This Sunday we were pleased to have as our guest preacher Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee, the first Butler Chair in Hermeneutics and Homiletics (Interpretation and Preaching) at Vancouver School of Theology. Today Jason kicked off our sermon series on "The Psalms and the Life of Faith" with the following sermon on Psalm 1.
St. George's United Church
August 2, 2015
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
"How to be Happy"
Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Ryan and St. George’s United Church thank you for the chance to be here in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and thank you Allison Mewitt for your hospitality. When I told my church folks back in North Carolina that my first preaching gig in Canada would be in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island they all started shouting me down, boo, stop, not fair. You’re setting the bar high for preaching invitations in this country—I imagine none will come from a more beautiful place because there aren’t any more beautiful places.
I’m also honored to kick off this summer preaching series on the psalms and the life of faith. I wrote my dissertation on the psalms (a comment more likely to snores than amens) but I’ve rarely preached on the psalms and never preached on this first psalm. The first in any set is like a doorway into all the others, like the cover of an old record album, or the first movement of a symphony. In my Methodist tradition we’ve had the great hymn, “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” as the first in our hymnals since Charles Wesley wrote it in 1740. It sets the stage for the others, and without it the others don’t make sense. Israel has a hymnal. The psalms. And it has a first hymn that makes the others make sense. Here it is. And as I read, think--this is the very word of God. In our culture folks perk up if a celebrity or politician says something shocking, or in business if someone in power uses a word like “recession” or “rate cut.” Well I have a word from the God of the universe for you here this morning, would you like to hear it?
1 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;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
4 The wicked are not so, they are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish. (what do they say here?)
I know enough of your minister to know he would never do this, but the cliché holds that we preachers like 3 points and a poem, you’ve heard that? Well, let me start with two poems just to upset the cliché a little. They’re so famous they’re not often read. By the time my generation was educated in the US we weren’t made to memorize poems anymore. I understand why, but I sort of wish we had been made to. One is Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Here’s part of it:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Do yourself a favor and look up the rest and then take the road less traveled, with God and God’s friends. That’s this first psalm too—there are two ways, not more, not less, righteousness this way and wickedness that way, happiness is in the righteous road less taken. The second poem is this, by Joyce Kilmer:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Now that’s lovely. And that’s what the psalm says the righteous person is like—a tree tall and strong by water. Think of your trees here in the Pacific Northwest, tall cedars and Douglas Firs. Some of the trees my family saw yesterday in Cathedral Grove were alive when Thomas Aquinas was 800 years ago. There are sequoias 3000 years old in California, that were young so long ago they were contemporaries of King David—older than Psalm 1. A tree is an amazing thing. The psalm tells us how to be like a Douglas fir, a cedar, a sequoia. How never to be moved while the wicked blow away like dust or ash.
Did you catch the psalm’s first word? The first word of Israel’s praise? There are 44,000 words in the psalms in English and word number 1 that shines on the rest is this: happy. One of you told me yesterday of bringing a friend here to St. George’s who looked around shocked when y’all laughed. Wait, you can do that in church? Laugh?! British Columbia is famous for its indifference to religion—so I bet most people would not think that faith’s purpose is happiness. Misery more like, or duty or drudgery or condemning people. But the God who created everything, whose hand flung stars into space out of sheer delight, wants us to be as happy as God eternally is. Jesus for his first miracle did something uselessly happy—made more wine at a wedding. God can’t stand misery. God loves delight. How do we become part of God’s great happiness?
