Rev Ron Ham
When I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, we lived in an apartment which was three blocks from Harlem; we did our supermarket shopping in Harlem. Harlem had a bad reputation. It was a crowded part of New York with a population mainly of poor black people living in crowded, run-down apartments, and unemployment was high. In the year I began at the Seminary, Malcolm X, a Black Muslim seeking justice for black people, was assassinated in Harlem.
Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk who had been a university student in New York City and who knew Harlem. His writings about his experience of God while living in seclusion in a monastery, are among the finest in all literature. He has given his impressions of Friendship House in Harlem where, as he puts it, “some people had started living for God”. The House was a place where young people and others from a context of poverty, violence and drugs could drop in and find friendship and understanding.
Merton describes “an ageing black woman (who worked at Friendship House); she was thin, quiet, worn-out, and dying of cancer”. He says that the only time he spoke to her he realised one thing: she knew how to live in Harlem without being broken by it. ‘When I saw her and some other Catholic women sitting on chairs by the doorsteps of the building…in the midst of the turmoil of the lost crowd, (I) was astounded at the deep, deep unfathomable, shining peace that is in the eyes of (black) women who are really full of belief.”
How did this woman and her friends get and keep that “deep, deep unfathomable peace”? Merton says they were “really full of belief”. Like so many suffering black people in America for several hundred years, they worshipped together regularly. And in their worship they sang their Spirituals which told them that God loved them, even if others did not; and those same Spirituals were full of the hope that even if they did not gain freedom in this life, God’s salvation would bring them to God’s presence and all the richness of eternal life.
Have you thought of services of worship as times when you might discover resources from God that could become the sustaining strength of your whole life? The writer of Psalm 73 made that discovery. He confesses, “My feet had almost stumbled; my steps had almost slipped.” Why? “For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” This is a painful cry, and to strengthen his case, he spends verses 4 – 14 describing the benefits flowing to those who had no regard for God or for their neighbours.
He admits that when he thought how to understand this, it seemed to him a wearisome task. But then, this insight. It seemed a wearisome task, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.” V. 17. (NRSV and CEV). What happened when he went into the sanctuary? He realised that these arrogant and undeserving prosperous ones were “set in slippery places” – they were nowhere near as secure as they appeared –and the time would come when they would be “swept away by terrors”!
And more than that, as the Psalm proceeds, he makes this confession of faith – that he himself was continually with God who held his right hand. He praised God – “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you…God is the strength of my life and my portion for ever.” That is what came to him when he went into the Sanctuary!
When you come to worship you are invited to open yourself to the presence of God who may come to you with fresh insights about God’s hidden presence in a world that is often not fair; who may come to you with strength to endure personal disappointment; who may come to you with joy in the midst of sorrow; who may come to you with honesty to admit your wrong behaviour and give you the determination to do something about it; and who will open your eyes to the beauty of the world and to the hope of the coming Kingdom of God.
How might these experiences of God’s grace come to you in worship? You may hear some passage of Scripture read and hear it like you have never heard it before; a song or hymn may strike a chord in you; a prayer may touch you deeply; a sermon may so unfold a text of scripture that it is like a light going on letting you see something in a new way; or the total experience of giving your attention to God in worship may bring to you a mysterious peace. In other words, the comment in this Psalm will fit you – “I did not see this, until I went into the sanctuary of God.” Here lie the possibilities of worship.
This is why this morning we are discussing what we might do to make these experiences of worship more possible for us. For example, is there some way we might rearrange this sanctuary so that the very space in which we worship pleases the eyes, relaxes the body, increases our sense of community and makes possible better singing, praying, and listening?
There is no virtue in being uncomfortable in worship, or in doing what we have always done if that is no longer an aid to worship. Let us enter our discussion with imagination, daring and expectation that God will guide our thinking.
I like a line from the book by the Italian author, Umberto Eco. His novel, The Name of the Rose, is a medieval murder mystery set in a monastery. It was made into a film about ten years ago – try and get it from the video shop! But Eco makes this observation about monks in a monastery who, like Thomas Merton, devote their lives to prayer: “They light up the darkness with the flame of devotion.” Think about worship like that. It is what happened to the writer of Psalm 73 – he did not understand what God was doing in the world or in him, until he went into the sanctuary of God and opened his life to God. In that experience his darkness was lit up by the flame of devotion – as ours can be. Both we and the world around us need this light from God.