Tuesday, October 9, 2012

theology tuesday: the psalms

Preachers talk about the Psalms being notoriously difficult to preach.  They are poetry - song lyrics, really (we just don't know the tunes).  They aren't narrative and they aren't exhortation, so that does make them a little bit tricky.  But I kind of like it.  The possibilities are endless.  So, here's a message I brought last year from the first Psalm.

Psalm 1 
I want to start today with a poem.  As a society, we don’t read poetry aloud that often anymore, but the other day I got to go give the convocation at the Cair Paravel school here in town, and I noticed that the children memorize poems there.  It made me remember one that I had to memorize once.  It’s a very famous poem by Robert Frost, and it begins this way:  “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth; then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear; though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same. . .”


In that poem we hear the description of two paths going in opposite directions.  We hear of one path winding off into the undergrowth, and the other, slightly less worn and grassier.  And in today’s Psalm we also hear about two paths.  In this first Psalm, the two paths are clearly described.  One path is good, and the other is bad.  The Psalms were meant to be read as one long book, and this is like the introduction to that book.  It is a warning that life can be lived in one of two ways.  All of the other Psalms should be read in light of this knowledge. 


But there is a problem with the way of thinking this Psalm advocates:  it is so very high contrast.  Everything is black or white, good or bad.  And if you’ve lived for very long, you know that nothing is that simple.  Life is not so black and white as this Psalm makes it out to be.  Rather, life is a series of shades of gray.  And all of us have both the wicked and the good inside of us.  We are at all times the righteous as well as the wicked. 


 Our task while we are on this earth is to meditate and become more and more familiar with God’s law, so that the good part of us slowly outweighs the bad part of us.  What is God’s law?  Jesus helped to spell this out for us:  there are two parts.  Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  That is the law that we must live by. 


Following God’s law is not just about following rules.  It’s about letting God’s Spirit permeate our whole lives until we don’t even have to think about doing the right thing.  This takes time, and it takes transformation.  It takes surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit inside of us.  See, one of the gifts that God has given us is the great mixed blessing of free will.  We are free to choose which path we will follow.  God knows that we may choose to follow the path of the wicked.  But we are also given the opportunity to make our own decision to follow the path of the righteous. 


And if we follow that righteous path, the Psalm describes the result:  we will be like trees planted by streams of water, bearing their fruit in season.  The water that feeds our roots is God’s love and care and law.  God’s teaching is the soil that we need to be strong and hardy trees. 


Thinking of trees and their growth, I’m reminded of my grandparents’ back yard.  I’ve told you before that my folks come from the small southwestern Kansas town of Ulysses.  It tends to be very dry there.  Some years I remember visiting for several weeks and the rain gauge out in the yard would be almost empty!  Grandma and Grandpa had a cherry tree in the backyard.  In a good year, with plenty of water and sunshine, the cherries would be sweet and plentiful.  Some years, there was no fruit at all because the conditions weren’t right. 


We are just the same as that cherry tree.  If we have the right nourishment from God, then we will bear fruit for God.  That fruit is a changed life.  When we act with more compassion, when we care about justice in our communities, when we want to reach out to those who might not have a relationship with God yet – this is what it means to be a tree bearing fruit for God.  When we help to heal broken relationships in our own lives, and when we show the merciful face of Christ to one another, then we are bearing fruit for God.  You can always tell a tree by what kind of fruit it bears, and you can tell if it’s healthy by whether it bears fruit at all.


Also, it’s important to remember that trees bear fruit when the conditions and the season are right.  We continually want to bend God’s plan to be on our timing, but we are always reminded that God’s time is more important.  You can’t expect a cherry tree to have fruit in January.  It just doesn’t make sense.  You may want cherries very badly in January, but it goes against the way that tree was created.  The same holds true for us.  God will decide when we begin to bear fruit.  God will decide when we have seasons without fruit.  Out job is to trust in God and continue


Remember the poem we began with?  I only read you the first half.  Here’s the second part:  “And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.  Oh, I kept the first for another day!  Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.  I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence:  Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” 


We must be people who take the path less traveled.  The path of righteousness, the path described in our Psalm, is a more difficult way.  Yet, we have the help of God’s Spirit all along this path, and we have God’s law to give us guidance and freedom.  And when we follow this path, growing stronger and stronger in faith, we will be like trees yielding fruit for God.

This is the word of the Lord for this morning, thanks be to God. 

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