Follow the River

The First United Presbyterian Church
“Follow the River”
Rev. Amy Morgan
Feb. 17, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-11
5 Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
 6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
 7 Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.
 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
 9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it?
 10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
 11 Like the partridge hatching what it did not lay, so are all who amass wealth unjustly; in mid-life it will leave them, and at their end they will prove to be fools.

Psalm 1
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;
 2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.
 3 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.
 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
 6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

It’s easy to trace the path of the Big Thompson River as it flows down out of the canyon, snaking back and forth under Highway 34. Just follow the deciduous trees. Evergreens are spread out up the rocky hills and onto the plains, but the trees whose broad, bright, green leaves require hydration in the spring and summer hug the banks of the river.

It is not easy for these trees to grow and thrive in our high desert climate. They cluster together on small patches of earth or even stretch up out of rocky crags at the river’s edge. In places where the banks of the river have eroded, you can see the exposed root systems holding tight to the remaining soil and stretching deep and wide, always toward their water source, their life source, toward the river. Life is not easy for these cottonwoods, oaks, willows and boxelders. High winds and sparse rainfall, rocky soil and extreme cold and heat wreak havoc on their survival. But the river sustains them. The river nourishes them. And so they thrive, reaching 40 or even over 100 feet in height. Their spring blossoms are plentiful, producing strong and healthy new plants each year.

As you continue to head eastward on Highway 34, the Big Thompson River fills lakes and reservoirs, and eventually bends south to meet up with the South Platte River. After this, the landscape changes dramatically. Those deciduous trees disappear almost entirely, giving way to vast stretches of fields. This rich soil has, for generations, produced sugar beets and corn, potatoes and wheat. But, despite the soil’s fertility, very few trees dot this arid terrain.
Once, I spotted a tree that had been uprooted and toppled by the fierce wind. Its shallow root system lay exposed like a dead spider, tentacles curled up and withered. The branches were empty, whatever leaves that had once adorned it long ago blown away.

The first psalm presents a horticultural simile for life that can be observed in the world around us. Trees planted by water thrive and bear fruit. Plants that are dry and dead are scattered by the wind. Those who are attentive to God’s Torah, the law and instruction God gave to Israel for their blessing, also thrive and bear fruit. Those who wander away from that source of life dry out and are good for nothing.

Most scholars believe the first psalm is intended to set the tone and guide our interpretation of the rest of this book of 150 psalms. It is the Book of Psalms in miniature. The first letter of the first word of the psalm – asherei, “happy” – begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. The first letter of the last word of the psalm – t’abad, “perish” – begins with the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tav. This psalm sums up the whole book, from a to z.

What it summarizes is the two paths our lives can take. One leads to happiness, and the other leads to perishing. The psalms that follow this one give voice to humanity at various points on both of those paths. Some psalms cry out to God in pain, begging for mercy and healing. Others praise God, expressing deep joy and contentment. Some psalms are written from beside still waters, and others are written with parched throats and thirsty souls. The psalms are a collection of raw and beautifully poetic human voices in the throes of finding their way through life and death.

The interpretive guidance offered by this first psalm is simple. Move toward life. And you will be happy.

The word translated here as “happiness” in the first verse bears little resemblance to the 21st definition of this word. Our societal definition of happiness revolves around what I call the 3 A’s – accomplishment, accumulation, and appearance. We are supposed to be happy if we’ve done well in life. Landed a good, high-paying job. Been promoted. Won awards. Been recognized for our contributions. We are supposed to be happy if we have a lot of stuff. Or nice stuff. Or the newest stuff. We are supposed to be happy if we meet our culture’s standards of beauty. Tall, dark, and handsome. Or thin, blond, and curvy.

There are now entire fields of scientific study focused on happiness. And what scientists are learning is that the three A’s - accomplishment, accumulation, and appearance - contribute very little, if anything, to happiness. In many cases, those three A’s are actually making people less happy.

