I’m standing this morning by the Grandfather Tree, a white spruce that some say has been growing here for 300 years. It’s an enormous tree, with roots spreading across the steep bank that leads down to Big Hill Creek as it flows through the historic Cochrane Ranch. It’s a marvel of nature that locals love to come visit.
A tree like this is a very special thing. These roots stretch out to hold the very hillside in place, preventing the whole slope from sliding down into the creek. But they don’t do it on their own; over its long lifetime, the roots of this tree have helped shelter and nurture the other trees around it. Among these roots saplings could find a place to set down roots of their own, and grow, and thrive.
But it’s not only shelter the Grandfather Tree gives; these roots are connected to the roots of all the other trees on this slope. They are a forest – a community of trees – and they share nutrients and water and resistance to disease among each other. This old tree is not alone, as his name implies; he is a grandfather and a member of a wide family. Together they draw sustenance from the earth and energy from the sun, and together they live the abundant life.
This conifer forest does not grow the yummy things we love from deciduous trees—treats like apples, peaches, or even saskatoons—but it does bear fruit. The fruits this forest bears are things like erosion control, shelter for birds and squirrels, being a place of recreation for humans, not to mention carbon sequestration and air filtration.
(But I’m here to give a sermon, not a lecture on trees!)
Happy are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
who meditate on God’s teaching day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.
This beautiful psalm, which, as the first one in the book, stands as an introduction to the whole collection, presents us with two possible paths to choose on the journey of life: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Choose the righteous way, the psalmist urges, and be like a venerable tree planted by a stream of water, standing straight and tall.
Which is literally what that opening word of the psalm means. Sometimes you see it translated as Blessed, sometimes Happy. We usually think of this as filled with good feelings. But the Hebrew word here derives from a verb that means “to go straight,” or “to advance.” So to walk in the path of righteousness is to move forward, develop, and grow in life. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be exempt from suffering or challenges, but happiness in this sense is to live freely and authentically, joyfully being who you’re created to be – rooted like a tree in the earth of God’s word, law, teaching, and way.
The psalm says that those who follow the righteous way “delight” in the law of the LORD, and they “meditate” on God’s word day and night. When we think of meditation we usually think of a sort of advanced spiritual practice, all about being quiet and still and contemplative. Many people think of this is a very virtuous, very spiritual thing to do, even if they themselves don’t practice it.
Now, I don’t want to take anything away from meditation in that sense. I myself have found a lot of profit in it. But the Hebrew word translated as “meditate” doesn’t carry that meaning. Again in Hebrew it literally means “to groan, utter, speak, or to plot.” Now that brings a new idea to what it means to meditate, doesn’t it? In meditation we are groaning, muttering, and plotting.
To me, this speaks of a very active daily engagement with God’s word. Meditation is constantly questioning, wrestling, and grappling with God in the midst of our daily lives. This is about asking, in any situation, what is God’s direction for me in this moment. It’s about listening for God’s voice throughout our day. It’s reading scripture regularly, and asking yourself, What is God saying to me, today, through this text? It’s coming to God in prayer – bringing our cares and concerns before Jesus, and listening for his still, small voice speaking in our heart of hearts.
So here in this tree we have a beautiful image of what it’s like to live a righteous life. It’s about growing straight and tall, with ever-green leaves reaching to the sky, and with a deep-rooted engagement in the soil and water of God’s word.
But the psalmist also makes another observation, a kind of mirror image of the tree, concerning the wicked and their way.
They are like chaff which the wind blows away.
How much less is there to say about chaff than a tree? Chaff is dry, insignificant, and lifeless. Not being connected to anyone or anything, it blows wherever the wind takes it. And this is what it is to live a wicked life.
That word wicked sounds so archaic and a maybe a little off-putting. So here again we can do a little linguistic sleuthing. The word choice of the ancient Greek translators of this psalm had a root that means reverence, respect, or worship. The way of the wicked is the opposite of these things – irreverence, disrespect, and sacrilege. It is to be disconnected (by intention) from self, others, or God. To live in such a way, the psalmist says, might look attractive at first, but at its heart it is empty and directionless; it has no substance or lasting worth.
For many of us, when we first hear this psalm, we feel uneasiness or trepidation at all this stark language about the righteous and the wicked. Which group am I part of? we might worry. Or we might feel repelled: who talks with such loaded terms anymore? How can we go around judging others as wicked?
These might be important questions to struggle with, but what we should always remember when reading the psalms is that they are fundamentally about Jesus. They’re about Jesus. He is the one who is righteous and happy, who delights in the Law of God, and who is rooted in living streams of water. He is the one who grows straight and tall. He IS the tree of life – divine and human, the connection between the heavenly and earthly realms.
What’s more is that he promises that all who trust him, and who are baptized into his way, share in his life. Again and again in the gospel readings of the past weeks Jesus has promised that he is one with his friends as the life of a vine shares in the life of its branches. Today he prays fervently for us: “All mine are yours (Father), and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.. protect them… that they may be one, as we are one… I guarded them and not one of them was lost.”
Think of the way this tree shelters and nurtures all the other trees around it on this slope. That is what we are as a church, gathered around Christ, our tree of life.
May we grow ever more straight and true in the life that we share with Christ, muttering and murmuring daily over God’s word, and providing fruit for the healing of the world. Amen!