Tuesday, August 31, 2021

"Like a Tree by the Waters" - July 11, 2021

Text: Psalm 1

I was in Wal-Mart the other day, heading toward the pet supplies, when I noticed the song playing on the PA system.  It was “Just What I Needed” by the Cars.  A new wave, punkish group that I listened to in college.  I had the 8-track.  There is no way a retailer would have played The Cars on their PA system back then, but all these years later it has become shopping music.  (That’s how you know you are getting older.)  Well, it’s an energetic, catchy song, and I ‘m sure that is what they are looking for.  You won’t find a lot of songs in minor keys being played while you are out shopping.

I’m sure there is a whole industry built around shopping music, because music is such a big part of life.  But the way we interact and participate with music has changed dramatically in the last 100 years or so.  At one time, music was something that people did – you sang or you played, we ourselves made the music.  This all began to change with the invention of the phonograph and by now, for most people music is something we listen to.  It is more of a commodity, a product, something that we collected on albums and then cassettes and CD’s and something we can now just stream when we feel like listening to it.  

One of the few exceptions to this is the church.  In the church, music is still – mostly – participatory.  We all take part in it.  Everyone is encouraged to sing whether you are a great singer or not.  And you don’t have to be a pro to be in the choir or play your oboe or trombone in an ensemble once in a while.  One of the really difficult things about this past year is that it is hard to sing hymns at home by yourself on a Sunday morning.  Music is a community effort.  

Music has always been an important part of the church, and before that, the temple and synagogue.  In scripture, we find songs and hymns in a variety of places, but especially the Psalms.  The Psalms functioned as the song book of the temple and for much of history, as the song book of the church.  

The Psalms are somewhat unique in scripture.  We think of the Bible as God’s words to us, and it is, but when we come to the Psalms, they are just as much our words to God.  We read the Psalms and we find the whole range of human emotion – from love to rage to joy to fear.  We find expressions of anguish and guilt, of despair, of anger, of hatred even, as well as relief, and trust and confidence and hope and love.  The Psalms are poetry that was often and still is often set to music.  We will come across those Psalms that begin with instructions to the choirmaster or the musicians.

We often use Psalms as Calls to Worship or responsive readings.  Snippets of the Psalms find their way into our hymns.  But we less frequently consider the Psalms as texts for preaching.  We will be doing that over the coming weeks, looking at several of the Psalms, and we are starting today with Psalm 1.  It functions as an introduction to the psalms as a whole.  (Now there are 150 Psalms in all but don’t worry, I won’t be doing a 150-week sermon series.)

Psalm 1 is part of a group of Psalms that would be categorized as Wisdom Psalms.  It sets the stage for the whole collection of Psalms by saying that if you are smart, you will be willing to learn and to immerse yourself in the word and the ways of God.

“Happy are those who do not take the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, nor sit in the seat of scoffers, but their delight is in the law of the Lord.”

Now we may have a pretty good idea of wickedness and what it is to take the advice of the wicked.  And walking in the path of sinners – that is speaking to behavior.  Don’t follow the ways of those who are just going to get you into trouble, who are going to lead you into sin.  But to me, the heart of what this Psalm is about is this great phrase “don’t sit in the seat of scoffers.”

What a fantastic word: a scoffer.  A scoffer is one who mocks or jeers or refuses to heed the truth.  A scoffer is a person who will not learn, who is not open, who refuses instruction.  And you might notice that the scoffer is sitting.  “Don’t sit in the seat of scoffers.”  Not up and about, not involved.  At least the regular sinners have a path that they trod upon, but the scoffer just sits there and refuses to participate, refuses to hear the truth, refuses to learn and grow.

That is one way of living.  Over and against that is the way of the righteous.  They are like trees planted by water.  They are deeply rooted.  Like the song says, they will not be moved, and they can grow and produce fruit.

We lost a tree in the derecho last August.  Actually, on Friday before the storm on Monday, the city removed a dying tree near the curb.  And then in the storm that Monday, two trees were badly damaged and we had to take out the maple in the front yard.  So this spring we wanted to plant another tree in its place.  We have a honey locust in the front yard that is getting pretty big so we were looking for a smaller, ornamental tree.  

I went to get a redbud and as it turned out, in the aftermath of the derecho there was a big run on trees this spring.  They had a bunch of redbuds with sold tags on them.  There was only one left, and it would be several weeks before they could deliver it, they were so backed up.  So I got Bob Parrish with his truck to help bring it home, and I planted it.

