Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last week we practiced reading through a biblical psalm a few times and simply noticing what we noticed, asking: Were there specific words or phrases that caught our eye? Where might God’s Spirit be speaking to us in those words? Could we take them into the week with us, these little travel-sized truths and pocket-sized promises from God? Those of you who shared specific phrases that caught your attention, either in the chat during worship or in the email string afterward, demonstrated beautifully that God can speak to us differently through a single text. In the case of Psalm 65, one of you was stopped and summoned by the first half of verse 5 - “by awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance” and another by the second half of that same verse: “you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” One of you was struck in this dry summer season by the whole section about the gift of rain in verses 9 & 10, from “you visit the earth and water it” through talk of “softening it with showers and blessing its growth.” A couple of us stumbled over the line in verse 7 about God “[silencing] the tumult of the peoples,” something we certainly long for but that’s difficult to see right now in our chaotic world. A few of us paused to marvel at the majesty of creation with that beautiful phrase from verse 8: “the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.”
I hope it was a helpful exercise. It’s certainly one you can repeat at any time. Simply read or listen to a biblical text several times through. Notice what catches your eye or your ear. Ask whether there is a gift to be received there, or an invitation to which you’re being called to respond.
Turning now to this morning’s Scripture lesson, I’ve noticed over time that no matter what else catches my attention, each time I read Psalm 1 I’m inevitably drawn to the phrase “planted by streams of water.” And really to that whole lush scene in the center of the psalm with its talk of trees yielding fruit and leaves that don’t wither. Healthy, solidly rooted, well-watered trees standing in stark contrast to the lightweight chaff so easily blown away. So today I thought we’d stick with this one visually rich image and consider it from a few different angles.
Let me first point out, though, since we focused on biblical wisdom literature earlier this summer, that Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm. Both in style and in content, it shares several features with the book of Proverbs. In contrasting the behaviors of the righteous and the wicked. In asserting that righteousness will inevitably be rewarded, and wickedness punished. In drawing on the natural world as a source of wisdom with those planted trees and that insubstantial chaff serving as object lessons. In expressing these observations with paired statements in back-to-back lines: “for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish.” (Psalm 1:6) Even in that language of two different ways or paths, Psalm 1 sounds very much like Proverbs. And if we question whether the righteous can really count on prospering while the wicked are punished, we probably had those same concerns in Proverbs, too, and are grateful for the balance offered by a wisdom book like Job with its candid talk about the reality of innocent suffering. In any event, Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm.
It’s very much in keeping with the wisdom tradition to then apply what we learn from Psalm 1 to our individual lives. And it’s not too difficult to connect personally with this metaphor of well-watered trees, is it? To reflect on the kinds of dynamics that can leave any one of us feeling parched and dry… To consider our best sources of refreshment and health and abundant life… What keeps us hydrated (figuratively speaking)? Psalm 1 reminds us there’s no match for immersing ourselves in God’s word to help us take root, stay well-watered, and thrive. It can be as simple as the kind of reflective Bible reading we did together last week. You may find that things like regular Sabbath rest and time in God’s creation and frequent opportunities for prayer and for service to others keep you rooted in God’s living water as well.
“Trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3) is a rich metaphor and there’s plenty to be gained from exploring it like this with a view toward our inner lives. But we talked last time about noticing what we notice as we read through a biblical text, and I found my reflections on this phrase moving in other directions this week too.
In a summer like this one when the ground all around us longs for rain, when heat and drought and wildfires have been sweeping across the western part of our country with devastating effects, physical streams of water sound especially welcome, don’t they? What’s more, we’ve learned the heat and the fires have been made worse by humanity’s abuse of God’s good creation. Could Psalm 1 have a word for us here too? What does wisdom and foolishness look like, what does righteousness and wickedness look like, when it comes to the stewardship of the earth and its resources? Not to mention, what does it say about our concern for fellow humans made in God’s image that the worst effects can often hit communities already suffering the most?
For instance, speaking of longing for the hydrating and cooling powers of water, an unprecedented heat dome arrives, and we who are privileged to do so stock up on cold beverages and ice, turn on multiple fans, flee to an air-conditioned restaurant or movie theatre or to the basements of our homes, but for those without the resources we have, what a dangerous and even deadly week that turned out to be earlier this summer. In hindsight I regret that I was far more focused at the time on getting through it myself – heat wimp that I am even at temperatures below 100 – than I was on trying to be of service to others who were suffering far more than I. I confess I primarily turned inward rather than outward.
Which brings me back to Psalm 1, and something about that well-watered tree I’ve neglected to highlight so far: the fruit on its branches. Because the tree is watered, it thrives, yes, and it is productive. It bears fruit. I wonder if the fruit mentioned here in verse 3 can function as a reminder that even being planted by streams of water can’t simply be about our own inner peace. A healthy spiritual life is about more than me and God in my own private bubble. A life of faith is a life in community, a life of service.
I think, too, about other Scriptural references to streams of water. In the words of the prophet Amos, for instance, we’re called to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) God wants his whole creation to get wet and we’re not talking about a few stingy drops. In Eugene Peterson’s version of this same verse, God says “I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it.”
In a way I suppose God’s call to justice and righteousness maybe does connect back to the importance of being planted personally near God’s life-giving water. Simply because the arc of the universe bends so slowly toward justice, if we’re not deeply rooted and well-watered, our leaves might wither a bit along the way if we’re fighting hard against injustice, or perhaps we’ll risk blowing like chaff from one awful news story, one heartbreaking issue, one global problem to the next without knowing where to land and engage.
How do we choose life and grow into healthy, fruit bearing trees? How do we take our place in what Psalm 1 calls “the congregation of the righteous” (verse 5), prioritizing obedience to the God of justice?
Psalm 1 teaches that one way we do so is by finding our delight in the law of the Lord or the word of God. So let’s be sure to make room for that delight. Meditating on God’s word can include hearing, memorizing, singing the words of Scripture. You can of course read long chapters of biblical text every day if that brings you life, or you could start by picking a short phrase or two to carry around with you as we discussed last week. Whatever you choose to do, do it often enough that the word of God can work its way deep into your heart. The promises of God’s presence you’ll find there. The messages of grace and hope. The words of prophetic challenge too.
May we all find those streams of life-giving water.
May we find ourselves planted by streams of water.
May we be trees planted by streams of water, yielding fruit.