A Sermon on Crosses, Storms and Hope in God

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Readings: Psalm 25; Hebrews 12:1-4, 12-13

A Festival of Vocal and Choral Music…

a varied programme… showcasing the versatility and beauty of the human voice in an amazingly broad spectrum of genres.

So says the website for St Andrews Voices – but it could also be an introduction to the Psalms.  This biblical collection of 150 vocal pieces, some of which are set for more than one voice, covers a spectrum of genres.  There is praise and thanksgiving, often with remembrance of God’s deliverance in the past; there is celebration of God’s Law; there are hymns to be sung on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; there are songs for a king, including for a royal wedding; there are sung prayers for the nation of Israel; and then much more personal songs – of confession, of lamentation, of desire for God’s help, and even of despair.

And how have they been sung?  With versatility and beauty.  Some texts themselves specify musical instruments – some stringed, some wind, some percussive.  Contemporary Jewish chanting may preserve ancient styles.  Christian singing of the psalter includes plainchant, polyphony, Anglican chant, Scottish metrical settings, and pop-style versions accompanied by praise band.  And of course, verses from the Psalms were set by Johann Sebastian Bach, often as the opening words in his cantatas – surely some of the greatest musical interpretations of these musical words.

The cantata in today’s service draws on Psalm 25.  It was probably first performed when Bach was living in Arnstadt before 1707, when Bach was 22 years old.  It was not re-used in his subsequent career.  We do not know which readings from scripture would have been read when it was performed in church, which allowed me freedom in choosing Bible readings for our service today.

Psalm 25 is an acrostic psalm.  Each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, although there are two or three exceptions which may show textual changes in transmission.  It is a personal psalm, of lament.  The psalmist speaks of sadness and sorrow:  vv. 16-17
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.

But this sorrow is closely bound up with confession of wrongdoing: vv. 7, 11:

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions…
For your name’s sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.

Indeed, these themes come together in v. 18:

Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins.

At this point in life, the psalmist is low, is struggling perhaps with mood, sees the world with a negative bias, and feels their own behaviour to be at fault.

Part of my role as Chaplain is to see students and staff who want to talk over in confidence issues in their life.  I recognise the voice of this psalm in many of the pastoral encounters I have, the voice of lament.  Everything is going wrong, they say, my work, my relationship, my friendships, my health, my future; people have rejected me; and I don’t blame them – I am to blame – I do not deserve to be happy.  Separating sorrow from sin was not easy for the psalmist, nor is it today.  Of course, when we get things wrong, that may lead us to feel bad.  But much of the pain I encounter in people, the guilt, the self-hatred even, is not remotely warranted by their mistakes.

Turning to the cantata, the poet develops a number of images which relate to this consciousness of sorrow and sin in the psalmist’s life.  In the first aria, the soprano sings of cross, storm and other trials.  In their unmetaphorical sense, storms have been in the news this year.  Harvey hit Texas; Irma hit the Leeward Islands and Cuba; Maria hit Puerto Rico; Ophelia hit Ireland; while Donald hit Washington around January and shows no sign of abating.  Those real hurricanes had a devastating power, destroying much in their path.  People, property, nature couldn’t stand in their way.  And they left loss and sorrow in their wake.  The poet imagines a strong tree suffering from the storm:

Cedars must, before the winds,
often feel much hardship,
often they will be destroyed.

Cashing out the metaphor, the cantata explores the experience of troubles in life – misfortune, suffering, trials, the cruelty of humankind, death and hell – as a kind of buffeting, damaging to body and soul.

This month has been a time of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the movement of Reformation, specifically the posting of 95 theses against indulgences by Martin Luther on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.  Luther’s was undoubtedly a stormy life: his agonising as a young monk over his sinfulness and salvation; his opposition to practices of the church of his day; his public arguments, disputations and printed denunciations; his trial for heresy at the Diet of Worms; his ex-communication by the Roman Catholic Church; his hiding from authorities in the Wartburg; his public and bitter fallings-out with other reforming spirits.  Perhaps his most famous words speak of a commitment not to give way as the storms rage over him: Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me.  Lutheranism may feel rather different by the time, some 190 years later, when Bach was writing this Cantata, but something of that anguish, that storminess, that dependence on God in the midst of deep distress, is still there, and can be heard in the words and music.

Psalm 25 is not only lament.  It places sorrow and guilt in the context of trust in God, belief in his truth, following his ways, and hoping for his rescue, perhaps summed up best in v. 10:

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

And so the psalmist, although in distress, is not in despair.  There is a profound hope at the heart of the hymn, found in its very first words:

Lord, I long for you.
My God, I hope in you.

The German for I hopeich hoffe – is sung four times in the opening chorus of the cantata, perhaps showing Bach’s understanding of the heart of the text.  Despite all the storms of life, there is reason to hope, and hope again and again and again.

This hope is not merely a generalised hoping: it is the trust that God will rescue the psalmist from troubles: verse 15 is sung as the penultimate chorus of the cantata:

My eyes gaze continually at the Lord;
for he will draw my foot out of the net.

What kind of net is this?  The Hebrew means a net for trapping birds and small game, finely meshed, and designed to make escape by oneself impossible.

The most fundamental theme of Martin Luther’s teaching is rescue.  How are we saved?  By sacramental observance?  By paying for indulgences to shorten our time in Purgatory?  By being righteous according to the Church?  The Reformation took place because Luther found a different answer in scripture.  We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross shows his utter faithfulness to God his Father and his brothers and sisters in humanity.  The good news is that God, who is love, forgives us our sins, liberates us from guilt, and sets us free to live in freedom and trust in the face of troubles and sorrows.  The image on the cover of the order of service, probably painted in 1555 by the son of Luther’s great friend Cranach, expresses much of this theology.  The centre of our faith is the crucified Christ, pointed to by John the Baptist, the last prophet.  Cranach himself prays before Christ, while Martin Luther holds an open book whose words by Luther himself explain the meaning of the cross.  In the foreground to the left, the resurrected Jesus defeats death and the devil.

The New Testament lesson from the letter to the Hebrews echoes themes from the Psalm.   In our struggles, in our weakness, in our tiredness, Jesus’ endurance in going to the cross gives us hope.  The cantata names cross, storm and other trials we face.  And we do talk of the crosses we bear.  But perhaps that word recalls the cross of Jesus in which God himself in human form faced the storm of anger, fear, hatred and power, and endured.  For the writer to the Hebrews, that cross inspires us to strengthen our weakening body, restore our exhausted soul, and find our way through the challenges of life.  And I have seen that happen in the lives of students, staff and others who have come to talk to me.  Sorrows pass, pain eases, rejection is transformed, forgiveness comes, healing grows, the self is accepted, things go better, people sense a renewed freedom.  Sometimes this happens in the conscious context of faith; sometimes perhaps I am the only one in the room with faith.  What is that faith?  The faith, as articulated by Luther, by Cranach, by Bach, that God, in his faithful love, draws our foot from the net, sets us free from guilt, stands by our side, and is with us through the thorny pathways of life.

Earlier this year I visited Tallin in Estonia, a country with a rich Lutheran heritage.  At an exhibition about the Reformation, I bought a lapel-pin in the shape of an apple tree, commemorating the 500th anniversary.  A card explained the reason for the tree with a quote from Luther in Estonian: “Kui ka teaksin, et homme on maailma lōpp, istutaksin täna veel ōunapuu.”

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.

Cedars may fall in the storm, but the tree of the cross stands firm, so that we have the hope to plant a tree for tomorrow.

Lord, I long for you.
My God, I hope in you.