They Are Like Aspens

210919 Lectionary 25B
September 19, 2021
In these waning days of summer, or early days of fall, I’m walking among the trees of an aspen forest. I want to start in this location, by reflecting again on Psalm 1, that we heard this morning, just as I talked about it last spring by the Grandfather Tree. (If you missed that sermon, you can find it on our website, dated May 16.
Happy are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
(wrote the psalmist)
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.
Thus begins the Book of Psalms, encouraging us to live with wisdom, that is, exercising prudence, peaceableness, patience, kindness, humility, generosity, and so on. All the virtues. A life like this—a good, true, and beautifully lived life—will be rewarded, the psalmist promises, by prosperity. (And I think more is meant by that word than material riches. I think it is also referring to happiness, contentment, satisfaction, and things like that.)
It’s a tall and difficult order in a world that seems more often to love vice than virtue, but the psalmist promises it can be done. By rooting and grounding ourselves in God’s word we are sustained for right living in this world. By drinking constantly the living water of Christ’s own promises we can grow straight and tall and bear much fruit. And even when we die, having been nurtured in the Word, we can give life to the world even as Jesus himself did.
Last spring when I meditated on Psalm 1 I was standing by a singular tree with an amazing root system that was visible on the hillside. But today I’m in an aspen forest, and these are trees that teach us some unique things about the life of wisdom.
First, these trees are often called trembling or quaking or whispering aspen, because of the way they move in a breeze. Their leaves quiver at the slightest breath of wind, making a lovely sound of susurration. The reason is that their leaves are uniquely attached to their stems. Where the leaf is horizontal, the stem has a vertical orientation, leaving a weak spot where they are attached. This makes the leaf extraordinarily sensitive to the movement of the air around it, and it will easily flutter in the lightest of breezes. To me it’s one of the most beautiful sounds on earth, a prairie lullaby equivalent to the coming and going of waves on the seashore.
Wisdom, therefore, is not only being rooted in Christ and the riches of God’s Word, but it is also being sensitive to the movement of the Spirit. A wise person is attentive to the way the wind is blowing. Not in the sense of being tossed about by the whims and currents of the popular opinion, but in the sense of listening carefully to the call of Lady Wisdom herself. Being open to breath of the Spirit which moves in mysterious ways.
Who has seen the wind, neither I nor you
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind, neither you nor I,
but when the trees bow down their heads,
the wind is passing by.
I’m sure Christina Rossetti had trembling aspen trees in mind when she wrote those lines. The wind is the Holy Spirit of God, and our role as people of wisdom and faith is to quake and whisper our response to the Spirit’s movement.
Here’s another wonderful thing about aspens.
While these might look like separate individual trees, they are in fact one organism. Each trunk above ground is a shoot of a single root system that can extend many acres. The way aspens propagate is by sending out suckers from the main root system that grow up on the margins of the grove to become full-sized trees. In this way an aspen grove extends itself to cover more and more territory. The largest living thing on the planet, in fact, is an aspen grove in Utah occupying about 108 acres and weighing an estimated 6600 tons. It’s been named Pando (Latin for “I spread”) and it is thought to be several thousand years old, which also makes it one of the oldest known living organisms.
The wise life, it seems to me, is one that is connected to others and supported by them. And what else is the church than that community in which we share a common root that is Christ? In the church we worship and pray and study and confess and support each other. We are nurtured by each other’s love and sustained through each other’s prayers. We are one body, connected in time and space to others around the world today, and to all of our ancestors in faith—prophets and martyrs and saints—going back thousands of years.
I can’t help noticing that Psalm 1 does not speak of the wise person in the singular, being like a solitary tree; rather it assumes a community. Happy are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord… they meditate on God’s teaching… They are like trees planted by streams of water.
It must be this communal nature of our walk in wisdom and holiness that makes James so distressed about envy, selfish ambition, covetessness, craving, and desire. Such things are “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.” It’s because this kind of self-will or personal liberty at any cost, we might say, is so destructive to the community. An aspen tree thinking only of itself and its own freedom to grow wherever and however it wants, wanting to hoard resources of water and nutrients to itself, is not only destructive to the whole organism, but foolish in that it doesn’t recognize the reality of its fundamental unity with all the other trees. It will die a lonely death, cut off from the community that gave it life. If we ever feel these impulses to “go it alone,” or “do it my way,” or (may I say?) be individually spiritual but not part of a community of faith, James has blunt advice, connected with a promise: Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Instead, and proactively, Draw near to God, (which is to say, reconnect yourself with the community that drinks the water of God’s word) and God will draw near to you.
Everything that has been said about living the wise life, and how it is like these Aspen trees, is not just for the followers of Jesus, and it is not just about the church. Or maybe say that it is, but that the church is only a microcosm of society as a whole. Wisdom is for everyone.
We live in an economy that celebrates desire, ambition, and material success. We take part in a culture that values personal liberty above just about everything else. And yet we live in a time when we have come to see just how connected we all really are. We can see how the greed and ambition of a few self-interested people can harm the wellbeing of so many. And we know how a virus, once it has taken hold in just one person, easily and rapidly spreads through the whole body of the human world. We are one body.
What is wisdom today? What is it to be like these aspen trees, connected in their roots and whispering in the wind? It is to remember that we are all connected. It is to think and act from that truth. It is to be sensitive to the promptings of a Spirit who would lead us all together into a world of justice and peace and compassion and joy. A world where all prosper and all are held up by each other’s care and support.
And back in the microcosm of Christ’s church, wisdom is to be rooted in the promises of God’s word and connected with each other through the disciplines of worship and prayer and acts of service. Do these things then surely we will become a symbol of wisdom for the world, even as these trees are symbols for us:

planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season,
with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

May it be so among us! Amen.


Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash