The Way to Go

Sunday, August 6, 2023
Jennifer Gruendler, Guest Preacher

Psalm 1

Grace and Peace to you, Augustana. And nice to meet you-it’s a joy and privilege to be worshiping with you this morning and I am thrilled to be introducing your next sermon series as you wrap up the summer.

We’re beginning a journey together through the book of Psalms. Perhaps, a verse or a whole Psalm was one of the first pieces of scripture you heard or even learned by heart. Psalm 23 said at a graveside or bedside giving you words to claim God’s loving and careful watch over you on earth and beyond. Maybe you sang part of Psalm 121 around a campfire or in a sunday school room inviting you to lift your eyes to the mountains or hills-to lean on God’s strength and direction. Maybe your parents or grandparents delighted in you as they reminded you, yes even imperfect you, that you are fearfully and wonderfully made by God-promises and words passed down from generation to generation to generations in Psalm 139. Maybe the words that Jesus spoke from Psalm 22, uttered in fear and grief and anguish in his last days before his death -”My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” have lingered on your lips too in the darkest hours of your life. Maybe you were given words to express gratitude to God in the Psalms-give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, God loves endures forever.

Truth be told. I love the Psalms. For me it was one of the first places in scripture (maybe other than some of the stories of Jesus and his people) that felt approachable to me as a young person and teenager as I was exploring faith.

Approachable as in real and authentic and like maybe God was big enough to welcome my big feelings. And maybe even more so Scripture was big enough and strong enough to welcome my full human self and the weights of the world.They felt then and now relatable, relevant, and like God’s Word mattered in my day to day life.

Of course, I am in no way unique in my love of the Psalter. This collection of 150 songs, or poems, or prayers  first written in Hebrew have comforted God’s people for several millennia. Our ancestors of faith knew them in the marrow of their bones and uttered them regularly. Martin Luther was known to journey through them every two weeks-reading about 7 a day-and John Calvin, a famous reformed theologian rightly called the Psalter “the anatomy of all the parts of the human soul.”

Regardless, if you’re a Taylor Swift fan or prefer Frank Sinartra, U2, Beyonce or Beethoven-we know the best music brings words and images to our feelings and experiences-it paves the way for our grief, elation and joy. It helps us proclaim our deepest and most passionate feelings of love and loss and shame and comforts us in times of disorientation and when we’re lost and in need of direction. Music so often, when other things fail, is just what our spirit needs, right?

Well, friends, the Psalter in our Scriptures is our first faith hymn book, our mixed tape and playlist, for our human journey with God. It is the place we can turn to in every season and with every feeling. It is full of the story of being human and following God’s way in the world. They are messy, emotive, raw, and eloquent. Some have a clear cadence and beat where others are more free flowing and subtle.

In all this what I am basically saying is this… if you are weary, tired, and full of grief. The book of Psalms-God Word to us is for you. If you are angry or overcome with shame or feeling disoriented and lost. The book of Psalms-God Word to us is for you. If your spirit is overflowing with joy and gratitude for God. The book of Psalms-God Word to us is for you. If you are looking for words to express the beauty of creation or the miracle of life or God’s care for the littlest of creatures to the mightiest of mountains and strongest of humans.  The book of Psalms-God Word to us is for you. And I invite you to wander in the 150 songs of scripture these next few weeks. To dwell in their words and soak in their wisdom. To sing them and read them and chant them and meditate on them-God’s word for you.

And today, we will of course start with Psalm -the beginning. Psalm 1 provides an introduction to the 149 other songs and poems found in the remainder of this book. It’s quite short and truthfully doesn’t really have the cadence or feel of a lot of the other Psalms. Many scholars believe that it really was an introduction to the other Psalms and teaches us the importance of dwelling in God’s Word in our lives.

You may have noticed right away listening to Psalm 1 earlier (go ahead and look back at it in your bulletin)  that it uses some quite starling language-it paints a picture for us of two roads or paths. One road or path is where the wicked and sinners or scoffers travel on and the other is where the righteous and God-fearers journey on.

This translation says one road will be bumpy, full of judgment and will lead to destruction or as some other translations say-death.

If you’re feeling a bit squirmy in your seat and unsettled with that image-you’re not alone. It doesn’t feel very graceful or loving or full of hesed -one of the Hebrew words for love specifically God’s unwavering and persistent and everlasting generous love that so many of the other Psalms sing about.

So, let’s look at it a bit deeper. The opening verses sound like a warning to me. Maybe it’s more yield sign or warning light on your car (you know the ones that come on and tell you beware something might be going on here-you might be running low on gas or need some oil or have low tire pressure-there is something going on you need to attend to-so slow down and pay attention).

