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Singing the Songbook of Life -- Psalm 1 (13th Sunday After Pentecost)

As we wrap up our summer with the Psalms, and look back on our journey through what we’ve been calling “The Songbook of Life,” I thought it might make sense to start back at the beginning – with Psalm 1. Let’s start our look back by looking at how the whole book of Psalms begins – at Psalm 1 – what some have called its preamble.[1]

Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm – and if you remember from last year, we think of wisdom as ways of living that lead to more life. We learn as we live, and we pass along what we have learned to the next generation. Psalm 1 begins and sets us out on a journey through the Psalms by introducing (1) an image, and (2) a way – a way of living that leads to more life.

As David comes to read – and as the choir sings – as we sing –

the invitation is to listen for – (1) an image, and (2) a way:

Our Scripture this morning is Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the one

who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the company of mockers,

2 but whose delight is in the instruction of God,

and who meditates on God’s instruction day and night.

3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither—

whatever they do prospers.

4 Not so the wicked!

They are like chaff

that the wind blows away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For God watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

The Choir sings Down to the River to Pray.

Psalm 1 begins the book of Psalms with this image – a tree planted besides streams of water. The world of the psalmist is a dry and parched place, but here, at the beginning, is a tree – beside streams of water – sinking its roots deep – living, thriving. It yields its fruit in season. In a dry and parched place, its leaves do not wither.

There is a way of living in the parched places that doesn’t lead to life – that scoffs, that mocks, that doesn’t tend, but tramples the earth – a way of life full of strife and striving.

But as Psalm 1 opens up the whole book of Psalms, it points us to a better way, a life-giving way – a way of drawing near to God’s wisdom, of coming to the waters – of going down to the river, of meditating on God’s word – on the wisdom – the songs – of a people who have lived their life with God – through the whole of life.

As one writer says, “Psalm 1, as a preamble to the Psalter, urges a lifestyle that finds its source in the creator”[2] – that goes there again and again for nourishment.

Psalm 1 says – as it opens up the whole of the Book of Psalms – this is the way – the way to thriving and to life. It says, Let’s go there together. Down to the river.

It reminds us that the Psalms are the songs of a people – the songs of a people living life with God. Remember – the Psalms were sung and written in community – by community. Over hundreds of years, as the people of Israel lived their life with God, they remembered their life with God. They reached back and remembered the experience of slavery. They remembered how God heard their cry – and brought them up out of Egypt – through the waters, and through the desert, out into freedom. That memory echoes in what we call Psalm 124.

1 If God had not been on our side—

let Israel say—

2 if God had not been on our side

when people attacked us,

3 they would have swallowed us alive

when their anger flared against us;

4 the flood would have engulfed us,

the torrent would have swept over us,

5 the raging waters

would have swept us away.

6 Praise be to God,

who has not let us be torn by their teeth.

7 We have escaped like a bird

from the fowler’s snare;

the snare has been broken,

and we have escaped.

8 Our help is in the name of God,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

The people remembered how God had heard their cry. And so years later, when armies laid siege to the city and took them captive into Babylon, into exile far from home – they cried out again – even when they had no song left to sing:

Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

when we remembered Zion.

2 There on the poplars

we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,

our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of our God

while in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,

may my right hand forget its skill.

6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not consider Jerusalem

my highest joy.

And when God heard their cry, and brought them back home – they remembered, and as they rebuilt their lives, brick by brick, they sang a new song:

Psalm 126: When God restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dreamed.

2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,

our tongues with songs of joy.

Then it was said among the nations,

“God has done great things for them.”

3 God has done great things for us,

and we are filled with joy.

4 Restore our fortunes, O God,

like streams in the [desert].

5 Those who sow with tears

will reap with songs of joy.

6 Those who go out weeping,

carrying seed to sow,

will return with songs of joy,

carrying sheaves with them.

Again and again, the people remembered, and they sang that memory into the present moment – down through the generations – the old song becoming a new song in each fresh singing.

And we joined the song because these psalms resonated –they resonated in our experience of Christ – and they continue to resonate in the whole of life – in the depths and in the heights and in every moment in between. They resonate when we pray and sing them together. They resonate when we pray them on our own – in the quiet moments – in the deep dark of night – in the dim dawning of a brand new day.

Eugene Peterson says that when we pray the Psalms “we enter into this centuries-long experience of being a people of God.”[3]

About this time last year, you may remember, I went on retreat at a Benedictine monastery in southern Indiana – I hope to go again in October. Their life there is shaped by the Psalms. As I may have shared before, the Benedictine tradition structures each day around several fixed times of prayer. [4] Every morning, the Benedictines gather for prayer before the sun comes up, and then go into the work of the day – they are teachers and chaplains and craftsmen. They gather again at mid-day, and then move back into their work, or rest, or study. They gather again for prayer as evening comes, they share a meal, and they close the day with prayer.

