Scripture - Psalm 1
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Over the past few weeks the country has been peppered with commencement speeches as high school and college graduates celebrate their accomplishments. Students have spent several years reading, discovering, and creating - not to mention whining, dreading and cursing! - but in the end, passing the requirements to earn their diplomas. Graduation ceremonies are designed to say, "Congratulations! Well done! You did it! We salute you!"
However, most commencement speeches are more than simply "high fives" to the graduates. In addition to celebrating the milestone with a string of clichÃ©s - sounding the trumpets, popping the cork, beating the drums - it is a moment for peering into the future and asking each graduate, "What next? What path will you choose?" The questions are followed by select morsels of advice.
These days the hot tips are: "Follow your dream," "Never stop learning," "Work hard and resist shortcuts." I know that sounds as if it is straight out of the 1950s, but some graduates are hearing that advice today. Contemporary commencement speeches also include some counsel that sounds as if it came from the church: "Beware of the glitzy lure of materialism," "Do something to benefit others," and "Carpe the heck out of the diem."1
This morning's Scripture passage is the first of the 150 Psalms and biblical scholars point out that it is not simply a coincidence this psalm kicks off the collection. Psalm 1 is a nifty introduction to the entire Book of Psalms and although it is a mere six verses, it has something of the quality of a commencement speech. It ponders a person's course in life and advises what will bring happiness and fulfillment while warning what will bring misery and emptiness. Psalm 1 is not a long or complex piece of wisdom. It is simple and straightforward. If the ancient Hebrews had commencement ceremonies, this psalm would have been plastered across the back page of the program.
The psalmist offers this sage advice: Those who find joy in life, those who experience true blessings, those who hoist the glass and declare, "Life is good!" are those who follow God's law. Those who reject God's law and live by other standards wither and die. Any questions?
Psalm 1 draws a sharp distinction between the path that leads to life and the path that leads to death. And while we can affirm this underlying truth, it does not sit well with us. We want to take issue with it. It is too simplistic. It is too black and white. Life is messy and unpredictable. No simple formula holds up in every situation. And, in fact, that is precisely what we discover in some of the psalms that follow. They challenge this too tidy view of life. They "struggle to make sense of the experiences of God's absence and of the confusion about God's failure to strike down the wicked or consistently prosper the good."2
Psalm 13: "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? Psalm 73: "I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people." Psalm 82: "(God,) how long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?"
And yet, even though other psalms argue with the simplicity of Psalm 1, they also affirm its basic premise. Human beings have the freedom to choose how they will live. Although there are a number of factors beyond our control that influence the direction of our lives, we still face daily choices regarding the path we will take. We can follow God's law or we can reject it. Which will it be? The psalmist is not overly optimistic that we will choose the right path. The first verse does not say, "Happy are those who follow God's law." Rather, the psalmist begins, "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, do not take the path that sinners tread, do not sit in the seat of scoffers." He knows that the temptations are many and our ability to resist is weak, so he calls on us to be on guard in order to choose the right course.
The psalmist is convinced that following God's law can enrich your life. You are infused with confidence when you are in harmony with God. Such a feeling can quell anxiety and help you take the hassles of life in stride. Being in harmony with God produces serenity in your soul.
However, making the right choice is tricky. And not only because there are temptations to reject God's law in favor of what appear to be more attractive options. It is possible to adhere to all of the 613 laws found in the first five books of the Bible and still get it wrong. It is possible to embrace God's law and still miss the abundant life God intends for us to live.
How? By taking a wooden approach to the law. By obeying each law literally, but remaining blind to context or extenuating circumstances. This rigid view of the law is inflexible, uncompromising and unforgiving.
If you have read or seen the musical Les Miserables, this is the unwavering approach to the law by the police inspector. He is obsessed with putting Jean Valjean back behind bars despite the fact that after serving 19 years in prison, Valjean has become an honest man making a positive contribution to society. The inspector's merciless dedication to upholding the letter of the law turns him into a callous individual devoid of humanity. He realizes, too late, that adhering to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law, can lead to injustice.
Early in his ministry, Jesus revealed the error in a legalistic approach to the law when his disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry. The Pharisees, like the police inspector in Les Mis, viewed upholding the law as an end in itself. They branded Jesus a law breaker because his disciples broke the commandment that forbids work on the Sabbath. Jesus exposed the hole in their strict interpretation of the law by asking if humans were created for the law or if the law were created to enhance the life of humans.
Understood correctly, the psalmist knows that God's law is the path to a bountiful life. He says that those who immerse themselves in God's word "are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither." In the parched land of the psalmist, there are wide stretches of barren land because there is too little moisture for grass or plants, much less trees, to survive. However, you can often spot streams from a distance, because you can see a line of trees. Next to a stream, trees can sink their roots down into the ground and gain the needed water to produce fruit. This is the image the psalmist employs to describe those who are rooted in God's word. However, the psalmist says, not so the wicked. They "are like chaff that the wind blows away." Or, as the Message translation says, the wicked "are mere windblown dust. The vivid contrast between the deeply rooted trees and windblown dust illustrates the dramatic difference in the lives of those who follow God and those who do not. Those who live according to God's law understand the law not as onerous obligations, but as guideposts to a rewarding life.
