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True Prosperity

Sermon - 2/11/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 1

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 prosperity.

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 wicked J.  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 making news.

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 self-serving ends.  

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?  

 

"Book 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 God.  

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 not.

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:

Do 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 herb.  

Trust 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.

Yet 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.

Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.

Depart 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:

 Why 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?

Do 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 yourself—
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 abundance.

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.

Elizabeth Cornelio, 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.  It 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 important.

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?

 


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