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Homily by Rev. William W. Emilsen

Easter 7, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 20, 2012

Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17: 6-19

Living in God’s Neighbourhood’

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They 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 1:1–3)

I must confess that when I first read this psalm,
I took an instant dislike to what it was saying.
Who is this character
that goes around boasting about his own righteousness?
Who is this fellow who is afraid to mix with people different from himself?
He sounds like Mr ‘Goody two shoes’
who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke,
doesn’t even have a joke;
who tells you what is wrong
and tells you what is right,
who tells you what to eat,
and tells you not to fight.
(Apologies to Adam Ant.)

I guess most Australians don’t have much time for legalists, snobs and the class conscious
people who view life in terms of law-keeping
and religion as telling them what to do and not to do
(Perhaps our aversion to legalists has something to do with Australia’s convict origins).

The writer of this psalm seem to portray a gloomy, law-laden, humourless religion
from which we are gratefully free.
The modern in us
and the Christian in us
come together to reject this type of religion.
We are suspicious of legalists.
Instead, we want to affirm a religion of grace.
We abhor strenuous efforts to keep rules,
and conforming to set ways.
We are rather fond of quoting the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:6, 17
which says,
‘for the letter kills,
but the Spirit gives life.’
and ‘where the Spirit of Lord is, there is freedom’.

We are suspicious of fundamentalist and fanatics
and puritans and wowsers
—people who divide society into goodies and baddies,
and who are just a little too smug in their own importance.

So, why decide to give a homily on this psalm?
The first reason is, I think,
that even though we may not like the fellow,
we need to listen to him,
otherwise, we start to indulge in our own bit of righteous self-congratulation
that we are not a legalist like him.
(How often do you hear Uniting Church people say:
‘We are an inclusive church.
You are welcome, provided you are not … a fundamentalist.’

The second reason is that we may have misunderstood the psalmist,
perhaps so that we can too easily reject him.
for there is something in what he says
that draws me to him.
I warm to his joy in God’s revealed will;
I am attracted to his single-minded devotion.
I am aware that there are times
when my life veers onto the wrong side of the road
and I wished it were otherwise.
There are also times when I am swept up in events
of moral uncertainty and confusion
and would prefer to believe that a better way is possible.

In short, I am attracted to the idea of being happy.

And in all honesty, most of us, I think,
would like to be ‘happy’?

So, as I read and reread Psalm 1,
what began as questions about the psalmist
ended up with a question to me,
and probably to all of us:
The question is simply this:
Do you want to live well?
Do you want to be happy?

Psalm 1 teaches us that life is happiest
when centred on God’s instruction or torah.
The Hebrew word ‘torah’ is often translated ‘Law’ in English,
but it is more helpful to think of torah not just in a strictly legal sense,
but more as God’s guidance or instructions
or a map for living.
Torah is God’s way of telling us how to live.
The commandment, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deut. 6:5; 10:12) that is torah.
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18) that also is torah.
The prophet’s Micah’s command,
‘do justice,
love kindness,
and walk humbly with your God’ is torah.
Sanctifying the Sabbath is torah.
Worshipping regularly is torah.
Doing good deeds is torah.
Feeding the hungry is torah.
And so is giving a glass of water to the thirsty.

Torah, in Australian terms might be helping each other out in times of difficulty as we saw in the Queensland floods and the Victorian bushfires.

Giving everyone a fair go and treating everyone as equal, that’s torah with an Australian accent.

An perhaps the Australian capacity to laugh in the face of adversity is torah also.

Torah is more than the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers to Deuteronomy.
Torah is more than a catalogue of laws;
designed to limit human behaviour.
Torah is God’s instruction showing us how to live well.
Torah is a delight not a burden.

The First Psalm is not really an exhortation to proud legalism.
It is not law but gospel.
It is good news that a happy life is possible,
that happiness is given to those who delight in God’s plan,
or in God’s will.

I am aware that from a modern, rationalist point of view
that it is sometimes difficult to think that the infinite, ultimate supreme being we call God is concerned with the details, the minutia of our lives;
but that is the good news in this psalm
—God wants us to live in a certain way.
God wants us to be happy.
God not only cares about our destiny as human beings,
God is also concerned with the way we live.

Let me give you a couple of examples.
All of us at certain times have not been in the mood to pray.
We are tired and don’t feel inspired,
but God wants us to pray and knowing that can give us strength.

There is something far more important than our desire to pray;
it is God’s desire that we should pray.
When I feel as though my prayer is so insignificant in the midst of our huge universe,
I am reassured that it is the will of God that I should pray.

How grateful I am to God that there is a duty to worship,
especially when I am tired or pressed with too much work.
I know that my distraught mind needs time to think of God,
time to let go of my ego, at least for a moment!

Happiness is living in God’s neighbourhood.

Happiness results from a choice to participate in the divine life.
Happiness or well-being is related to well-doing.
The happy person is the one who delights in doing God’s will.

We often think of religion in terms of inwardness and feeling
and rare moments of ecstasy often described by the great mystics such as St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila.
But just as we mustn’t allow the great creative artists like Beethoven and Leonardo da Vinci to think we can’t be creative because we cannot match their gifts;
nor should we think that we can’t live a truly happy life just because we are not a great saint like St John of the Cross or St Teresa of Avila or Francis of Assisi.

We can grow in happiness.
And we can start with little things:
praying at certain times,
lighting a candle for someone who is sick,
doing an elderly neighbour’s shopping,
pausing to say grace at a meal.

These are all ways of evoking in us an awareness of living in the neighbourhood of God.
Follow God’s teaching
and you will flourish and bear fruit like well-watered trees.
You will not only discover happiness,
You will be a blessing
And you bring blessing to those around you.

 Rev. William W. Emilsen