Lessons: Psalm 1; Matthew 5:1-12
A woman on Facebook posted what she said was an actual conversation with her seven-year-old son:
Mother: Why do you look grumpy?
Child: I can’t tell you.
Mother: Um, why?
Child: Because then you’re going to ask me if that was a good decision.
This brief exchange between mother and son is practically a complete sermon on Psalm 1. Why do you look grumpy – why aren’t you happy? Because I did something that wasn’t a good decision.
When we first hear Psalm 1, we might be put off by some of the language. It refers to the wicked and to sinners, over and against the righteous. That sounds like the kind of black and white, fire and brimstone way of thinking that ignores the complexity of the human condition and forgets that love and forgiveness are God’s defining characteristics. It’s just too easy to label people as sinners or as wicked when you simply don’t agree with them. But the psalmist isn’t trying to draw a stark line between so-called righteous people and so-called sinners or wicked people as much as saying that we have choices to make. We all have choices to make. Life is a journey, and again and again we are confronted with choices about what path we will take on that journey. We can make choices that help make the world, our lives and the lives of others better – or worse.
Sometimes the better choice is obvious; other times a situation is complex, nuanced, and anything but clear. The psalmist tells us we’ll find clarity in following Torah, or as our Bibles translate it, “the law.” A better translation of the word “law” might be God’s “teaching” or God’s “instruction.” In the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will – God’s will for the world. So Psalm 1 doesn’t point to a mechanical process of following a set of rules for which we’re then rewarded with happiness. Instead, the psalmist describes a dynamic process. The psalmist prescribes meditating on God’s will “day and night” – in other words, constantly – in order to discern what God would have us do in any given situation. What, exactly, is God’s will – what is it we’re supposed to be studying? Jesus later summarized the Torah: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” and “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” So, according to the psalmist, happiness comes from discerning what it means at all times and in all places to do just that.
I can hear the wheels turning in many if not most of our heads: “Constant meditation on God’s will? Whoa! That’s asking too much!” But again, this is about the journey. No one does this perfectly. Dr. Jim Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of San Francisco, says that whenever he speaks to a group of young people, he asks how many of them have ever done anything stupid. With complete unanimity and considerable enthusiasm, they all raise their hands. He then asks why they do stupid things. Their responses include:
I didn’t stop to think
It seemed like fun at the time
I was bored
I didn’t consider the consequences … and
To get back at my parents.
Taylor says children should do stupid things. Making poor decisions and experiencing the consequences helps our children learn how to make better decisions in the future. The problem is if their poor decision-making continues. This happens, says Taylor, when parents don’t hold kids responsible for their poor decisions, but instead, bail them out of the trouble their bad decision brings. These children learn that they aren’t responsible for their decisions and that they can continue to do stupid things without fear of consequences. Taylor writes, “The long-term personal, social and professional implications of children growing up to be poor decision makers are profound, negative and, I think, obvious.” Good decision-making, says Taylor, is a complex process that takes years to master.
That’s what the psalmist is talking about. Years of practice, a lifetime of practicing living according to God’s desires for God’s world; practicing loving God, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. The psalmist insists that this will make us happy. Sometimes it’s hard to convince kids – or grownups – that this is true when, unfortunately, we see that cheaters do sometimes prosper, and as the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, “There are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.” That explains what the psalmist calls “scoffers.” If you’ve ever been the parent of an adolescent, you know exactly who the “scoffers” are. Think of the kids you don’t want your kid to hang out with; the kids who think they’re cool because they scoff at the rules, scoff at basic honesty and kindness, and scoff at any kid who isn’t cool enough to be as lacking in compassion as they are. Scoffers don’t seem to see any upside to goodness, so they scoff at it.
Is happiness the upside to goodness, as the psalmist claims? Dr. Taylor notes that when he asks kids if it was worth doing that stupid thing, the kids say no. It didn’t make them happy. Some Harvard and Yale psychologists are studying this connection. Researcher Jonathan Phillips invites us to imagine a man named Tom. Tom always enjoys his job as a janitor at a local community college. Almost every single day Tom feels good and generally experiences a lot of pleasant emotions. He’s rarely lonely or sad. When Tom thinks about his life, he always comes to the same conclusion: he feels highly satisfied with the way he lives. The reason Tom feels this way is that every day he goes from locker to locker and steals belongings from the students and re-sells these belongings to buy himself alcohol. Each night as he’s going to sleep, he thinks about the things he will steal the next day.
