Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Psalm About Two Choices

In my almost 50 years as a priest, I haven’t often preached specifically on the Psalm of the liturgy. That’s really a shame because the Psalms are so down-to-earth and full of very real and emotional human stuff. They’re poetry and prayer, poured out to God from human hearts like ours, sometimes full of praise and joy, sometimes anguished statements of suffering and despair, sometimes pleas of ardent longing and even of bitterness and anger. Today’s Psalm 1, part of a group of 34 title-less Psalms, often called “orphan Psalms”, is quite basic and sets the teaching tone, not only for the whole Psalter, but also for today’s liturgical readings.

In the fall of 1964 I was a newly ordained Catholic priest, assigned to teach freshman and senior religion classes at St. Anthony’s High School in Detroit. While studying the Bible, specifically the Psalms, I asked the freshman class to choose one of the 150 Psalms and to rewrite it in their own language, according to their personal interests. They produced some rather remarkable paraphrases, one in particular which I’ve carried around with me for these 50 years and have used in many sermons. A young man who was pretty average academically, but whose passion was cars, chose to rewrite Psalm 1 thus:

Man is like a car,
    oiled well and kept in good running condition.
That runs good when necessary
    whose pistons will never crack.
Not so the wicked, not so;
    they are like dirt, which the air filter removes.
Therefore, in a check-up 
    the dirt will be no more,
    nor the grime, in the motor of man.
For God, the mechanic, watches closely,
    so the dirt and grime will be no more.

Jim Cyrowski, wherever you are...thank you for once again inspiring me and the people who may be reading this today!

Psalm 1’s themes of reward for the righteous and virtuous person, and of punishment for the wicked and the ungodly, characterize Israel’s ancient wisdom teachers, particularly the writers of the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The psalm dates from about c. 400 B.C.E., when wisdom and God’s law were considered virtually identical. In the simplest terms, the sage-writer of Psalm 1 aims to teach people how to live. Wisdom: hokma in Hebrew, means human wisdom as it is lived and practiced. The “wise” person is one who has “practical ability”, “professional skill”, one who can live well, rule well, think well. Such a person is interested in the great questions of life, and how to translate the wisdom of the insights and answers to such questions into everyday, practical, here-and-now living. A wise person or sage is one who gains such knowledge through a relatively long life, through many and varied experiences, and through integrity, wholeness, and holiness learned from relationship with one’s self, with one’s fellow human beings, and, most of all, from one’s relationship with God.  Such a person is called righteous: possessing true shalom = peace, because one’s relationships, with self, with other human beings, and with God, are integral, whole, and therefore, sacred. Sadly, such a concept of wisdom is increasingly quite foreign to the American culture.
Like the Beatitudes of Jesus, verses 1-3 of Psalm 1 describe the righteous one using the wisdom-writers’ term, happy, blessed = makarios, in Greek. That’s truly a wise and clever device, isn’t it, because, right away, it holds out to all who hear or read it exactly what each of us presumably really wants in life: to be happy. The psalmist then goes on to show how a person can accomplish this, in three ways: 1) negatively, 2) positively and 3) by means of a metaphor,.  
Negatively, he advises against a threefold, progressive association with undesirables: “don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked”; “don’t stand in the way of sinners”; “don’t sit in the seat of scoffers”. Shun evildoing; don’t follow advice from those who act contrary to God’s wishes, or take as role models people who’ve gone off the path of the true and the right. Don’t join the company of the arrogant who scorn and sneer at others and at God.

