This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 2nd February 2020. It’s not a lectionary reading.
Recently I had the privilege of not only attending, but actively participating in the ordination of a dear friend. For reasons beyond her control this ordination took place on Australia Day; but that set up a happy coincidence, for me at least. The happy coincidence is that one of the readings which my good friend had chosen to be read on her special day was the entirety of Psalm 116, a special set of verses for her. As her friend I know that a good deal of her testimony is replayed in those words of scripture. Okay, great; so January 26 and Psalm 116 are coincidental: how exactly? Any takers? Well actually the coincidence comes tomorrow, because on Sunday 3rd February 1788 Rev Richard Johnson, inaugural chaplain of the penal settlement at New South Wales preached the first Christian sermon in Sydney and Psalm 116:12-13 was his text. As it reads in the Authorised version which he used, What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. Johnson’s appointment was largely the work of John Newton and William Wilberforce, have you heard of them? Yes, well as you’d expect they were keen that an evangelical would take on the chaplaincy of New South Wales and so Johnson was appointed as minister and educator, and with his wife Mary he sailed with the First Fleet.
The news which comes later, after the landing at Port Jackson and that first service of worship under a tree at Sydney Cove, is that Johnson was not well attended to by the governors. Governor Phillip had more important things to focus upon than the building of a chapel, what with trying to house a starving population, so church took place out in the open. Later governors and lieutenant-governors were even less helpful, so in 1793 Johnson built a 500 seat chapel himself; at his own expense and with his own hands. With that building in place Richard and Mary were better able to run a school and as many as 200 children were in class. That building was destroyed by fire in 1798, probably arson, and in 1800 the Johnson family (now four of them with two Australia-born children) returned to England on a furlough, from which they did not return.
So you may or may not have heard the story of Richard Johnson before, and of course there is a lot more to tell. Much of their woe occurred during life in the colony and therefore after that first sermon was spoken out. But I’m sure that as Australians, even not as Sydney-siders, you have some understanding of The First Fleet and what went on to get those eleven ships into Botany Bay and then Port Jackson. It was not a fun time by any means; and there were no doubts aboard ship among anyone, marines and freemen included, that life in Sydney would be easy. As far as journeys go the First Fleet wasn’t the worst, the Second and Third Fleets were disease ridden and most unpleasant, but it was bad enough. So I wonder what Johnson was thinking, and more importantly what he was seeing (envisioning) as he prepared and then delivered that first sermon to the prison colony. Just think about it, imagine yourself if you’d like as a convict or a marine, or the surgeon, or the governor himself, or the tag-along wife of someone, imagine you’re Mary Johnson, and Richard gets up and says what shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I’m not entirely certain, and in this instance my background in sociolinguistics lets me down, but I’d say that was the first instance that the derogatory use of the word “mate” was used in Straya. I mean, you’ve been at sea since May 1787 and it’s now February 1788, not to mention (but I probably will) whatever prison-hulk or barracks-and-orders rigmarole went on before sailing. You’re standing under a gum tree in February, and you’re wearing rags (as a convict) or prissy England clothes (as a free person or marine), so you’re probably sweating like mad. You’ve been sleeping in a tent, or on the ground, or maybe you’re still going back to the ships to sleep. You’re here forever, or at least seven years, or at least until you’re re-called for re-deployment by the Admiralty, and even that is at least a year and a half away by the fastest ships. The last year has sucked, this year looks desolate and hungry, and next year might see us starving if we even make it that far. So, ah Rev, Richard-mate, what are these benefits unto me which the Lord has rendered? Maaate? Psh!
How’s your year looking Kaniva/Serviceton? How was 2019? What does 2020 have in store for you? Are you hopeful of even reaching 2021? Hopefully you’re feeling better than that mob who were standing on Eora Country 232 years ago, but just because a town exists here and you slept in sheets last night that doesn’t mean your future is rosy. My friend’s story, the friend who was ordained last Sunday, her story is hers to tell so I won’t even touch it: but it’s a doozy. You all know some of my story and many of the doozy bits (but not all of them) and I tell that in drabs. What’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you?
