Trees R Us
SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 16th, 2021 PSALM 1
Maybe it is because there was still rationing in Britain when I was born, maybe it is because my strict Baptist father drilled frugality into me, maybe it is because my mother was Scots and so careful with money, shall we say, but whatever the reason, I am, well, cheap. I wish I could put it a more charitable way, but it’s true. This week I shocked even myself. A couple of people complimented me on my new shoes. Here they are – rather dapper, I think you’ll agree. If you’re just listening to this and not watching, these shoes are mainly blue suede (in the words of Elvis, don’t step on them) with some dashing brown leather parts on the heel. Now when a normal person receives a compliment about their shoes, they modestly say thanks very much, and turn it around by saying how nice the other person’s hair is. But not cheap old me. Instead of graciously saying thank you, on both occasions I found myself blurting out how much they cost. “Yes, they are really nice, and they only cost $28 from Kohl’s clearance section. And I picked up a pair of Sketchers for $20.” (This sermon is brought to you by Kohl’s, by the way.) Then I stepped out of myself and realized I do this a lot. If I have nabbed a bargain I will brag about it endlessly. It must make me look, well, cheap. Cheap and unclassy. It’s a pity, because I’m a Christian, and so I worship a God who is lavish and generous and who makes beautiful, extravagant things just for the sheer joy of it. God is so lavish that sometimes he even hides these glories at the bottom of the sea or deep in a forest where human beings will rarely see them. Because I’m a Christian I should really revel in God’s abundance – not being wasteful or materialistic, but simply enjoying the goodness of God’s creation – especially the free bits!
No one knows who wrote Psalm 1, but whoever they were they were more in tune with God’s abundance than I am. I can picture the poet sitting on a riverbank, his feet in the water. A cooling foot spa on a hot and dusty day. And across from where he is sitting, on the other bank, is a tree – a majestic giant in full leaf and with fruit large and ripe and dangling tantalizingly. Can you feel the merciful shade of the leaves, sheltering him from the Mediterranean sun? Can you taste the fruit – soft, juicy, sweet, delicious beyond the imagination of the greatest confectionery chef?
The righteous person, the lover of God, the follower of Christ, says the poet, is like “a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” They bear fruit at the right time, but their leaves do not wither. Curious. When I read that I thought, ‘this is a miracle tree! Trees that bear fruit are deciduous, aren’t they?’ Every fruit tree I could think of sheds its leaves. So, this image, I thought, is describing a freak of nature, it doesn’t exist, it enjoys a mysterious and miraculous life. But actually, I was wrong. There are some evergreen fruit trees – the avocado, the mango, and the lychee to name nearly all of them, and the poet has never seen any of these. But there’s a fourth that is much more familiar. The olive tree. It produces edible fruit; it is an evergreen and it is all over the poet’s native land.
The olive tree is all over the Bible too. It’s a powerful symbol. It turns up when Noah’s flood is subsiding, in the beak of a dove. The olive, then, is a symbol of peace, of hope, of a new start. Israel’s kings were anointed with the oil of olives at their coronations. So, this tree and its fruit symbolize the calling of God’s people. In the New Testament, in the letter of James, the writer says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Happy are the followers of Christ because they are like trees planted by streams of water whose leaves do not wither and whose harvest never fails. We were planted and cultivated to be messengers of hope, to be people of new starts, heralds of peace, bringers of healing. We are the olive trees in this hurting and fractured world, bringing reconciliation to the alienated, hope to the despairing, new starts to those who feel shame, futures for those who are surveying the burned out remains of their dreams or relationships, justice for the victims, wholeness to the marginalized. Here, in this picture of an olive, there is our calling – our joyful duty, our high privilege as co-workers with God – to bring healing to the broken-hearted, release to those held captive by destructive habits, self-defeating thinking, and behaviors that cause them and other people needless pain, and the dehumanizing structures we live with that exclude or exploit or manipulate.
