For most of two thousand eighteen, we’re celebrating a Year of Psalms here at Church of Peace. Even though we’re already nine Sundays in, today our featured Psalm is the first one. And even though the book of Psalms is not meant to be a story where you must start at the beginning and read all the way through, it matters that this is how the book begins.
The words of Psalm One aren’t just any poem in the middle; this poem is preparing us to hear the rest of the wisdom in the collection. Psalm One is the singer clearing her throat then setting out a worldview, which is to say: “Look, this is how the world works,” which is to say: “Look, this is how God works in the world.” It would be a different book if Psalm One began: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Instead, Psalm One skips the welcome and greets you with an urgent decision, so we’d do well to choose wisely. Notice there are two paths. Happy are those who choose the path of the righteous; they meditate on the teaching of God day and night; their joy is in following God. But woe to those who are unjust. Those who are wicked (that is, those who exploit the vulnerable) they are like chaff the wind blows away; their way will perish. You can picture the fork in the road compelling us to choose a path. In the middle of the road, in the middle of the song, there’s a tree.
“[The righteous] are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm1:3).
All through the Bible, trees are a favorite image of the poets. (Remember those cedars of Lebanon!) But it’s not just the Bible. In every time and place, poets invoke trees. It makes good sense. If poetry is telling the truth and saying it exactly right, then it’s no wonder the poets look at the trees. Trees are unfailingly honest. They are who they are with no pretense. As Thomas Merton observed, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree.”
In the Psalm, on either side of the prospering tree, there’s the choice about what kind of person to be. And in this, we hear strains of a familiar worldview so implicitly appealing. This outlook articulates a moral order of things; it offers a reasonable choice; it fits the fantasy we Americans promote in the old western TV shows and in True Crime TV. Imagine if the world could be divided into bad guys and good guys. Imagine if the bad guys got what was coming to them and the good guys got their reward. It’s no wonder we’re drawn to this worldview. It is so clear and navigable. It is so fair.
Only thing is, what if this worldview isn’t true?
What if the judgment of God is more than determining which of the two paths we have chosen?
What if we could see something more…
Today the second scripture comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells a parable to a great crowd (which is not unusual) but then later with his disciples, he explains what the parable means (which is completely unusual!) Explaining a parable is like explaining a joke. Of course you can do it, but if you have to, something gets lost…
What Jesus tells the crowd is that a sower went out flinging seed on the ground.
-Some seed fell on the path and got stepped on and then eaten by the birds.
-Some seed fell on the rocks and later withered.
-Some seed fell into the thorns and started growing but then got choked.
So it’s not sounding great for the seed! Most of the parable is how the seed failed to grow. Finally at the end Jesus says: “Some seed fell into good soil and when it grew, it produced a hundred fold… Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 8:8).
When the disciples ask Jesus, he explains that the seed represents the word of God. Then he imagines different groups of people. Some people hear the word of God, but the devil snatches it away from them like the birds pick the seed on the path. Some hear the word but it withers later. Some hear and start to grow in faith only to be choked by the cares of the world. And some people are good soil in whom the word of God takes root.
If we hear Jesus explain this parable shortly after hearing Psalm One, well, it’s easy to conclude: There are righteous people and there are wicked people, choose the way of righteousness. There are all kinds of bad places for seed to land, so choose to be good soil and let the word of God dwell in you richly.
Only thing is, what if these different types of soil are not really different groups of people? What if all of us experience the word of God in all of these ways? 1http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/3099
Sometimes we get it; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we get it and ignore it; sometimes we try to listen, and follow, and our best efforts fail. Sometimes the seed takes root in our hearts when we didn’t even mean to show up that morning, and wouldn’t you know, that’s the time it grows in us and bears fruit. Sometimes we make choices that bring about greater justice and righteousness. Sometimes we send our money to pay for wickedness. And what if God’s judgement is more…
Today we hear a poem and a parable that could easily be reduced to the simple idea: Don’t be like them. Choose the path of God’s teaching. Don’t be like the rocks and thorns: listen to the word and you will bear fruit. And it’s no wonder this worldview is compelling. As if this world holds some people who are good and some people who are bad, as if it’s so simple. God knows, it’s not this simple.
Now of course, everybody knows it is not the case that we’re the righteous people over here while those folks over there are wicked. There’s danger and dishonesty in thinking we are the good soil; we are the trees planted by the water —those other folks are the problem. And there’s a whole sermon somebody could preach on this danger, and it would be Gospel.
What really concerns me is when a person insists on this two-sided worldview and then determines that she herself must be on the wicked side. It’s like they’re asking, “Look I know there are good people and bad people in the world, and what if I’m a bad person?”
It is not uncommon for me to hear this concern. What happens is people look to the church or the Bible to confirm their worry. People look to us, as Christians, to hear us say that God is judging against them. Sometimes we might even look to each other to hear that. Sometimes I pray the prayer that goes, “God, how could I have done this? How can I go on living with myself?” Sometimes I have no prayer.
These are the moments to go and look at the trees. The trees aren’t pushing their agenda, or pronouncing judgement, or reviewing the numbers. The trees are being trees, and their being is what gives glory to God. Can you imagine if we could learn that from them? As Max Ehrmann observes, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars…” 2http://mwkworks.com/desiderata.html You are worth no less than the trees.
Just try it this week if you will, go look at a tree for a moment and see whether you learn something true about yourself. Look at a tree and you will see something of the truth of God. That’s the thing about trees—they tell it like it is. It’s like the trees can’t even help bearing witness to the power of God. It’s like being so close to the sky makes the trees uniquely unafraid of grace.
Imagine if we could be this unafraid of grace.
Imagine if we, as a people, as Church of Peace, could be who we are created to be and behold the glory of God! I don’t think this would take a revolution. You know I try to call for revolution on a pretty regular basis, but this is not that.
This is imagining that when people look at Church of Peace, and they worry about whether they are doomed to hell, or they think they got cancer because they deserve it, or they worry about whether they are worthy —for all the times when we worry about being worthy —we could look at the church and see what grace looks like.
This grace is the power of God. It comes from God —so we don’t have to think it up or make ourselves feel it. What we need to do is be honest about it. See what we are doing here is occupying this bit of earth on the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth between our history and our future because we mean to give glory to God, to point to the grace beyond ourselves. Imagine if people could look at us, and see what we’re doing here, and then begin to believe that God is talking to them when God says, “You are mine. I love you.”
The book of Psalms is the collective human cry that goes, “Oh my God” which is all we can say back to this cosmic “I love you.” The whole book begins with the call to choose the path of righteousness and meditate on the teaching of God. “Here, read this book. Sing it out loud and let the the words get into your dreams as your falling asleep.”
In the middle of this invitation is a tree, so you can’t help but see it, thank God. So by looking at a tree, by looking at the church, we might begin to see what is true. May it be so.