As they prayer throughout the day, they pray the Psalms. A psalm here, a psalm there. St Benedict structured their prayers so that over the course of the week, they experience all 150 psalms.[5]

Joan Chittister, who is a Benedictine nun, explains that the point isn’t the number of psalms they pray – but that in returning to the psalms again and again – they encounter there – in their life and in their prayer – the whole of life – “every dimension of human growth and struggle: celebration, mourning, fear, loss, praise, hope, faith, confusion, disappointment, struggle – whatever. To get in touch with those human responses is to become more fully human ourselves.”[6] The invitation isn’t so much to take in the ocean of the psalms, but rather to take them in one sip at a time.

This summer, a group of us have been experiencing morning prayer with the psalms just once a week on Tuesdays. An invitation has emerged from that. Every Tuesday morning, we’ve shared a psalm or two, and as we encounter the psalm for that day, the invitation has become:

What is one thing you notice that you can carry with you into the day?

Maybe that can be the invitation as we stand here at the close of our summer with the psalms. As you think back, what stands out? As you hear the psalms we’ve read today – as you turn to any psalm – what’s one thing? What’s one sip? What’s one thing you can carry into your days – into your life – to nourish and sustain?

I was emailing this week with Jo Gross, and she told me this story about the journey she and Phil took to Nepal. They started in India, and as they made their way toward Katmandu, they were invited to visit with one of the longtime missionaries there – a man of wisdom, with a powerful persona. As they sat down at the table for the lunch that had been prepared, Jo expected words for their journey – words of exhortation – stories maybe even a speech. As they settled down at table, this many of many words became silent, bowed his head, and said this:

Bless the Lord O my soul.

Let everything within me bless God’s holy name.

One psalm. One sip of a psalm. To sustain them on their way.

Over the course of the summer, I’ve talked a number of times about how the Psalms sing us through the whole of life – through the whole of human experience – the joy, the sorrow, the anger, the bewilderment, the love, the loss. It has become a refrain: “The psalms sing us through the whole of life.”

Over the course of the summer, here is what I have learned. Here’s my one thing – the thing I will carry with me from our summer with the Psalms:

Yes, the psalms do sing us through the whole of life. In a deep sense, they are about us; they sing and speak of what it is to be human. They are about human life and human experience.

But, even more deeply – ultimately and always – the Psalms are about God. That is their real gift to us. In and out of the whole of life, the Psalms sing us toward – point us toward – God, and not just God – they point us toward the goodness of God – always and everywhere.

· In the depth of lament – the God who comes and pulls us up out of the pit.

· In the tumult of our raging – the God who desires for the world – for everyone, everywhere – justice, healing, and peace.

· In all our wandering and misdirecton – the God who searches us and knows us – the God who corrects us and guides us into ways of living that lead to more life.

· In every way that we are bound up – the God who sets the whole world free.

· In our joy and in our awe – the God who made all that is, and loves it still. The God whose praise all creation sings:

Give thanks to God for God is good.

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

The Psalms speak of what it is to be human – always and intimately – in the presence of the God whose steadfast love never wavers,

but endures forever.

The Psalms take us on a journey through the whole of life – and what we find – again and again – everywhere we look – what we find is the goodness of God. Above us. Below us. Behind us. Before us. Beside us. All around us. Deep within us.

In our dry and parched places – in every bit of life – the Psalms invite us to come to the river to pray – together – to drink from – to sing – the wisdom of those who have known the steadfast love of God in every time and place.

The invitation that the Psalms extend is this:

Like a tree planted by streams of water, sink your roots deep and live.

Let’s close with a psalm. It’s Psalm 136, and it’s written to be read together in worship as a call and response – I’ll read a line – and your response, not surprisingly, is this: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Here we go.

Give thanks to God for God is good.

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to God who made the heavens

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

who spread out the earth on the waters

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

who made the great lights

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

the sun to govern the day

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

the stars and moon to govern the night

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God who brought the people out of slavery

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

who led the people through the wilderness

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

who remembers us when we are held down low

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

who frees us from everything that does us harm

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

who gives life and food to every creature

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to God – the maker of heaven and earth

Give thanks to God for God is good.

God’s steadfast love endures forever.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] See Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014), p.31. [2] See Brueggemann, p.31. [3] See Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1989), p.17. [4] See Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York, NY:Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2010). [5] See id. [6] See Joan Chittister, The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life (New York, NY: Convergent Press, 2021), pp. 14-16, 107.

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