Sermon for Choral Evensong, 4 May 2010admin | 5 May 2010
“Sing ye praises with understanding”
O sing praises, sing praises unto our God; / O sing praises, sing praises unto our King. /For God is the King of all the earth:/Sing ye praises with understanding (Psalm 47.6,7). So the psalmist teaches us. We have had a splendid illustration of what it means to sing with the understanding with the King’s College Chapel Choir tonight under the direction of Paul Halley. Welcome to Christ Church and please, please come again!
“Though we but stammer with the lips of men, yet chant we the high things of God,” one of the early Fathers of the Church says. We sing the high praises of God. It is our freedom, perhaps our highest freedom. But as the Psalmist suggests, our praises are not praises except they be through the understanding. Indeed, it cannot be our freedom unless it be through the understanding - the understanding of the revealed nature of God. For our praises are not projections but proclamations - an acknowledging of what has been given to us to know. We can only proclaim what has been made known to us and, in so doing, we enter more fully into the understanding of what we proclaim. But how is it our freedom?
God alone is praiseworthy precisely because in the freedom of his eternal being he does not need our praises. The proclamation of the Trinity – the highest of the high things of God, the mystery that is shown, what is revealed, not concealed – is the acknowledgement of the perfect self-sufficiency of God upon which everything else depends. Yet in singing God’s praises, the Church is also most free. The God who does not need our praises is freely praised. However much humanity needs to praise God, our praises are not praises if they are forced.
But what are those praises? They have very much to do with what we are given to understand and which we sing. We sing the Scriptures primarily in our praises. Just think of the order and structure of Evening Prayer. At the heart of the offices are the Psalms, the hymn book of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we are pleased to call the Old Testament and which we sing through the understanding revealed in the witness of the New Testament. Psalms are appointed for each morning and night and we end the singing of each Psalm with the doxology – signifying that the understanding of the God whom we praise is the God who has engaged our humanity in its fullness in Jesus Christ, the God who is Trinity to whom be all glory, as it was now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Saecula saeculorum – the terms already open us out to the challenges of the contemporary world. How marvelous that the very notion of the secular arises completely out of sacred praise of God! Every singing of the Gloria Patri counters and corrects every form of the secular that denies or rejects the sacred.
But consider for a moment the wonder of what is set before us in the praises of the Scripture which we sing and read, ponder and pray. Think about the intense and marvelous juxtaposition of Psalm 22 and Psalm 23; the one, the dark psalm of Holy Week and especially Good Friday; the other, the overly sentimentalized and overly familiar psalm of care, the Shepherd’s psalm, but which especially belongs to the Easter season in its association with Christ the Good Shepherd. Think about how their juxtaposition helps us to appreciate the deep love of God for us and our redemption.
The Psalm which Christ quotes on the Cross in the depth of his passion opens us out to the deeper meaning of the care of the Good Shepherd. His “go[ing] through the valley of the shadow of death” has a greater intensity by virtue of its conjunction with the heart-rending cry of “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” What we sing allows us to appreciate to the fullest possible extent the shepherding care of the Good Shepherd and what it means for him “to lay down his life for the sheep.” It means the agony of the Cross without which the ecstasy of Easter is but a poor and empty thing.
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,” the Duke almost casually says, perhaps too casually, in the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a line that can easily be dismissed sarcastically as just so much naïve nonsense and yet provokes so much deeper thought about the Providence of God. What greater adversity than the Cross, we might say? And yet what greater good flows from the wounded side of the Father’s Son and Word? It was in a dark wood, una selva selvaggia, a fierce and savage wood, Dante emphatically reminds us, that he learned a great good. He learned it. And so may we.
“And this our life exempt from public haunt, /finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks/ Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” Do we really want to reduce that to mere sentimental posturing and naiveté? Are there not “sermons in stones” for us tonight in the reading from The Book of Joshua, if not “books in the running brooks” of the Jordan? Here is the story of the crossing of the river Jordan upon the twelve stones of the fellowship of the tribes of Israel, themselves suggestive of the apostolic fellowship of the Apostles of Christ. Those scattered few are gathered by the Good Shepherd from their flights of fear and fantasy and are set in motion; and all through the understanding, the understanding of the resurrection which gradually dawns upon their consciousness, in part, through the patient teaching of the Risen Christ who runs out after us and comes into our midst even when we are trapped behind the closed doors of our minds. Crossing Jordan is about entering into the promised land, the land of the understanding, the understanding of the Resurrection.
And as for adversity, do we really think that we shall be exempt from it ourselves in a world divided and rent asunder in all of its confusions and contradictions, conflicts and complexities? Our second lesson portrays the context of ecclesiastical controversy in which St. Paul is embroiled and which he exploits. What a marvelous strategy! Pitting Pharisees and Sadducees against one another and all over the resurrection! The profounder point is the one which Paul has grasped – the proclamation of the Risen Christ and the community which is shaped in his name. Paul’s vocation is to bear testimony not only in Jerusalem but also in Rome.
These are examples, it seems to me, as to what it means to “sing praises with understanding.” It means to work at connecting the notes and drawing them together into a rich and glorious harmony, a harmony of the understanding, the creedal understanding no less that holds part with part in the unity of the whole.
Praises belong to the highest order of human freedom; they connect us to God’s own freedom and they remind us of the purpose of creation. It is the poet Thomas Traherne who perhaps says it best: “Are not praises the end for which all things are created,” he asks, for in singing God’s praises the whole of creation is gathered to God as to its source and end. In singing God’s praises we give voice to the voiceless praises of everything else in creation. It is in just this sense that “man” is “nature’s high priest,” as George Herbert suggests, because it belongs to our vocation to be “the secretaries of thy praise,” and how much the more so when we sing his praises in the places hewn of wood and stone that are dedicated to his name. “The crosse taught all wood to sing his name.”
In singing God’s praises we are lifted beyond ourselves only to find ourselves in the company of the one whom we praise and adore. Perhaps we stutter. Perhaps we stammer. Perhaps, we find ourselves surrounded with what must seem to be the music of angels, “la divina sinfonia di Paradiso.” But the intent in our praises is that we sing with understanding, the understanding of the knowing love of God. Love bids us sing. It is our freedom to do so.
“Sing ye praises with understanding”
Fr. David Curry
King’s College Chapel Choir ‘Going Home Tour’