Thursday, May 14, 2015

Living Under the Influence - Psalm 1

 Psalm 1:1-6
Today’s New International Version Blessed are those
       who do not walk in step with the wicked
       or stand in the way that sinners take
       or sit in the company of mockers,
   but who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on his law day and night.
   They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season
       and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.
   Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
   Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will be destroyed.
 1 Corinthians 5:9-11
Contemporary English Version In my other letter I told you not to have anything to do with immoral people. But I wasn't talking about the people of this world. You would have to leave this world to get away from everyone who is immoral or greedy or who cheats or worships idols. I was talking about your own people who are immoral or greedy or worship idols or curse others or get drunk or cheat. Don't even eat with them! 

My great aunt Lucille was my oldest relative.  When I was a child, she would talk about the war.  The Civil War.  She talked about her uncles, all of whom were missing an arm or leg.  She could tell you which family relative died at Shiloh, and which one died as a POW in Maryland, and she would talk about her Uncle John, who was Missing in Action, as if she might someday learn what happened to him.  But of course, she never did. 

Actually, Great Aunt Lucille was born in 1875, a decade after the war.  But she grew up under influence of the war.  She heard her father tell the stories at the dinner table.  She heard the uncles talk about their battles. 

We all live life under the influence.  Our history, our environment, our culture, the stories we hear, the people around us – they influence us.  Whether we like it or not, and even if we are aware of it or not, everything around us has an influence on who we are, what we believe, what we do. 

Great Aunt Lucille was influenced by the words she heard at the dinner table.  And so, while she was born ten years after the end of the war, she never, ever liked my Dad.  She never trusted him.  Aunt Lucille was on my mother’s side of the family, but Dad, while he was born in South Carolina, was the son of parents from Massachusetts!  That part of the family was made up of Yankees.  And not just any kind of Yankee, but the kind of Yankee, the adjective of which I cannot repeat from the pulpit.

We live life under the influence.

We can’t escape it.  We are surrounded by history, and culture and music, and words, and stories.  And like it or not, all that surrounds us become threads weaving in and out of the fabric of our souls.

We all live our lives under some sort of influence.  And so we are told in our Old Testament lesson, “Blessed are those
       who do not walk in step with the wicked
       or stand in the way that sinners take
       or sit in the company of mockers…”

What is the influence of your life?

For some people, this Psalm seems to be telling us to be so careful with whom we associate and that we should have nothing to do with anyone who is immoral in any way.  In fact, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians begins our New Testament reading by saying, “I have told you not to have anything to do with immoral people.” 

Avoid anyone who is a negative influence. 

Avoid anyone who would influence you to lie or cheat. 

Avoid anyone who lives life in a way other than what Christ would desire. 

Avoid them! 

And, in fact, that is what many parents teach their children, even though parents know what Paul would eventually get around to admitting – you can’t avoid evil people all the time.  You will be influenced by them.  Like it, or not.


A few years ago one of the members of the youth group had a new CD that he was showing others in the youth group - he was very happy to have it - it was at that time the latest thing and everyone wanted that album.

On the cover was a naked man.  A knife had ripped out his heart and there was blood everywhere in the picture.  In the corner of the cover of the CD was a warning to parents.  “Parental advisory” or some such words, that obviously that child’s mother had ignored.

So I talked about music.  I talked about how it was a gift from God.  And how it can glorify God.  And how it can inspire.  Or not.  Music does not always inspire.  It is not always positive.  So we have to be careful with the music we listen to. Because the words become part of our soul.

As I gave that children’s devotional, I was hoping that the mother of that child was listening that day.  I thought the music was inappropriate for the child to listen to, and I thought the mother should have kept that influence completely out of her child’s life.

It was later that week that I remembered my father tried to do the very same thing with me.  I wanted to buy some Elvis Presley albums and my father, believing that rock and roll was the devil’s music, prohibited me from buying any recordings by the King of Rock and Roll.  While I was begging my Dad to give me some of that old time rock and roll, because I thought it would soothe my soul,[1] Dad decided to protect me from the evil influence of the devil’s music.  My Dad then went to his music collection and gave me three albums, all by the same singer, and as he handed me those albums he said, “Al Jolson is good enough for anyone.”