Positively, take delight in Torah, commonly called “the law of the Lord”, which is not meant in a written or legal sense. It refers, rather, to God’s guidance and instruction, God’s Sophia or Wisdom, i.e., God’s very Self. That is to be one’s “delight”, God’s Wisdom, such that it’s never a burden or a yoke, but the sweet, stable foundation of the whole of one’s life. Meditation or prayer is to center at all times, throughout the entire day, and, indeed, throughout one’s whole life, on the Holy One who is All Wisdom and All Truth.
Finally, by means of a metaphor used frequently throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, whereby the psalmist depicts the righteous person as a tree, “planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in its season, and whose leaves do not wither…” It’s a picture of abundance, prosperity, productivity, usefulness, and ability to endure life’s hardships: all made possible by the nourishing streams of the outpouring of Godself into one’s life. For an Israelite, trees and water were essential sources of food and of relief from the heat. As a tree graciously flourishes and becomes fruit-bearing, so a righteous person branches out, reaches out, graciously and generously to others.

The image of “streams of water” suggests many things: 
  • Torah, God’s law, divine Wisdom, pouring Itself out in the creation of the natural world and of humankind; 
  • the life-giving Blood of Jesus which the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to as “a better word than the blood of Abel” and as “the new and living way... opened for us”; 
  • and, finally, the waters of Baptism where, as the Book of Common Prayer says, we’re “sealed by the Holy Spirit [often symbolized as Sophia/Wisdom]...and marked as Christ’s own for ever”. The celebrant also prays that we be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, [and] the courage to will and to persevere…and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.
In verses 4-6 of Psalm 1, the sage contrasts the righteous one, the flourishing tree by the water-stream, with the image of chaff, recalling the harvesting process. This involved cutting the grain with sickles,  gathering it into sheaves, then taken to the threshing floor where metal-toothed sledges drawn by oxen could thresh the grain. As grain was winnowed, or tossed into the air, the wind carried off the chaff, leaving the heavier kernels and straw to fall to the ground. Finally, the kernels were shaken in a sieve, made of a wooden hoop with leather thongs, after which the grain was sacked and stored. The Psalmist likens the ungodly, conniving, wicked person, i.e., the fool, to chaff: “The wicked chaff that the wind drives away…”. The life of one caught up in godlessness and evil, rather than being “happy”, is pictured as being foolish: fleeting, without permanence, shifting, never settled. Such a person isn’t integral, whole, or at peace with oneself, with others, or, most of all, with God. Sadly, by  their own choice, such people live in separation from God and from “the congregation of the righteous”.
Psalm 1 concludes, in the literal rendering of the Greek text, stating that “the Lord tells/teaches the path of the righteous, whereas the path of the wicked leads to losing oneself.” Another source describes it more graphically: “The path followed by the righteous is broad and safe, because the Lord knows, i.e., it is under his protection. In contrast the path of the wicked, like a desert trail, leads nowhere and will soon peter out... perhaps beside a dry water hole marked by the skeletons of those who followed it.
The other readings today each suggest in their own way the two options for living which the wisdom-writer of Psalm 1 presents to us. Moses, in Deuteronomy (30:15-20), expresses it most clearly, perhaps: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and and death, blessings and curses… Probably written well after the conquest of what we know as the Holy Land, the text hints that God’s people had, time and again during the years after the Exodus, ignored God’s words. They’d taken up the worship of other gods, and had suffered both the consequence of becoming a relatively powerless people whose land was the crossroads of other mighty empires, and the consequence of their own failures and betrayal of God. Deuteronomy presents Moses' words in the context of Israel’s having experienced a happy, as well as tragic, roller coaster ride in the years after entering the promised land: without Moses, of course. 
Moses is shown giving a final pep-talk to the descendants of those with whom he escaped from Egypt a generation back. They’re on the frontier of the Promised Land. God has already informed Moses that he’ll glimpse it before he dies, without ever entering it. Moses himself never saw the Torah as any sort of burden. He assures the people that God’s will, “the law of the Lord”, is "not too hard ..., nor is it too far away". God's Wisdom is, in fact, "in your mouth and in your heart". That’s how intimate and immediate God’s Presence is to people in leading them on the path of the righteous. The community of Israel already has the Torah on its collective lips and in its heart, presumably as the result of their continual individual and communal reflection on it. The choice for them is quite clear: if you love God by doing God's will, then you’ll have long life and blessing. If you serve other gods, then you’ll die. God calls all heaven and earth to witness to the choice which God offers again: life or death.  
The Letter to Philemon (1-21) is slightly different in that Paul poses a choice, a rather radical one at that, to Philemon regarding his runaway slave. Philemon was a dearly beloved friend of Paul’s, as well as a leader in the Colossian community. Paul refers to “the church in your house”. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had somehow ended up running away from, or at least leaving, Philemon’s household and serendipitously connecting with Paul, most likely in Ephesus. Paul was in prison there, and Onesimus became Paul’s right-hand man, much to Paul’s delight. Paul several times plays on the name, Onesimus, which means useful or beneficial.  
Paul proposes that Philemon accept Onesimus back. In returning Onesimus, Paul wants to be “legally correct”, because that would’ve been the right thing to do, and he makes it very clear both that Onesimus will honor Philemon’s decision, either way, and that he, Paul, will pay any outstanding expenses which Philemon has incurred. Paul says that he’d prefer that Philemon would honor his request willingly, instead of feeling pressured to do so. Yet, Paul is shamelessly unrelenting in laying a guilt trip on Philemon. Paul plays the "age card": “...I, Paul, do this as an old man…”, then adds the "suffering servant card": “...and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” He tells Philemon that Onesimus has been such an invaluable assistant in the ministry that he’s become like a son. Paul even hints that he’d like to keep Onesimus with him, truth be told! Yet though Paul would welcome Philemon’s sending Onesimus back to him as a gift, he’s willing to let him go, if only Philemon will take him back unconditionally, no longer as a slave, but as “a beloved brother”. In fact, Paul urges Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me”, throwing in the little jab that “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”. Paul admits his confidence that Philemon “will do even more than I say”. 

