Updated: Oct 12
Before we get started, I want to let you know that I’m going to refer in the sermon today to a passage from our Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer. And if you would like to have that ready to read along—it is not mandatory—but if you would like to find it ahead of time, get the red Book of Common Prayer in front of you, and turn to page 848. We will be dealing with the section subtitled “Sin and Redemption.”1 That’s my teaser trailer for the sermon.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
On of the bits of advice I’ve gotten in preacher training is: “You really shouldn’t start your sermon with a prayer.”
But as you may have noticed, every single preacher at St. Andrew’s ignores that bit of advice. And I am very grateful that they do for me, for it means that I can begin every sermon with verse 14 from today’s psalm.
I choose this verse as prayer before a sermon because this verse embodies things that are essential for me: essential to my growth and work as a lay preacher, and essential to my growth and work as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
A few years ago, Fr. Jared did a formation series on vocation. One week, he recommended a book by Dr. Parker Palmer called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.2 Now, I am a very good student; I do the assigned reading AND the supplementary recommended reading. So of course, I ordered the book.
I remember sitting on the couch in our living room one Saturday morning, cup of coffee and pen in hand, working my way through Palmer’s book. He writes with such intimacy and honesty about hard subjects; it’s really dazzling. So I was having this lovely experience—right up until the moment I got to the passage in which Palmer defines what he calls “functional atheism”:
Functional atheism is <quote>
“saying pious words about God’s presence in our lives, but believing, on the contrary, that nothing good is going to happen unless we make it happen. [It’s the belief that] ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us [. . .] the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.” <end quote>
Palmer goes on to explain how functional atheism “pathologizes every level of our lives. It leads us to impose our will on others, stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often
eventuates in burnout, depression, and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact.” End quote
I’ve rarely had one of my most damaging unconscious beliefs so succinctly summarized and brought to the surface so abruptly. Now y’all: I have read a book or two in my day. And I’ve been called out by books before. But this one [Palmer’s book]? felt a little targeted. I felt a little attacked. There was no denying it. I was 100% guilty of functional atheism: the unconscious belief that if I’m not making things happen, nothing good will come.
I was raised to believe, as maybe some you were, that “God helps those who help themselves.” But at some point, for me, that little aphorism took on a life of its own, morphing and changing, becoming completely unmanageable. Eventually, there was no more God in “God helps those who help themselves”: it was just “help yourself.”
Me, alone, trying to make everybody understand how very good my good ideas were and everything would be so much better if you’d all just listen to me. I’m trying to keep disaster at bay through constant vigilance and the force of my own will; I’m trying to reshape the world to my very good vision.
But Palmer’s book stopped me cold, and left me with a hard question to answer: “Where have you, Monica, in your endless to-do list, your 5 year plan, and your program of constant vigilance, where have you left room for God to work? How can the Holy Spirit guide you if you’ve already got everything so all-fire figured out?”
I didn’t have answer.
This book showed me a big problem.
And Psalm 19 showed me a love-filled solution to that problem.
One of great advantages of so many of our psalms being written so clearly in the first person is that we can put the words in our mouths. We can be the “I”—“I’m thinking”; “I’m feeling”: “I’m doing”—in the psalm—and we do this every Sunday as part of our liturgy. And if we listen attentively when we have those words in our mouths, we can sometimes recognize ourselves in the Psalmist’s words.
I sure did.
In all of my busyness, in all of my doing, I was guilty of exactly what the Psalmist describes in verse 13: presumptuous sins.
The whole verse:
Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;
then I shall be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense. (Psalm 19.13)
“Presumptuous sins”; “great offense.” Big words. Scary words to unpack. Not super fun to confront.
And so I love how our catechism in our Book of Common Prayer helps me understand this moment and these words. In the Catechism, in the section under “Sin and Redemption,” it says:
Q: What is sin?
A: Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. (BCP 848)
Functional atheism is what Psalm 19 calls “presumptuous sin.” Believing that everything was up to me distorted my relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.
When I began the process of study to become a lay preacher here at St. Andrews, I consciously chose a version of verse 14 of today’s Psalm to start my sermons:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19.14)
I chose this verse because I have yet to find a more powerful, more persuasive antidote to the lure and powerful of functional atheism than these words. Every time I utter them, my most fervent prayer is that whatever I meditate upon in preparing the sermon and whatever words come out of my mouth while I stand here, that both are acceptable to God—and that all these things—the meditations and the words—come not from my own manufactured display of strength, not from the imposition of my own will, not from the dictates of my own fragile little ego, but from the strength found in the study of scripture and in communion with the Holy Spirit.
And because the nature of our God is loving and forgiving, when my heart does not want to get on board with the program, and when my words are not those acceptable to God, despite my best efforts and best intentions, I know that God will not abandon me—for God is our strength AND our redeemer.
Such power for change—for relief, for guidance, for care—wrapped up in this one verse of this one psalm.
How would it change us, I wonder, if we prayed this verse every day? What would happen if, before every conversation, before every meeting, every social media post, every email, every phone call, if we asked for the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart to be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer?
How might this reshape the words we use with one another? How might it change the words we use with with ourselves?
What would happen if our words were coming from hearts whose meditations were consciously looking for and focused on God’s guidance? Hearts who were not hoping for but instead, were absolutely confident in God’s strength and saving grace?
How might this one verse from this one psalm help us to speak from the heart in a whole new way, if we were to ask, over, and over, and over with our whole selves:
May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart
Be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
2 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Jossey-Bass, 2009. Kindle edition. ISBN: 978-0787947354.