The selection this
morning which inspired the sermon title is Psalm 1. Like the
beatitudes that Judy read for us from the gospel of Luke, this Psalm
begins with a beatitude, and you may know that 'blessed' can also mean
'happy'. Psalm begins in that way:
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
This Psalm postulates
that there are two ways of living -- the way of the righteous and the
way of the wicked. One leads to ruin and the other leads to
I was looking for
some tragic, public figure to provide a good illustration of this, but
all I could find were the tired and tried (literally) usual
suspects: Saddam Hussein, convicted and executed, he's
history; Osama bin Laden, hasn't been seen or heard from in
months, rumored to be deathly ill; Kenneth Lay, died before he
could be sent to prison for his crimes at Enron; and Dick Cheney
hasn't been hunting for several months J.
That's all yesterday's news.
And then there's the
tragedy of the stumbling Ducks [basketball team faltering] but that
doesn't work to contrast the ways of the righteous with the ways of the
So what was I going to do?
And then on Thursday
it happened. Truly a tragic death -- Anna Nicole Smith found dead
in her hotel room, cause is as of yet undetermined. Thereby
cementing her fame forever as the Marilyn Monroe of our time. A
sex goddess struck down in the prime of life. Now, in case you
missed it, Ms. Smith gave new meaning to the term 'gold digger',
marrying an 89 year-old billionaire, who, surprise surprise, died of a
heart attack a year after marrying the former playmate of the
year. Gee, how did that happen? Talk about beauty killed the
beast, thereby starting the biggest battle over an empire since the
death of Julius Caesar. Has been written about many times, still
Adding both to the
intrigue and the tragedy, truly, she left behind an infant daughter who
potentially (depending on how the court case works its way out) is set
to inherit nearly half a billion dollars. Not surprising,
therefore, there have been 3 men who have claimed to be the father of
this daughter. Gee, how generous of them to offer to raise the
little girl. Including, the eighth and current husband of Zsa Zsa
Gabor! Now I would point out, that Zsa Zsa Gabor was born 50 years
before Anna Nicole Smith. Not only is this guy robbing the cradle,
he's also robbing the grave.
I'd file my own
paternity suit, but they
took my prostate, so it'd be a little difficult to prove J.
There have been
enough twists and turns to keep lawyers and the paparazzi busy for
decades. Aside from who the real Anna Nicole Smith was, the public
figure is the tragic icon for our time. The epitome of the
American way gone wrong. She had it all -- fame, wealth, beauty,
and in the end, she left behind a son who died of a drug overdose last
year, and a daughter destined to be the symbol of this ages' lust for
wealth and fame.
Set aside all the
lurid parts of that story (I'm sure they're going to make a major T.V.
movie that will reveal it all in living flesh & color), who wouldn't
want to take a crack at what she had? Glamour and wealth, fame and
fortune. Of course, only to show that we could do it
right. We wouldn't succumb to the temptations of all that fame and
wealth. We would use it for the common good, rather than our own
So fantasize for me a
bit -- if you were Anna Nicole Smith, on second thought, don't go there
-- if you had that kind of fame and wealth, how would you do it
differently? How would you avoid the pitfalls of the
temptations? How much would you give away (besides of course
buying your Pastor season tickets for all the Duck's games)? Would
it be the tithe -- the 10%? Double it -- 20%? 50%
90% You would still have millions left over. Could you do
that? Would you do that?
And if you would, why
has it been so rarely done? Are we just fooling ourselves to think
we could? Who doesn't dream of such things? And yet to have
such fantasies makes us no different than Anna Nicole Smith (save for
our looks and our bank accounts).
So instead of
dreaming of prosperity, I suggest to you that the Psalmist tells us how
to achieve it. But with entirely different ends.
The Psalm begins with
this beatitude, framed first of all in the negative: "Happy
are those who do not follow the way of the wicked". And then
in the positive: "Their delight is in the law of the
Lord". Now the word 'law' here is very familiar to you, what
would you expect it to be? Torah. The Torah, right?
