Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Happy Are They Who Have Not..."
a meditation on psalm 1

Sermon preached 10/23/11.

This morning begins our new series on the psalms.  One psalm each week.  For the next 150 weeks, ending about this time in 2014 (a little more if we do 119 any justice)…just kidding.  But today's psalm IS number one.  And this past week has been for me the rekindling of an old love with the first of the psalms.  Psalm number one.  The psalm whose quasi-repetition moves from images of walking to images of lingering to images of sitting and invites the hearer to slow down, pay attention, describing the lives of those who walk apart from God, maybe those who have given up, sat down, and also those who remain standing, who dare to move, to keep step, who brave the pilgrim walk with God. These words speak a prophetic healing that my soul knows it needs.  To be planted by streams of water. 

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.

Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law both day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore, the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.

To be planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.  With leaves that do not wither.  South Texans know something about withering leaves, I think.  And what are the streams, but the living water of Christ, and what is the fruit but the produce of the Spirit, and what are the leaves but the leaves of Revelation; where the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations. 

To be planted by streams of water.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord.

Does your soul also long for these things?

The promise of being planted by the waters of Christ.  The prospect of walking with God in the cool of the shade.  The psalmist in consciously alluding to pictures of paradise, images of Eden, illustrations that begin the story in Scripture and images that find their perfection in the Scripture’s last book.  The story for beginning to end all the way through of the healing, the reconciling, of all things and everything to God.

The psalmist seems to hold all of these things together, lifts up this hope like strong branches on a wide trunk whose roots quench their thirst with the water of life, running clear as crystal.

So like a lost, treasured gem, I turn these verses over and over again in my hand.  Like a choice cut of meat, I savor the hope of this psalm.    And like a good book I don’t tire of rereading, revisiting, I discover something new, alive, and fresh each time in the familiarity of the words.

This past week, for example, familiarity allowed a kind of playful irreverence which uncovered in turn an unexpected newness:  I started the first verse and stopped half-way through, knowing full well that no self-respecting grammar teacher would approve of separating a helping verb from the verb it helped.  So instead of saying ‘Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful,’ I simply said, “Happy are they who have not…”  Tried it on, to see how it fit.

Happy are they who have not.  Huh.  And it’s ridiculous, of course, not in keeping with the full context of the psalm.  But I wondered if the psalm still spoke its truth, even with one hand tied behind its back like that.

Happy are they who have not.  Of course, I thought, poverty should not be romanticized.  And yet, stopping there, the words of Matthew’s gospel seemed to audibly echo from the pages of Scripture: Jesus, telling his disciples, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

Happy are they who have not.  Maybe there’s something there after all.

And I thought of the fear that drives so much of the American existence.  The fear that I might, in my life, miss out on something.  Anything.  All manner of even unappealing things that somehow become justifiable - indeed, indispensable! - because, like they say, “you only live once.”  Like fried Oreos.  Fried Oreos, in a picture someone shared with me from their recent trip to the State Fair of Texas in my beloved hometown.  Under normal circumstances, no way, she said.  “But then,” she paused. “I got to thinking...why not?  At least once?” 

In this way, ours has become the day and age of the bucket list.  That list of things we’d want to do at least once before we die, even if it’s not something we’d ever do twice, because, for better or worse, who wants to miss out?  Because questions of better or worse are no match for the bottom-line threat - the existential dread - of not having had the experience at all.

So a short-run billboard in New York played this fear to its logical extreme; it said: “Life is short, have an affair.”  Again, the overwhelming fear of missing out, this time placed squarely within the anxiety of our own mortality, used to justify behavior in opposition to the purposes for our lives that most of us would say we value.

Happy are they who have not.

Maybe so.  Even so, the human preoccupation with being left behind, of being left out, of fearing not having, is perhaps nearing a peak unequalled in the history of civilization.  So we strap ourselves to networks and text works, the so-called crack-berry that sends us notifications when we are emailed, text messaged, mentioned, tagged, photographed or noticed.  We hesitate to commit to social engagements too far ahead because, in a world as connected as this one, what if something better comes along?

But what when the crack-berry’s not ringing?  Who are we then?

Along the way, relatively simple decisions like where we will rest our heads and how we will use our hands become opportunities to obsess on our own sense of self-importance and whether or not we are maximizing our opportunities fully.  The grass is always greener.  That’s not a new notion for humanity.  But rarely in human history have we had the luxury of coveting so many distant hills.  So many possibilities by which to second-guess our present standing.

Happy are they who have not.

Ironically, some of the distant hills that we covet belong to the ones who have not. 

Like the couple who died this past week, married for seventy-two years; they died within an hour of each other, holding the other’s hand.  Or the strength of the man who, rising at three-in-the-morning has done 1,000 curls each day for the past fifty years.  Or the wisdom of the elder who spends an hour in prayer each morning and radiates holiness, and you figure that you don’t have enough years left in your life to equal her lifelong dedication.  Each one a brilliant 'yes' representing a thousand 'no's along the way.

But jealousy of this kind, the coveting of the committed, is a false jealousy because their possession of the thing does not prevent my having it.  If I am honest, I may only like the idea of fitness or wisdom, because the way of the thing itself is open to me, too.  Happy are they who have not walked on other paths.  Happy are they who have not.  Can I believe this?

I encountered a woman recently who faulted her daughter for not having fallen into drugs.  That her daughter had not fallen into drug use kept her, the mother said, from being able to empathize with her drug using sister.  While there may be some truth in the ability of shared experiences to produce empathy between people, I believe the mother’s anger was misdirected insofar as she found herself indirectly wishing that the one daughter had also encountered the hell of drug use. 

Happy are they who have not.

No, we will not live forever in this life, but death does not make every experience beneficial, an experience to seek out.  We’re not called disciples for nothing.

Disciples, baptized in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Planted by steams of water.  Bearing fruit in due season.  With leaves that do not wither. 

And if we are planted by the waters that connects both shores of paradise, then the threat of not having loses all of its power.  If when we die life is not ended but changed, as the Prayer Book teaches, and as the Risen Christ stands even now as the witness, missing out is not a fear that needs to or ought to determine my next move.  Rather, as baptized members of a resurrection people, I have been given both a new criterion and the freedom to pursue it.  My questions are clear: Does it bring me closer to the Kingdom?  Does it bring me nearer to Jesus?  Can I see the cross of Christ from where I’m standing?

And can you think of a difficult relationship, encounter, decision, or purchase in the next week for which those questions would not give you direction, instruction, and peace?

Finally, because the freedom to ask these questions comes from my walking with the risen Jesus, I believe these questions are more than mere moralism.  That is, they do not become hopeless words for when we inevitably mess up.  They are hopeful words because the same God who gives us all the time we need to love God and each other walks with us, forgives us, restores in us the new and unending life of his Son.  To learn to be content with this Son is the fullness of joy.

So ends my love song with the first of the psalms.  The psalm whose quasi-repetition moves from images of walking to images of lingering to images of sitting and invites the hearer to slow down, pay attention, describing the lives of those who walk apart from God, maybe those who have given up, sat down, and also those who remain standing, who dare to move, to keep step, who brave the pilgrim walk with God. These words that speak a prophetic healing my soul knows that it needs.  To be planted by streams of water. 

Amen.

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