Vicar’s sermon Psalm 123 19.11.23

Last year Kim and I took ourselves off for a week ‘down south’. We booked a cottage and made time to tick off another Cathedral from our list of ‘cathedrals to visit’. And so it was that we found our way to St Albans, marvelled at the fact that (having approached the Cathedral from the ‘wrong direction’ – decent signs would have been helpful) we entered through a rather depressing door that was littered with rubbish and general unpleasantness to see what the Cathedral had to offer. And then we made our way to the High Street for a cup of coffee.
A rather smart hotel & eatery took our fancy. We were shown to some seats in the front of the building and then we were left…not a soul came to take our order, not a soul apologised for any shortage of staff…nada, nothing. There was plenty going on: people clearly doing something, serving someone, somewhere, but nothing and no one came our way. After what seemed like an age we had had enough: We walked out.
Have you ever had that experience? In a restaurant or café? It’s really uncomfortable. ‘Have they seen us? Have they forgotten us? Why is that table being served but we are not? We came into the restaurant before them…?’ Is it too much for paying customers to expect good service?
You know when you’re been looked after don’t you? Some places, some people seem to do it effortlessly. The waiter times their visit to your table perfectly. ‘Too soon’ and you haven’t even got your reading glasses on to read the menu: ‘Are you ready to order?’ really is the wrong question when you’ve hardly taken your coat off. It takes training and skill to wait on table well. To ‘read’ your guests, to ‘know’ what they want and to be ready to offer it almost without them having to ask. A good maître d’ is attentive: they can see when the first course is finished and its time for the table to be cleared. They anticipate the request for extra condiments…and the time to bring the bill.
Which brings me to verse 2 of our Psalm, psalm 123. Behold, even as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress, even so our eyes wait upon the Lord our God, until He have mercy upon us. Here we are not in a restaurant or hotel, we are in ancient Israel with a master and a slave, a mistress and a slave girl. The psalmist is comparing his attention to God with the service a servant or slave girl might offer their lord. He is ‘waiting upon the Lord’. He is noticing, he is looking out to see what God might desire of him. For the servant, just a slight motion of the hand is enough for him to know how to act and what to do. His attention is utterly upon God.
So here’s the question. Is that us? Is that the church, our church, or is God’s experience somewhat akin to my experience in St Albans: there are any number of people charging about doing ‘who knows what’ but no one is attending to Him.
And even if we wanted to, how do we actually go about giving God our attention? How do we know what He might want of us? These seem to be basic questions for a Christian Community. So how might we begin to answer them?
‘Giving attention’, ‘waiting on God’ takes time and it isn’t at all easy. It involves embracing a way of being and doing that does not particularly come naturally but, like all of the Christian life, it comes as a response to God’s loving action towards us. Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome called upon the church ‘not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might know the will of God: what is good acceptable and perfect’. Christian people learn to ‘think’ differently because they see the world through a different lens. Churches need to be well run and savvy in their dealings – even business-like – but they are not primarily businesses. Nor are they primarily charities or heritage institutions: we, the people of God, are called upon to declare the word and works of God. We are (as we’re reminded each week) ‘the body of Christ, with Him as our Head’. We only exist because of the grace of God and the gift of His Holy Spirit. Our governing articles are the scriptures and the creeds of the church. Our values are set out in the Beatitudes. So we learn from the world but are not of it. Our task is to serve the purposes of God yet often we want to turn things round and enlist God to serve our purposes. But Christian attention can be learned: our monastic communities perhaps do this best and we can learn from them. What they do is to create a culture which gives time to listening to the scriptures together: listening to God through His word, listening to God through one another and listening to God in community. It is these things that help us to learn the ways of God, that give us a common language or vocabulary with which to speak of what He might be wanting of us and which shape our words and actions. So if our action, as a church, springs from close attention to what God wants of us we must make time to listen to what He is saying. It is of course, perfectly possible to be remarkably busy…but if we’re busy not attending to the Almighty then we are truly wasting our time.
And alongside this culture of listening we set practice and practical wisdom. How does the servant, the waiter, the attendant know what the person they are waiting on needs? How do we know where God might be leading us? Sometimes this knowledge comes through a sense of ‘things coming together’ in unexpected ways. Sometimes we know we are on the right track when we see kingdom values being celebrated and enjoyed (think of the sense of joy and celebration at some of our community choir or orchestral concerts). Sometimes we find ourselves caught up in a series of unexpected ‘co-incidences’ of timing or meeting: this person turns up just as a particular action was being considered, that conversation leads to another…and another until something shifts and there is a new opportunity ahead of us. In some of the ‘Black churches’ they call this ‘chasing the rabbit’: this is a phrase that started off in Lewis Carolls ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to speak of wasting time…but it has been picked up to speak of the experience of following the Spirit of God and His leading, (learning to notice what is going on around us and to see signs of God’s activity). It takes practice and a desire to reflect – which is why over these last few years the Church Council has devoted time in its first meeting of the year to ‘noticing’. (Noticing what has changed around us? Noticing who or what is new? Noticing what’s happening beyond the church walls and the reflecting on what God might be up to.)
It is one thing to ask whether an event or activity went well or not. A further question might be ‘what did we notice God was up to?’ (or do we work under the assumption that God never turns up amongst us?) The danger and temptation is that we end up distracted from our primary task which is to attend to God or that He speaks to us but we are not listening. Back in St Albans there was a lot going on in our hotel. But attention wasn’t being given to Mr and Mrs Harding. This wasn’t the end of the world for Kim and I but churches are wholly dependant upon God and His grace: He cannot be ignored
‘Our eyes wait upon the Lord’: it’s a lovely phrase but it needs to be lived. May attending to Him always be our greatest privilege and joy.

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