Only it's not Torah with a capital "T", meaning that legal
code given by Moses with its 600-plus requirements for living according
to the will of God in our world, but rather 'torah' here means all
instruction that comes from God. This Psalm is intentionally
placed as the first of the 150 Psalms by those who collected the Psalms
and assembled them as an introduction to the entire Psalter. A way
of saying 'here in the Psalms that follow, you will find wise counsel on
the way of God that will help you to live in accordance with God's will
for your life'.
Indeed, let me point
out something that I have noticed -- open up your pew Bible, or your own
Bible, and take a look at Psalm 1. I want you to note the very
first thing that you read there for Psalm 1. What is the first
thing that you read?
One". What the heck is this, 'Book One'?
Look at Psalm 107,
and you will read there, prior to Psalm 107: Book Five.
Well, it turns out there are three more [books] in the middle, Psalm 42
is the beginning of Book Two, Psalm 73 is the beginning of Book Three,
and Psalm 90 is the beginning of Book Four. What the heck is
this? Did you know that there are five books of Psalms? It
had escaped my notice. So what the heck is that about?
There's an ancient
midrash that explains it, or at least offers an explanation. It
says "As Moses gave five books of law to Israel, so David gave five
books of Psalms to Israel". In other words, in the Psalms you
will find the very same instruction for living in harmony with God's
will for our world. That is the law, the torah, of God.
Whether it comes from those first five books of Moses, or the five books
of the Psalms, or the teachings and life of Jesus, the beatitudes, or
the prophets, wherever, that is the law, the torah, the instruction from
And the importance of
this torah, this instruction, is made evident in the two similes we find
in the middle of the Psalm. The first, stated in the
positive: "Those who abide by it [this instruction of God]
are like trees planted by streams of water, rooted firmly in the
earth". They have plenty of nourishment, and therefore will
always yield good fruit and have full foliage. This is the
fundamental law of divine biology, says commentary Arthur Wiser:
"A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit".
And then the second
simile uses a familiar image from agrarian cultures, we see in the
teachings of Jesus, separating the wheat from the chaff: The
wicked, not rooted in God, are lightweight, they're of little
consequence, no value, are easily blown away by the wind.
In both cases, the
results come from natural consequences. Those rooted in God will
bear good fruit, those not so rooted, easily carried away by the winds
of our times. And thus the concluding judgment: the
righteous will prosper, the wicked will perish.
It seems so
clear. So simple. Were life only so neat as that. And
that's why we need to keep in mind this is the introduction to
the Psalms, and not the summation of them. And in fact, much of
the complexities of life, the struggle with the hard questions on why do
good suffer, why do wicked appear to prosper, why do Ducks lose, that
will be told in the Psalms to follow (you might have to search a little
bit for that third one, but I'm sure it's in there J).
Here we are simply
presented with the most basic of all choices in life -- the choice
between good and evil. Between life and death. Between the
way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. And of course we
would all choose the first, right? The way of life, the way of
good, the way of the righteous. But are you sure?
The point of the
Psalmist, I think, is not that some people choose one and some the
other. Let me illustrate with an extreme example: did Osama
bin Laden wake up one morning and decide he'll be the most evil
terrorist the world has ever known? I don't think so.
Indeed, I think he and the 19 hijackers of those planes believed that
they were doing good. That they were doing the will of God in that
act of terrorism. Now, lest you think that's because they're
Muslim, I would remind you that those who have murdered doctors who
perform abortions and blown up clinics also think they are doing good as
Christians in those acts of violence. In fact, most evil-doers are
not those who believe they are doing evil, but those who believe
they are doing good. That they are doing the will of God.
So it is not a choice
between good and evil that the Psalmist presents, but rather the choice
between those who are open to instruction from God and those who are
At the lectures I
attended a couple of weeks ago with Eliza Drummond and a couple others
from Eugene, on the them 'Christian Responsibility in an Interfaith
World', we heard the first lecture from Mahmoud Ayoub, Professor of
Islamic Studies at Temple University. He quoted from the Koran,
Book 3, Chapter 18, that states: "The only true religion is
Islam". Now, that seems like a rather audacious thing to say
in a group of primarily Christian leaders. Dr. Ayoub said there
are those within our faith, especially fanatics, who believe that what
that says is that we have the one and only true way (path) to God.
