Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Over the last couple of months, we’ve been spending quite a bit of time in the Old Testament book of Psalms. The Psalter was a hymnal of sorts, a compilation of songs of personal devotion and national hymns, songs of congregational praise and individual laments. By Jesus’ day the psalms were very familiar to the Jewish people, often memorized in their entirety, so that a single verse could call to mind a whole psalm. If they passed out hymn surveys in the synagogue in Nazareth at that time, these would be the songs on everyone’s list.
Here at MPC this summer we’ve talked about the importance not only of reading the Psalms now and then, but of really learning them well – well enough that they become part of our personal playlists, well enough that we can call them to mind when we most need them. I’ve invited you to borrow a page from generations of faithful men and women who’ve gone before you, taking the time actually to memorize a couple of psalms, or portions of them, in order to help you make these words of Scripture your own. Perhaps by writing them out many times over, to help internalize them, or by posting them somewhere you can see them everyday. We’ve also taken time right here in worship to familiarize ourselves with a handful of the best known and best loved psalms. We’ve sung them and read them aloud together in a variety of ways. We’ve repeated key verses both in unison and responsively. We’ve tried on different translations of a couple of psalms. We’ve taken time to reflect on psalms in silence some weeks, either in our seats, or by walking forward to prayer stations in front of the sanctuary. My goal with each option was to help us move the words of the psalms off of the page and into our minds, and hearts, and spirits. As we now conclude this series, my hope is that at least one of these psalms has become so treasured, so beloved that you will want to learn it by heart, so that you can call it to mind again and again. A new song for your personal playlist, along your particular journey of faith.
Today’s psalms both speak of God in terms of the life-giving imagery of water. In Psalm 1 we read that those who meditate on God’s word day and night 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.” (Psalm 1:2-3) And in Psalm 42, “as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God…” (Psalm 42:1-2) As powerful as these images are even for those of us living in wetter climates, remember that these psalms were written by desert-dwellers, essentially. Water was for them an especially precious commodity. So this imagery of flowing streams is chosen deliberately. That much is at stake for them, when longing for God, and meditating on God’s word: it is life-giving water in a parched land.
Psalm 42 is clearly a psalm of lament. We hear the psalmist agonizing: “My tears have been my food day and night… my soul is cast down within me… I say to God, my rock, ‘why have you forgotten about me?’ (Psalm 42:3, 5, 9) But like so many laments in the Scriptures, we find words of hope and praise mixed right in with those words of despair: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God… By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me.” (Psalm 42: 5, 8, 11) The psalmist leans on his own prior history with God to regain confidence that God will again come to his aid. Not silencing his lament – please notice this. The psalmists are quite candid in prayer, when they are miserable. After all, there’s no need to try to hide from God what God already knows about how we are feeling. But I’m both challenged and encouraged when I see, right in psalms of desperate lament like this, acknowledgements here and there that God’s whole story for the psalmist’s life may be bigger than what he or she can see just now.
As for Psalm 1, it seemed fitting to return to the beginning of the book as we conclude our series on Psalms today. In its present, canonical form, how appropriate that these words greet us as we first open the book: “Happy [or blessed] are those whose delight is in the law of the lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2) Torah, or law, refers more specifically to the first five books of the Old Testament. But I imagine God would permit us to read Psalm 1 a bit more broadly today, for surely to meditate on any part of Scripture – to really dive in and read thoroughly, to reflect, to memorize, to internalize God’s word - is a life-giving exercise. I remember from my days in the Episcopal church one of my favorite prayers to introduce the reading of our morning lessons began in this way: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace [them] and ever hold [them] fast…”
“There's a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, 'Why on our hearts, and not in them?' The rabbi answered, 'Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.'"
“And then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”
Perhaps your heart has been broken by something that has happened to you, or to a family member, colleague, or neighbor. Perhaps your heart has been broken by losses our church family has sustained over the last few weeks. Perhaps your heart has been broken by recent news stories (the Ebola epidemic in Africa, violent extremism in Iraq and Syria, the tragic death of 18 year old Michael Brown and all of the surrounding racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri). My prayer is that the holy words you have learned this summer from the psalms become such an integral part of your life that they can “fall inside your heart” and do their work there, whenever they are needed.
May we take our cues from the psalmists. May our delight be in the word of the Lord, and on that word may we meditate day and night, so that we, too, are like trees planted by streams of living water. May our souls thirst for God as deer long for flowing streams, and may we not be afraid to speak our laments to God, along with our praise. May we make our way through life’s difficulties in the confidence that God will be our help, and will meet us when our souls are cast down.
O God, you are the well-spring of life. Pour into our hearts the living water of your grace, that we may be refreshed to live this day in joy. Amen.
 As cited by Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.