When seminary professor Tom Long moved to Atlanta, he and his wife shopped around for a church. They decided to join Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta because they liked the congregation's worship and their emphasis on mission. They were invited to meet with others who were joining, along with a few of the church officers.
They met around a large square table and the pastor said, "I would like to go around the table and have each person who is joining share why you are joining our church family." People said the kind of things you would expect. One person said, "I'm a musician; this church has the finest music program in the city and that's why I'm joining." Another said, "We have two teenage daughters and the youth program is fantastic here and that's why we're joining." The Longs talked about the worship service and mission opportunities. And then it came around to Marshall. His story was that he was high on crack cocaine and living on the streets. One day he stumbled into the outreach center and begged to be helped. The director said, "I'm out of money. I can't get you in a treatment program this month, but I can do it next month. If you stay with us, we will stay with you." She took his hand, they knelt on the carpet of her office and they prayed. And he stayed. And he said, €˜I've been sober for three years now and the reason I'm joining is because God saved me in this church.'
Long said the rest of them looked at each other sheepishly. They were there for the music and the mission and the youth program; he was there for the salvation.
A few weeks later there was a squib in their church newsletter that said that Marshall was now an inmate in the DeKalb County jail. Since they had joined the church together, Long went to see him. After passing through three metal detectors, he found himself on the opposite side of a thick plate-glass window holding a telephone looking at Marshall in the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner.
Long said, "Marshall, how are you?"
He replied, "By the grace of God, I'm doing all right."
Long asked, "What happened?"
Marshall said he was in the outreach center counseling people, people like himself off the street. He was telling them that they could what was right. That was when he realized that he had not done right. There was a warrant for his arrest in DeKalb County. It was an old warrant, that most likely would have never have caught up with him. But he knew about it and so on Christmas Eve, he turned himself in. He said, "I'll be out by Easter. I cannot wait to worship on Easter. But in the meantime, I've got an outreach center going here in the jail. A lot of these people can't read or write, so I write letters to their sweethearts and wives telling them that they miss them and love them. And every night we have a prayer meeting in my cell, not many come, but we pray for the other prisoners and the guards."
And Long looked through the plate-glass at Marshall, his brother in Christ, in the jumpsuit of a prisoner and he saw one of the freest human beings in the world,3 because he was deeply rooted in God. What path will you choose? Foolishness or wisdom? Curse or blessing? Death or life?
Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton
God of justice and hope, you have given us all we need not just to prosper but to help others have life as well. You have watered us with the cleansing rain of your care, given us the soothing warmth of your love, and sheltered us under the branches of your forgiveness. We are grateful, O God, for all that you have given us. The sun, the rain, the apple-seed, this community of faith, people who care about us, dreams that guide our actions - for all these things, we give you thanks and praise.
As we face decisions daily, help us to consider how our choices might affect others. Help us to find time and space and energy enough in our own lives to study your Word, to turn our hearts and lives over to you in prayer, and to find joy in communion with other people who are followers of your way. We pray this day for all those who find themselves at a fork in the road in their lives and struggle to determine which way to go. Guide them in their deliberations, O God. Help them sort out choices when there are many, or to find new options when none at hand seem right.
Aware of great need in this world, our youth have traveled to West Virginia and back to help provide adequate housing, our building has been open to Urban Promise to help provide safe space and enriching activities, our hands have prepared meals for others at Emmanuel Dining Room, our money has supported places like Friendship House and Meeting Ground. Aware of great need in the world, we have provided water filters in Guatemala, given prayers and monetary support for missionaries in many places. And we come today, adding to these actions our prayers for those who live in poverty, for those who grow up in the midst of violence, for those who have not yet heard a message of hope and life that might lift their spirits and help them to develop the deep roots of an abiding faith. O God, hear these prayers. We especially lift up to you in prayer today congregations in the Congo and Mozambique with whom we have had special relationships over the years. Fill these churches with your peace and your love and your hope always, that their ministries may continue to be faithful witnesses to your grace.
Although summer brings a time of rest, recreation and celebration for some, for others this summer, there are tears of grief in the midst of picnics, loneliness and fear in the midst of celebrations. Some struggle to live with cancer, others wrestle with addictions, others find mounting bills and no way to pay them, and still others are reeling from the loss of a dream or the death of an important relationship in their life. O God, fill those who hurt, and those who are afraid, and those who grieve with your love.
Knowing that you sent Jesus Christ to earth that we might have life, we pray the prayer he taught saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever." Amen.
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