A sermon on Psalm 19 and Exodus 20: 1-17 by Alison Sampson
I would like to begin with a prayer from a very wise little book, Prayers from the Ark. Let us listen to the prayer of the rooster:
Do not forget, Lord,
it is I who make the sun rise.
I am Your servant
but, with the dignity of my calling,
I need some glitter and ostentation.
All the same,
I am Your servant,
only… do not forget, Lord,
I make the sun rise.
(‘Poem of the Cock’ found in Carmen Bernos de Gasztold Prayers from the Ark. Trans. Rumer Goden. New York: Viking, 1962.)
It is easy to laugh at the rooster and his arrogant claim that he makes the sun rise. We all know that the sun will come up and go down with no help at all from that ridiculous feather duster crowing on the gate post.
Whether we understand the movement of the sun through gravitational forces, or whether we rest in more ancient interpretations of the universe, I think we can all agree: things ain’t dependent on the rooster.
Of course, I am not here to talk about the ‘real’ motivation behind astronomical orbits. This is not a science lesson, and the Bible is not a physics textbook. Instead, what the Bible does is to put us, and our faith, into perspective.
From tonight’s Psalm, we heard:
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy;
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
It is not us. It is not the rooster. It is God who has set a tent for the sun, and sends it scudding across the sky.
The Psalmist goes on to praise God’s law. It restores the soul; it rejoices the heart; it is sweeter than honey. And then the Psalmist begs, ‘Keep your servant from proud thoughts; do not let them have power over me. Then I shall be blameless.’
Why is the Psalmist so worried about proud thoughts? Well, perhaps because our joy is dependent on the adoption of God’s ways; and the adoption of God’s ways requires humility.
A few months ago, I was out shopping. And while shopping I saw one of those hard blue plastic name badges with letters stamped in white. ‘Hello!’ it read, ‘My name is Very Busy Very Important.’ I instantly thought of half a dozen people I’d like to give it to, but of course I couldn’t; and so I left it on the shelf. But since then I’ve been reflecting on the ways I inflate my own actions, and my own busy-ness and importance, both in conversation and in my head.
We seem to live in a Very Busy Very Important age. The first thing most people in my crowd mention is just how busy and important they are. I recently asked one friend how she was enjoying her time now that she had finished postgraduate study. She quickly told me she had taken on yet another voluntary role, and that she didn’t have a minute to call her own.
Other friends are so very busy that it is hard to catch up; and there are days when I want to become busier myself as a way of seeming Very Important, too. I can see that the work my friends do is good, very good; but I wonder. I wonder just how busy and important we all need to be.
And I wonder if this is what the Psalmist is getting at when he fears proud thoughts. Because the Psalmist has just praised God’s law, that is, the way of life that describes God’s people. We heard this way of life read tonight from Exodus. And what comes first? Is it us? No, it’s not. It’s God.
God is at the beginning of things; God is at the heart of things; but in our pride, many of us put our own Busy-ness and Importance ahead of the way of life God has mapped out for us. It takes humility to put God’s desires before our own desires, and to accept the great paradox that in putting God first we will, in fact, find ourselves.
How do we put God first, anyway? Well, one way is to listen. But listening to God takes time. It takes time, and receptivity. And that brings us to another of God’s gifts which we heard about tonight: Sabbath rest.
Now, the idea of keeping the Sabbath has almost vanished in Australia. It may be partly due to the dry interpretation prevalent in the 1950’s. My mother grew up in a conservative Protestant congregation, and she hated the Sabbath. They went to church and Sunday School in the morning, read tedious Christian books in the early afternoon, and went back to church in the evening. Exuberant play was fiercely punished; and she dreaded the boredom as Sunday afternoons stretched on, and on, and on.
But when we approach God’s way of life and the Sabbath not as punishment, but as gift, the experience changes. The Sabbath is not a trap to catch bored children. Instead, it is a chance to rest from work and from striving; and to allow space for God through contemplation and re-creation and play.
So the words of the Psalmist are relevant here. Because when we have proud thoughts, when we consider ourselves to be Very Busy Very Important, we cannot possibly stop. It takes humility and trust in God to accept that the world, and ourselves, will not fall apart if we stop making things happen for a while. In our pride, as we shuttle from one thing to the next, or squeeze in just another hour’s work or effort, we can easily look like the rooster who pompously crows: Do not forget, Lord, it is I who make the sun rise.
But it is not the rooster who makes the sun rise; it is not I; it is not any of us. And part of our agreement with God is that we don’t have to work all the time. We are not that busy, we are not that important. Our work may be significant; even so, each of us is only a small player in a great movement which transcends time and culture. We are all participants in God’s scheme of things, but we are never the prime mover. We are not responsible for rectifying all the injustice, or tending all the sick, or healing all the wounds of a broken world. We do not make the sun rise. And when we let go of these proud illusions, in grounded humility we will be able to accept the gift of Sabbath rest. We can all take some time each day, and each week, to rest in God.
What does this ‘rest’ look like? Well, in Hebrew the ‘rest’ we heard tonight actually means ‘to catch one’s breath’. And this word ‘breath’ can also mean ‘spirit’. So in God’s rest we catch our breath; we restore our spirit; or, in the words of the Psalm, we revive our soul.
So we can stop participating in the economic system for a little while, whether by taking a break from work or from shopping. We can look up from the screens which dominate our lives. We can pause from our Very Busy Very Important striving, and ground ourselves once again in the source of our life and being.
We can go for a stroll, or fool round with the kids, or experience the healing that comes with the liturgy. We can pray, and read, and spend time with loved ones. We can head out, like Martin Luther, and play skittles in the park! There are so many ways of catching our breath, and of replenishing our relationship with God.
So let us give thanks for Sabbath rest, this gift from God, this gift which frees us. Let us pause and rejoice in the Lord who grants a way of life that is sweeter than honey. And in gratitude and with humble faith, let us pray:
I do not forget, Lord, it is You who makes the sun rise. You, only You. Amen. Ω