Researchers asked people: Is Tom happy? What do you think? Scientists had defined happiness as feeling good and being satisfied, but in the study, while people agreed that Tom feels good and is satisfied, most believe he’s not happy. People think there’s more to being happy than just feeling good. Perhaps to be truly happy, you also have to be good.
The researchers did more and more follow up studies to see if people just misunderstood the question. Phillips writes, “…[W]hat we ended up realizing was that this pattern actually wasn’t the result of a misunderstanding or bias … Rather, it seems that people straightforwardly understand that part of being happy is being good, and so if you aren’t good, you can’t truly be happy.” Phillips notes that this is an old idea. He quotes Aristotle, who argued that one could not truly be happy if one were not virtuous. The psalms likely predate Aristotle, and other traditions outside our own affirm this connection. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama writes, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” He echoes an old Chinese proverb:
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”
The passage John read from Matthew’s gospel is called the Beatitudes; it’s the familiar introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the meek, and so on. The Greek word for “blessed” is translated as “happy” in several other places in the New Testament. The Good News Bible uses “happy” in its translation of the Beatitudes, and for those of us who have heard these verses a million times, it’s fresh, and even jarring:
3 “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them! 4 “Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them! 5 “Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised! 6 “Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!
“Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!” That is precisely the message of Psalm 1. A church member told me about going to the Peet’s at the Bon Air shopping center a couple of weeks ago. That Peet’s is large and almost always crowded, and in the long line that day was a mother with her adult son, maybe 30 years old, who was in a wheelchair. The young man couldn’t speak clearly and didn’t have perfect control over his limbs. The church member engaged him in a conversation. He responded with enthusiasm; his delight showed through his slurred speech and flailing arms. Outside of Peet’s, the young man’s mother couldn’t thank the church member enough. She said almost no one ever speaks to her son; people usually go out of their way so they don’t have to stand near him or look at him. She said the church member was a blessing to them. But the church member insisted that they had been a blessing to her. When she walked into Peet’s, she’d been worried about needing to find a job and plagued with health concerns. But her conversation with the young man and his mother, and his obvious appreciation of that simple human courtesy, made her day. It made her feel blessed – it made her happy.
It’s easy to read both the Beatitudes and Psalm 1 and imagine that the Bible is just throwing more rules at us. Another moral checklist. When what they are, instead, is an invitation to happiness. An invitation to imagine what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God, where we’re continually surprised by who is blessed, who is already loved by God, including ourselves, stupid decisions and all.
What would it be like if a community came together to practice becoming a place where we recognized that God always comes where we least expect God to be – amid our brokenness – in order to love what the world calls unlovable? I daresay, we would be like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. I daresay, we would be the happiest folks in Marin County.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 I can’t help but think of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, a couple of chapters after the Beatitudes we read this morning. Jesus points out how easy it is to see the speck in the other person’s eye but not the log in our own. Matthew 7:1-5.
 James L. Mays, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 43.
 While some of the 613 laws of the Torah are timeless, encouraging compassion and fair dealing, others reflect ancient Middle Eastern values and culture that aren’t helpful in the 21st century. Along with, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15) and “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), the Torah prohibits tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), permits men to take multiple wives (Deuteronomy 21:15), and allows parents to have a stubborn son put to death by stoning (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). A list of the 613 laws of the Torah, with citations, is complied at http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm.
 J. Clinton McCann, “Commentary on Psalm 1,” May 17, 2015, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2452.
 Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28. John 13:34-35
 Dr. Jim Taylor, “Raising the Good Decision Maker,” February 22, 2011, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-jim-taylor/teaching-decision-making_b_825414.html.
 Ecclesiastes 7:15.
 Jonathan Phillips, “What Does It Take to Be Truly Happy? New Research Shows People Disagree with the Scientific Definition of Happiness,” Psychology Today, February 13, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experiments-in-philosophy/201702/what-does-it-take-be-truly-happy. Phillips refers to the full set of studies at http://people.fas.harvard.edu/~phillips01/papers/Phillipsetal_truehappinessFinal.pdf.
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