Sermon for August 9th, 2020

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Psalm One

1 WELL is the one who does not walk 
  In worn-out ways of wicked people, 
  Who does not stand in sinner's path
  Who does not sit in scoffer's seat;

2 Whose will is turned to teachings of the Lord
  Who draws them out from dawn to dusk.

3 That one prospers like a tree well-planted
  Near runnels of water, returning ripe fruit
  Neither leaf nor branch shall break nor wither
  All things work toward that one's good.

4 Not so, the wicked! Like wind-scattered dust
5 They will rise no more on reckoning day,
  Sinners cast out from the company of saints.

6 For heinous highways lead straight to hell
  But God recalls the road of the righteous

Psummer of Psalms III - Psalm One

Long before KLOVE, before there were praise bands, organs, choirs, and even hymns, the songbook for worship in Ancient Israel was the book of Psalms. The Psalms are among the oldest texts in the Bible, and among the very oldest musical texts still in continuous use for worship in any religious tradition.

In our own denomination, when Calvin and Knox and other 16th century reformers were redesigning what they thought worship should look like, they chose to go back to the basics, to the earliest examples of worship from first century Christian congregations. And that meant the Psalms. For hundreds of years, Presbyterians ONLY sang the Psalms in worship, and nothing else. For that reason, there tend to be more Psalms in Presbyterian hymnals than those of other denominations. One of those collections of psalms, the Bay Psalm Book, was the very first book printed in America.

In Hebrew, the Psalms are called תהילים (tehilim) which means "praises." The word "Psalm" actually comes from the Greek translation of that word, ψαλμός (psalmos) which originally meant the sound made by the plucking of a harp. In time, it came to refer to the most famous use of the harp, which was to accompany these sacred texts, and then finally it came to refer to the texts themselves.

Psalm One is a wisdom psalm. Like the entire book of Proverbs, it offers a simple "wisdom" formula for success in life: Do what's right and you'll be rewarded; Do what's wrong and you'll suffer. This overly simplistic formula gets challenged later on by the Book of Job--the story of a man who did everything right and still suffered--but while Job is a minority voice pointing out the exception to the rule, Psalm One stands squarely in the mainstream of the wisdom tradition, found not only in early Jewish culture, but also in most of the literature from the ancient middle east.

The contrast between the righteous path and the wicked path runs throughout Psalm One, from the very first verse to the very last, but there are also a few other typical features of wisdom literature that can help us appreciate what's going on in this Psalm:

One is the metaphor of the journey: In verse 1 and 6 the Hebrew word דֶּרֶךְ (derek) means road. It's the same word used for the "way of the wicked" as well as the "road of the righteous." But the Psalm goes deeper than that. Pay attention to all of the motion (or lack thereof) throughout the poem: On our journeys, sometimes we walk, sometimes we stand, sometimes we sit. Sometimes we run, sometimes we rise. Psalm One places great importance on knowing when, where, and with whom to do all of these things. And in response to our choice of motion, God moves us as well: Sometimes we are gathered together (as in the congregation of the righteous), and sometimes we are scattered like dust blown in the wind.

Another feature of wisdom literature is that it draws its lessons from nature. The wise ones of the ancient world were the scientists of their age: They believed that by observing and analyzing the world around us, we might better understand the world, and God, and each other.

So in Psalm one, we have the central metaphor of a tree, planted next to streams of life-giving water. A tree that grows in the right place with the right resources WILL yield good fruit. The lesson learned from nature is that a person in the right place, given the right resources (or life-giving teachings) will also produce good things.

By contrast, the wicked are כַּ֝מֹּ֗ץ (chamotz), a word that means like dust, sand, straw, or chaff. It's not connected to anything; it has no source of life. It is dead or dying, subject to external forces like the wind. And so are we, when we are not rooted in a good community, when we have no life-giving source of wisdom to nourish our souls.

There's another kind of movement here, too, and another object lesson from nature--the passage of time. The righteous person seeks out God's teaching from dawn to dusk, or day and night, and bears fruit season after season. There's a reference to the day of judgment at some unspecified time in the future. But there's also a timeless quality to the life of the righteous person, compared to the permanence of a tree, who weathers the good seasons and the bad ones, who is known and remembered by God always. By contrast there is a transient or fleeting quality to the life of the wicked person, unrooted, blown away and evicted from the community of the righteous, lost and forgotten by God and by humanity.

So. Now that we (hopefully) understand and appreciate the message of Psalm One a little better, what do we do with it?

Well, first of all, it's a Psalm, so we sing it. In the Presbyterian hymnals, hymns 6, 250, 454, 457, 680, and 743 all draw on the text of this Psalm. In contemporary praise music, the songs "Mighty to Save," "Who Am I," "Awesome God," "Better Is One Day," "Blessed Be Your Name," "You Are Good," and "Amazing Grace My Chains are Gone" all draw on the text of Psalm One.

What else do we do with it? Per the suggestion right there in the Psalm, we meditate on it day and night. This is actually a good, short Psalm to use in prayer as you begin your day, or as you end it. Since it's the first Psalm, it's pretty easy to find and remember.

Finally, we let it point the way. This is an introductory Psalm. Notice that it tells us to do what's right and avoid what's wrong... but it doesn't exactly tell us what those things are, what IS right, and what IS wrong. You have to use the mind and the heart God gave you to figure that out. But the psalm does point us further and deeper into the scriptures and the natural world around us, both places where we can study, observe, learn the patterns of God's creation, the way that we should travel, and the places where we should plant ourselves.

May each one of you find good soil, good community, in which to plant yourselves and take root.

May each one of you find your way along the path of goodness, the path of righteousness.

With God as your guide, may you never walk that path alone.