I’m going to ask that again, what’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you? In my research this week I discovered something which I think is every interesting, in Tanakh (the actual Jewish Bible rendered into English and used by some Jewish traditions, rather than one of the Old Testament translations of the Christian traditions) there’s a variant reading in Psalm 116:1-2. In the New International Version it reads I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live. Positive, praiseworthy, comfortable and comforting. In the Good News Bible (which is in your pew) it reads I love the LORD because he hears me, he listens to my prayers. He listens to me every time I call to him. More of a shift to continuing present tense, not only did The LORD hear my voice but God hears my voice: all good so far. In the Tanakh it reads I love the LORD for He hears my voice, my pleas; for He turns His ear to me whenever I call. Pretty similar to the Good News Bible, but without that “because” statement from the NIV. But, here’s the variant, Tanakh footnotes suggest this one I would love that the LORD hear my voice, my pleas; that He turn His ear to me whenever I call. Hmm. Anyone been there? “I’d love it if God would listen and could hear me right now”. Anyone there now: don’t put your hand up but do let me know later if I can pray with you. Maybe some of Sydney’s first congregation were thinking that, maybe Rev Richard was thinking that himself, just quietly. Or maybe you’re with the Orthodox Church where the translation reads I have loved, because the Lord shall hear the voice of my supplication; for He inclined His ear to me. And in my days I shall call upon Him. (Athanasius Academy Septuagint found in The Orthodox Study Bible). I have loved because… that’s something different again, and suggests that we love God because God loves us (true) and that by God’s love for us we become mature through carrying that love even in the dark places, and finding strength in it. That points us toward Psalm 116:12-13 which we looked at earlier, with the understanding that even with the depths of Sheol, and the depths of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans The LORD has been good thus far and we can be confident. We can be confident because we have trusted The LORD and The LORD has come through for us; therefore whatever lay ahead of New South Wales in 1788, and whatever lies ahead of the Wimmera and Tatiara in 2020, we can celebrate God and be thankful in advance. Interesting to me is that according to its lectionary the Orthodox Church reads this psalm on Palm Sunday, and we read it on Maundy Thursday.
Are you confident for what lies ahead? Maybe today you are in Sheol, or at least in fear of being there soon: feeling grave and overcome with tomb-like concerns. Maybe today you are in Cadi (Sydney Cove), and wondering how this place could ever be what London is, even Newgate Prison. Or maybe you are in the good place, with the harvest harvested and sent away to wherever the trucks and trains take the various outcomes of your work, and you are in the mood for exuberant praise and thanksgiving for the abundance of grace that The LORD has just poured over your head. Most likely you’re somewhere in between those poles, since most of the time we just live with contentment, without fear but also without celebration. The Psalmist says that a worthy response to all of those conditions is thanksgiving and praise. I would say the same, not only as a theologian who has just written a sermon on this but also as a man with a doozy of a story about Sheol and another about the Heavenlies.
And so, what shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me? How can I repay The LORD for all His bounties to me? Well, as scripture exhorts us let us raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of The LORD. Tell people what has been done for you, show it to their own eyes, and tell them that it was The LORD Godself who did it for you. If you are in the mood to celebrate then celebrate: rejoice like the shepherd who recovered one of one hundred sheep, host a party like the widow who recovered one of ten coins, feast and drink like the father who received back one of two sons. And if you are not in the mood to celebrate then remember what The LORD has already brought you through, and trust that The LORD who is the same Lord will do it again and again. In all of those stories told by Jesus, and all of the doozy stories we tell of ourselves, the focus is on a corporate response to an individual crisis. I was in peril, now I will tell the whole congregation how amazing The LORD is to me. This is actually the point of the Psalm, not that the snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of Sheol laid hold on to me, (Psalm 116:3) woe is me I have a truly salty story; not even that gracious is The LORD and righteous, (Psalm 116:5); but I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people (Psalm 116:14), and I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of The LORD, in your midst O Jerusalem (Psalm 116:18-19).
And so it is. Maybe Richard Jonson did feel like a bit of a dill preaching on The LORD’s providence under that tree at Sydney, barely a week after the tall ships had arrived: perhaps he spoke too soon when you consider all that he went through in the next twelve years, and all that Sydney has seen in the past 232. Or maybe he was on the right track, considering that all who gathered on that day had survived the journey to gather on that day, considering that as an evangelical he knew where and how to look for the goodness of The LORD and to find much for which to be thankful in song and word. May it ever be so with us. We no longer cry God save the King, okay mainly because we actually have a queen, but let us remember that God’s saviour is King, and that we have the responsibility to glorify his saving work and his reign in song and word, confident in him in all circumstances.