worship

The Good Life
Dr. Baron Mullis
September 20, 2015 - Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-38

 

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The Good Life                                                               
Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-38        

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2015

 

Do you remember the millennium bug?  Or you may have also heard it called the Y2K bug...

Okay, so kids, get a load of this: there was a time, well before you were born, when we didn’t have computers.  Our cars didn’t have them, nor did our homes, and a digital watch was an expensive luxury item.  Phones weren’t digital yet, they still analog, and if you were a lucky, well-to-do person who had one, it was approximately the size of cinderblock.  We carried them around in bags.  If we were cool, that is. 

And in the development of the computer industry, no one ever thought about the fact that if a two-digit model was used to note the year, when it rolled over from 1999 to 2000, there was a very real concern that the computer might think it was the year 1900, or might just stop working altogether. 

Noted poet Wendell Berry writes, “The coming of the year 2000 could have been foretold by every child that was old enough to count.  But along the way, all the scientists who helped to develop ‘computer science,’ all who evangelized it as the answer to every intellectual problem, apparently no one with authority foresaw the Y2K fiasco until almost too late.”1

Everything dependent upon computers would come to a grinding, crashing halt. There were concerns about the airline industry.  Banks’ financial records might be wiped out and records of savings might disappear.  Life support systems in hospitals might stop working.

But, basically nothing happened.

But dystopian fears are not a new thing for humankind.  Indeed, we can quickly read from the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament where the Israelites themselves indulged in some major dystopian flights of fancy. 

Except in the case of much the Old Testament, they weren’t always flights of fancy.

The dystopian fears were realized. 

Open the bible to almost anywhere in Lamentations, for instance, you’ll find the evidence… or perhaps the middle chapters of Isaiah… or Jeremiah.

For God’s people, the Israelites, the dystopian world was realized. 

We are referring to a time period called the Babylonian captivity, during which Israel’s kings were overthrown and brutally murdered, their best and brightest were dragged off into slavery in a foreign land, and those who remained were at the mercy of an occupying army. 

It would be simplistic to suggest that the whole Psalter is a product of this time of captivity.  It is not.  The psalms were written over a series of many years, by many authors.  A few are attributed to King David; most are not.

But I don’t think it is too great of a stretch to say that the Psalter does not escape the effects of the people’s time in exile. 

Whether it is Gunter Grass writing on Germany, or Elie Wiesel writing on the Holocaust, or feminist theologians writing of patriarchy or liberation theologians writing from Latin America, there is no question that traumatic experience and traumatic times leave an indelible imprint on what is written.

So much is this the truth that my dear friend Dr. David Janzen suggests that is nearly impossible to understand large portions of the Old Testament without looking through the lens of trauma theory.

And so it is we consider the first Psalm. 

It is not the first written, very likely it is one of the latter ones. 

And yet it is selected to begin this unique book of the Bible. 

The Psalter is unique in that it is both the word of God to us, and the words of the People to God. 

Walter Brueggemann writes, “It [Psalm 1] is surely placed at the beginning intentionally as a prolog to set the tone of the entire hymnic collection.  It announces that the primary agenda for Israel’s worship life is obedience, to order and conduct all of life in accordance with God’s purpose and ordering of the creation.”2

Simply put, if you want to know to be in the world, look at the patterns set forth in this Psalm.  It sets a tone for the whole book.

Indeed, Patrick Miller more boldly risks a clearer direction from the Psalm when he writes, “The way of life of the righteous is described in three ways: in a statement about what such a one does not do (v1), in a description of what is in fact central to the life of the righteous (v2), and in a figure of thought to make vivid the way (that is, both the manner and the outcome) that is characteristic of this approach to life.  All of this is placed under the rubric, ‘Blessed is the one who’… or ‘Happy is he who…’’3 

In other words, if you want to understand what will lead to the good life, start with understanding what God wants.

It would be understandable if the Psalmist wanted to say how to avoid suffering, but instead, he outlines the way of blessedness. 

Now, for some of you, your heresy-senses are tingling right now because it sounds like I might be suggesting that if you’re a good person, you’ll have a good life, and by converse, if you are suffering it’s your own fault.

That is not what I am suggesting, nor is it the message of the Psalms, though some have wrongly interpreted the Bible that way.

What the Psalmist is saying is the very act of following God is a blessing. 

It would be easy to conflate all of those books in the middle of the Bible, the wisdom literature, into a single category and suggest that each of them is seeking in their own way to provide a road-map to the good life.

That is not the case.  They do struggle, mightily at times, with understanding.  Don’t we all?

But this psalm is descriptive, not prescriptive.

The psalm doesn’t say, “Do all these things and you’ll never encounter another Babylonian Captivity.”  (Or whatever represents cataclysm.)

Rather, the psalm says, “Even if you have another Babylonian Captivity (or whatever represents cataclysm) do all of these things, because that is the way that you will stay rooted in and grounded in God.”

