Sermon for September 4th, 2016
Ashre Ha-ish asher
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 God recalls the road of the righteous But heinous highways lead straight to hell.
Selah: Ancient Songs Our Souls Still Sing
Right now is an important time in our culture: College football season started last week. Pro football starts this week. Last night our UTEP miners opened their season against their great rivals, the NMSU Aggies. The aggies, like their cousins in college station, are not exactly known for feats of great brilliance or wisdom.
I'm reminded of the story of Bubba and Tiny--two Aggie football players who had failed their agricultural engineering course three times in a row. Finally, their professor told them that if they didn't pass the final exam, they couldn't play in the big game, and certainly wouldn't graduate. He sat them down in a room, just the two of them, handed them each a piece of paper with one fill-in-the-blank question, and then left the room. Before he left, he said "you have exactly one hour to complete the exam."
Well Bubba was already pretty nervous, but when he flipped over the piece of paper and saw the question, he turned white with terror. The question read: "Old MacDonald had a _________. I did mention this was an agricultural engineering exam, right? After staring at the question for a few minutes, Bubba looks over at Tiny with a helpless expression on his face, and asks Tiny for the answer. Tiny looks back at Bubba and says, "You sure are dumb, Bubba. Everyone knows that Old MacDonald had a farm."
Relieved, Bubba says "Oh yeah--Now I remember!" He begins to write the answer on his paper, but then pauses. He turns to Tiny again and says, "Tiny...how do you spell farm?"
"Geez, Bubba--You're even dumber than I thought! Everyone knows farm is spelled E-I-E-I-O!"
Fortunately, their professor was an Aggie, too. Bubba and Tiny both passed the test, graduated with honors, and went on to distinguished football careers playing for the Dallas Cowboys.
Our football season this fall begins with the Aggies, but our fall sermon series begins with the Psalms.
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.
There are 150 Psalms in the book of Psalms, divided into roughly five sections. Depending on which scholar you ask, there are a variety of different types of Psalms, and we'll look at several of them in the next few weeks. But we'll start today at the beginning, with Psalm 1.
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 one 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 yields good fruit. The lesson learned from nature is that a person in the right place, given the right resources (or life-giving teaching) 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, whose leaves never wither or die, who is known and remembered by God always. By contrast there is a transient or fleeting quality to the life of the wicked person, 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, it's a Psalm, so we sing it. In our new Presbyterian hymnals, numbers 6, 6B, 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, wha IS right, and what IS wrong. Instead, it introduces us to ways in which we can pursue these things. It points 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.
One of the places that we as Christians plant ourselves and find nourishment is in this community, around this table. Like the ancient wisdom teachings, Jesus used the simple things in the world around us as metaphors for deeper truths. In his final days with his disciples, he established a practice that we have continued through the years right down to the present day.
We journey to this table for each other, just as Christ journeyed to the cross for us. We break bread and pour out this cup for each other, just as Christ's body was broken and his blood was poured out for us. And we welcome to this table all those whom Jesus welcomed: saints and sinners, believers and skeptics, insiders and outsiders, Miners and Aggies alike, people of all cultures, ages, orientations, and origins. So come, with a psalm on your lips and a song in your heart. Come, with the company of saints on the path of the righteous. Come, to the table of the Lord.