It’s a nice little tree.  But you know, we looked out a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t looking so great.  It has been hot and windy and the tree had not developed deep roots.  The tree was droopy.  So I got out the hose and watered it.  I’ve been watering it regularly.  Those who delight in the law of the Lord are like well-watered trees that grow and flourish, while those who follow the advice of the wicked are like that young tree wilting in the heat.

Psalm 1 points ahead to the whole collection of Psalms and says, take heed.  Listen.  Be open.  Be willing to learn.  If you meditate on God’s word, you will be happy.  You will be blessed.  You will grow.

Now the problem presented by this Psalm is that it goes again a lot of what our culture values and teaches.  Our culture says that happiness is found in self-fulfillment.  If you can do what you want to do, you will be happy.  But this Psalm lifts up happiness as delighting in God’s ways, not in simply pleasing ourselves.

And then prosperity is a goal for many of us, and we know what that means.  It means wealth, it means accumulating things, it means attaining what we want.  But that is not the way this Psalm sees it.  If we delight in God’s ways – and presumably live by these ways – then we are by definition prosperous.  And God’s ways involve caring for our neighbors, caring for those in need, caring for God’s creation, not simply caring about ourselves.

Time and again in the Psalms, we find complaints and laments and anguished cries that the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous face suffering and humiliation.  It’s like 14 years in a row, the Jayhawks win the conference while the righteous are forced to suffer.  It ain’t right.  So, the Psalmist defines prosperity in a different way.  And the Psalmist takes the long view on prosperity – that the righteous are rich in what matters most, and that this will be seen, this will be made plain in due time.

Maybe most surprising is the understanding of righteousness itself.  We tend to think of righteousness as following the rules and doing the right thing.  In other words, righteousness all about me.  But according to the Psalms, righteousness is a matter of being connected to God and connected to one another.  It speaks of “the congregation of the righteous.”  It is about knowing that God is there.  “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.”  Righteousness has to do with our connection to God and to the community.

It is easy to read something like Psalm 1, a beautiful piece of poetry, and feel smug about things.  Thank God I am among the righteous, and look out sinners, God is coming for you!   It’s kind of like that New Yorker cartoon that shows two dogs.  One is saying to the other, “It’s not enough that we succeed.  Cats must also fail.”

We can read this Psalm in a moralizing way, in us vs. them, wise vs. foolish, saved vs. unsaved, blessed vs. cursed terms.  But I’m not sure this is all cut and dried.  The Psalmist lays it out in a kind of either/or way, but I’m not so sure that there really are two kinds of people.  Martin Luther said that the Christian is at the same time saint and sinner.  I’m not sure we can so clearly count ourselves on one side or the other, certainly not of our own doing.

Instead, it may be more helpful to see this as a reminder to ourselves of how we are called to live.  We can live in a way that seeks to get ahead, to accumulate for ourselves while we ignore the needs of others, that wants to not just succeed but see the cats lose.  But in the end that way of living is not very satisfying.  Instead we can choose to live the way of the righteous.  It is the way of Jesus, who said that the heart of living by God’s law was loving God and loving neighbor.

Now, it won’t be easy.  We will see folks who live by another set of standards and seem to prosper.  And we ourselves will have plenty of stumbles along the way.  But in the end, this is the way, the only way, that really leads to blessings and happiness.  Which makes it something worth singing about.

Jim Taylor is a Canadian journalist and writer.  He reflected on the Psalms and said that the problem we face is that the world has changed in 3000 years.  It is not so much that the language of the Psalms is a problem; it is the images and metaphors in the Psalms that can be a challenge.  We don’t live in a time of warrior kings and invading armies and sheep and shepherds.  So he wrote a little book called Everyday Psalms in which he paraphrases the Psalms using language and images of today.
This is his take on Psalm 1:

Happiness can’t be captured.
Like a wild bird or a bouncing ball,
It is always just beyond your grasp.
It is not found in fads or fashions,
nor in climbing to the top of the heap.
Happiness comes from immersing yourself in God.
Instead of struggling to stay on top,
Yield yourself to the deep flow of God’s universe.
You will not drown,
You will be swept along by forces beyond your imagining.

Foam on the surface blows about;
Driftwood piles up on sandbars;
People obsessed with themselves end up as rotting debris on rocks.  But the current rolls on.

To find happiness, let yourself be carried away
by something stronger than a social eddy.

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