What a privilege it is to be called by God to be his ambassadors. And not just ambassadors, wonderful and awesome though that is, but co-workers with God. Here, in this picture of an olive, there is our purpose for being alive – our joyful duty, our high privilege as co-workers with God. If you are breathing this morning – this is why – to be the healing, peace-making, teller of good news to those in your world. The Word of the Lord to us today is this – Be the Tree.
This week, as well as bragging about my shoes, I’ve had a series of meetings about the future of St Paul’s. And it’s been exciting. I met with the Spiritual Life Committee to dream about what our worship life is going to look like when we re-open without restrictions – how we can provide inspiring opportunities for our established in-person congregations and also our digital parish; and how we can engage our children and young people more and more into our life. I met with staff to talk about the same thing, the Finance Committee, and the Stewardship leaders to plan for how we will support the amazing vision that our lay leaders are hatching. This coming week the Welcome Committee will meet to begin planning a wonderful strategy for including and assimilating the visitors we will receive when we’re fully open again as well as people who have entered through our digital door. The Evangelism Committee also is turning its mind to how we reach out to our neighborhood to reintroduce ourselves to long-time residents and to greet for the first time the many residents who have moved into our neighborhoods since the pandemic started. I can’t tell you exited I am to tell you about all the plans and ideas that we’ve all bene having, and as we move through the spring and summer, I’ll regularly do that in writing as well as in video and in-person. But even now we can each get ready, get excited, dream, ask yourself and ask God how you can be involved in creating a new season of joyful growth and compassionate service. Make no mistake, there is a role for you – in the hours you give, the prayers you offer, the energy you donate, the love you pour out, the money you sow.
Because a tree does not exist for itself. The tree does not consume the fruit it grows. Neither does it enjoy the shade from its own branches. Trees exist for sake of others. The people and birds, insects and mammals that eat its fruit, shelter in its leaves, nest in its crevices. Our fruit is for giving away. Apparently, there’s a species of tree in Australia called the “River Red Gum”, of the Eucalyptus family. It is huge, growing up to 160 feet in height. Its massive canopies provide shelter from the intense heat of inland Australia for vast numbers of animals and birds. The local people call this sheltering wildlife the “fruit” of the tree. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful and exciting vision of a church – our fruit is the people we shelter, protect, and serve. People would know us by the good we did, the folks we helped.
But this God of mysteries and miracles has one more for our delight. When a tree yields its fruit, and gives it to creation, creation returns it. An apple falls to the ground, an opportunistic deer eats it, it wanders to new grazing land, does what comes naturally, and the apple seed is planted in a new incubator, where it takes root; and in the silence and the dark begins a new life. It’s a law of nature. As we give, so we receive. The tree receives the thrill of giving and then in a roundabout way, receiving, through its legacy. This is the law not just of fruit trees but for all life, including humans. In sowing we reap, in giving we receive. So, when you allow those you live with, and among, to taste your fruit – your peace, your gentleness, your faithfulness, you will enjoy beautiful returns.
It’s why the people who walk with integrity, in verse 1 of the Psalm, are happy. Isn’t that a great word to start a psalm with? Happy! Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked. Happiness is a byproduct of seeking higher things – God, love, relationship, peace, justice. We Christian trees don’t grow fruit for our own sakes – we don’t follow Christ for what we get out of it, but we do, by happy consequence, receive all manner of good things from God as a byproduct of our love. Everything they do shall prosper, the reading ends. Now there is an amazing promise as we eye the full return of de-restricted church life. Everything they do shall prosper.
So, how do we be this tree whose leaves never fall, whose fruits never fail, and which prospers in all it does? Well, the answer is there in the second verse of the psalm. “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.” We soak up the classic spiritual disciplines of prayer, scripture reading, meditation, worship. This is how we stay rooted by the river. We need that daily reservoir. We’re in a pregnant time of waiting in the church calendar. The ten days between the Ascension of Christ into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We’re in a pregnant time locally too, as we wait, with vision hope and prayer for our full re-opening. Let us remain rooted by the river, drinking deep of God’s Spirit. Then we can brag about a bargain – because drinking of the Holy Spirit is totally free.