Dana says I have a party trick. If we’re ever at a party and she needs an icebreaker or just for fun, she tells people “name any year in American history and Ted can tell you who was president.” And it’s true: if you name a year between 1789 and 2018, I can tell you who was president. I can tell you information about their presidency. I can recount stories, tell you fun facts, etc. Sometimes this even proves useful to others. I once gave Stephanie Burton a question for the trivia game she hosts monthly here in town. Name the only US President whose first language was not English.
The answer is Martin van Buren, president from 1837 to 1841. He was raised in upper New York by dutch parents. His family had not long been in the country, and so he first learned Dutch at home and English secondarily at school.
The order and years served of the presidents has gotten into my bones somehow. I remember having to work super hard to remember all the presidents, especially those pesky presidents from Jackson to Lincoln; none of whom served more than four years. I focused intently on learning them, on getting the order right; as our scripture this morning says, I meditated on the list day and night. I wanted to pass that test. And that intense focus and repetition pushed this information deep into the recesses of my mind, making it a permanent memory.
That kind of meditation, where something gets into the fiber of your being, is exactly what the Psalmist has in mind this morning. Let’s hear together the introductory Psalm, the very first in the entire book, Psalm 1:
You may recall that the Psalms are hymnal 1.0, the worship book of the ancient temple of the Israelites some twenty-five hundred to three thousand years ago. They recount the experience of life and their relationship with God. Imagine an intersection where the road of lived experience merges with the path of God. It’s at that intersection that the Psalms are written: what it’s like to live human existence with God.
For this Psalm, there are two particular paths that can be chosen in life. One of those who are wicked, scoffers, sinners, as the Psalm calls them. The other of the righteous, the happy, the blessed. In fact, this Psalm is very much like the beatitudes of Jesus. Some translations begin this Psalm with “Blessed are those” instead of “happy are those,” because the Hebrew word can mean either. The idea is the same as “blessed are the peacemakers…” or any of the other beatitudes. Those who follow in God’s ways, take God’s path, are blessed, are happy, are protected, are rooted. Those who take the path of the wicked are the opposite: cursed, unhappy, unprotected, vulnerable to the winds of life.
In doing so, the Psalm makes a very clear claim to us this morning, one noted in verses 3 and 4: “[the righteous] are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” Those who are on the Godly path are rooted, secure; those who are on the path of the wicked do not enjoy that security. And lest we miss the point, the Psalmist ends telling us that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Blessed are those who delight in the ways of God. Cursed are those who delight in the ways of wickedness.
Pretty simple Psalm. Take root in God and you will enjoy security, prosperity, and protection.
Except we know it’s not true. The wicked sometimes enjoy security, prosperity, and protection.
Perhaps the most egregious example is Adolf Hitler, everyone’s favorite person to point to when talking about the wicked. He was popularly elected, provided with security and prosperity, and protection up until the very end.
But he came to his end violently. So maybe this Psalm has some truth to it? But consider his contemporary Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union who killed more people than Hitler did and who ruled in just as brutal a fashion as Hitler. He enjoyed security, prosperity, and protection until he died a natural death in comfort in 1952.
There are plenty of brutal, murderous, rulers we could point to who enjoyed security, prosperity, and protection, departing this world by natural causes in comfort. Even the Israelites could point to their own examples. Pharaoh from the Exodus story, the arch nemesis of Israelites for centuries, the example par excellence of wickedness throughout the Old Testament; he enjoyed lots of prosperity and security and protection as the god-king ruler of the most powerful empire in the world at that time. Pharaoh’s army was killed when the Red Sea returned to its normal state, swallowing them up as Exodus 14 reports, but Pharaoh survived, most likely living a normal life and dying a natural death. While the plagues and the loss of his army would have been a low point in his life, generally speaking, pharaoh even enjoyed security, prosperity and protection.
The Psalm says take root in God and you will enjoy security, prosperity, and protection. But the wicked also seem to enjoy the same.
Consider your lived experience. We can all point to examples in our own lives, I am sure, of those who do wrong and prosper anyway. Too often, the wrong seems to win. Those with power seem to wield it in ways that do damage, all the while enjoying security, prosperity, and protection. We have experienced wickedness directed against us at times and, perhaps, felt like there was no justice for us. There are some things that happen to us in life that we just have to absorb, for we cannot create the justice that we want to see, and the person or persons responsible for the injustice are unrepentant.
