31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
July 10, 2016
Psalm 1 &23
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Were they words written by faithful individuals to help them through difficult times? Were they beautiful words of sacred poetry written by the boy who beat Goliath and grew up to be the famous King David? Were they the prayer book, the hymnbook of the Temple in Jerusalem?
There have been many theories over the centuries about who wrote the psalms, many theories about why they were written, what purpose they were used for – as a personal response to God’s goodness or as a cry for help in the middle of a desperate situation, for the worshipping community as they gathered to praise God or as they gathered to confess their sins, or simply as amazing works of eloquent poetry expressing the spectrum of human emotions.
Although academics have tried, the psalms resist being put into neat little boxes. And perhaps because of this, because the psalms are so honest and real, because one psalm alone can express need and praise, trust and despair, that is exactly why the psalms continue to be some of the most familiar and beloved words of scripture.
There was a time when I could not say the words of the 23rd psalm at a memorial service without almost everyone mouthing the words along with me. Even after thousands of years, the psalms are just the right words. They are timeless in their ability to help us praise God, express our anguish and need, and marvel at God’s creation and unconditional love.
There is no doubt that the psalms were written as a human response to God. They are still our human response to God, however the psalms are also God’s word to humanity.
As the psalms give us the words to share our emotions with God, the psalms also give us God’s guidance, God’s comfort, God’s Word for our lives, a Word that we need very much to hear in this time of violence, unrest, division, and hate.
Over the next five weeks, we will be exploring the psalms to hear God’s still speaking voice for our lives: psalms of praise and psalms of lament, psalms of thanksgiving that have been set to familiar tunes, and hopefully your favorite psalm, so please let me know what that is so we make sure to read, sing, and hear it.
Each week, we will be reading and singing the psalms, just as the ancient Israelites and early Christians did in worship, and each week, there will also be a coloring page for the psalm so you can embrace God’s word with your eyes and hands as well as ears and heart. Like the children pick up a clipboard at the beginning of worship, I invite teens and adults to pick one up from the platform as well. You never know how coloring might bring you happiness and connect you more fully to God’s Holy Spirit.
Happiness and connection. Those are the key themes to the book of psalms. Psalm 1 is not the first psalm by accident. It sets the tone for the 149 psalms that will follow. “If you would be happy…delight in the Lord’s teaching and study it night and day.” (Psalm 1:1-2, ICEL translation) If you want to be happy, immerse yourself fully in God.
Happiness is a much sought after emotion in our world. Fear, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, mistrust, cynicism – all of these emotions are abundantly and readily found in our world. It’s a terrible game we play with one another. I’m so much busier than you are. You can’t top my worry and burdens. It’s a terrible game being played out in our nation and world. I don’t know you. I can’t trust you. I’m angry with you, so I will slander you, I will discriminate against you, I will shoot you. It’s a terrible game we play when we let fear, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, mistrust, and cynicism rule our lives and relationships. We play this game too often.
But the happiness game? How often do you play that one? My joys are so many that my heart can barely hold them. I can’t wait to tell you the good thing that happened today. I can’t wait to hear the good news in your life. I wake up each morning, and I can’t help but smile at the thought of the day to come. I lay my head down each night and thank God for how happy, how very, very happy and blessed I am.
How many of those sentences would feel natural coming off of your tongue?
Those who wrote the psalms did not have easy lives. They were not morally superior, pious people who spent all of their time reading the Bible. They did not live in peace and security, separated from the real world and its problems. They were people, just like us. Their friends betrayed them; they often felt like they had to constantly look over their shoulders for enemies. They worried about how they would provide food, shelter, and safety for their families. They worried that they had done too many wrongs to ever be loved by God.
Those who wrote the psalms were people just like us with their flaws and their talents, their doubts and their faithfulness.
And what they knew was that happiness, true happiness, came from having a relationship with God, happiness came from taking refuge in God, from trusting in God, from serving God, from living in complete dependence upon God, instead of thinking we can do it all on our own or that we have to do it all on our own.
The happy, the righteous, are not morally or intellectually better people. The happy, the righteous are those who strive to live each day in relationship with God.
In her book, Strength for the Journey, Renee Miller writes, “Spirituality is our ongoing, evolving relationship with…God.” (Miller, 3) Spirituality is relationship. It is not a spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation, study or worship. Neither is it an emotion such as peace, calm, a sense of connection.
It is important to not confuse those spiritual practices, those fruits of spirituality, with an actual relationship with God. If we do, we can make those practices and fruits into idols, seeking the experiences rather than God (Miller, 2).
Coming to worship week after week does not necessarily mean we have come to “praise God’s mighty deeds and noble majesty” as the 150th psalm says. Sitting in disciplined meditative silence is not necessarily, “be[ing] still and know[ing] that I am God” as we hear in Psalm 46.
Happiness does not come from being “right”. It does not come from being in the right place, doing the right things. Happiness comes from being in “right relationship” with God. It comes from seeking God with our whole heart and mind and soul. It comes from trusting God to shepherd us through the journey of life, through the bountiful green pastures flowing with clear water, through the valleys with the shadow of death literally hanging over them, and through the tense awkward dinners of life where you feel like everyone is looking daggers at you or worse.
Happiness comes from being planted firmly in God’s love, both feet firmly planted, from taking refuge in God’s strength, dwelling in God’s fortress, so that when the storms of life blow through your life, you have a rock and a redeemer to hold on to.
What is my pastor’s response to all of the gun violence that is taking over our country? What do I say to you after the tragedies of this week? It is to remind you, you, to plant yourself firmly in God’s love – you cannot change anyone else, you cannot control anyone else, you can only control yourself, so plant yourself firmly in God’s love, take refuge in God’s strength, dwell in God’s fortress, not because it will keep you or your family safe or free from pain, but because it is the only place to find comfort and peace in the midst of this hate and violence, it is the only way we have any hope of transforming this world into the peaceful kingdom God calls us to create on earth.
The psalms are beautiful words of poetry. They are inspiring hymns. They are sacred words written by individuals for their private devotions and for the community’s worship. They are words that give voice to people’s relationship with God throughout time, to our praise of God and our cries of lament.
And most of all, they are God’s word for us. The psalms remind us that we are never alone. God is our shepherd who provides us with everything we could want. God nurtures our body. God nurtures our soul. God leads us forward and reminds us to pause and rest. God never deserts us – neither in times of great struggle nor times of great sadness. God blesses us. God blesses us, and our cups overflow with abundance. Surely goodness and mercy and love shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Plant yourself in God’s love. Dwell in God’s house forever. Be in relationship with God, knowing that God will never desert you, and be Christ’s light that brings hope, peace, and love to the world.