Scripture - Psalm 1
1 Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Hymn - Thy Word is a Lamp #601 UMH
I remember in high school being introduced to the wide world of poetry. We read Shakespeare's sonnets - had to memorize them, even. We read Dickenson and cummings and Poe and Frost and Angelou -- and I confess, I just didn’t get it. It was a far cry from Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and I didn’t understand it. More than that, I just didn’t get why poetry was important. I mean, why do you need 20 words to describe the motion of a falling leaf - can’t you just say a leaf fell to the ground? Why take all this time and energy to talk about being happy - can’t you just say that you are happy? We had an assignment where we had to put together a portfolio of poems we had written around a theme, and it was probably the assignment I most hated from all four years in high school. My literal, math and science brain, that believed anything worth writing or saying was best to be to the point without all this extra fluff really struggled with this.
As I’ve gotten older, I get it a lot more. I’m never going to be one of those people who can analyze a poem in depth, or make all the connections that the author intended, but I can appreciate the beauty in words that have been intentionally strung together, the evocative imagery or depth of emotion that poetry can convey, and the different perspective that poetry can offer.
The Psalms, after all, are one big collection of poetry, written by a variety of authors in a variety of time periods in Israel’s history. About half are attributed to KIng David, but we don’t really know for certain who wrote each individual psalm. They have been used throughout Jewish and Christian history - they have been sung, chanted, and recited in Israel’s Temple, in synagogues, in the houses and catacombs of early Christianity, in the mission fields, in great cathedrals, in monasteries, in private homes and churches - for public worship and private prayer. I believe the Psalms, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, bind us together as in this collection we find words to fit most every human experience and that give voice to our own emotions, our relationship with God, and our relationship with others.
In this book we have Psalms of Lament - cries for help or expressions of deep suffering by the individual or the community. We have songs of thanksgiving, giving praise and gratitude to God for God’s faithfulness and provision. We have songs that teach about the history of God’s presence with the Israelite people, psalms of prophecy and wisdom, and psalms for traveling. Many other songs were written throughout the development of the Hebrew Bible, so this collection of 150 Psalms is kind of like the “best hits” or “all-time favorites” - much like our hymnals represent only a portion of the many hymns that have been written over the years.
Psalm 1 was placed intentionally at the beginning of this collection as an introduction to the rest of the book, laying out these two paths that the reader is supposed to choose from - obedience to God in the way of the righteous, or the path tread by sinners -- and it’s pretty clear what we’re supposed to choose, right? On the one hand we have this beautiful image of full, leafy trees on the bank of a flowing river, overfull with ripe fruit ready for the harvest -- this is how those who celebrate and delight and meditate on God’s law are like. Strong. Enduring. Prosperous. On the other hand we have chaff on the breeze, here today and gone tomorrow, mocking those who trust in God, labeled as sinners and scoffers and the ever-favorite word in the psalms, “the wicked.”
Clearly, we want to put ourselves in the first category. Sign me up, God, for prosperity and fruitfulness! I’ll do whatever I have to to get there! Meditate on your word day and night? Check check. I’m on the pathway of the righteous. I’ll see all those wicked folks later. I’ll be obedient to your word and to your will if it’ll work for me in the end.
Except it doesn’t quite work that way, does it? Sometimes we do everything “right” -- go to church, pray the right prayers, say the right things, do the right things -- and our world crumbles around us anyway. And sometimes those “wicked” out in the world who live only for themselves, step on and abuse others, couldn’t care less about God or any kind of discernible moral code end up being able to have it all. It can be pretty demoralizing -- after all, why bother walking in the pathways of God’s righteousness when it’s easier to slow your steps, stop, and sit with those who have also resigned themselves to the patterns of a self-serving life.
Read on its own, Psalm 1 certainly raises some of these problematic questions. Really, God? Is life really that simple? Can the whole world be divided into the righteous and wicked - much like Jesus’s parable about the sheep and the goats? Can I slip from one path to the other? What happens when I experience suffering and am faithful to you? Yet read in relationship to the other Psalms, Psalm 1 invites us on a journey that takes us from this call to obedience to the courts of praise - as we read in Psalm 150.
According to theologian Walter Bruggemann, the placement of Psalm 1 and Psalm 150 -- the first and last psalms of this collection -- says something about the shape of life when lived in light of God’s covenant with Israel. In fact, when we look at Psalm 150 -- there’s nothing about obedience or the path of the righteous in there at all. It’s as if obedience was merely a starting point on a journey that ultimately goes beyond an accounting of “rights” and “wrongs” and ends with glad shouts of joy in praise to God. What started in Psalm 1 as delighting in the law of the Lord becomes delight in God for who God is and what God has done. Meditation on this law day and night becomes praise to God with our whole breath and being.
But to get there -- we have to start somewhere. We have to start with obedience to the path of the righteous - in the habits and practices that shape our hearts and minds in the light of God’s love. The pathway of the righteous is this journey through the psalms that take us through the highs and the lows of human experience, to places of certainty and doubt, to celebration and suffering, to those probing places where God’s goodness and faithfulness is called into question, those places of peace and assurance where we rest in God’s provision.
As Bruggemann puts it: “The Psalter is not a book of easy religion in which the settled practices of obedience and praise characterize Israel’s life, but a literature that looks unflinchingly into the face of reality. The Psalter knows that life is skewed and God’s steadfast love is under suspicion and assault. God’s steadfast love stays under suspicion because it is seemingly less than completed and faithful. Israel, however, has nowhere else to go in its doubt and alienation than to God’s loyal love...This is the demanding road from the trustful naivete of Psalm 1 to the trustful abandonment of Psalm 150. It is a costly road Israel must traverse, which it does again and again in these songs and poems.”
This is the road we travel as well -- a road that has been traveled well before us - the road from obedience to suffering to celebration and praise. The way has been marked for us by the millions of people who have gone this way before us. These Psalms are signposts -- trail markers -- cairns, if you will, that say to us, “Yes, someone has made it here before. I’ve been where you’ve been. I’ve journeyed through what you have journeyed through.”
Several years ago, one of the Psalms became a trailmarker for me during a time in my life when I was trying to figure out what was next for me and I felt plagued by all the possibilities and wasn’t sure which way to go. Psalm 107 became a regular part of my prayer -- I had found a beautiful setting of this Psalm to music by John Michael Talbot that was pretty much on repeat for several weeks. The Psalm is all about people in trouble -- wandering out in the desert without water, sick and suffering, caught in a storm in a ship, and so on and so forth - and them calling out to God and God saving them from their distress. Part of what drew me to this Psalm was “well, it could be worse - I could be lost in the desert” -- but part of it was also the need for God to open a way forward for me out of my distress - to put my mind at ease, and to remember - as the opening of the Psalm states, “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” It shaped the pathway, knowing that God makes a way, and that I wasn’t alone in the turbulent waters.
The Psalms mark the pathway in times of grief and despair. They mark the trail of joy and gladness. They point the way through anger at God, contention with your neighbor. The journey of the life of faith is chronicled in these words and they invite us to find within their pages a voice for our journey as well. These next few weeks we’ll be journeying with the Psalms and using them to mark our way through the landscape of human experience.Take some time with the Psalms over the next few weeks in your own time of personal devotion - they have the power to teach and shape us as we read them and as they guide us to the ways God is present in and among us.
Wherever you are on the journey - whether you are taking those first few daring steps of obedience or whether you in a place of unbridled joy and praise or whether you are somewhere in the middle - the Psalms invite us to go on a journey together with God, so that God may grow good fruit in us - like the trees planted by streams of water - and so that we may ultimately praise God without reservation. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.