house of the Lord”, as if to say that the beginning and the end, the motivation and destination, of the ascent to Jerusalem is the Temple, God’s house.

There were two houses in Jerusalem – “the house of the Lord” and “the house of David” – just as Jerusalem was known as “the city of God” and “the city of David.”  The Psalm speaks of both. While the house of David is central, its position in the psalm and its authority are encompassed by the house of the Lord. Its power is derivative. God had built David a house – a dynasty. The reign of the house of David was to be the agent of God’s reign. Its role was to enact the fundamental purpose of God’s rule: “For there are the thrones of judgement, the thrones of the house of David.” (Verse 5).

To experience Jerusalem is ultimately to experience the reality of God’s reign and God’s purposes for the world.

“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Now our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem.”

These opening verses make it clear that the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a special experience. They convey the joy and excitement that would have accompanied a pilgrim’s arrival.

Part of the experience of pilgrimage is the journey home and the reflection on it afterwards. In verse 2, “now our feet are standing” would ordinarily be translated by an English past tense “were standing.”  So there is suggestion that the psalm looks back over the whole experience after the pilgrim has returned home as well as conveying the immediacy of being there.

“Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself…”

A few weeks ago, another priest and I were in Canterbury to organise a pilgrimage.  We walked along the south side of the cathedral and the newly restored south transept glowed golden in the autumn sun. We wondered what the impact of such a sight would have been on people from villages and towns across medieval England when they first saw this great church. We could ask the same question about pilgrims making the climb up to Jerusalem.  

Our translation seems to speak of Jerusalem’s architecture, and this makes sense in context of a pilgrimage that involves the celebration of a particular place. But the Hebrew word translated as “bound/compacted/at unity” however, is never used elsewhere of buildings –   but of human compacts or alliances. It may be that it is not so much Jerusalem’s architecture that is being praised but its ability to bring people together.  Thus the Revised English Bible has “where people come together in unity.”  

This too makes good sense, especially in v 4 which describes the gathering of the tribes. The ambiguity may be intended as a play of the possible senses of the verb. 

The psalm prays “for the peace of Jerusalem,” yet the city whose very name speaks of peace, was not at peace then and is not at peace now: we often have reason to make that prayer still for a city deeply divided by politics and religion. In fact Jerusalem has been one of the most contested and conflicted cities in the world.   

Yet for the pilgrim Jerusalem was and is more than just a place. It is the sign and symbol of peace.  On a deeper level, the psalmist’s prayer for the peace of Jerusalem and his commitment to seek its good, recognise God’s reign and signal the intention to live under it. This is not facile optimism or patriotic wishful thinking. For him to enter Jerusalem is really to enter a new world.  To live for God’s sake and the sake of others is to experience, to embody, and to extend the justice God intends as ruler of the world. This lifestyle, this commitment, is reality.  The same old so-called realities will still be present – hatred and war, trouble and turmoil – but they will no longer have the last word. To enter Jerusalem is to acknowledge God’s reign and to commit oneself to live under it is to be transformed and enabled to love in an extraordinary manner in the ordinary world of daily reality that is frequently reflected in those pilgrim psalms. The transformation of the pilgrim is represented by the psalm’s movement from the benefit Jerusalem can have on the him as pilgrim, to what the pilgrim can do for the benefit of others and of God. Pilgrimage is not meant to leave us as we were.

To enter Jerusalem is ultimately to experience the reality of God’s reign and to be transformed to represent God’s purposes in God’s world. 

What the psalmist saw in Jerusalem was, in effect, a sign that “the Lord is here,” amid the dark realities of a dying world, a frustrating world where nothing ever really works out completely right and we are never all that we can be. For the psalmist, this good news is transformational, enabling people to live in an extraordinary manner among the often dark and difficult daily realities of the world.

Where the psalmist sings of arriving in Jerusalem and being in the house of God, we sing of coming to church, to a building like this one – a sign of the new and heavenly Jerusalem – and of being in the Church – the people of God.

Just like Jerusalem, the Church is an imperfect and partial symbol of what it it meant to signify – the peace and unity of God’s people. Just as our world is not a peace, and our nation not at one, neither is the church – nor has it been for most of its history.  The things we argue and disagree about, which we split up over may be different – but there have usually been such things. 

Some of us went on Thursday evening to the “Art Under Attack” exhibition at Tate Britain. We saw something of the effects of protestant and puritan iconoclasm on churches in this land – a picture of men on ladders in Canterbury cathedral smashing stained glass and statues. It is not hard to guess what they would have thought of this place. 

Today we argue over gender and sexuality and sometimes those who are on one side on one of these, take the opposite view on the other; for we are nothing if not complicated. And of course, we can often find much more trivial things to fight and squabble about.

At the same time the Church is beset by scandals of abuse or tawdry human failure which undermine its capacity to speak of the kingdom.

And yet, for all that, there are signs in it of the justice and peace of God – people who have dedicated their lives to the service of the kingdom: sometimes in great matters if we are Archbishop of Canterbury – speaking in the House of Lords for a moral transformation in our financial institutions and taking on pay day lenders who exploit the poor, or Pope Francis with his vision of a poor church for the poor; or in the daily round of life and work, family and community, which is where most of us are.

Someone said to me at a party last night, with a groan:  “Oh, it’s the Litany tomorrow.”  I know it’s long and not exactly the stuff of rejoicing. But this long processional prayer  –  the first piece of liturgy written in English – is Archbishop Cranmer’s attempt to follow the Psalmist’s injunction to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:”  to pray for the peace of this land – a land whose peace after long and devastating decades of civil war was still precarious. It speaks to us still of our calling as God’s people, to pray for this country, for the world, for people great and small, and to seek their prosperity; to work for that day when the kingdoms of this world will be become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

So, how do I answer that question? Am I glad that they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord?

Well the answer has to be, “Yes.”  For all its badness and madness, its tedium and inertia, its frequent failure to live up to its high calling – something I am as responsible for as others   – the Church is still the place, still the community, where that dream, that vision of a humanity bound together in unity with its Creator and under his just and gentle rule is kept alive and fanned into flame. It is still the place where people are inspired by that vision to work for that peace. It is still the place where people are inspired to work not just for their own peace and salvation but for that of homeless women here in Marylebone, or like Fr. Neil with the mentally ill here in Westminster, or people living with HIV-AIDS in Zimbabwe, or on run-down housing schemes, or in our schools so that children may experience an education which is about being more than a productive unit. It is the place where all are of equal worth, whatever the size of their IQ, and where greed is not the motivator of human betterment.

It is still the place where people find in word and sacrament, prayer and spiritual companionship, the strength to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, the courage to set out on that pilgrimage to the holy city, the promised land.

So, Yes, I am glad when each morning it is time to go to the house of the Lord – even if sometimes it is only in retrospect; something only realised later – that it was good to be there, even if it did not always feel like it at the time.