On the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 16, 2020, because of my great affection for the Psalms, I chose to preach on the Psalm of the day. You will find some resources for your own exploration of the Psalms at the end of the sermon.
These are the first eight verses of the longest psalm in the Bible, #119.
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong, but walk in God’s ways.
You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances.
I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.
SERMON: To Walk in the Ways of the Lord
Who is here this morning because you want to grow in your relationship with God? Because you want to walk more closely with God?
What if I were to tell you that I have something that may be more likely to help you grow your relationship with God than anything else you could ever find. Would you want it?
What if I said that I imagine that most of you already have it!
Do you know what it is? Any guesses?
(show the Bible)
Yes, the Bible!
I can already hear some of you groaning. Not the Bible! It’s too difficult to understand! It’s too long to read! It’s got some crazy stuff in it! It’s used by people with their own agendas to threaten or hurt others!
Yes, it can be difficult to understand. Yes, the whole thing is very long to read. Yes, there is some crazy stuff in it. And, yes, it has been used in a way that has threatened and hurt many people.
Depending upon what religious tradition you were raised in, growing up you might have had a big, ornate Family Bible in the house that you might have never opened; or you might have had your own dog-earred edition that you kept on your nightstand. Some of you may have read it from beginning to end; others, not at all; and many of you may have read a little here, a little there. Some may have read it literally; others, metaphorically. Some may read it prayerfully; others may read it as literature.
Psalm 119, of which we heard just the first eight verses, is the longest psalm in the Bible at 176 verses! In these first verses, the psalmist, likely King David, expresses his enthusiasm for God’s gift of scripture -which he refers to as laws, ways, statutes, ordinances, precepts and commandments. At heart all of these terms are synonymous for instruction; a guide for a way of life that brings us closer to God.
Of all the books in the Bible, the one that Jesus refers to more than any other are the Psalms – his prayerbook and his songbook. As a devout Jew of his time, he would have been familiar with these “love letters to God.” Expressing every human emotion, the psalms may be the most accessible of the books of scripture. If you are someone who has kept the Bible at arms length, but is intrigued by the idea of walking closer with God, what could be better than using the prayer book that Jesus himself used?
In his life, the psalmist, David, experienced oppression, wickedness, bullying, sorrow and disgrace. He is a person who cries out to God at times of distress and finds solace and strength in God’s words, in scripture.
The summer after I graduated from college was an extremely challenging period in my life. My mother, who was struggling with Huntington’s Disease, was in a great deal of mental and physical distress. My 73 year old grandmother, who cared for her at home, was having significant conflict with my father, who was not doing all she hoped he would for my mother. I discovered that the young man I had fallen in love with was cheating on me. I was in anguish.
I can’t remember why I opened the psalms, but I did. Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…Be still and know that I am God…” Psalm 27: “The Lord is my Light and my salvation” Psalm 139: “O Lord, you search me and you know me… If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” And, of course, the most beloved psalm of all, #23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
During my summer of distress, these psalms with their powerful, evocative images became an anchor for my life, a spiritual lifeline, a bridge from my heart to God. And as I prayed with them and journaled about their meaning to me, I found nothing short of the strength of God. From that summer forward, the psalms have been a friend, a companion on the spiritual journey. Some of them – like the ones I referenced a few moments ago – have even become a part of me.
When set to music, as Psalm 23 and others so often have, their beauty and message penetrates even more deeply. Maybe you have a musical setting of Psalm 23 or 84 (“How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place”) or another psalm that has touched you. The first time I heard Marty Haugen’s melodic “Shepherd Me O God” proclaimed by an angelic female voice in our dark seminary chapel as my grandmother was dying, I felt like the words and music united my heart with God. For Jews and Christians the world over, the psalms offer a path to God.
As a Hospice chaplain, one of the most surprising set of experiences I had were with people with dementia. Time and again I would arrive at a patient’s door and hear from their spouse, adult child or other caregiver that their loved one with Alzheimer’s or Lewy Body Disease or Vascular Dementia had a rough day. The purpose of my visit was to be a gentle, peaceful presence for both the patient and caregivers. Even when folks with advanced dementia could not remember what they had for lunch or might be mostly nonverbal, many could still remember those meaningful prayers and hymns of their faith, often including Psalm 23. I can still see the stunned look of caregivers as I would begin Psalm 23 and their loved one, who might not have spoken a meaningful word all day, would join in with me; contentment showing on all of our faces. This is the power of the psalms.
