This is a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it references is Psalm 1.
Rumi wrote a poem on “Two Kinds of Intelligence,” and it runs thus:
There are two kinds of intelligence; one acquired,
as a child in school memorises facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the centre of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.
It seems to me that with different imagery, both Rumi and the author of today’s Psalm were reflecting on some of the same sorts of experience, especially when we come to the Psalmist’s comments about delight in the law, on which they meditate day and night.
Both Rumi and the Psalmist are describing a positive experience; an experience of a relationship with God which was affirming and satisfying; a source of confidence rather than anxiety as they navigate life.
And in the Psalm particularly the key idea underpinning that confidence is that God is reliable and trustworthy. That reliability and trustworthiness of God is known and experienced in a well-ordered world, deliberately crafted by a good and loving God, in which we have a secure place.
So creation – everything that exists – is purposeful, well-ordered, reliable and life-giving. In this sense, creation isn’t something God did in the past, but it’s about our ongoing experience of God’s dependability and generosity, lavished on us. Life – our frail and vulnerable life – exists under God’s protection.
So under that sacred canopy of God’s protection, we can live our lives in freedom and delight. We don’t have to achieve everything in our own strength, we don’t have to build our own world; but we can contribute our efforts to the goodness of the world knowing that our efforts find their results within the work that God has already done, and that our work finds its meaning and purpose by being aligned with the creative and meaningful purposes and work of God.
And – the Psalmist said – they delight in the law – the Torah – of God. Torah here is part of God’s good creation; in some ways the pinnacle of God’s good creation, because through Torah God works with the people of Israel to create a good and well-ordered society, in which people can flourish like trees planted by streams of water.
And here’s where Rumi’s idea about two kinds of intelligence is useful; because what the Psalmist does not have in mind here is memorising a set of rules. “Do this; don’t do that; wear this; don’t eat that.” That’s not the point of the Torah. The Torah is meant to be a wellspring of life, something provided by God which bubbles up inside you and overflows into your relationships and social context and constructs a coherent and peaceful society which functions for the good of all its members. Hence the delight!
And while Christians don’t keep Torah in the same way as Jews, we can still have that wellspring of life within us which overflows from us to those around; in our case, rather than law-keeping, it ends up being expressed in mission; in sharing good news, teaching, nurturing and serving.
Now of course, we can’t read a psalm like this naïvely. This is a psalm which reflects the goodness of creation, and the goodness of the Creator; but we know that there are other experiences in human life which also need to be taken into account. This isn’t a psalm for a time of disaster! Not that disaster makes this psalm untrue, but this truth isn’t the whole story.
And in particular, given the way that this psalm links prosperity with goodness, we do need to be careful that we don’t read it in a way which justifies an unjust status quo. The purpose of the psalm is not to denigrate those who are not currently experiencing prosperity, or demean those we might like to think of as “wicked.” Those judgements belong to God, not us.
Even more than that, when we remember that ancient Israelite faith was very much a communal faith; not individualistic as we tend to be, but looking at the welfare of the group before the individual, then there can be implied judgement of a society which allows some of its members to suffer a lack while others have much. It is the role of the community to ensure God’s goodness is reflected to, and experienced by, all members of the faithful community, and not just some.
No, for those who are faithful but not currently experiencing prosperity, psalms like this can be an expression of hope; a statement that how things are now is not God’s good purpose, and that God will continue to be at work to bring those good purposes to fulfilment. All of us can appreciate this note of transformation and new creation; our experience isn’t static, even when God’s goodness is taken as a given.
Or to put that another way, the psalm can help us to see that God’s good purpose for the world is resilient. It won’t yield or be thwarted in the face of evil, but creation will be brought to the fulness of what God intended it to be. And this is ultimately because creation isn’t independent from, or cut off from, its Creator; but we exist in ongoing and dynamic relationship which has the flourishing of the good creation as its aim.
And the relationship is the point; and it’s the point of the poem I started with too. You can’t experience the fulness of life by knowing about it, just as you can’t experience being in love by being able to list the hormones involved; you have to live within it, have it flowing within you, take your place within something larger and let it shape your identity… like the tree beside a flowing stream, or what Rumi calls the “freshness in the centre of the chest.” That’s the wellspring of our delight in God, which inspired this psalm, and should be part of our life together too.