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  • Writer's pictureRev. Drew Stockstill

Streams of Life

Psalm 1

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.

“The top three ways to be happy.” That’s how the internet would headline Psalm 1. And who wouldn’t want to click on that article and share that post? If I saw a book at the airport with the title, “Three ways to be perfectly happy,” I’d be tempted to take a peek.

Psalm 1, word 1, is Happy or Blessed. “Happy is the person who…” It’s a great way to start the book, hook the readers and get them interested right away in all that is to come in the book of psalms. Now, we have learned in this sermon series on the psalms that the Psalms are full of more than happiness. They contain a lot of different feelings and expressions, about life, about God. There’s really nothing we can feel that isn’t expressed in the psalms: joy, despair, intimacy, isolation, forgotten, rescue, celebration, love, anger. The book of psalms has it all. While it’s important that the psalms help us feel seen and understood wherever we are and whatever we are feeling, ultimately, I think they are gently guiding us to harmony with God. They are healing. And as we saw a couple weeks ago, part of healing is being able to name our pain, describe what we are feeling, so that we can be made well.

Psalm 1 lists three things those who are truly happy do not do. Are you ready?

They do not follow the advice of the wicked

They do not stand on the path of sinners, and

They do not sit with the disrespectful.

Happy people don’t follow, stand, or sit with evil. You don’t even need to write it down. To be happy, avoid evil. It’s the guidance of many parents to be careful of the company you keep. “Birds of the feather, flock together,” and all that.

Happy people are mindful of their models and influences. There are plenty who peddle influence. Self-help books, and blogs, and podcasts. Social media is filled with advice on how to be popular, stylish, influential. Industries are built around advice on diets, fitness, success, health. Some of the advice is helpful. A lot isn’t. Happy people know who to trust for advice, they consider the source.

Happy people don’t sand on the path of sinners. How many stories have we heard about the good person that fell in with the bad crowd? If you’re standing with your thumb out on the path of destruction, well, someone headed down that road will gladly pick you up. So best not to stand on that road.

Scene from 2004's "Mean Girls"

Happy are those who don’t sit with the disrespectful. Every high school drama has the cafeteria scene. The new kid in school walks in with his tray on the first day, and we see all the different groups, the high school tribes: the athletes, the drama kids, the band kids, the cool kids, and the jerks, the bullies, the disrespectful. You hope the kid doesn’t go sit with the scoffers, the scornful. Happy are those who don’t surround themselves disrespectful, unkind people.

So, we know what happy people don’t do. What do they do? Psalm 1 says, they delight in God’s law, Torah, and they meditate day and night on his teachings. They are immersed in God. They spend time in prayer, praying the scriptures, reading the bible, reading psalms. Happy are those who take pleasure in following Jesus, in living the law of God, the law of love, the gospel of peace.

I don’t know about you, but it’s kind of nice to hear that happiness doesn’t have to do with how successful we are, or how fashionable, it doesn’t have to do with our waistline or BMI. Happiness isn’t measured by one’s job, or bank account or, even on one’s past. Happiness has a lot to do with what we let influence us, who we spend our time with, what messages we trust about ourselves and about the world. Happiness has to do with who we have in our community and rooting ourselves in God through following Jesus and meditation and prayer.

Happy people, says the psalm, are like trees. Being rooted in God influences our happiness. The psalmist says, those who are happy are, “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.”

God is a God of possibilities, of new creation, who is actively involved in working out all things for good. That means that just because we may find ourselves in a tough situation, or we may be standing on that road we don’t really want to be on, or we might just be seated at that table with people who don’t show us or anybody the respect, that does not mean that it must remain that way. Perhaps we find ourselves planted in a place that is not giving us any life. Maybe it’s because of choices you’ve made, or maybe it’s choices that were made for you. Maybe there are negative influences draining your energy, maybe work stress makes it hard to bear fruit anywhere else in life. Maybe physical or mental illness is standing in the way of the life you want to be living. God is a God of new creation. God has the power to transform us, to shape our hearts, to give us courage and strength to endure with love and joy, even if God does not change our particular circumstances. God works with us.

