The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 16, 2021
Almost thirty years ago now, Adele and I enjoyed our honeymoon around Mammoth, on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. One day we drove eastward across the Owens River Valley and climbed into the White Mountains to see the oldest living things on earth: the Bristlecone Pines. In their groves are 18 trees over 4,000 years old; and one, nearly 5,000 years old! That tree sprouted about the time humans learned to write and was chasing its 1500th birthday when David was composing his psalms.
These ancient trees have survived and thrived in a brutal environment of severe dryness, extreme cold and gale-force winds. You’d think those hardships would cause them to perish, but they flourish. They still grow, bear fruit and seed the forest’s ongoing existence.
How do they do it? Simple! The trees are deeply and fiercely rooted where God has them planted!
Many believers are buffeted by the winds of trouble, attacked by cold cruelties and deprived of all but the most meager support from their environment. But the wise among them survive and thrive by being deeply and fiercely rooted in the truth of God’s word.
Many scholars believe that Psalm 1 was written as an introduction to the entire collection of psalms. This introductory psalm confronts us with the need to make a fundamental decision on which our happiness and destination in life hang: Who’s going to have the final say in the daily decisions we make, whose counsel is going to have first claim on our compliance?
The psalm draws a distinction between human beings based on whom they listen to and follow. Some “follow the advice of the wicked”, “take the path that sinners tread”, “sit in the seat of scoffers”. In contrast, others – the wise ones! – “delight” in “the law of the Lord”. They read God’s commandments and revelations, study them, and seek to align their lives with them. And they don’t just give God’s word a passing thought or two. “On his law they meditate day and night.” With steady, diligent devotion they strive to get clear about its meaning, figure out its implications, apply its wisdom to their everyday existence, and submit to its authority their whole life long. They deeply and fiercely sink their roots in God’s truth, and bear the fruit to show it – even in the harshest environments and toughest circumstances.
In this way they are like trees flourishing in the dry desert of Palestine or on the desiccated slopes of the White Mountains. They are “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” They “prosper” in defiance of their hardships, and they do so over the long haul. They thereby become the opposite of the wicked who have no staying power because they lack the right rootedness. That makes the wicked “like chaff that the wind drives away” – that is, like the husks and fragments of straw that, when tossed into the air in the winnowing of threshed grain, are blown away by the breeze.
For a tree, the roots are its most critical asset in attaining long-lasting health and fruitfulness. Its roots anchor it in the ground and keep it upright. They also bring life-giving water and nutrients to all its parts. By a good root system, a tree survives and thrives.
Likewise, by a good root system, a spiritual tree of the kind about which Psalm 1 speaks survives and thrives. When believers are anchored in God’s truth and draw from it its spiritual power, when they persevere in learning and obeying it, they keep growing and bearing much fruit.
They flourish by their abiding connection to the grace and power of God’s word. And, if they are active in a church, they flourish too by their abiding connection to an entire grove of tree-like folks rooted in the grace and power of God’s word. In such a grove the root system of each becomes interlinked with the larger interdependent root system of the grove as a whole. By that network of intertwined roots, all sunk in God’s word, these tree-like people share spiritual water and nutrients. They provide for each other the necessities by which all might prosper.
Three years ago, the Smithsonian magazine ran an article on the invisible, underground subway system by which the trees of a grove mutually support, and send help to, each other. For example, in a stand of Douglas Firs, some trees pump water to those in dry soil, while others pump nutrients to trees in depleted soil.
So too, in a church, the spiritual roots of many, if sunk deeply and fiercely into God’s truth and into God’s grove of grace, become a collaborative network which supplies God’s bounty of strength and energy wherever needed. By tapping into this big pool with its dynamic, reciprocal interaction, the whole community grows and all the individuals in it yield their fruit in its season.
May we, in our shared fellowship and service under God’s word, endure like a stand of Bristlecone Pine and flourish like a stand of Douglas Fir! Let us pray.