A sermon on Psalm 116 by Nathan Nettleton
Tonight is a significant occasion in the life of our church, not only because it is the 148th anniversary of our founding, but because this year, as we give thanks for the past and look to the call of the future, we can give thanks for some very positive developments in the last year and as a result look to the future with very different feel. Three years ago, when we adopted our first annual covenant, we were staring death in the face. A spate of sexual harassment by a man who is no longer here had shredded our morale and left us under a cloud of disillusionment with a rapidly dwindling congregation and plummeting finances. I for one was very doubtful whether we would pull through.
Having suddenly lost so many resources, human and financial, we had to reassess what we could and couldn’t do as a church. We devoted a time to discerning what God was calling us to do as a community and to identifying what that required from each one of us. We sought to articulate the fruits of that discernment in a written covenant, writing down the vision of the common life we felt called to, and the commitments we would each seek to live up to to make that vision a reality. Those were desperate times, and that step of faith was accompanied by much prayer that God would reward our faithfulness by rebuilding our morale and then rebuilding our numbers to a sustainable level. We believed that the new shape of our worship and our shared life was good and would attract others to join with us.
Late last year with our numbers still declining, and faced with the imminent departure of Phil & Paula, some of us were beginning to think that we had got it wrong. Salvation had not come. We were still going to die. But we stand here tonight with a very definite feeling that God has heard our prayers and turned around our fortunes. That gives a very different feel to what we will be doing in a few minutes when a number of people stand to commit themselves to living by the Covenant for the next year, and others stand to affirm their support of all that is made possible by that.
It makes it feel as though the words of Psalm 116 could have been written for an occasion like this. Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving offered by those who have been saved from danger by God and who seeking to express their gratitude with both a ritual offering of food and drink and with making vows to live in certain ways. In ancient Israel, this Psalm was probably used for a celebration called the Todah, or thank offering. The Todah was an offering made by a person who had prayed for God’s help in the face of grave danger, and been saved. They would hold a celebration in which they would tell the story of how God saved them, and then offer bread and wine as a gift of thanks. The bread and wine would then be shared with all the friends invited to the celebration. Some scholars think that the Christian Eucharist is simply and Christianised Todah. Others think the story is more complicated than that, but most agree that this ancient thank offering was at least one of the older celebrations that shaped the Christian Eucharist.
Tonight, as we look back at our past and look to our future, it is an especially relevant interpretation of what we are doing. In a time of grave danger, we cried out to God to save us. God heard our prayers and rescued us from danger. Now we come, in the words of the psalmist, saying “How can we repay God’s gift to us?” And still in the words of the Psalmist, “We raise the cup of freedom and name God as the one who has saved us.”
And then, in addition to our offering of bread and cup, there is this further act of gratitude which is voiced in our psalm. Twice the psalmist says, “I will fulfil my vows to you, Lord, standing before your assembly.” The image in the psalm may have mainly referred to the common fact that when people are faced with serious threat, they make sudden promises to live a changed life if God will just get them out of this. The line in the psalm is then a facing up to the rash promises and a taking responsibility for making good on them. But the meaning is not exhausted by that possibility. In the moment of danger, the promises might be little more than a bargaining chip to try to get God to help. But now, on the other side of the danger, making vows becomes not an act of desperation, but a gift of gratitude. “What gift can ever repay God’s gift to us?” The only answer that comes close is the gift of ourselves; the gift of lives lived in voluntary submission to the will of God.
There may have been more than a hint of desperation motivating our first Covenant, three years ago. Perhaps this year, though, we can make these commitments, at which ever level we are entering into it, as a gift of gratitude to the God who has heard our prayer and come to save us. Perhaps this time, making promises to live a vowed life in the midst of God’s people will truly be what it was always hoped to be; an act of self-offering that expresses an overflow of love and a celebration of thanksgiving.