Sunday, 11 September 2011

9/11 Ten Years on. Reflections on Psalm 139

Ten years ago this afternoon I heard the news on the radio as I was turning into Carlton Street.

It was difficult to believe.

I got in, saw more of what was happening on the TV.

I decided to visit a member of our congregation who was over here doing a three year stint with the NSA of America and working at GCHQ.

She was living on her own, I wanted simply to go and be alongside her.

We had a cup of tea, we shared in prayer … what else could we do?

She was going to be on her own that evening and so I invited her to join us at church.

We had a long-planned planning meeting for an Alpha Course that was about to begin.

We got together that evening … but going into a planning meeting did not seem right.

We moved into church.

Priory Lacemakers were meeting under Lis Forbes’ tutorship. I invited the lacemakers to join us for a quiet time of prayer in the church.

It was most moving.

But what could we say? What could we do?

I found myself re-visiting the Sunday Evening service of the previous Sunday, the 9th September.

It had been quite a special day for us as a church as at both our morning and evening services we welcomed Petra, our German Time Fpor God Volunteer who was just starting with us. I was just starting a series of sermons on Romans and had decided to do the Order of Service sheet a little differently. Instead of mapping out an order of service, I simply listed the hymns, and added a short summary of the sermon I was going to preach.

It wasn’t long since I had attended the first in a series of lectures at the University which is still going strong on the Interpretation of the Bible. It had been given by Tom Wright, one of this generation’s great Biblical scholars with a wonderful gift of being able to combine in-depth scholarship with a real popular touch.

His lecture had focused on Paul and the Epistle to the Romans.

It was powerful stuff.

I turned up the note I included in the Order of Service sheet. It gives a summary of the theme I explored in my preaching that night. It is a theme I have returned to a great deal since.

“Half a century before Paul began his letter to the Christians of Rome Augustus had been the first Roman Emperor to regard himself as Son of God. In that time the Cult of the Emperor had caught on. Paul gets straight to the point – he calls on the Christian community to believe and obey Jesus, not the Emperor as the Son of God. Christianity is an alternative way of loife which subverts the powers that be. And at its heart is the righteousness of God – not a judgemental God to be feared, but a God who sets people right and sets people free to follow a different way of life. That is an act of pure grace which is ours to share as we respond in faith. But it then turns our world uspdie down! Paul’s indictment of Roman society (18-32) has a disturbing contemporary ring about it.”

In retrospect, those comments have a great deal to say into all that happened on 9/11.

But those comments were not what stuck in my mind.

Something else occurred in that evening service that I will never forget. That evening, it was simply an interesting aside. By the Tuesday night, it spoke very powerfully to me.

The Psalm of the day from the lectionary was Psalm 139. The suggestion was that we read just the first part of the Psalm, as we have done this evening.

I felt at the time it was a bit of a cop-out.

I wasn’t sure whether I could do it or not. But then I decided I would. I decided to use the whole Psalm.

Psalm 139 is at the same time one of the most beautiful and wonderful of all the Psalms, and also one of the ugliest and most disturbing of them all.

Look it up in Congregational Praise, and it’s innocent enough. I had grown up singing the Psalms from Congregational Praise, and I hadn’t realised how abridged they were.

As our church bible is the Good News Bible, I did as I occasionally do and decided to invite people to read the Psalm antiphonally, section by section.

I decided that I would pause before my final reading and add in a comment, and for us, a Christian Congregation reading the Psalms a reminder that we have to read the Psalms through the eyes of Jesus.

LORD, you have examined me and you know me.
2 You know everything I do;
from far away you understand all my thoughts.
3 You see me, whether I am working or resting;
you know all my actions.
4 Even before I speak,
you already know what I will say.
5 You are all round me on every side;
you protect me with your power.
6 Your knowledge of me is too deep;
it is beyond my understanding.


7 Where could I go to escape from you?
Where could I get away from your presence?
8 If I went up to heaven, you would be there;
if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there.
9 If I flew away beyond the east
or lived in the farthest place in the west,
10 you would be there to lead me,
you would be there to help me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
or the light round me to turn into night,
12 but even darkness is not dark for you,
and the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.


13 You created every part of me;
you put me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you because you are to be feared;
all you do is strange and wonderful.
I know it with all my heart.
15 When my bones were being formed,
carefully put together in my mother's womb,
when I was growing there in secret,
you knew that I was there —
16 you saw me before I was born.
The days allotted to me
had all been recorded in your book,
before any of them ever began.
17 O God, how difficult I find your thoughts;
how many of them there are!
18 If I counted them, they would be more than the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.

It was at this point that I paused. Writing at a time when Israel had been devastated by the destructive forces of neighbouring countries, the psalmist put into words the gut reaction he had to such devastation. It is at points like this in the Psalms that we must bring to the forefront of our minds the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, from the end of Matthew 5. Nonetheless, there may be times when it is good to get the gut reaction we have out of the system and hurl our anger towards God. As we do that, however, we must forcibly bring to mind the words of Jesus.

