A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on the Third Sunday of Easter, 15th April 2018, at evensong.
‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’ (Psalm 142.9a)
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Somehow a bird got into our house. For what seemed like an age it flew backwards and forwards, crashing, confused and frightened. It was not willing to be caught and therefore to be saved and delivered from the house. The windows were particularly cruel and deceptive: they gave the appearance and hope of escape, but it was an illusion of freedom.
They are parallels in human life of a feeling of being trapped, going to down blind or illusory alleys of possible freedom. We know the expression the ‘glass ceiling’ and its particular meaning, but we can all bump into glass doors that give the appearance of an exit but that obstruct our way.
Am I free to choose; do I have agency over my decisions and choices; am I ever free?
The People of Israel in Egypt knew the experience of being trapped and enslaved, as our first reading described.
Their experience is a human metaphor: they were enslaved to Pharaoh and the construction of his vanity projects.
Many today are enslaved to aspirations around wealth, influence, purpose or personal meaning.
Many feel trapped by economic incapacity or financial commitments; and there is the debilitating reality of the gross inequality of income across the country and globally.
Many feel enslaved to their own bodies, with the contradiction of wanting a perfect body, yet feeling that the body they are given somehow traps and confines their inner spirit where they locate their true self.
Many feel trapped by the spiritual aspirations and confined by what they regard as the strictures of religion.
Into this predicament this evening’s psalm gives voice to a deep feeling, ‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’ (Psalm 142.9a).
Deuteronomy commends the recollection of God’s saving works, redemption and deliverance.
This echoes the wise counsel of St Ignatius of Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises, in which he defines times of desolation and consolation. In a nutshell, a time of desolation is the experience and sense of estrangement from God; it is being enslaved to despair and the inability to see beyond our own predicament. Consolation is the awareness of the close proximity of God.
In consolation and desolation God is no closer or more remote, but our appreciation of him is. Desolation, in Ignatian terms, does not mean that everything in life is bad. We can be in desolation without knowing it; we can be in desolation when life is going well. After all, material comfort often means we feel far from God, if we think of God at all. Conversely, I can be in a time of consolation even in adversity: God can feel very close when times are toughest.
Ignatius counsels that, in times of desolation, when God feels far away, then we need to recollect what life was like when we knew him near. This recollection of God’s mercies and deliverance unlocks the prison door of our impoverished imaginations.
This is what Deuteronomy constantly reminds the People of Israel of. And being reminded of that prompts the people to gratitude, to the memory of God’s saving works and to the way of life that keeps them faithful to the Covenant.
Freedom, deliverance and salvation demand we have a memory. As the psalm also puts it: ‘I cried unto thee O Lord, and said “Thou art my hope, and my portion in the land of the living”’ (Psalm 142.6). This is the promise of the Resurrection of Christ, that by baptism we become part of the memory of God’s saving acts. The whole action of Christ’s resurrection is of deliverance, freedom and consolation.
It is in that capacity that Jesus says to the angel of the church in Smyrna, ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction.’ (Revelation 2.10a,b.).
Faithfulness will be rewarded with the crown of life (Revelation 2.10c)
‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’
The prison of our souls cannot be escaped by economic leverage; for the key is the way of renunciation and letting go.
The prison of our souls is not a fanciful notion of spiritual freedom that eschews God’s commandments or living out the virtues and good habits of living; the key is in the liberating sanctification of daily embodied living.
The prison of our souls in not our bodies, for we are body and soul together; the key to stretch out our hands to take hold of the life that really is life (1 Timothy 6.19).
‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name.’
Back to that trapped bird. I think that bird knew the meaning of that verse. There was a moment as the bird hopped to an open door when it felt the breeze, looked up – and I like to think it smiled! - it stretched out its wings and flew. As it flew it sang.
‘Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto thy Name’ Alleluia.