Deepening Our Roots in the Soil of the Psalms

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Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm 119:105-112

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Daniel London at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh PA on July 16, 2017.

Listen to sermon here: Deepening Our Roots in the Soil of the Psalms

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells the parable of the sower, in which a sower casts his seed generously and liberally all over the place, apparently everywhere he goes. Some of the seed lands on rocky ground, some fall among thorns, some become bird food and some fall upon good soil, subsequently bearing much fruit. Jesus then explains that the seed is the “word of the kingdom,” the message of God’s transformative love. I recently had the privilege to hear presiding bishop Michael Curry preach on this very parable at my Commencement service a couple months ago at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in California. He highlighted the seeds that got scorched by the sun and withered away because they had no root. “Such a person,” Jesus explains, “endures only for a while, but when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away, because such a person has no root.” Bishop Curry then urged us to people with roots, explaining that if we want to move this church and if we want to move this world, we need to “plant …roots that are deep, deep in the soil of the ancient traditions, deep in the soil of ancient wisdom.”[1]

This message resonated deeply for me since I had just spent the last several years studying and exploring the rich soils of our Christian and Anglican spiritual traditions, traditions that we are invited to claim as our own as Episcopalians; and to plant our roots deeply within so that we can produce fruit that can potentially change the world.

The other Bible readings this morning offer a similar message, inviting us to plant our roots in the soil of ancient wisdom and to claim our spiritual inheritance, not to despise our tradition as followers of Christ. We see this message in story form in the reading from Genesis in which Esau forfeits his birthright in favor of instant gratification, in favor that delicious “red stuff” which he craves; while Jacob, on the other hand, claims the birthright and thus deepens his roots in the soil of the wisdom and blessing of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham.

And in our reading from Romans, Paul describes our inheritance through Christ as a fundamental freedom from all condemnation, from all sin and from all death; saying that we have received a spirit not of slavery but of adoption. Elsewhere, Paul elaborates by saying that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind. This spiritual inheritance is ours for the taking. The invitation is to claim it and root ourselves deep within its soil.

My specific invitation for us all this morning is to deepen our roots in the soil of a particular set of ancient prayers, which really gave birth to all the great contemplative traditions within Judaism and Christianity, including the traditions of Centering Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, various forms of Jewish chant and meditation as well as perhaps my favorite Jewish prayer tradition called chutzpah k’lapei shemaya which means “Boldness towards Heaven” or even “Boldness against Heaven.” And the particular set of ancient prayers to which I am referring are the prayers in the book of Psalms. My invitation is for us to deepen our roots in the soil of the Psalms.

The early Christian theologians believed that the words of the psalms encompassed all possible human emotion and human experience before God: Joy, praise, thanksgiving, confusion, sadness, anger and much more. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th and 5th century believed that the words of the psalms were so effective in funneling the vast array of human emotions before God that they recommended praying them constantly.[2]

Our psalm this morning is one brief portion of the longest psalm in the Psalter, which is also the longest chapter in the entire Bible: Psalm 119. If you want to experience the range of poetry, prayers and emotions within the book of Psalms, I encourage you to read Psalm 119 in its entirery. The psalm is an acrostic poem based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in which each Hebrew letter is given a section in the psalm that is 8 verses long, thus totaling 22 sections altogether. The first 8 verses all begin with the letter aleph (A), the second eight verses all begin with letter bet (B) and so forth. By using all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in this way, the psalm offers a mnemonic device for Hebrew readers to memorize the psalm while also demonstrating that the primary purpose of the Hebrew alphabet and of language itself is prayer.

 Each section of the psalm includes one or two driving images that begin with the particular Hebrew letter of the section. The driving images include a a sojourner (which in Hebrew is the word (ger), a pathway (derek), God’s hands (yadeka), God’s face (panekha), the sweetness of honey (midvash) and the sound of God’s voice (qol). Our section this morning consists of eight verses that begin with the letter nun, similar to our letter “N;” and one of the driving images of this section is the lamp, which in Hebrew is the word Ner. “Thy word is a lamp (ner) unto my feet and a light unto my path.” The other driving image of this section is the word nachalti, which is Hebrew for “my inheritance.” Verse 111 reads “Your decrees are my inheritance forever; truly, they are the joy of my heart.” So the Psalms, which are our spiritual inheritance, invite us and urge us to claim and find joy in our tradition, to deepen our roots.