Of course, no Christians have ever thought anything like that J.
There are those critics who also think that's what we believe.
But he called to our
attention, what does 'Islam' mean? The word Islam means
"surrender", "submission", or
"peace". So Dr. Ayoub told us that what that verse
really says is that the true and authentic faith is that which teaches
surrender to God. And a life of peace. And likewise, the
message of this Psalm is that you can choose of arrogance -- I know
what's best, I'm the decider, it's my way or the highway -- or you can
choose the way of humility: I will look for, and accept,
instruction. I will keep an open mind and an open heart. I
will listen to others, and for that still, small voice of God.
And it is that spirit
of openness, that desire to live in harmony with God's will, that is the
source of true prosperity. Prosperity measured not by the
accumulation of wealth, but by the accumulation of good and the sharing
of abundance, as is evidenced in subsequent Psalms. For instance,
in Psalm 37 we read:
not fret because of the wicked, do not be envious of wrong-doers, for
they will soon fade like the grass and wither like green
in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy
security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you
the desires of your heart.
a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look
diligently for their place, they will not be there. But the
meek shall inherit the land, and delight in abundant prosperity.
is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many
from evil, and do good; so you shall abide for ever. For
the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.
And Psalm 49:
should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
not be afraid when some become rich,
when the wealth of their houses increases.
For when they die they will carry nothing away;
their wealth will not go down after them.
Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy
—for you are praised when you do well for
they will go to the company of their ancestors,
who will never again see the light.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.
It's striking as I
read the Psalms how much they sound like the prophets, or the teachings
of Jesus. Which really shouldn't be surprising at all,
because they are trees planted by the same stream. They draw from
the source of nourishment, and righteousness.
So, in sum, when our
lives are self-centered, when we are arrogant, unwilling to listen, to
be open to God's way of compassion and generosity and justice, in the
end we have nothing to show for it but a lifeless grave.
But when we are
God-centered, when we keep an open heart and the humble spirit of a
servant, we have all those other lives we have touched with God's
In contrast, then, to
the life of Anna Nicole Smith, surrounded by material prosperity but
apparently little else, I offer to you the life of Elizabeth
Cornelio. I don't have any pictures of her, but you can see her in
the faces of the photos on our wall that come to us from the Darfur in
the Sudan. Pictures of work being supported by Week of Compassion
in that region.
or "Mama Eliza," as everyone calls her, hast literally touched
thousands of lives. She runs a community center in the Dereig refugee
camp in the Sudan, home to 20,000 people displaced by the violence in
Darfur. She has been trained in trauma counseling by the ACT-Caritas
Darfur Emergency Response Operation, one of the Week of Compassion
partners. To encourage people to come to the center, Elizabeth makes
personal visits around the camp.
"I go to where
the people are staying; I sit with them and speak with them. If I find a
woman alone, lying down, crying, I tell her not to stay alone. When you
are alone, it is very difficult. You just remember what has
happened," she says. The centers help survivors to talk about their
trauma in order to overcome their pain. "If someone has something
in their heart that they want to say, but is afraid to say it in front
of everyone, they may come for individual counseling. Some will cry.
is important to let them cry; crying is healing, and after they have
cried, many laugh. Others do not cry. They say there is nothing and that
everything has gone," says Elizabeth.
But it isn't enough
to just talk, she says. "You have to give people something to do,
so that through the activity they can forget what happened, says
Elizabeth. This is why the activities at the community center are so
The center also
offers training in recognizing and dealing with trauma. "Most of
the women have trauma, and yet they do not know how to recognize it in
others or even in their children," Elizabeth says. With this
training, people learn how to help each other. Elizabeth herself fled
the war in southern Sudan. What motivates her to help others? "I
thank God, I've made something good not for me, but to God because all
people are created by God."
Elizabeth Cornelio is
truly a righteous woman who delights in the law of God. Living among the
destitute and devastated, all that she does prospers as she shares the
healing and the hope of God's love.
There are two ways of
living in this world. Which will you choose?