The Psalm seems to start there, maybe-like David or whomever is the author of this Psalm is saying listen up, here’s the reality, so often there are sort of two paths in life to take–one will lead us on a hard, bumpy, desert and wilderness journey-away from flourishing, away from what we know is right and good and true–away from the abundant life God so deeply wants for us and all of creation. And the other path will lead you toward life and flourishment and a place where you feel rooted and steady and where God’s teachings of love and generosity and freedom and forgiveness run freely and deeply.

And Psalm 1 seems to say when we are presented with the choice to take the journey and road that seeks to follow God’s word and love and wisdom -take that one. Head in that direction–warning light-warning light-head toward God’s way and law and teaching for…for the other way, the other road…well it will be so much harder and lonely and more destructive for you and others.

Friends, I don’t know you or your community. I realize that. I told Pastor Jason as we were talking about this opportunity that it always feels weird for me to preach to a community I don’t know well – I don’t really know your struggles and joys and challenges and opportunities or what makes y’all you. So, I don’t know how this image of the two roads really sits with you.

But, I want to share this. I have spent over 17 years working with young people-teenagers and young adults and their families in a variety of ministry settings. On college campuses, in other big congregations (not unlike Augustana) and now most recently as at Luther Seminary.

I have had the privilege of accompanying many on the journey-and watching them navigate challenging choices, discern their calls, and of course facing impossible situations. I have seen some of the most wonderful and joy-filled and most terrible and painful experiences human life can offer and been called to offer a work of faith in those spaces…and almost every time one question that comes up in some form or another–how do we know the right choice? Is this the right school? The right career choice? The right person to spend my life with? Is this the right decision to make? Is this the right move to make or the next best step? Do we go left or right? Say yes or no? Go now or do it later?

I bet you know the feeling of these questions I speak of? My guess is in fact many of your brains just jumped to a time you were faced with that kind of question or situation and decision? So many of us have been there, right?

In the spirit of vulnerability and getting to know each other, I have in my own life struggled and wrestled with these questions time and time again too as an individual and within a community. What I am saying is I am comfortable in the uncomfortable spaces of these questions and feelings and I am not inviting you to do something I haven’t struggled with doing myself.

Turns out, as humans, we’re not super duper awesome at living in uncertainty. It’s hard to know sometimes the right path to take or the right next move to make, right?

Of course, the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 1 experienced this truth of living a human life, too because well, they too were human.

He or she must have known the feeling and burden of having to decide which path to take and so in the introduction to the entire book of Psalms-as a way of telling the listener the importance of this book and how it can be a tool for you-the Psalmistsays this…dwell in the teachings and words and wisdom and way of God-go that direction -take that path.

And so, friends, often my response to the questions of the people I accompany when they ask -is this the right way? Is this the next good step? What do we do next? Is this the right path for me? I say something like this…usually back at them in the form of a question or questions…is it working for you? Is it leading you and your neighbor toward wellness and wholeness and joy and a fuller life? And/or does it smell like Jesus and his love?

I don’t ask myself or others… is it hard or too costly or uncomfortable or easy? The question is not, does it feel really good right now? Or is it the way everyone else wants you to go? Why, because if we’re honest sometimes those questions don’t get us on the path need to go.

But, questions like does it lead you toward abundant life and wholeness?  Does it smell like Jesus? Because if we can answer those questions, my guess is it is the way of the Torah, the teachings and wisdom of God for you will get you on the path toward life.

Now please know I am not pretending it’s always a super easy or clean cut two roads to pick from. I do not want to overly simplify the complexity of so many of the situations and questions we/you face or to belittle the challenges and even perhaps pain each path presents.

But, I do think we are called to ask these questions when we face a crossroad in life, or at the start of something new, and even as a daily faith practice-a question of discernment-which path am I taking today-one where life and wisdom and God’s love dwells and reigns or I am choosing to take the path where destruction toward myself or those I love or toward creation reigns–away from what is God’s wisdom and desire me for me and all of creation?

I think that is the spirit work Psalm 1 presents us. It starts right out hitting us in the face with one of the most challenging parts of being human and following Jesus. Like any good song, it cuts right to our heart and spirit.

Now to end with just one last thought we can never look at 6 verses of scripture for the whole story-so no matter what road you feel like you’re on today or have been in the past—we look at the rest of the 149 Psalms and story of scripture to know what path God is on –

And when we do we see on the road of flourishing and abundant life and steadiness and flowing streams of water and resurrection life-God is there.

And if the Psalms (just keep reading them, I promise) teach us anything it’s that the road of destruction and sin and wilderness and dry and parched and weary lands and journeys. In the depths of hell and doubt and pain and grief and in addiction and betrayal and systems that kill and in the disorientation of hopelessness—there too is God, right near to you and to us, offering  a wellspring of grace and love and mercy and healing—whispering to you over and over again—lets try is this ways—a new way and path-come and walk in it let me bring you back to life.


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