St. Benedict, who adopted the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina – sacred reading – from the Desert Mothers and Fathers, understood that scripture is not fixed or rigid in meaning. It does not contain black and white answers. It is not merely a transcript of history. Like our Jewish brothers and sisters who recognize the multiple ways scripture can be interpreted, St. Benedict sees that scripture, especially the psalter, is a primary instrument or channel for us to be able to hear God’s voice speak to us in fresh and new ways.
Consider the words of the psalms as the language of love, of God’s love for us and our love for God. This is why when we hear Psalm 23 or any other psalm in different contexts we can hear God speaking in different ways to us. Psalm 23 may land one way if we read it before bed; another way if we are praying for a friend; and yet another way when we are standing at a graveside. God uses the words of scripture to reach our hearts in the ways we need.
As a friar doing his daily devotions, Martin Luther regularly recited the entire psalter. He likely knew Ps. 119 by heart, all 176 verses. In Luther’s day, monks recited long sections of this psalm as part of the Liturgy of Hours (also known as the Divine Office) at 6:00 am, 9:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm. His biographers note that again and again as Luther faced intense struggles as a man of faith, he returned to the psalms for strength.
I am not suggesting that we recite the psalms four times a day – but more power to you, if you do! Psalm 119 makes the claim that out of love, God has given us scripture to guide our way of life. The question is, how often do we use it to do so? What guides your life on a daily basis? What do you do each day to connect with the holy, with God?
If you think about your daily habits, what are those things you do each day? How do they contribute or detract from your life? Is there a time and place for you each day to connect with God, to enjoy the lifegiving streams of God’s presence? When the worst moments of life find you, what habits do you have to draw on for comfort and strength? Do you have a spiritual lifeline?
One daily habit many people in our culture have developed is our screen time. Screen use has become so pervasive, that even those of us who consider ourselves spiritual or religious are “hearing from the world” on our phones before we hear from God or connect to our own inner being. And I can not tell you how many young couples I have worked with who report that it’s common for them to be on their phones to check work email or the news or social media before they even get out of bed!
For some of us, our lives have become filled to overflowing with the noise of the world and our inner lives swayed by the latest outrage or crisis. On a daily basis for many in our culture, our lives are informed more by the ways of the world than the ways of God. Many people, especially our youth, are more apt to walk with their phones glued to their faces than they are present to God’s blessings in the beauty of our earth, the face of their beloveds, or within the still small voice of their own consciousness. At present, this tech-entangled way of life is breeding alarming, never before seen rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in our culture, especially in our youth.
In contrast, the psalmist proclaims “Happy are those …who walk in the law of the LORD. Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole heart, who … walk in God’s ways.” This is another way of saying that when we create space in our lives daily for spiritual practice, we can build a life on a firm foundation. This is why you see many in China begin their day with Tai Chi; why traditional Jews start their day with a brief prayer even before they get out of bed and a section of Psalm 111 soon after; why observant Muslims chant their morning call to prayer; why many Buddhists begin the day in meditation; and Hindus, mantras.
On the Christian path, using scripture for prayer and reflection, especially the psalms, can be an engaging, meaningful way to connect with God. A morning practice can allow us to be open to God’s grace in our day before we need to respond to a sick family member, a demanding boss, or the latest news. It’s true that the meaning of scripture, the meaning of the psalms, may not be immediately apparent. But that ought not deter us.
In a later section of Psalm 119 that we did not hear today, David encourages us; suggesting that when we ponder and even struggle with the meaning of scripture our lives of faith can grow even deeper. On the back of your bulletin you will find some resources for praying with the psalms. In two weeks, when Lent begins, our new Spiritual Life Team will also share some resources for other Lenten practices that you might consider.
Psalm 119 may not be one you or I turn to when we are in need of God’s grace. But, may it remind us that the psalter is a treasure with the potential to ground our daily walk with God; it has the potential to comfort and inspire us from the beginning of our lives to the very end and beyond; to give us a happiness that the world can never give; to connect us deeply to the God whose love for us knows no end. Amen.
Some resources for getting to know and love the Psalms
Praying the Psalms by Walter Brueggeman
Praying with the Psalms: A Year of Daily Prayers and Words of Reflection by Eugene Peterson
Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan Merrill (A contemplative reworking)
Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis
The Psalms and the Life of Faith by Walter Brueggeman
The Psalms as Tools for Prayer by Eugene Peterson