A sermon preached at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd
The General Theological Seminary Thursday, March 6, 2014
Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked*
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the Lord*
and they meditate on his law day and night.
Thus begins the first psalm of the Psalter that has served as the primary prayer book and hymnal for Jews and Christians for millennia. There is nothing random or accidental in this choice. Psalm 1 sets out the theme of worship which is also the theme of life: the way of righteousness and the way of wisdom.
In our direct discourse, active voice, Strunk & White, always positive, American culture, it might strike some as a little odd that the first stanza is fundamentally negative. You are blessed for what you DON’T DO. This sets the psalm in the context of the real world—the way of blessing or happiness is not simply a trivial default setting but an alternative to ordinary things that we see regularly. Walking the way with the unambiguously wicked and criminal is not usually the most common problem for churchgoing and seminary type people, and our personal accounts of loitering with sinners and partaking of sinfulness usually put them safely in the past, even if we enhance them for dramatic effect. But after working in various seminaries for twenty-four years and hanging out with clergy for much longer—sitting in the seats of the scoffers—that’s prime real estate. We could probably solve our financial problems by charging sky-box rates for the seats of the scornful. I’ll get back to what I mean in a minute.
What is important in this psalm, as in many ancient texts, is not what is at the beginning or the end, but what is at the center. The person that is blessed is who? The one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on God’s law day and night. That word, “law,” does not refer to collections of statues and prohibitions. The word is “Torah.” The new Jewish translation renders it as “teaching” and even in its narrowest understanding, Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible, which tell the story of God’s creation of the world and of the people Israel, and of their redemption in the Exodus. This introduction to the Psalms tells us that the one who is truly blessed takes delight in all that God has done, and particularly in study and meditation on those texts that convey our heritage.
Of course, I’m thinking of the scripture, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament, but there are also all those other voices of our heritage, whether they are contemporary, or from a few hundred years ago, or ancient. About three weeks ago, our faculty adopted a declaration entitled “The Way of Wisdom,” which will be released to the public later this month. In one passage of it, we say this:
The Fathers and Mothers of the Church, whom we call “theologians,” were at once biblical scholars, pastors, and critical thinkers of great spiritual wisdom who drew deeply from sophisticated philosophical reasoning as they guided the course of the Church in their time. Preaching the Gospel was integral to the transformation of the lives of all Christians. Responsible preaching required study and study was also worship.
“…study was also worship”—the teaching of the Lord was their delight and they studied that teaching day and night. Their study, their teaching, their preaching and their pastoral work were all one blessing. In one way or another, almost all of us here today are called to an office of teaching, and in that we share in that great delight and awesome responsibility of continually learning and digesting the teaching of the Lord.
When Professor Malloy returned from grading the GOEs, he told some of us that one of his colleagues there remarked that, on the liturgics question, not one student made the connection between Lent and Baptism. That got me to thinking: it is not just a historic connection, Lent is really our preparation for baptism—we travel the road along with the catechumens, and particularly this year, the preparation for baptism is emphasized in the lectionary: from the Temptation in the Wilderness to Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman at the Well, to the Man born blind, to the Raising of Lazarus—each Sunday we progress along the Way of Wisdom further into the mystery of life in the risen Christ and though we may already be baptized we accompany the catechumens.
Perpetua was one of those catechumens when she was arrested. Tomorrow will be the one thousand-eight hundred and eleventh anniversary of her martyrdom. She is particularly important to me, because the central part of The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is written by her. It is the earliest Christian writing that we have that unambiguously presents a woman’s voice. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honor, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” Her sorrow was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. They rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. This is the end of her account of one of her visions:
“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’
Thus her vision of heaven depicts aspects of the baptismal service of the late second and early third century. As we meditate and study we hear voices new to us and we are transformed as part of that great cloud of witnesses. Those people in the seats of the scornful that I mentioned earlier, they are always looking for the short-cut—how do we get recognition, or success, or a program out of this? How can we skip reading, and still get credit. One can regularly hear them scoffing at anything that spends effort that doesn’t yield results. But those who delight in the teaching of the Lord, they are like the tree planted by the stream of water, bearing fruit with leaves that do not wither. When the time comes, they have wisdom to share with the saints who need their encouragement.