Now what makes that story so interesting is that a few years ago, as I was preparing to move here, I was selling stuff, and throwing away stuff, and giving away stuff.  I just had too much stuff and moving was good time to lighten the load – if you’ve ever moved, you know what that’s like.  I came across those three Al Jolson albums that my Dad had given me.  They were stacked with all of my Elvis Pressley and Beatles and Steppenwolf albums.  I took a lot of them to a collector and there were three albums he bought.

You guessed it.  He bought the three Al Jolson albums.

He didn’t even look at the records.  They could have been badly scratched and he still would have bought them.  He was fascinated by the album covers.  He said, “these are the most offensive, evil, vile album covers I’ve ever seen.”

My father would have been shocked.  He thought they were wholesome, but there on each album cover was Al Jolson dressed in blackface. 

Now for those of you who do not know, blackface was a form of entertainment that lasted from the 1830s until around the 1950s.  White singers would paint their faces black, their mouths white.  They would depict African Americans as charactertures in a manner that today is understood as racist. 

But that is the way it is with the influences under which we live our lives.  It is sometimes so subtle, that the evil does not become apparent until many years later.  In the late 1950s, my Dad would have never have thought of Al Jolson in blackface as a bad influence on a young child’s image of African Americans. 

Theologically, sin is NOT a list of dos and don’ts.  It is a part of the nature of humanity that so permeates this world that everything we do is tainted by it.  So we are all influenced by its presence, and you can’t get away from it.

St Paul, in our New Testament lesson realized this.  He wrote, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with … immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.”

So what does it mean?  “Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.”

It does not mean that you are to completely avoid the influence of the immoral.  Even Jesus did not try that – in fact, he delighted in every opportunity to be with anyone and everyone, no matter their lifestyle.  The biggest criticism of Jesus by his contemporaries was “He eats with sinners.”[2]

What this Psalm forbids is not walking in the company of the wicked, but rather walking in the guidance or counsel of the wicked.

What this Psalm forbids is not standing alongside the sinner, but rather standing in the belief and lifestyle of the sinner.

What this Psalm forbids is not sitting beside someone who is immoral, but rather sitting in their seat and adopting their ways.

You cannot avoid the negative neighbor whose influence drains your spirit.

You cannot avoid working with people who have lifestyles that are offensive.

You cannot avoid racist people.  Or hateful people.  Or sexist people.  Or greedy people.

And you will live your life under the influence of such people ---

Unless you take one step that can put your life back into balance.

It is a step found in our Old Testament lesson. 


       Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.  But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

We live life under the influence.

We can’t control the influences under which we live our lives, but we can balance them with the most positive of all influences – the Word of God.

Time and again in Scripture, the Word of God says of itself that it is useful for putting balance into your life.  Psalm 119:11 says, “Your Word have I hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” 

It is true, you cannot avoid the negative neighbor, but you can balance that negativity with God’s Word about joy and peace.

It is true, you cannot avoid working with people who have lifestyles that are offensive, but God’s Word can teach love and tolerance.

It is true, you cannot avoid racist people.  Or hateful people.  Or sexist people.  Or greedy people.  But by making the Word of God part of your life, you can walk in God’s way, rather than, as Psalm 1 warns, “walk in the counsel of the wicked.”

The problem is, the Word of God sits on our nightstands, not in our hearts.

Our Bibles decorate our bookshelves, or gather dust, and are rarely opened.

In a world that is bombarding us with influences of all sorts – desirable AND undesirable, are we meditating on the “word day and night?”

When will we read the Word of God?  When will we let it be the primary influence of our lives?

Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

[1]Bob Seger, “Give me some of that old time rock and roll, the music just soothes my soul” are lyrics from the song “Old Time Rock and Roll,” from the 1978 album, “Stranger in Town.”
[2] Luke 15:2, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Also:  Matthew 9:11, Luke 5:30, 7:34, 7:39, 19:7.