|6:00pm||Passion Sunday Organ Recital - Simon Johnson|
Sermon preached at Mattins on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (8 October 2017) by Reverend Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain
The Chaplain looks at how Henry Frances Lyte's sermons can help us trust in God and to hold fast to hope and the promises God made to us.
Henry Frances Lyte whose hymn, God of Mercy God of Grace, we sang at the beginning of this service, was a priest and a poet, as well as a writer of some of our best loved hymns; Praise My Soul the King of Heaven and Abide with Me perhaps being the best known.
He is also the subject of my husband’s PhD so I am glad that Jonathan is not here this morning to hear my unsophisticated take on the inspiration for his Thesis.
Like almost all of Lyte’s hymns, God of Mercy is based on the psalms and this hymn is a metrical version of psalm 67. Lyte wasn’t a man ahead of his time, he was steeped in the tradition of metrical psalmody for congregational singing, when most of the church had moved on and embraced the Wesleyan revolution in congregational singing. But perhaps his simplicity of style came not from naivety, but from a deeply held faith, and his equally deep devotion to his parishioners, and his determination that they might find salvation in embracing this faith.
And the psalms also I think suit Lyte’s psychology. He inhabited a world which was beautiful and terrible at the same time, the same world we inhabit and the world into which the psalmist cries both in joy and in sorrow.
Lyte’s theology as it is expressed in his published poetry is perhaps too easily dismissed as coming from a rather shallow saccharine faith. But he was not on another planet, for he had suffered the trauma as a young boy of the disappearance of his mother and younger brother whom he searched for without result later in life (they had in fact died years before but he never knew the end of their story). He was deserted by his father when he was just a boy, he experienced the death of a colleague whom he had nursed early in his ministry, and the death of one of his daughters in infancy. Having inspired a generation and leading a congregation of considerable size in his parish in Brixham, he was then deserted by most of his flock when he embraced Anglo-Catholicism.
This can’t but have contributed to what had always been a delicate disposition and his frail health took him away from his parish, home and family for months each year in his last years, he died at the age of 54.
So why bring Lyte into our thoughts today? Well I was struck by the parallel between Lyte’s theology and our first reading, which might also be read and dismissed as rather romantic and unrealistic view of the way the world is: a pipe dream vision used to cheer up desperate and despairing exiles, the rallying cry to the people of God not to abandon hope but to hold fast despite their experiences to the promises of God.
So what have the unfortunate experiences of this relatively small people who told a big story over two thousand years ago, have to do with us today? Why do we pay attention to what these ancient scriptures say?
Because their experience of dislocation and loss is a perennial challenge for all people of faith, whatever that faith might be. The world we inhabit does fall short of the vision of what, in the Christian tradition, would come to be called the kingdom of God, promised as our inheritance.
But is it enough to keep telling ourselves that, ‘all will be well’ because we are in God’s hands, when we see at close quarters or experience first hand the brutal reality of both chance and cruelty?
But don’t we also see glimpses of the kingdom, in moments of mutual recognition and understanding? Fellow feeling and compassion. Amongst all the horror we know, do we not, that it is possible for potential to be realised and obstacles to be overcome. No one ever said it was going to be easy but we must keep the vision before us and reaffirm it and reassure one another with it if we are to make progress towards our goal rather than go round in circles.
Such religious conviction might easily be ridiculed as a form of sticking our fingers in our ears and singing to ourselves to block out the reality of the tumult around us, but Henry Francis Lyte and all our great men and women of faith held on to this hope, whilst at the same time rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck into the hard reality of poverty, want, sickness and death.
Of course it is tempting to believe that if God exists and is known as love then all should be right with the world, as so as everything clearly isn’t right with the word then the notion of God can be rejected as fanciful. But don’t we know that things are never that simple, and to believe that they ought to be is childish and naive. The much more challenging position to hold is that God is indeed love and yet we experience exile, famine and want, sickness and the fearful results of greed, hatred and corruption.
In our gospel reading Luke faces us with the reality of the chaotic and unpredictable world we inhabit by bringing together from various sources, a selection of warnings of what we should fear, and reassurances that if we stand firm in the face of these challenges, whatever challenges we face, they are comprehended by God and by the power of the Spirit we will receive all we need to find a way through.
As today's collect has reminded us, we are restless and anxious until we find our rest in God. If we rely simply on our own resources, they will be found wanting but if we remember to call upon the Lord and then we will have the confidence of the psalmists whose words we have sung and heard sung today.
Let us pray
Let the peoples praise thee Lord
Be by all that live adored
Let the nations shout and sing
glory to their saviour king
At thy feet their tributes pay
and thy holy will obey