When I see most peddled recipes for happiness I despair. Social media throws images in front of me of old men with ripped abs and chiseled chest muscles. Clearly Facebook thinks I’m 1-old and 2-fat and 3-feel badly about it. They know a lot about us don’t they? One headline I’ve noticed in the magazines in the checkout aisles is this, “Your best butt.” This is the most superficial sort of pathetic happiness. It’s not just happiness as out-of-reach physical beauty. It’s the hope that someone else might notice us and be attracted and we won’t be so terribly lonely. But only if you get this surgery, this exercise regimen, this magazine. And how are these recipes for happiness working out for North Americans? Anti-depressants do some $10 billion in sales per year on this continent. That’s billion with a b. In America, not here in Canada because y’all are much wiser about these things, but in America the leading presidential candidate in one party has one claim for why he should be president—he’s so stinking rich. How could you not vote for a ten billionaire? Yet he doesn’t seem . . . happy. He seems miserable, pathetically needy, hopeful an office and its power might fill the vast space in his stony heart. In North American culture, whether Canadian or American, folks try to package happiness so people can buy it but the box seems empty.
What does God say makes for happiness? “Delight in the law of the Lord.” Delight. Those are happy who “meditate on God’s law day and night.” I don’t know what you delight in, what you meditate on. I find I do on sports statistics. If only I could stats from 1984 out of my cranium I could put something useful in there. Guess what my kids meditate on? Delight in? Sports statistics. Others do on stock market trends or fashion ones. Scripture says to delight in scripture. To meditate on it. One newer translation is that happy people murmur over scripture.[i] In the ancient world no one read silently, all read aloud, so murmuring is community reading, like a gathered audience dressed up and eagerly anticipating a great performer emerging onto stage. One older translation is that happy people chatter over scripture.[ii] They talk about it, wonder about it, debate it. Finally this, a more literal translation is that happy people growl over scripture, like a lion over a kill.[iii] Don’t come over here, this is mine. Do you see how we’re to be over scripture? Passionate! And so happy.
I don’t think we commonly do this in mainline churches. Liberals treat scripture like an embarrassing relic, conservatives like a frowning rule enforcer. But scripture is a source of delight and wonder on our way to being happy. There are depressing stories about how few ministers can name all ten commandments, let alone lay people. Ryan I won’t quiz you publically here, if you won’t quiz me. That suggests we ministers have not delighted in that scripture, chattered it, murmured it, growled over it. We don’t expect scripture to delight. Let me give you an example of something delightful from this psalm. Its final verse says “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” Sounds pretty bland right? But that word “watches over” means knows. The Lord knows the way of the righteous. Knows it like Adam knows Eve. Like a lover knows the beloved, intimately, jealously, passionately. The Lord is intimate with the way of the righteous like that. What’s that mean? I don’t know! But it sounds . . . delightful, worth wondering about.
This scripture stuff is explosive. The psalms have dozens of promises about how to be happy. Happy is the person who takes refuge in God, one psalm says. Whose sin is forgiven. Who doesn’t turn to the proud or turn after false gods. I love this one: happy is the person who considers the poor. Think of how we are with those who are poor and want something from us. Scripture suggests not ignoring the poor. Nor does considering them mean to give the poor exactly what they ask for. But the one who considers the poor, thinks about, relates to, loves the poor, that one is happy. We can pray for someone vulnerable, look them in the eye, treat them like human beings. And that’ll make you happy to consider the poor. It’s selfish in the best sense—you should consider the poor for the sake of your happiness. That’s all a little different from the impression in our culture, where we say happy is the person with all the money, all the sex, all the physical beauty, all the power they want. Our psalm again, “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; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
The problem is, it ain’t so, is it? Are holy people always happy? Wicked people always unhappy? Reflect for no more than a second and you’ll say, really? Billy Joel sang it decades ago, “Only the good die young.” We could all pile on example after example of tragedy in our lives or others’, it’s called tragedy precisely when people don’t deserve it. And Mr. Trump who I keep coming back to has done ok for himself with no obvious moral qualifications. When the psalmist says of the righteous “In all they do, they prosper,” she clearly doesn’t know how Ghandi turned out. King. Or, dare I say it, Jesus.
My sons are just back from a week at a Presbyterian camp and one came to me and said “Sometimes it seems like the bible isn’t true.” Uh oh, I thought, scratch the Presbyterians from the religious curriculum. “Really?” I asked, trying not to sound defensive. “Yeah, like when Jesus says ‘if you just have the faith of a mustard seed you can make a mountain jump into the sea’?” We looked up at Mount Seymour together where we live in North Van. It wasn’t moving. Not a little.
