Psalm Sunday

Psalm 119

February 12, 2023 

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT

1 Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the Lord!

2 Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!

3 Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.

4 You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.

5 Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!

6 Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.

7 I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.

8 I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.

Good morning!

Today is the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, and we are just one more Sunday away from the Holy Season of Lent. In this stretch of Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday we hear some of the most familiar stories in our canon. The baptism of Jesus. The calling of the disciples. The beatitudes. And next week we will hear the story of the transfiguration of Jesus.  Each of these familiar passages is told every year from a different Gospel perspective. 

So this Sunday we are going to take a break from the thoroughly familiar and embrace an opportunity to appreciate one of the truly great, and yet truly under-sung masterpieces in our biblical repertoire. Psalm 119. I never paid the Psalm much mind until….now. It always seemed too long. Too complicated. Too repetitive to be given much headspace.

But when the first 8 verses came up in this week’s lectionary….I just kept reading. And reading. And reading. Because as it turns out, this psalm is the It is the longest composition in our Holy Bible, weighing in with a whopping 176 verses. Psalm 119 is the mother of all psalms.

And not just because of its length. Although the length is part of it. Because it provides an opportunity for some gorgeous languishing poetry. But beyond its Guinness Book of Record breaking word count,  it is a marvel of poetic and prayerful compostition by any literary stretch of the imagination. It is remarkable for both for its message and its mechanics, its structure. So much so that I am proposing that we designate this morning as Psalm Sunday! 

Because psalm 119 has it all. Beginning with its structure. This 176 verse psalm is set up like an acrostic poem with 22 stanzas,  each beginning with the consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And it’s not just that the 22 stanzas are alphabetical. Each stanza is comprised of 8 lines that are faithful to their designated letter.

So all 8 lines in the first stanza begin with the letter alef. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. All eight lines in the second stanza begin with a beit, the 2nd letter of the Hebrew alphabet. All 8 lines in the third stanza begin with a gimmel. And so on. Holy cow! 

If we were to write a similar prayer following the English alphabet. We would have 26 stanzas of 8 lines each. And every line would need to begin with the same letter. I’ve been trying compose such a prayer all week. And let me tell you it is wicked hard!  I can’t even get past the first stanza.

Almighty God, you are the center of all life.

Absolutely every fibre of my being yearns for you.

Advise me with your wisdom and lead me with your word.

Allow the light of your countenance to grace my path.

Avoid will I the pitfalls of my own self-centeredness.

Amazing is your patience with my stumbling.

Agony awaits we who heed not your guidance.

And …..oy ve I’m tired!

That’s only the very first stanza! Imagine how taxing the Q and the X and Z stanzas must be! And yet, the psalmist of 119 just did it!

Very unfortunately, we have no way of appreciating this monumental feat unless we read this psalm in Hebrew. And so it is a masterpiece that is sadly, but utterly lost in translation. But the  message and the poetry is not.

I made a word cloud of this psalm. IT is a language art program on the internet. The computer algorithm weighs the number of times every word is used in a given piece of text and then sizes each word according to its number of occurances. So, out of the approximately 2300 words in this psalm (more than are in this sermon I might add). And here is the cloud.

What do you think this psalm is about?

Yep. It is about the value of keeping God’s word…..and all of the other words that mean the same thing. commandment, statute, ordinance, decree, Word, precept, promise and law (or torah)  These eight words that all point to God’s Word occur over and over and over again in 176 lines. Word occurs 27 times. Law occurs 25. Ordinances 23. Commandments 22. Statutes 21. Precepts 21. Promise 15. And Decrees 14. They occur so often that they simply wear the reader down.

Stating and restating in beautiful language the singular message of this brilliantly composed prayer. The message that the word of God, the law of God, the decrees of God, the promises of God are the key to life. God faithfully provides the answers. We just need to faithfully hear them. Follow them.

And the structure of the psalm is set up to help us do just that.  All we have to do is follow the abc’s. Like the alphabet. Letter by letter. Just get your feet in the groove says the psalmist, by the very design of the psalm. Just get your feet in the groove and walk on. Down the line. Letter by letter.  In perfect order. If we follow God’s law there will be an order to our lives. And a memorable order… alphabetical order.