19 O God, how I wish you would kill the wicked!
How I wish violent people would leave me alone!
20 They say wicked things about you;
they speak evil things against your name.
21 O LORD, how I hate those who hate you!
How I despise those who rebel against you!
22 I hate them with a total hatred;
I regard them as my enemies.

That’s the gut reaction … but we must bring to mind the words of Jesus …

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’
44 But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.

And now in the light of Jesus’ words we can all join together in the final prayer of the Psalm …

The Congregation

23 Examine me, O God, and know my mind;
test me, and discover my thoughts.
24 Find out if there is any evil in me
and guide me in the everlasting way.

As we gathered in church that Tuesday evening, with our American friend joining us, there must have been about 25 or 30 of us present, we met at the front of the church, it was already getting dark.

I wasn’t at all sure what on earth we could say.

There wasn’t a lot we could say.

What I found myself doing was returning to that Psalm 139 with the introduction I had shared with people on the Sunday evening. And I saw it in an entirely different light.

It was as ever moving … doubly so in the face of what had happened to read again those moving words at the start of the Psalm.

Wherever we go, to the ends of the earth - God is with us.

We needed to hear those words.

But then we approached those final, hateful words.

Aor the first time, I could feel the gut reaction of those words at the end of the Psalm. It was that kind of raw feeling that had captured. This was what people were feeling, this was in some measure how I felt. There was an awfulness that gripped us.

It was good to articulate those feelings. Not to bottle them up, It was good to get them out. To shout them in a rage at God.

But. And this is the enormous BUT.

How vital it was, how good it was, how moving too to come face to face with the words of Jesus. Tough words. But words stemming from his own experiences in a Jerusalem that was subject to the violence of the oppressive power of Rome, all too often at its worst.

Those words of Jesus we also needed to hear.

And then to join together in the final prayer … how powerful that prayer was.

I have recalled it many times since.

I felt I wanted to re-visit it again this evening, ten years on to the day when at this very time we gathered in this very place and shared that reading and those reflections.

Maybe God speaks to us down through the last decade His Word through those words.

There was for me a follow-on to that evening’s time of prayer. And those reflections prompted by Psalm 139.

That day Rowan Williams, currently Archbishop of Canterbury, then Archbishop of the Church in Wales, was at a conference in an adjacent tower block to the Twin Towers. He had to run through that cloud of dust. He was massively shaken by the experience.

A few months later he wrote a very small, handbag sized book, little more than a pamphlet. I think it is one of the finest works he has written.

He took the very thought provoking title, Writing in the Dust.

He recalled the occasion when Jesus was confronted by a crowd of hateful men bent on stoning to death a woman who had been caught in adultery. When they asked Jesus what should be done, he bent down and wrote in the dust, before straightening himself up and making a response. He then bent down and wrote some more in the dust before straightening himself up and giving his response to the woman.

Rowan Williams, reflecting on 9/11 suggested first of all that there was wisdom in the decision Jesus made to pause a moment, and not give an insight response. That was the wisdom he felt was needed on the part of the authorities at this juncture. Now was the time not for an instant response, but there was a call for a pause, time for reflection, careful thinking.

The next morning the Welsh-Speaking Rowan Williams received a phone call from a journalist, presenting a news programme for Radio Cymru, the Welsh language BBC channel He was asked to make a comment on all he had experienced from his hotel room in New York. The journalist spoke in Welsh.

In that instant he paused. And the thought flashed through his mind. If he responded in the same language then his comments would be broadcast only to the Welsh speaking people of Wales. If he spoke in a different language, then what he said would be broadcast to all the people of Wales. He chose to respond in a different language.

Rowan Williams suggested secondly, that the powers that be needed at that moment to take time to reflect, and then he urged the need to respond in a different language. To respond to the actions of hatred in the same language of hatred would add fuel to the flames.

This is the radically different response that Paul urged followers of Jesus to have that was so different to the powers that be as he was writing to Christians in Rome.

The kind of Christianity that calls for that kind of response is radically different …

Christianity is an alternative way of life which subverts the powers that be. And at its heart is the righteousness of God – not a judgemental God to be feared, but a God who sets people right and sets people free to follow a different way of life. That is an act of pure grace which is ours to share as we respond in faith. But it then turns our world upside down!

The tragedy of 9/11 is that the powers that be did not pause for thought and reflection.

The double tragedy of 9/11 is that the instant response they made returned like for like with the systematic bombing first of Afghanistan and then the war in Iraq.

The challenge remains.

How important it is that we respond to terror and hatred not in the same language of terror and hatred, but in a different tongue.

The words of Jesus speak powerfully to our times … and they are an enormous challenge.

Maybe we need to get the hatred out of ours system in our praying to God … but then we need that most wonderful of prayers that comes at the very end of Psalm 139, and we need to take that prayer to heart.

Examine me, O God, and know my mind;
test me, and discover my thoughts.
24 Find out if there is any evil in me
and guide me in the everlasting way.

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