Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Psalms: From Naïve Obedience to Boundless Praise

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Thursday after Ash Wednesday, February 11, 2016

Lent begins with obedience. In psalm 1, duty leads directly to well-being. But what sort of duty is this, that urges us to avoid sinners? In stark, black-and-white language, the psalmist creates a good “us” versus an evil “them,” and it doesn’t take much sophistication or life experience to see that the theology here is wanting.

Scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Psalms and the Life of Faith, writes about the narrative sweep of the psalms. Did you know that there is one … that the psalms aren’t just thrown together in a random order? It’s not necessarily straightforward. But imagine for a moment, with Brueggemann and with me, that the psalms actually tell the story of the life of faith, both from an individual and from a communal perspective.

Psalm 1, which we read today, speaks clearly: If you obey God, everything will go well for you. If you don’t, you’ll be in big trouble. It’s a simple, childlike—or dare we say child-ish?—perspective on faith. It’s naïve, as Brueggemann is quick to point out, because it hasn’t yet taken any data from real life into account.

This week I attended a community meeting about the recent rash of burglaries in our neighborhood. It was a good meeting, but the policeman who was addressing us kept referring to "bad guys." I know that the world cannot be cleanly bisected into "good guys" and "bad guys." Doesn't he? Yet the writer of Psalm 1 seems to think so.

Does that make the psalm worthless to us? Definitely not. Sure, look around the world and you’ll see the wicked prospering all over the place … but this is only the beginning. Obey God, and wait and see. The simplistic worldview of Psalm 1 is immediately shattered in Psalm 2, which many of us know from Handel’s Messiah: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together? Why do the peoples imagine a vain thing?” By the time we get to Psalm 25, disillusionment is plainly expressed: the psalmist hopefully restates the naïve faith of Psalm 1, then sadly opines the problems with this claim. In Psalm 73, we come to a believer’s commitment to God despite all the world’s pain and injustice, simply because God is good. By Psalm 103, we’re into the territory of deep gratitude. And Psalm 150, the final one, is a song of praise with wild abandonment. Brueggemann sees here a second naïveté, with scars plainly evident, but no longer questioning … simply praising God in joy.

Now, the narrative journey through the psalms isn’t as direct as I’ve made it out to be here. It takes many twists and turns, including the sharp turn from number 22—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—to the very next, most beloved of all psalms, number 23—“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.” We find everything from Psalm 51, which pairs sincere repentance with rock-solid faith in God’s forgiveness, to Psalm 88, the only psalm that wallows in pain and sorrow without a single hint of hope.

But it all starts with Psalm 1—obedience—and it ends with Psalm 150—praise. These two psalms serve as bookends to the journey of faith. Faith is not a spectator sport; we only come to understand it by actively participating in it, in community. We can’t get to joy without first going through obedience, then facing our doubts and fears with candor, then experiencing communion with all the other worshipers, then living lives of gratitude in hope, and finally arriving in a place of unrestrained praise.

The psalms are raw, unfiltered expressions of deep emotion from the heart of ancient Israel. And they continue to serve us today, as psalms are appointed for every regular worship service. Sometimes they sing words we aren’t ready to hear, from situations we can’t quite relate to. Some might actively repel us with their anger, arrogance, and violence. But at other times, even the angriest of psalms might meet us exactly where we are and call us onward.

This Lent, if you haven’t already identified a Lenten practice for yourself, I’d like to commend the psalms to you. Read one every day and meditate on it. And even in these pre-Christian songs, you, as a Christian, may hear the voice of Jesus urging you on in your life of faith with the words of today’s gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Obey that call, and you’ll have taken the first step on the road to eternal joy. Amen.