A talk on Psalm 1 at St Denys.
Some liturgical reordering brought about a wheelchair. So, as we said, the sermon today is about Psalm 1 . That’s not me ducking out of Judas’ bowels being dashed out in the field of blood (LLM Sally says: That’s horrific) But very accurate, and actually it’s one of the reasons we know we can trust scripture because it doesn’t duck out of the bad bits, because if you were writing a hagiography you sure wouldn’t include Judas, but actually we’ve got the full details, including what happens after the betrayal — and its a very interesting picture of how humans deal with self inflicted grief and loss. [and] its very good news in our society that we are getting more
conscious of the grief and pain that mental health can bring. [and] Churches are places where people come seeking relief from mental grief and pain [and] We can be a people of great blessing and great praise in the world when we receive people in that state well. [and] Maybe its something Vanessa could talk to you more about given that that is what she does for her job.
So Psalm 1:What links Network Rail, and Sheffield city council, and Twyford Down?
Yes, and what are they protesting about?
They’ve all been in trouble, more or, in the case of Twyford Down less recently, been in trouble for chopping down trees. Lots of them. Trees are the very source of our life: in photosynthesis they, with other green stuff, make [green oxygen] the oxygen we depend upon. They are a sign of the health of our ecology, we are emotionally connected to them, and they are the future of our communities.
So last week in the Gospel - John 15 [um] it was talking about being friends of God, which is a pretty mind blowing idea actually and this week - as that sermon was being preached in All Saints last week I felt Psalm 1 bubbling to the top of my sort of awareness and when I found that to was in the lectionary for this week I thought ‘maybe it is a sign I should actually talk about it - So I did because it’s got some very similar parts of it. Its about being in continuous contact with God: obedience, meditation and growing into a blessedness with God. Which at the time of the Psalms, being in a blessed relationship with God was ‘the very best thing that could be conceived of for a relationship with God’. Just as Jesus blows the thing away and says actually ’no no no I don’t want you just to be blessed, I want you to be a friend. I want you to cross that barrier.
So this week I want to explore how our life with God: as friends of God even, is a like a strong tree with roots deep into the heart of God, continuously communicating with God, and yet with the canopy of our lives reaching out to bless the world in its health : being what our community needs for its very survival, not only the survival of our church, but actually for our whole community. Psalm 1 starts the psalms with a clear description of the two ways to live: the blessed, and the other way. I’m going to spend most of my time today talking about the positives because we are very sensitive to negatives as humans and I don’t want to talk extensively about the negatives and then all we go away and think about is how difficult it is to get it right.
Trees are much loved, and as we have seen their destruction makes people can raise much emotion, and that a tree sits at the centre of this psalm, but riled, I think would be a fair term, and a tree is at the centre of this psalm but before we build this analogy any further we had better just check whether trees have this role in scripture as being a model for healthy life giving friendship with God.
In Psalm 52, when David repenting of murder, adultery, and a few other things, he is standing before God as king, as well as himself and representing the whole nation of Israel and he says: I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. Likewise the prophet Hosea in Ch14 records God saying of Israel: His splendour will be like an olive tree, Israel’s fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon. In Zechariah the prophet gets a bit confused and has to ask God why next to the light of the presence of God in the temple there are two olive trees, and he receives the reply these two who are those that are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth’. As we cross into the tJesus’ time we find in the New Testament there are trees everywhere. There are trees in Zacchaeus ’ story. Zacchaeus climbs a tree to meet the lord [Luke 19] , there’s the fig tree that gets cursed [Mark 11], there’s the tree that bears good fruit [Matthew 7], there’s the vineyard that has the tree in it [Luke 13] I’m going to stop there, but we could go on, trees are exciting in scripture.
Come with me then into the happy arc of salvation’s story which runs from Eden to Easter, and from Pentecost to the end of all things. Stop next to the blessed one compared to this great tree that is growing up and bearing its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.
We grow to fullness of life in God: to true friendship with the creator, only when we keep in contact with the living water of God
Our life is genuinely like a plant or tree. When you set an olive tree in a pot and deprive it of water for after a few days it looks deeply miserable. I promise the same is true for us. There are many deeply miserable humans in churches and some of that is down to self imposed drought on our spiritual life. Step away from scripture, enter into unrighteousness, cease to be in connection with the Lord and I don’t know anyone whose whole life doesn’t look miserable.
This need for communication with God isn’t met by any single activity. Coming to church once a week, saying prayers each day doesn’t do the deed, though both are a good thing…. There is no single deed to be done. Rather it is to be a continual process. That’s why the scripture uses this picture of a tree continually drawing up water from its roots.
We do a lot of things in these four churches. I only see a tiny bit of what goes on across the whole benefice. I can’t help with a lot of things because I have wheels. Its possibly not even my place to say, but I thank you for all for all that you do to be church here.
Personally I know full well that its possible for [doing] things to get in the way of that continual connection with the life giving water. Indeed its possible for church to get in the way for rota, for PCC’s for committees for renovations, and.. and… and . Don’t let it happen. God loves all the sons and daughters of the kingdom in our communities too much to let that happen.
