An Uncommon Book of Prayer

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 25, 2013

Psalm 13 ESV

 Last year I gave a sermon on the “Legacy of the King James Bible,” one of the greatest gifts that the Protestant Reformation and 17th century gave to the English-speaking church.  Next to the King James Bible, another great gift of the Protestant Reformation and 17th century to the English-speaking church is the Book of Common Prayer.

Now as you know, this United Church is of the Free Church tradition, and we don’t use a prayer book for services.  Nevertheless, the Book of Common Prayer is one of those literary jewels that all Christians should at least be aware of.  There is much religious beauty to be found within its pages.  Meaningful services for rites of passage, poetic cadences, and beautiful prayers are to be found there.  It has been said that after the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer is the most frequently cited book in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

Not only is the Book of Common Prayer the official service book for the Church of England, but also for every other Anglican body in the world, including the American Episcopal Church.  The worldwide Anglican family numbers about 80 million members. So the Prayer Book has been printed in at least 50 different countries and in over 150 languages.  But in addition to that, the Book of Common Prayer has influenced prayer books in other denominations, such as the Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.  Marriage services and burial rites in the Book of Common Prayer have become common far and wide.  Many of the words from the Book of Common Prayer have made their way into popular culture.

Well, what got me to thinking about this was an article I ran across a few weeks ago that mentioned the fact that the Church of England’s 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer just celebrated its 350th anniversary.  So, as you know how much I enjoy writing sermons on significant anniversaries and such, I thought I would give it some thought.  The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was produced by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1549.  It was quickly revised in 1552 and again in 1559.  But the most significant revision occurred in 1662, and that edition has remained the official prayer book of the Church of England.  The American Episcopal Church produced its own revision in 1789.

I happen to have two copies of the Book of Common Prayer that were given to me by my Episcopal friends in two different towns where we lived.  Occasionally I will use a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.  One of my favorites is one I often use at funerals and memorial services:

OLORD, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.

Another favorite is Grace at Meals:

BLESS, O LORD, your gifts to our use and us to your service; for Christ’s sake.  Amen.

Prayers don’t get much more meaningful and poetic than that.  So, if you have never been familiar with, or even heard of, the Book of Common Prayer, it is likely that you have heard many quotations from it without even being aware of it.

But then, as I thought about the Book of Common Prayer, it made me think of another book of prayers, a book of uncommon prayers.  Of course, I am talking about the Book of Psalms.  Without the Book of Psalms, there probably would not be a Book of Common Prayer.  The Book of Psalms was the original prayer book for those of the Judeo-Christian faith.  But there is nothing at all common about the Psalms.  Much beauty is to be found in the psalms, for sure.  There are soothing words and poetic phrases to be found there.  At the same time, there is much agony and at times quite disturbing imagery in the psalms.  The Book of Psalms is one of, if not the, most diverse book in our Bible.

Contrary to popular belief, King David did not write all the psalms, even though the heading in some Bibles reads “The Psalms of David.”  David may have penned some of the psalms, but the 150 psalms in our Psalter come from many different authors.  In fact, many of the psalms give an author other than David—the Sons of Korah, Asaph, Solomon, even Moses.  And the chronological span of the psalms is long.  Some come from ancient Israel, and others as late as the Jewish Exile in the 6th century BCE.  Some of the Psalms are individual prayers or songs, and others are prayers and songs of the whole community.  And our book of Psalms was originally five smaller books that circulated and were used in Temple worship, but were put together to form the one book that we have today.  As I said, there is a wide variety of material to be found in our Book of Psalms.

There are songs of joy and thanksgiving: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” (100:1 ESV); “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (136:1 ESV).  And there are solemn dirges issuing from agonized souls: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!  O Lord, hear my voice!” (130:1 ESV)

There are prayers of trust in God’s loving care and protection: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (23:1 ESV).  And there are haunting cries of anguish from those who feel deserted by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1 ESV).

There are litanies on unity and harmony: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (133:1 ESV)  And there are prayers for the destruction of enemies: “O God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve! . . .

There is deep contrition and confession of sin: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (51:1 ESV).  And there is joyful celebration of God’s forgiveness: “I acknowledged my sin to you . . . and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (32:5).

There are ancient psalms that see God in nature: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters . . . the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars. . . The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire” (29:3,5,7 ESV).  And there are other ancient psalms that view God as a King sitting on a throne: “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!” (123:1 ESV)

There are intimate prayers of the mystic: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (42:1 ESV).  And there are cries of anger, calling God to account: “Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry! . . . From your presence let my vindication come!” (17:1,2 ESV)

So as you see, there is no one theological orientation in the psalms.  We see many different theologies expressed there, sometimes in contradiction one to the other. One of the most significant facts about the Psalms is they run the full gamut of human feelings and emotions.  The people who wrote the psalms were not afraid to let their true feelings be known to God.  If we had to sum up in one word the spirit of the psalms, that one word very well could be “honesty.”  Those who wrote the psalms let themselves be completely honest in their prayers, holding nothing back.

Now, what all of this says to me is this: If we can learn anything from reading the Psalms and taking them to heart, it is that when it comes to prayer we can, and should be, completely honest.  We can say in prayer or conversation with God whatever is on our minds and hearts.  And there is no feeling, no thought, no emotion so extreme that we can’t say it and that hasn’t been expressed before.  So when it comes to religious faith, or the lack thereof, whatever we feel in our hearts or think in our minds has been felt and thought by many of the faithful before us.

So, when we open the Psalms, we are peering inside humanity at its best and its worst.  Reading the Psalms could almost be like a religious sociological or psychological study of the religious heart of humanity.  There is a universality to be found in the Psalms with which every single one of us can identify in one place or another.

So—two books of prayer: the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that has celebrated its 350th anniversary and that holds much poetic beauty for the religious at heart.  And the uncommon book of prayer—the Psalms—that touches on every human emotion and speaks to the diverse conditions of humanity.  I have found comfort, solace, meaning, and beauty in both of these books of prayer.  I hope you will too.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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