The Psalmist says the blessed are like trees planted by steams of water. The original Hebrew says they are like trees that have been planted and even transplanted into a place where they have the fresh water they need, where they can flourish and bear fruit, where their leaves are no longer sucked dry but are green and shine with life. And those trees are like that because God has taken them from the places where they could not thrive and transplanted them where they can flourish.

And so it is with us. God finds where we have strayed, God meets us on the path of sinners, God sits with those who are surrounded by disrespect and hatred and exploitation. God, the arborist, comes to the many places that drain our lives, and God gets down to our roots and digs, and digs, gently around our roots, pulling them out of the dry, rocky soil, freeing every fiber of our being from that which does not give us life, and then God carries us all the way to the streams, the streams we are told which flow directly from God’s thrown. And there, in the soil by the river, is a place God has already prepared for us. And there, God transplants us where we can find nourishment from the water and sun, where we can live and not only survive but thrive, bear fruit that will last.

This is what Jesus prayed for us before he died. We heard it in John’s gospel. He prayed for you and me, “Holy Father, protect them so they may be one, as we are one…so that they may have my complete joy in them.” Jesus prayed, “I’m not asking you to take them out of this world, I’m asking you to protect them in this world.” Jesus prayed for us what Psalm 1 promises; that the “Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” And here God comes, watching over us, carrying us to the place where we can have life, carrying us even out of our graves to plant us for all eternity beside the source of all life. For this Jesus not only prayed, but Jesus moved to action.

And God answers this prayer, beloved, for in life not only did God, through Jesus, come to us wherever we are wandering, standing, or sitting, but in death he transformed us into his resurrected body. We become the answer to Jesus’ prayer by being the church: caring for every life, protecting the vulnerable in this world. We, Christ Church become the answer to Jesus’ prayer. We shall be a community where the hurting, the dried up, are carried here by God and transplanted to be healed and to grow and thrive again. If you’re here today, it’s because God carried you here. We all feel that at some level. We are a stand of transplanted trees, having our lives restored. We are forest, healing and growing together, our roots intertwining, serving each other.

Scientists have been uncovering the way trees, plants, and fungi in the forest actually have a deeply interwoven, hidden life. In a forest, trees are connected to each other through these fine hair-like tips on their roots. That connection, that intertwining, is called a mycorrhizal network. Trees actually communicate with each other through their roots. They share water and nutrients through these networks. They send distress signals if one tree is being attacked by insects so the other trees can respond and defend themselves. In a sense, a nonhuman sense, trees look out for each other and that benefits each individual tree and the forest as a whole. There are some trees that are called wise old mother trees that actually feed younger saplings that are too shaded to get the nutrients they need from the sun. The mother trees feed them until they are strong and tall enough to reach the canopy. They protect each other.

Photo by Drew Stockstill in Michaux State Forest, PA.

And when a tree dies and falls, its life is not forgotten by the forest. In a forest a stump of a tree even one that might have fallen 500 years ago, will still have life in it, will still be green with chlorophyll. The only explanation is the surrounding trees are keeping it alive by pumping sugar and nutrients to it through the network.[1]

A forest reflects the answer to Jesus’ prayer for us. To become one, so interwoven at our roots that we are able to lift up the young, nurture them and help them grow, just as we promise in baptism. Like trees, we are to protect the vulnerable in our service and work for justice, we are to provide healing care for the sick, the way trees provide nutrients to a diseased tree. Like trees who remain connected to life of the fallen, we carry on the life of the saints, those even long diseased, who still give us life, who remain alive in our network of eternal life.

Photo by Drew Stockstill in Michaux State Forest, PA.

The Psalms begin with an image for us to be as Jesus so desired for us, lifted by God and transplanted into a community covenanted to care for the whole forest, the whole neighborhood, the whole creation.

Church, the river runs through this place and we have each been brought here, not only to simply be, not only to survive, but to thrive, to bear fruit, and to participate in the flourishing of every tree of every age and condition. May it be so.

[1] This research is explored by Peter Wohlleben, in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” This section of the sermon is informed by an interview with Wohllenben in Smithsonian Magazine.

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