And consider that the opposite is true. We have all known moments in our lives where we have been exceedingly faithful to God and yet lost security, prosperity, or protection. There are moments in life where everything is going right, our relationship with God feels good and fruitful, and suddenly wham! Something terrible happens that shatters our security, prosperity, and/or protection. We feel a loss, a distance from, God in those moments. Our choice to take the righteous path doesn’t seem to have paid off as this Psalm promises.
In those moments, we fill up with doubt. Wasn’t there supposed to be reward for our righteousness? For the times we sacrificed and did the right thing when the wrong thing looked so attractive. For the times when we experienced injustice and turned the other cheek instead of lashing out at the perpetrator?
So what are we to do with this Psalm? This Psalm that offers a formula for achieving security, prosperity, and protection, but a lived experience that says otherwise? What are we to do with this intersection, where the path of God and our lived experience do not seem to merge?
Perhaps we can say that this Psalm is really about final destinations. After all, verse 5 says that “the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” That could be talking about heaven, about the final judgment when we stand before the throne of God. Even when this was composed, before Jesus, there was a thought about some sort of final judgment, there was an inkling of some separation of people into camps based on their behavior in this life. Ancient Israelites weren’t very focused on the afterlife, but even still, this could refer to that. Certainly for us today, it sounds like it refers to the next life.
And isn’t there some satisfaction to thinking that someone who’s done us evil, or done the world evil, might enjoy security, prosperity, and protection today but will not enjoy those things in eternity?
I don’t know about you, but that’s not satisfaction for me. And I don’t think Jesus would want us to derive our satisfaction from thinking that someone who’s done us wrong might end up in hell. That’s judgment, and Jesus is very clear that we are not to judge. We, especially as Methodists who focus on the power of God’s grace, are a people who believe that no one is beyond God’s ability to redeem. Someone whose life is today characterized by wickedness can suddenly be characterized by God’s love tomorrow because of the power of God’s grace to redeem and restore.
So even if verse 5 speaks of the next life, we haven’t yet answered the question of what to do with this Psalm.
We stand at the same intersection as the Israelites: the path of our lived experience and the path of God. But at this intersection, the path of God doesn’t seem to match up with our lived experience. So what are we to do? Can we believe the promise of this Psalm: blessed [with security, prosperity, and protection] are those…[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night?” Are we really blessed?
When we lived in Macon, our neighbor across the street brought us a peach tree sapling one day. It was in an old coffee jar, the big kind made of aluminum, with some water. I picked out a sunny spot in our side yard, the largest of our yards, and planted it.
The first year, it grew dramatically.
The second year, we got four ripe peaches off of it.
The third year, we got more peaches than we could count or eat.
The fourth year, so many peaches grew that many ended up rotting on the ground. We simply couldn’t keep up!
And oddly, while it would lose some of its leaves during the fall and winter, it never lost them all. It would always retain some leaves, looking healthy and green, all year long.
That tree was exactly like the kind of tree mentioned in verse 3, “[the righteous] are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.”
That peach tree couldn’t help but prosper. It wasn’t next to a stream, but it was planted on a slight slope. Much of the water from our property ran off through the tree as it worked its way downhill, nourishing the tree all year long. One year, an ice storm hit and ice formed on the tree. We fretted about the yield that spring because of the ice. But while the tree clearly suffered, it rebounded in the spring and grew a great yield.
One spring, we had terrible storm after terrible storm. I’d look out the window and see the tree bending almost at 90 degrees it seemed. It was planted between our house and our neighbor with only about thirty feet between our long and narrow houses. The result was like a wind tunnel between our houses when the wind blew during a storm. The tree clearly suffered, but it would always emerge standing upright.
One summer, we had a terrible draught. I kept watering the tree with the garden hose, but it seemed like I couldn’t give it enough water. I googled the best times to water a plant and moved to just after dark as the terrible heat abated. Even still, the tree suffered. But that fall, it rebounded and was just fine.
The next July, it rained every day. We received almost thirty inches of rain that month. The tree clearly suffered from this oversupply, for not only did it get every inch of that thirty inches, it got all the runoff from the rest of our property. But in August, it rebounded and was just fine.