If you want to know what the good life is, it’s to do what God would do, or rather, what God would have you do.

And sometimes we get it right.  And sometimes we get it wrong.

But the way of blessedness, the Psalmist sings, consists of knowing what is good and what is wicked.

For a long time, the church could tell you exactly what was bad.  There were plenty of ways of parsing it out… you had your seven cardinal virtues and your seven deadly sins.  Perhaps you know them.  And even if you were Protestant, there were strict rules for conduct based upon certain passages of scripture.

Sometimes they were helpful.  Sometimes they were too rigid.

But they were the marks of Christian character; they constituted what it meant to be concerned with living in a manner consistently pleasing to God. 

Do we think about those?  Do we concern ourselves, for instance, with not thinking more highly or ourselves than we ought, or are we floating on a sea of bombast?  C.S. Lewis called pridefulness the mother of all sins – and considered fighting it like fighting the Hydra. 

If we are the latter, we are certainly in fine company. 

No less faithful people that Jesus’s own disciples concerned themselves with stations of honor and privilege, indeed, in the story we read this morning, they are jockeying for bragging rights as to who among them is the greatest.

Trying to achieve the status of “the greatest of all time” with regards to discipleship does tend to suggest that one has missed the point of the discipleship.

And so Jesus finds the closest object lesson he can in humility – he scoops up the nearest child and sets her in front of the disciples and says, be like this.

The disciples wanted status – reward for their good deeds – frankly, they wanted to be rewarded for doing what the Psalmist said – and that friends, is bad theology.

God doesn’t shower blessings on those who succeed and rain down retribution on the folks who fail. 

I can understand if perhaps that isn’t obvious – everything around us sure does seem to suggest that if you work hard, you’ll be blessed and if you’re a slacker, you’ll suck hind teat your whole life. 

But Jesus had a different answer: the good life isn’t so much defined in activities or achievements as it is in children – and not the bearing or adoption and rearing of children, but in bearing with and being with those who are not significant. 

That’s a little different from jockeying for position.

I can understand if all the myriad words, words, words the church has spoken down through the years leaves anyone confused as to what constitutes the good life.

Jesus seems to think it’s encountering the kingdom of God like we’re children. 

Being unconcerned with status… being interested in the helpless…that’s what Jesus seems to think constitutes the good life. 

I love this quote from William Sloane Coffin: 

“If it’s immature to be childish, to remain childlike may be a function of maturity…discussing this passage, biblical commentators like to dwell in the natural humility, the basic obedient and trusting quality of children; and I have no quarrel with such emphasis.  All of us could profit from being a little more humble, trusting, and obedient, although Christians have to recognize that obedience to God has more to do with being love abiding than law abiding.  But why, I wonder, don’t these same commentators talk about the natural idealism of children?  It’s children who want to save the seals, the whales, and all the rest of us to boot.  It’s kids who sell cookies for causes, bake bread for brotherhood, save pennies to fight pollution.  It’s kids who have walkathons against war.  And of course, we encourage them.  We believe in their being generous.  But it’s also true that we encourage them to outgrow it, as though generosity were a pair of short pants.  Do you think Jesus would bless that view of growing up?” 4

Let me tell you about a man, the Rev. Scott Morris, M.D.  When he was growing up, he knew that he wanted to be a Methodist minister, a medical doctor, and to work for the poor.  So in the 1980s he settled in Memphis because it had the record of the highest number of poor of any city.  As an associate pastor of the St. John UMC in Memphis, he set about creating the Church Health Center.  I’ll gloss over how he got from a staff of one to a staff of 200 supporting 600 doctors, nurses and dentists to serve 45,000 patients a year, most of them the uninsured poor whom, he says, “Shine others’ shoes, cook their food, and will one day dig their graves.”

With accomplishments like that, he could name his ticket, work anywhere for any pay.

He was interviewed a few years ago by David Abernethy, and he said, “I am very much attracted to the concept of being a disciple.  I don’t think it’s easy to be a disciple.  It requires us to really believe that God is in charge.  It requires us to act in the world as though the Kingdom of God were here now.  And that sort of action is day in and day out, for your whole life.  I get called from time to time and offered jobs here or there.  But nobody needs to call me for another job.  This is what I am going to do.  I am going to do this until I draw my last breath.”5

Is he happy?  It sounds like it to me.  We might even say, Blessed? 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
 

1 Wendell Berry, Life is A Miracle.  (Counterpoint, Washington DC, 2000)  p33
2 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms.  (Augsburg, Minneapolis, 1984) pp38-39
3 Patrick Miller, Interpreting the Psalms.  (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1986) p82
4 William Sloane Coffin, Credo.  (Westminster/JKP, Louisville, 2004) p187
5 Bob Abernethy and David Boles, The Life of Meaning.  (Seven Stories, NY 2007) p407

Last Published: September 28, 2015 11:43 PM