This last Lent, I had the opportunity to deepen my roots in the soil of the psalms by immersing myself for several hours in its many prayers and poetic images. I learned from a clergy colleague, the Rev. Christopher Martin, about a particular prayer discipline practiced regularly by an intentional community in England in the seventeenth century. The community was called “Little Gidding” and the was leader Nicholas Ferrar, who was a close friend of the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert. Apparently, on a fairly regular basis, this Anglican community would gather together and pray through the entire book of Psalms in one sitting.  We decided to do this at my church in San Rafael. The two of us committed to read through the entire book, while inviting others to come and go as they pleased and while also taking some breaks to stretch and get some snacks every hour or so. We called it the Psalmathon and the whole experience took about five hours, but as Christopher says, it was “a most peculiar five hours […] Time shift[ed], somehow, into a kind of deep stillness […] By the end, [we felt] as though [we had] been on a retreat many days long.”[3]

At the time, I was facing some personal challenges and struggling to find the right words to pray so it was wonderful to be able to relax into the ancient words of the Psalms, which express a kaleidoscopic range of emotions. We lit some frankincense and together prayed psalms of joy, anger, confusion and sadness. We chanted the Psalms; we read responsively, antiphonally, softly, joyfully, loudly, rambunctiously. When we got to Psalm 119, we took turns reading the 22 different sections, seeping ourselves in its many different images, and claiming these beautiful prayers as our inheritance, as our nachal; and deepening our roots in their soil.

The driving image for the entire book of Psalms, which is described in the first psalm, is the image of a tree planted by streams of water, with deep roots that are constantly being watered, nourished and refreshed thus yielding an abundance of fruit in season. This image is contrasted with the chaff that has no root and blows away, much like the seed that withers away in Jesus’s parable of the sower. Without regular and consistent deepening of our roots, our own spirituality can easily become superficial and impotent in times of trouble and difficulty; but by regularly deepening our roots in our inheritance we can learn to persevere and grow and become strong and fruitful, even in the face of difficulty and opposition. In the words of Bishop Curry, “If you go deep, then you can go long.”

We all face difficulties and challenges that can easily scorch us and make us wither away, but our inheritance offers a powerful resource in the Psalms, through which we can express our own personal fears and anxieties to God; and in return receive courage and hope so that our roots become even stronger and deeper in times of trouble.

So one of the best ways to heed Presiding Bishop Curry’s invitation for all Episcopalians to “go deep” is to deepen our roots in the soil of the Psalms. I encourage us all to immerse ourselves in these ancient prayers, perhaps by reading Psalm 119 in its entirety. And as a church that knows how to participate in Bible-reading marathons, I encourage you to try a Psalmathon, if you haven’t already. It is by deepening our roots in the soil that we are not despising our rich birthright like Esau but rather claiming it like Jacob, as our “inheritance forever; as the true joy of our hearts.” By doing this, we nourish the Word of God within us and we strengthen our roots so that we can grow, even in the midst of difficulty and we can continue bearing an abundance of spiritual fruit. Amen.

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[1] https://vimeo.com/218832970, The Most Rev. Michael Curry at CDSP Commencement on May 19, 2017 at 40:03.

[2] The Desert Christians would often pray and meditate by simply repeating a verse or two from the Psalms. One of their favorites was the first verse of Psalm 70 (“Oh God, make speed to save us; Oh Lord, make haste to help us”). This repetition of verses from the Psalms by the early Desert Christians became the seed that sprouted into the great Contemplative Christian practices of the Jesus Prayer and Centering Prayer and much more.

[3] Christopher H. Martin, The Restoration Project: A Benedictine Path to Wisdom, Strength and Love (Forward Movement: Cincinnati OH, 2013), 69 – 70.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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