The tree knew the wickedness of nature. It suffered terribly at moments and struggled at others. But it always prospered, it remained secure, it never withered, and it always produced fruit.
The tree was well rooted.
When I think of the promise of this Psalm, I think of that peach tree. The storms of life come, sometimes without warning. They threaten to undo us, just as the winds, the rain, the draught, and the ice threatened the tree, but it always came back to life, it always rebounded. Unlike a tree I planted only about thirty feet behind it. That tree didn’t get the runoff, that tree struggled with the soil, that tree I didn’t plant correctly, and it suffered until it almost died, just about blown away and uprooted by a mighty wind.
Such is the difference between the righteous tree and the wicked chaff of the Psalm. The question is not whether or not bad things will happen to the righteous and the wicked. We’ve explored before in a previous sermon why bad things happen to good people. Bad things simply happen because evil exists in the world until Christ comes in final victory.
But when bad things happen, do they uproot us, or do we remain securely rooted in God? Do we lose all sense of security, do we lose all sense of self, do we come unmoored and lose all hope, when bad things happen, when the storms of life come, when the winds howl? Or do we find ourselves yet hopeful, yet secure, no matter how much we might suffer.
That’s the promise of the Psalm and that’s what we’re to do with the Psalm: security, prosperity, and protection can be ours in that we can weather the storms of life if we’re rooted in God. Stability in life is the promise of the Psalm, a gift for the righteous, who cannot be blown around by every wind of storm that passes through our lives. That stability comes from rooting ourselves in God’s ways, what the Psalmist calls “the law of the Lord.”
And that kind of rootedness comes from meditating on those ways.
Meditating, as the Psalmist declares it here, is like my memorization of the presidents: it’s knowing something so well, and so deeply, its gets into the fiber of your very being; it becomes a part of you. That’s the kind of faith that roots us in God, that roots us in righteousness. We are called to be a deeply rooted people.
Right now, those taking the adult confirmation class are reading a classic book on spiritual disciplines called “Celebration of Discipline,” by Richard Foster. In the very first paragraph of the first page of the first chapter, he notes exactly what this Psalm calls for: “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” And this is not a call to become some religious professional, but rather Foster tells us clearly, “God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns.” (1) The disciplines are for everyday life because the disciplines, spiritual practices, are what nourish us like the stream, growing our roots more deeply in the love of God.
Spiritual practice, the disciplines as Foster calls them, should be nourishing. When the Psalmist defines the righteous as those who “delight in the law of the Lord,” he means that literally. Spiritual practices that nourish often delight as they reveal and cause us to experience more and more of who God is.
For example: this is not having a crisis or a problem or a question and going to scripture looking for an answer. It’s instead going to Scripture to see what we can learn about God today, what message God has for us. It’s a practice of listening, the hallmark of meditation, to hear what God has to say to us. It’s taking the moment for self-reflection to see how God is moving in our lives and celebrate where we see God. It’s taking a step back from our daily commute to notice God in the trees and the clouds.
It’s taking a moment like I experienced on a friend’s porch here in town just this past week: interrupting a conversation to note the glory of God proclaimed in a cloud as the sun set over the horizon through the trees. It was a majestic view, one that made my friend comment, “reminds you that God’s here with us.” That’s the kind of meditation on the ways of God that roots us: listening, noticing, reflecting, on God in our midst.
When we do, we root ourselves in God’s love. We experience a depth that we can’t fathom, but one we know all the same because we can’t deny its existence and it’s benefit to us. And it’s that kind of rootedness that will make us like the pear tree: no matter the storms of life that come, we will remain secure, prosperous, and protected.
Perhaps Foster puts it best when he says, “What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.” That’s the kind of rootedness the Psalmist declares, the kind that we seek. Suffering will come, storms will rage, winds will howl, we’ll know pain and we’ll experience tremendous loss and injustice, but in the midst of it all, we will know “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.”
How are your roots? When storms of life have come in your past, do you lose hope or do you remain convinced that the Lord watches over you, protects you, and will prosper you yet again?
If we’re bold enough to reflect honestly on that question, if we will take the space to make that assessment, we can’t help but deepen our roots, finding security, prosperity, and protection when the storms of life rage. This morning, consider: how are your roots?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.