It’s possible that Paul’s letter wasn’t just meant for Philemon, but that Paul wanted it to be read to the Colossian community also. That would prod others to reassess their conscious willingness to accept all others as Christ would. Imagine yourself as Philemon, hearing this read during the Sunday announcements! I also wonder if anyone took bets on what Philemon would ultimately choose to do!
Then there’s that Gospel passage (Luke 14:25-33), where Luke’s Jesus expresses, most painfully and uncompromisingly of the three readings, the gist of Psalm 1’s message: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” There’s no way to tone down or euphemize the intensity of the verb usually translated as "hate": the word miseo, in the Greek text, is clear. 19 out of 21 translations which I checked use that exact word. Parenthetically, the Gospel of Thomas, an ancient source, not included in our Christian canon of Scripture, has virtually the same passage and wording in two places. St. Matthew’s Gospel account (10:37), gives a softened version: “Any one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and any one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This is a dilemma, at least for me, because I can’t imagine Jesus teaching anyone to literally hate another person for any reason, much less a close family member. The commentaries which I’ve studied either side-step the question or go along with Matthew’s viewpoint. Here’s what I personally feel sure of: that I’m called to do no less than what Matthew’s Jesus commands, i.e., to love no person or thing more than Jesus the Christ. As to what Luke’s Jesus commands, here’s something for you to maybe  “chew on” and to pray about for yourselves during the coming week:

Pastor Lisa Davison, of the Disciples of Christ Church and professor of religious studies at Lynchburg College in Virginia, offers this: “...As Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem, the crowd following him has increased, as more people are moved by his message and make the spontaneous choice to join the cause. Most, if not all, of them have no idea what they are signing up for...On down the road, when the going gets tough, they will turn away...Jesus does not want such unthinking discipleship, and he also does not want anyone to be uninformed of what will be asked of them. He overstates the level of commitment that is required of his followers (e.g., hating family and life) to make clear that nothing else can come before their loyalty to God and the gospel message. Nothing and no one in their lives can come before God.

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