And unlike psalm 1, which is also about obeying God’s law, this whopper of a psalm it is not just about obeying God’s law in a general sense. This lengthy psalm stretches its legs into every crevice of our lives, covering every facet of lives that are actively lived.  Walter Brueggemann says, this psalm makes a, “comprehensive statement of the adequacy of a torah-oriented life.”[1]

There is nothing beyond the bounds of its reach. God’s word applies to every circumstance in which we might find ourselves. Every conflict, every conundrum, every celebration, every hope, every fear, every breath. God’s Word spans the full circumference of our very language. from Alef to Tav. From A to Z.

The order and cadence of this psalm say in no uncertain terms that this prayer is primarily about obedience. Our obedience to God’s word, law, commandments, precepts, decrees, ordinances, statutes, promises. 

Again Walter Brueggeman  (because he is a scholar’s scholar on the (psalms)  He writes that the sort of focus on the torah that is offered in this psalm (and also psalms 1 and 19) emphasize the, “ethical context of our faith, and the public character of true religion….The Torah at the center reminds us that the primal mode of faithfulness and knowing God is obedience.”[2]

Now, obedience is a dicey concept. At least here and now in our 21st century western world. Obedience has the connotation of blindly handing over one’s agency to some sort of higher authority. A relinquishing of one’s individual choice. A required submission of personal power.  Obedience is for dogs and children. Not for fully formed adults with God-given free will.

But the concept of obedience in the Hebrew Scriptures, as I understand it, is not about the surrender of agency, it’s about choosing to use one’s agency in concert with God’s…..wisdom.  God’s love. God’s truth. God’s ways. In the Hebrew Scriptures the word translated as obey is the same word that is translated as hear.  To hear is to obey. If we are not following God, we have not truly heard God.

Hearing is obeying. But hearing requires agency.  It is not a surrender of agency, it is a proper employment thereof. The role of obedience in the roots of our faith tradition run deep. Among the most sacred statements in the Torah is the schema. From Deuteronomy 6:4. 

Hear O Israel. The Lord is Our God. The Lord is One. (schema Israel. Adonai elohanu. Adonai ehad)

It is the solemn declaration that our God is One God. Obey O Israel. Obey this above all else. But this heard obedience is not meant in legalistic sort of way.

And the language of this morning’s psalm is clear.  It is not an instruction manual, it’s a dance card. Back and forth. It’s a conversation. A mutual give and take.  Life with God is a mutual endeavor. A two-way street. It’s about walking, choosing to walk, through every conceivable heartache and highpoint of this life, In the presence of God. 

Just hear the poetry of this mutual relationship in the rest of this morning’s psalm:

I will walk in liberty.

Teach me. With my whole heart I seek you.

Open my eyes. Revive me.

Graciously teach me your law.

Enlarge my understanding

I find delight in your commandments

I will meditate on your statutes

Your promise gives me life

Your statutes are my songs

Your decrees are the joy of my heart

Your words give understanding to the simple.

With open mouth I pant,
   because I long for your commandments

The sum of your word is truth

My tongue will sing of your promise

How sweet are your words to my taste,
   sweeter than honey to my mouth! 

Your word is a lamp to my feet
   and a light to my path.

I am yours.

This psalm could easily be a valentine. Because this is the language of love.

In this prayer obedience is not restrictive, it is liberating. And not because it is all sweetness and light. The psalmist interrogates God’s fidelity several times.  How long will it take you to free me my God? When will you comfort me?’  How long must your servant endure? I am persecuted without cause; help me! 

And yet, says the psalmist, I have not forsaken your precepts. If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my misery

This psalm speaks of life as we live it. And in the end, the underlying point of this poem may be more about God’s mercy than our obedience.

Verse 77 says it all:

77 Let your mercy come to me, that I may live;
   for your law is my delight. 

May it be so.

I highly encourage you to read the rest of this psalm. Maybe on Valentines Day. Find a quite 30 minutes. Steep a cup of your favorite herbal tea. Make yourself comfortable. And read these 22 stanzas in their glorious entirety. And I predict you will fall even more in love with God than you are right now!

And the people said: Amen.

© February, 2023 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1] The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Walter Brueggemann, pg. 40

[2] Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann, pg. 50

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