The psalmist proposes an alternative to the three A’s. I’ll call them the three P’s of happiness.
The first P is Purpose. Ellen Petry Leanse, author of The Happiness Hack, says that “the stuff we think gives us “happiness” right now—such as scrolling through social media—activates the brain’s ancient motivation-and-reward system, and only gives us momentary pleasure.” Social media is the epicenter of the 3 A’s, the place we all go to show them off and compare our A’s to everyone else’s. Leanse claims that one thing that does have a major impact on happiness is contributing “something to the world that’s uniquely our own and makes a difference to others.” Having a purpose, feeling like we are contributing in a meaningful way to the world around us, is one aspect of happiness.

The things we do to pursue a purposeful life may be difficult. They may require hard work and sacrifice. They may cause us stress. Being a parent or a leader takes effort. Creativity requires vulnerability and may result in painful rejection. In pursuing our purpose, we may not feel happy all the time. But we will experience a deeper sense of meaning, a more profound joy and peace, an overriding sense of wholeness and wellness, even in the midst of the struggle.

The psalmist describes this pursuit of purpose as a path. He encourages us to choose, with intention, what direction our lives will take. He instructs us to follow after that which is life-giving and glorifies God. We may think it feels good to scoff or judge others. We may get a momentary rush out of those things that lead us down the path of sin and wickedness. We may think that path is the road to happiness.

But the psalmist agrees with what science proves. Happiness is a road pursued with intention and paved with purpose.

But, it is not a road we tread alone. The psalmist speaks about happy people in the plural throughout the psalm, and at the end, he refers to the “congregation of the righteous.” The psalmist’s second P of happiness is people.

Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study on Adult Development, which has studied 724 men over the course of more than 75 years, says that “The clearest message we get from our 75 years of study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier… Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness kills.”

Healthy, quality relationships with family and friends are key to happiness. But a Pew Research study also showed that people who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier than either the religiously unaffiliated or inactive members of religious groups. Turns out, we are all contributing to our own happiness right now.

The third P of happiness is practice. The psalmist says that the happy ones meditate on the law of God day and night. They have a regular practice, a routine, that draws them closer to God, the source of their happiness. 

Nataly Kogan, CEO of the learning platform Happier, attempted to achieve happiness through the three A’s in her early adulthood, but she eventually found herself burned out and frustrated. She began instead to practice gratitude, naming three things she was grateful for each day and thanking at least one person. She came to realize that happiness “is not something you feel, but something you do. We don’t have to earn it or be “good enough.” We just have to practice.”

Practices like gratitude or contemplative prayer, service to others or daily devotion to scripture all nourish our happiness.

Happiness isn’t something that just happens to us. It isn’t something we accomplish. It can’t be bought or won. And it isn’t something we have to be good enough to deserve. Happy are those who live with purpose, who are connected to people, and who engage in life-giving practices.

All of these P’s, according to the Psalmist, add up to one more P. “In all that they do, they prosper.” Prosperity does not mean fortune and fame. It doesn’t mean a life without difficulty. Remember, those trees along the Big Thompson River have many challenges to contend with. They have to grow in hard, rocky soil and endure droughts and blizzards. But along the river’s bank, they certainly prosper.

The trees on the plains have better soil, but they lack the nourishing river, they can’t put down deep roots, and they are unable to stand the rough winds.

In our liturgy of Baptism, we give thanks for the gift of water, which nourishes and sustains all things. Happy are all those who have come through these waters and still cling to its banks, growing healthy and strong, producing the fruits of the spirit. When we remember our baptism, living out our God-given purpose, our vocation, connecting with the people in God’s family, and practicing the faith God has graciously blessed us with, we prosper. In hard times, we find strength and peace. In seasons of emotional or spiritual drought, we have stores to draw from. When fear freezes us to the core, God’s love keeps us flowing through life.

The river of God’s love has been flowing for us since the waters of creation brooded over the earth. And the Book of Revelation envisions “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city [of God on earth]. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Our attentiveness to the three P’s of happiness are not for our own prosperity alone. When our lives are healthy and whole, God-honoring and life-giving, others are healed and nourished as well.

So I would invite us to follow the river. Hug close to its banks. With purpose, people, and practice, may our prosperity ripen and flourish. And may it nourish and heal our loved ones, our community, and the world.


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