Let me tighten the screws on this a little. This psalm presents what most people think faith is about. Do good and God will bless you. Do bad and God will zap you. That’s what the psalm seems to say, right? And that’s what even most of us religious people think most of the time, right? God looks out for the good. The bad are in real trouble. In fact, the people who crucified Jesus might have cited this psalm as they carried out their execution. Jesus of Nazareth walked with wicked people. His friends were tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman collaborators, sinners. In our day we might update the list of infractions—they didn’t recycle, used Styrofoam, didn’t eat locally, bought fish that wasn’t certified sustainable, and voted wrong. Jesus was proud to eat with sinners and call them . . . friends. And he was like chaff before the wind, always moving around, didn’t obviously work. He criticized religion and said we were all doing it wrong. He criticized the government and said it didn’t rule, but he did. Somebody call the cops, get some wood, we have some crucifying to do, and recite this psalm to remember why you’re doing it, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” That’s right. Somebody get me another nail to hold this sinner fast against this tree.
How’s the psalm read now? How does faith sound now?
I’m guessing not a few of you harbor doubts about faith. I do too. You trust all you can and things don’t work out. The child dies instead of recovering. Work turns out to be a disappointment instead of a joy. Marriage too. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a pastor its this—lots of us look in the mirror and see disappointment or even disgust. If we look at all. We may not be as brave as my 10-year old to say it, but sometimes the bible ain’t true.
But then what happened with that rebel we nailed to that tree? He died, but he didn’t stay dead. The grave couldn’t hold him. We thought the grave was the end but it wasn’t for him. Could it be that despite all obvious objections this psalm is true? That the way of righteousness is prosperous, the way of the wicked is empty? The resurrection says yes. It doesn’t look like it now. The way of the righteous goes through a cross first before it gets to that empty tomb. So it takes faith to believe this psalm. Faith that the resurrection will show what’s right and what’s wrong and set everything to right. Those we’ve lost restored. Hidden miseries undone. The poor blessed. Kindness remembered and rewarded and cruelty wiped out. That’s resurrection faith. It sounds like a fairy tale, a fantasy, and anyone who believes it knows that at times we hang onto it by our fingernails. But fragile things can change the universe. That Douglas Fir was once a seedling. The resurrection would have seemed once like a fairy tale or a horror story. Until it happened. Now it’s the source of all the hope there is.
Think with me again of a tree. A primal image. A tree is beautiful. We can’t live without the oxygen it makes. In this region a tree was livelihood originally with the timber industry. For all time and people a tree is shelter. Then we figured out how to make paper out of it and pass wisdom on through it. A tree still provides shade and happiness. We lament when it dies. A tree is a living thing, and if you press your cheek close it’s almost like you can hear it breathing, its heart beating. Now remember how our first parents fell. Because of a tree (see image to the right). And the book of Revelation promises a tree by the springs of the water of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. And staked into the center of history is another tree, a savage one, where we lynched the very Son of God. The cross. Odd that we wear a cross in jewelry, spruce it up for our sanctuaries, holy places. And those three trees—the tree of life in the beginning, the tree of death in the middle, and the tree of eternal life at the end, are actually one tree, as the image shows from San Clemente in Rome. A tree tells the whole story of human existence. The next time you press your cheek to a tree and give thanks to God, think of the story of Jesus. And you shall be like a tree planted by water, arms reaching to the heavens in prayer, roots reaching into God’s good earth, and you shall not be moved.
Sermons are preached by fools like me. But only God could make salvation, from a tree.
Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee is Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was previously Senior Pastor at Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, North Carolina. He is married to Rev. Jaylynn Warren Byassee, former director of Mission Pathways for the Western NC Conference of the United Methodist Church, and together they have three boys, ages 12, 10, and 7. We were honoured to host Jason, Jaylynn and their three boys in the Comox Valley over the long weekend.