Now to look at how the psalmist says that the living water gets into the fruit of the tree.
Last week [I don’t think Revd Stephen preached here… oh he did] Revd Stephen probably spoke at some length about meditation being part of growing friendship with God. I’m not going recap what he said, because it was very good and very competent. Meditation isn’t remarkable. We all have the facility to do it, and its been part of the practice of the people of God since the earliest times.
The psalm though says that the blessed one who has this wonderful fruitful life in God, delights in the Law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night. Now I don’t know about you but I try to keep legislation off my breakfast table. Do you have The Town and Country Planning Act Part VIII 1990 as amended next to your cereal packet? It deals with tree preservation…
But the psalmist isn’t commending law for that reason. Rather the law given to Moses: the Torah, is revealed as the way to life. it is the pipe down which the water flows. This is the law that the highest summary of it was the Shema…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Give them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands … bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.
Which when brought together with this from Leviticus
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.
Became the accepted summary of all the law and commandments and was endorsed as such by Jesus (cf Luke 10 Mark 12, Matthew 22).
This law then is part of the life stream that needs to be connected in order to for the tree to grow straight to seek after the light. In the busyness of life in all our works in everything we do - do we keep scripture as close to our life stream, something which is so central to life, that not doing it would be like a tree giving up seeking for water.
Revd Stephen commended short conversational prayers as a way of helping to aware of the presence of God. Some people struggle with that. There are more formal breath prayers that can do much the same:
- The Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy upon me a sinner’, which settles into a normal breathing pattern and is almost always true its from the Orthodox side of the Christian faith but dates back to the Desert Fathers (probably) if you go looking.
- The psalm verse: ‘O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me’, was a favourite of the Benedictine monks for saying when walking because it settles into that walking rhythm.
So I want to commend what Revd Stephen said last week about meditation and to just reinforce it by showing its value in the context of another part of scripture.
Carry the Royal Law of the whole summation of scripture in and through our lives.
But this tree had a stake to help it grow straight and that stake is obedience to the law.
The psalm opens with three injunctions and they are negative if you recall from the beautiful language of the King James version and the slightly less beautiful language of the NIV they are negative injunctions. They say do not:
- walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
- nor stands in the way of sinners,
- nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
He is saying: these are negative boundaries. Don’t do this but in the wonderful ingenuity and creativity of human life do the other things, but just don’t do this - much like the legislation that God set down in the Garden of Eden Thou shalt not eat of the tree of [the knowledge of good and evil] of life - but everything else: its yours, be stewards of the earth.
So the claim is that for healthy growing friendship with God we need to separate from evil in at least three ways
- One not accepting the advice of the wicked - even when it would be easier, or appears advantageous to go along with ‘that interpretation of the tax code or whatever’
- Not to be party to the doing of evil. Now thats a really interesting one: where does the moral boundary stop? For me there is a distant horizon: may be I should be looking for food that has less non sustainable palm oil in it - destroying the rainforest of the earth and then there is a near boundary. What happens when PCC suggests something that is a bit close to the line?
- And thirdly not sitting with the scoffer. I think - and its not novel - this means not associating with people who spend their time being rude about people who are committed to righteousness. Even if we can’t quite get that far it’s not right to be grumpy, to criticise people who ‘are doing the right thing within the eyes of God. Even if you aren’t scoffing just being close to it is a contaminating effect.
There is an edge in obedience being a requirement for blessedness - just as there was in John 15. But the obedience is not that of an unwilling slave. It is a joyful thing that opens the way for friendship with God. Living this way is the way is the way we were made to be as certainly as a tree was made to seek for the light. And yet, too often our little brains go - there’s an easy way to do this and there’s a Godly way to do it. and my encouragement is ‘seek hard after the Godly way’
I think I’d better conclude. As I do, I want to point at the closing verses of the psalm. Humans were made to be with God in the beginning. No barriers, no religion, no church, not even clothes. And we messed that up in what we often call the fall. Now be clear if we were there in Eden, we would have messed it up too - so don’t reach out to blame for Adam or for Eve.
Now at the end, this psalm talks about blessed life and what happens to the chaff. Some of you may even have seen chaff coming off the wheat when it is thrown. I have once. But not in this country. Now it’s all a sort of mechanical process. And the chaff is good for one thing only. Its good for starting fires.
Its true, important and worthy of memory that the Lord Almighty is creator sustainer, redeemer, and will be judge of all the earth. But psalmist is looking a goodly way into this arc salvation history from Eden to Easter. Though our offence was very great, and immediate judgement was in the power and gift of God in Eden he chose not to destroy the people of his making. Rather God set about working salvation for the peoples of the earth in a way which did not violate free will.
Embrace that salvation with your free will. connect to the life of God that comes from scripture and connection to the heart of God and reach out be blessed, be in communion, grow, bear fruit: transform the world.