The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
Readings: (Proper 25A, track 1)
First words are important. Think of famous first lines in literature. Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with this insight: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The Bible begins and ends with poetry, so let’s consider that. Elizabeth Barrett Browning began her most famous poem, Sonnet 43, with these words of adoration, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Shakespeare’s tragic play MacBeth begins, appropriately for this season, with three witches, forebodingly asking “When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?” Just as I believe that Austen, and Barrett Browning, and Shakespeare all chose their opening words carefully, so it is, I think, with scripture. Genesis fittingly begins with the poetic declaration, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth….” The Gospel of John is even more obvious in its echoing of that poetry: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Matthew’s gospel, the gospel we have spent most of the last year reading from in our lectionary, is the first book in the New Testament, but not the first gospel written. Apparently, the author didn’t get the memo about grabbing your readers with your opening words, because Matthew’s gospel starts out with this statement: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” And if anyone has ever been trapped listening to your mom or grandma talk for four solid hours about people from 8 generations ago whose names are completely and utterly foreign to you, and whose photographs, if they exist, make them all look like refugees from a Monty Python sketch, you know you may need to skip those first couple of paragraphs for the sake of your own sanity. Today we hear the opening words from the very first psalm—the words that introduce the entire psalter, the ancient hymnal, devotional, and sacred poetry book of both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm—in other words, it’s about how to live a good life. It’s about ethics—a word so missing in our common life together, but so necessary. Psalm 1 starts with advice on how to live the best, most meaningful life. And so it is very telling that the very first word of this psalm, in Hebrew, is ashrei, translated here today as “Happy.” Now some versions of the Bible use a different word: “Blessed.” Think about that—the entire psalter begins by proclaiming us that being blessed is being happy, and being happy is being blessed. It’s the same word that begins the Beatitudes in Jesus’s sermon in Matthew 5:1-12. Blessedness, happiness, is where we are invited to start. Always. This is an insight that all too often gets drowned out in the lives of many of us. We are programmed to think about satisfaction—or more importantly, the lack of it. We are told to buy, buy, buy. We are persuaded that products will make us more beautiful, thinner, fuller—as if those three things could coexist at the same place and time. But will those things make us truly happy? Will they make us truly blessed? Psychologist Martin Seligman has claimed that there are three components of happiness: pleasure, engagement, and meaning, and the last two are the most important in living a happy life—while pleasure is fleeting, being engaged with others and feeling a sense of positive purpose in one’s life is more enduring, and leads to a general determination that life is worthwhile. Happiness does not rest in things. Happiness rests in living life well, in communion with other people. Psychology and Psalter agree: the foundation of a good life, a life of blessing, is to live an ethical life, in which one is a blessing to others. And too many of our modern discussions about happiness, or blessedness, it can sound like people are bragging, trying to keep score when compared with others. That’s not true happiness, or true blessedness. Our psalm instead insists that blessedness is more about our own perceptions and habits—in the case of Psalm 1, happiness comes from treasuring our relationship with God, through living as a child of God and taking in God’s instruction to us from our roots, like a tree planted by water. Most of us do not live our lives feeling happy all the time, or even most of the time. There are so many things that are beyond our control. There are too many things that tug at our attention and draw us into feeling lost. Yet Psalm 1 points to something that IS in our control. Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord, who meditate upon it day and night. It’s the method of treasuring scripture that we are exploring in our adult forum practice of lectio divina. Praying over, lingering, with, and murmuring the precious, honeyed, ancient words of God’s instruction to us, engaging in dialogue as we ponder, continually remakes us from the inside out. This treasuring of God’s instruction as a way of life goes to the heart of our gospel passage. Jesus is asked what the summary of the law is—the same law Psalm 1 urges us to reverently read, recite, and pray. Psalm 1 urges those who wish to live a beautiful life to immerse themselves in God’s poetic vision for our flourishing, and this guy wants to see if Jesus can give him the Cliff’s Notes version. But Jesus responds with seriousness. When asked what the pinnacle of God’s law was, Jesus answered: “The first is this: ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The lawyer wanted laws that could be used to divide the favored from the everyone else, and instead, Jesus speaks of love. Not fear. Not condemnation. Not excluding people so that you can feel special. Not justifying death for people who live on the other side of a border. Jesus insists the law of God is the commandment to love—not as a fleeting emotion, again, but as an ethic, as a way to live our very best lives so that our lives have meaning. This is the basis for true connectedness and purpose, that which will make us truly happy. This is the summation of the law, Jesus tells us AND shows us, over and over again. The law of God is meant to connect us with others and give our lives a sense of purpose. Contrary to what gets portrayed too often on the news where Christians are concerned, the law of God is not about stigmatizing others, or denying the dignity of those different from you, or imposing your will upon those around you. The law of God is love, meant to bring us together and make us joy-filled people! This is the beginning of wisdom. This kind of love never fails, but is, to quote Shakespeare again in Sonnet 116, "an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests, and is never shaken." Psalm 1 assures us that when we live this life, we will be like trees planted by streams of water—that beautiful image we have been focusing on throughout our stewardship campaign. Our branches will spread and bless those around us. Our leaves will never wither. English poet and priest Malcolm Guite enlarges this image in his sonnet inspired by Psalm 1. Come to the place where every breath is praise, And God is breathing through each passing breeze. Be planted by the waterside and raise Your arms with Christ beneath these rooted trees, Who lift their breathing leaves up to the skies. Be rooted, too, as still and strong as these, Open alike to sun and rain. Arise From meditation by these waters. Bear The fruit of that deep rootedness. Be wise In the trees' long wisdom. Learn to share The secret of their patience. Pass the day In their green fastness and their quiet air. Slowly discern a life, a truth, a way, Where simple being flowers in delight. Then let the chaff of life just blow away. May we ever root ourselves in God’s commandment of love—and let the rest blow away. This is the beginning of wisdom, and the beginning of happiness.
Citations:  See https://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/martin-seligman-psychology  Malcolm Guite, “Beatus Vir Qui Non Abiit,” from David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms.