Sunday, February 11, 2007
Love Songs: A Sermon on Psalm 1
February 11, 2007
At the risk of being compared to Barbara Walters, I want to ask you a question. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? Think about it for a moment. I was asked this about a dozen years ago in a bible study, and as odd and potentially silly as it is, this question produced, at least for me, some valuable reflections, some spiritual insights. So I invite you to imagine… you are a tree. What kind of tree are you? Are you evergreen or deciduous? Mighty oak or weeping willow? Exotic palm or fragrant lilac? Are you in a grove of several trees, one of millions in a forest, or are you standing alone in a field or snuggled up against a house? Are you a tree that flowers? Gives fruit? And—here is the most crucial question, the question I am still struggling with all these years later—what, if anything, keeps you from growing? What impediments stand in your way?
We are reflecting on Psalm 1 this morning, and a tree is the central image of that psalm. Before delving further into the psalmist’s meaning and motives, it might be good to consider the book of psalms as a whole. In her book Cloister Walk, poet Kathleen Norris describes the experience of going to live with religious communities of monks and nuns, for months at a time. She tells how she became immersed in the psalms for the first time in her life by participating in the prayer life of the monastery, a place where all 150 psalms are typically prayed over the course of a month, every month. She describes falling in love with the psalms. She describes being transformed by them, formed and reformed.
The first thing you should know about the book of psalms is that it is a collection of poetic prayers, prayers intended for the most part for public worship. They are songs, meant to be sung or chanted, not spoken—the original Hebrew word for psalms, “mizmor,” actually means “a song with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.”
I’ve said that the book of psalms is a collection. That’s partly correct: it is a collection of collections. The book is divided into five smaller books, each of which has its own distinct flavor and character. For example, book 1 contains psalms 1-41, and most of those titled “psalms of David” are in that collection. The five books are divided by doxologies—short hymns of praise to God. The last psalm, Psalm 150, is a doxology for the entire collection. Psalm 1, the psalm we read this morning, is really an introduction to the whole collection.
There are many ways to analyze the structure and content of the book of Psalms as a whole; one of the most interesting ways is to see in it a reflection of the history of the people of Israel, the five books of Psalms mirroring the books of the Torah, the first five books of the bible. Most psalms fall into one of three categories: psalms of praise, psalms of lament, and psalms of thanksgiving. But there are other smaller categories too: wisdom psalms, royal psalms and psalms of Zion. If I could urge you to remember just one thing, I think it would be what John Calvin had to say about the psalms. He said:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.
Calvin has it exactly right. Every single human emotion can be found somewhere in the psalms, from the dizziest joy to the most wrenching sense of abandonment to the most fiery anger. Open up the book. It’s all in there.
And our psalm, number 1, is the introduction to it all. It is a wisdom psalm, a psalm whose intention is to tell us something true about life, the universe and everything. In this case, the message is straightforward: happy is the one who does not listen to the wicked, the sinner or the scoffer, but, rather, who meditates upon the law of the Lord. The word here translated “law” is, in Hebrew, “torah,” and may indicate God’s law generally, or those first five books of the bible. The ones who meditate on that law, the psalmist tells us, “are like trees, planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season, and their leaves do not wither” (Psalm 1:3).
The first thing we notice about the happy person is what he or she does not do. He or she sets out on the path to righteousness by refraining from certain activities, and by choosing to avoid certain company. This is a wonderful and psychologically sensitive insight. The path to happiness or blessedness begins by avoiding certain kinds of people and activities. We could comb the bible for lists of sins and be here until sundown, but let’s just take that last word: scoffers. Scoffers, it seems to me, are people who have already made a judgment about the possibility of new learning or new insight. They have decided they don’t want it or don’t need it or, even, that it isn’t possible. The psalm tells us first that the path to blessedness and happiness begins with an attitude comparable to what in Buddhist practice is called “beginner’s mind.” As one Buddhist maxim has it, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Those with beginner’s mind are much like young children. Children greet all situations and possibilities with a desire to learn more, with a willingness to be open and even vulnerable. They explore, they wander, they wonder, they touch. The first thing this psalm encourages us to do is to avoid those who sneer at the idea of spiritual insight. The first thing this psalm encourages us to do reminds us very much of the words of Jesus, who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Luke 18:16). The psalmist wants us to cultivate beginner’s mind.
And this brings us to the tree. The one who meditates on the teachings, the law of God, day and night, is like a tree, a tree planted by streams of water. Let’s consider that image for just a moment. A tree planted by streams of water has roots that are deep and well saturated, roots that serve to take in all the nutrients the tree needs, roots that reach down and anchor it, and enable the tree to grow and grow to its fullest potential size and to withstand the buffeting of wind and storms. The roots reaching into the water enable the tree to bear fruit, to have leaves that stay green and glossy. This is the tree that, in the words of the poem on the cover of your bulletin, “looks at God all day/ and lifts her leafy arms to pray.”
The thing about the tree is this: the tree is open to the sustenance that nature offers it. That is what the psalmist is urging us to do: to open ourselves to the sustenance God offers us, in this case, God’s law, God’s teaching, God’s torah.
12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous ask their members to attend meetings, and you will find, in many instances, alcoholics with years and years clean and sober who still attend meetings. Those not familiar with the program often ask why, after all those years, they find it necessary to keep going to the meetings. One person put it to me this way: “I go to remind myself who I am.” This is why I think this wisdom psalm was placed here as the introduction to the whole book of psalms. At its heart this is a psalm that entreats us to remember who we are and Whose we are. We do that by returning, over and over, to the rushing and refreshing stream that is God’s word, that is worship with God’s people. We don’t stop going to church or reading scripture after we become Christians, any more than the alcoholic stops going to meetings after getting sober, any more than the tree stops drinking water after it blossoms forth. We are in constant need of reminding that we are God’s children, created to love God and serve God all our days, just as a peach tree is created to bear beautiful flowers and sweet, succulent fruit.
Kathleen Norris noticed something odd about one of the convents where she was staying. Something didn’t feel right. Something was off. Eventually she noticed that, in this convent, they had cut out certain psalms, excised the nasty and violent ones from their daily prayer. They didn’t recite them because they rejected the violent and troubling imagery in the psalms. Norris was troubled by that. She came to believe that, in that particular community, a kind of pathology arose, a pathology of denial of the most basic truths about humanity. She felt they lived out that pathology in their day to day lives as well as in their liturgy. They were not as healthy, she concluded, as the convents and monasteries where all the psalms were a regular part of prayer life, where people acknowledged the hard truths about their common humanity.
I think of the book of psalms as a collection of love songs sung between humans and God, particularly honest and searing love songs. Anyone who has ever been in love knows that it is not all moonlight and roses. Sure, breathless romance and aching desire is a part of it. But love—real love—is also struggle and disappointment and forgiveness and rebirth. So it is with our relationship with God. The psalms provide us with an honest language for the love affair between God and God’s people, a relationship described by every imaginable human feeling. Psalm 1 gets us ready to drink in that relationship, in all its complex glory.
So I ask you again: what kind of tree are you? Are you evergreen or deciduous? Mighty oak or weeping willow? Exotic palm or fragrant lilac? Are you in a grove of many trees, one of millions in a forest, or are you standing alone in a field or snuggled up against a house? Are you a tree that flowers? Gives fruit? And what, if anything, keeps you from growing? What impediments stand in your way? What stops you from drinking deep from that living stream that is God’s love, always flowing your way? Amen.