Year B, Pentecost 7 Psalm 1 and Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Acts chapter one tells us about one of the first big decisions that the apostles had to make after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. That was, who would replace Judas as one of the 12 apostles? They made that decision by casting lots. Casting lots was fairly common in the Bible. It was a way to prove the impartiality of a decision. It is much like flipping a coin at the beginning of a football game to see who gets to receive the kick off. The apostles, and those who came before them believed that God was guiding this coin or dice. In a sense, it was a way for the person making the decision to take themselves out of the equation, so there would be no bias.
Even knowing that, it seems like a strange way to make a major decision. This choice was a huge choice that Peter and the disciples were making. You would think they would want to be pretty careful after what happened with Judas. However, let’s keep in mind, that this was not the only method they were using. They had already narrowed it down to two people. How had they narrowed it down? Were there resumes and speeches? Were there interviews and background checks? No. The only qualification was this: they had to be with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (the baptism of John) through the time Jesus ascended.
Both Matthias and Justus fulfilled these qualifications. While the list of qualifications was short, that does not make them unimportant. Being a witness to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus was no small thing. That witness required sacrifice and commitment. Therefore, no matter which side the coin was facing, the person was already deemed qualified by the apostles. What the coin was determining was who God was actually calling.
The more I thought about this, the more appealing casting lots became. I have talked to a number of people who have shared with me that they have felt more indecisive this year because of the pandemic. It seemed that once COVID hit, we had to consider things that we had not previously had to consider. Is it safe to go to the park? Do I need to sanitize everything when I come home from the grocery store? Can I visit family for vacation? We got a lot of rules from the CDC and the government, but then there were gray areas and always, new decisions to be made. One of the especially frustrating parts was that the variables kept changing.
I remember sitting at my kitchen table, trying to plan our meals for the week and thinking, “I can’t possibly decide what we will eat this week. I can’t make one more decision.” Mental health professionals have said this decision paralysis is typical in highly anxious times. When you are anxious, it’s really hard to make a decision. So rolling die, seems like an ok idea to me.
Unfortunately, not all decisions work like that. The psalm appointed for today has a more nuanced approach to decisions. When you first read it (or in my case the first 10 times), it seems judgy and less than helpful. It puts humans in two categories, the wicked and the righteous. The righteous delight in the law of the Lord. Everything they do shall prosper. The wicked are doomed. They are like chaff that the wind blows away. It’s very black and white and we Episcopalians usually prefer to dwell in the gray areas (unless it’s COVID rules).
Part of the challenge of this psalm is that the translation is not ideal. It begins by talking about those who are happy because they have not walked in the counsel of the wicked. Instead their delight is in the law of the Lord and they meditate on the law day and night. When we read the word law, especially in the Old Testament, we think of rules. Who would delight in rules or want to meditate on them day and night? I know a fair amount of good people, perhaps even righteous people. Not one of them delights in rules.
The Hebrew word that is translated to law is torah and can have many translations. The better translation in this context would be God’s teaching or God’s word. Remember, this is the first psalm out of 150. It’s essentially an introduction to a treasure trove of wisdom. The author might have even been suggesting that we would do well to meditate on the following psalms as they are a way to know God better.
You might think, well that is all fine and good if your job is being a pastor. It’s a lot easier to spend time meditating on God’s word when you have to preach on it. That’s absolutely true. Most of us don’t have the time to meditate on God’s word day and night. Yet I am not sure that is what the text actually means. While there are people who meditate on God’s word day and night, not even the apostles did that every day and every night. What if instead…we find a way to linger or dwell in God’s word?
When the apostles were trying to choose a new apostle, the first thing that Peter said was, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled….” The whole reason they were set on choosing a 12th apostle was to fulfill scripture and to do that, they had to know scripture. Obviously I am biased and I think that everyone should read the Bible. But I also know it’s overwhelming and a fair amount of the Bible is kind of dull. But the great thing about lingering in God’s word is you don’t need very many. Pick one line of scripture that feeds your soul and commit it to memory. It’s kind of like a mantra.
But how do we choose when there are so many? A good one is what many of us know as “The Great Commandment.” At one point, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was. His response was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Write that down on a piece of paper or put it on the home screen of your phone. Read it. Digest it. Linger in it.
The Hebrew word in this psalm that is translated to meditate is bit more physical than mental. It means to utter or moan or even growl. You don’t just read God’s word and consider it as a scholar. You marinate in it until it is in the very marrow of your bones. That’s why churches like St. John’s have the 10 Commandments on the wall. It’s not decoration. It’s literally carved into the marble. Because God’s word is meant to be carved into our souls.
There will be anxious times or times when we are grieving– when we will need to make a decision or just need comforting words to hold on to. The Great Commandment is in our Rite 1 liturgy (page 324). If you grew up with that liturgy, you might already have it memorized. Now you can memorize any line. There are lots of good ones. The reason I recommend The Great Commandment is that it is helpful for decisions and just life in general. If you are making a decision, you can roll the dice. Or you can ask yourself. Will this decision help me love God and love my neighbor? If it does, then it’s the right decision. Whatever line of scripture you choose—read it. Digest it. Let it become a part of you. Let it become the best part of you. Because I can guarantee you, that there will be a time, you will need God’s word, when you will need it desperately. So find it now.